The future of work

And here is the original version of a blog post that was published on January 25th in the Huffington Post, a shorter version of an article published in German in Volksstimme.

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Each time there is a wave of technological change, similar questions are raised about the future of work. Pessimists fear that robots will take all the jobs, leading to mass unemployment and a population too poor to buy the products of the new automated factories. Meanwhile optimists hold out seductive visions of a world with leisure and plenty for all, where automation frees us from routine chores, so everybody can release their creativity.

The pessimist view comes easily to victims of change. If your income depended on looking after horses then you would have seen the coming of the automobile in the early 20th century as a direct threat. Even if you had a crystal ball that enabled you to see how many jobs would be created in the auto industry in the future, you might have still thought: ‘So what? How does that help my family?’

History shows us that each new wave of technological innovation both destroys and creates jobs. The trouble is that the new ones tend to be created for different people, in different parts of the world, and under very different working conditions from the old ones.  The job of an assembly-line worker in Detroit in the 1920s was very different from that a rural stable-hand in Somerset, just as work in a washing-machine factory was different from that of a laundry-maid.

New machines may eliminate some old jobs but new ones are needed to mine the raw materials, make and assemble the components, and maintain them, as well as designing the next generation or robots, drones or 3-D printers. But there are also unintended consequences. Who would have guessed that some of the earliest adopters of mobile phones would be drug dealers, fraudsters and pimps, that one of the earliest commercial uses of the Internet would be for pornography, or that drones would be used for smuggling contraband into prisons? As society struggles to keep up with these new forms of technology-enabled crime, more new jobs are created – to deal with cyber-fraud, remove unwanted content from social media sites and other functions our grandparents would never have dreamed of.

They may be right about the disappearance of many familiar jobs, but pessimists are surely wrong when they speculate that robots will bring permanent mass unemployment.  But might the optimists be right in thinking that artificial intelligence can take the back-breaking toil out of mundane tasks releasing time for more satisfying activities?

The evidence suggests that technology is failing to deliver these benefits, with technology used, not to shorten but lengthen the working day, with expectations of round-the-clock availability.

Neither are machines taking over the boring and repetitive activities, leaving the more creative and satisfying ones for human beings to carry out. Often it is cheaper to use human labour for the most mundane tasks, as evidenced by the growth of online platforms like Amazon Mechanical Turk and Clickworker that enable a dispersed human workforce to carry out micro-tasks deemed not worth automating, such as labelling colours, verifying fuzzily-scanned numbers or clicking ‘like’ on corporate websites.

Human labour is also used in warehouses, with workers instructed via headsets where to run, with every action timed and monitored. A visitor from another planet watching them at work might think that humans are servants of the technology, rather than technology serving the people.

Being monitored and paced digitally is not unique to manual workers or casual ‘click workers’. Nurses, teachers, truck drivers and software developers are just a few of the workers who have to work to numerical ‘performance targets’ and log their working time using online ‘apps’.

How is it that apparently liberating technologies seem to enslave workers ever more tightly to the demands and rhythms of the global economy? We must ask who is developing them and for what purpose.

The corporations that dominate that global economy have somewhat contradictory needs. They need a stream of new ideas to help them stay one step ahead – and to provide these ideas they need bright, motivated, well-educated creative workers. But once these ideas have been implemented, then the best way to stay competitive is to cut costs to the bone, minimise responsibilities to a permanent workforce and find workers who can be deployed efficiently to provide only the tasks that are needed.

Digital technologies make it ever-easier to manage these ‘just-in-time’ processes. But the flexibility they offer is all too often just for the employers. For workers, it may mean being unable to plan ahead because you never known when that smartphone will ping, summoning you to the next task.

Are we entering an era when the majority of workers will be ‘on call’ in this way? Or is there still time to harness the new technologies for the benefit of people rather than profit?

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Universal basic income and women’s liberation

Here is a blog post I wrote for Compass, originally published on their site on January 13th, 2017.

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From 1971 to 1978, the UK women’s liberation movement held ten national conferences at which it formally adopted a total of seven key demands. The fifth of these demands, added in 1974, was for financial and legal independence for women, accepted with widespread support across all wings of the movement. It is indeed difficult to imagine a form of feminism which does not, in a money-based society, insist that women have their own means of financial support as a way of avoiding being trapped by economic dependence in coercive, perhaps abusive, relationships.

It is therefore perhaps ironic that the question of how this financial independence should be achieved played a role in the bitter disputes within the movement that led to the decision that the 1978 conference would be the last. Although it was by no means the only reason for the split, the espousal by many radical feminists of the demand for ‘wages for housework’ (developed in 1972 by the International Feminist Collective which included Selma James, Mariarosa Dalla Costa, Brigitte Galtier and Silvia Frederici) was for many socialist feminists the last straw. Housework, they said, should not be institutionalised as women’s responsibility. It should be shared equally with men or, better, socialised, in the form of state-provided nurseries, laundries and canteens. And what would happen if women refused to do the housework for which they were paid? Would the husband, the father, or the state, taking on the role of the employer, discipline them and decide that they should not get it? Meanwhile radical feminists argued that reproductive work was for the benefit of all society and, since women did most of it, they should be rewarded for this. Why should they be forced into the labour market just for economic survival, when this important caring work took up so much of their time?

More than forty years later, some of the wounds inflicted in those debates still fester. But could it be that the demand for a universal basic income might be a way of healing them?  Instead of posing women with the option of, on the one hand, aiming for full participation in paid work supported by public (or market) services and, on the other, an income for staying at home and taking responsibility for caring, could it, perhaps, offer them a basis for greater choice and autonomy, substituting a form of ‘both/and’ for a false ‘either/or’ dichotomy?

In order to do so, several important preconditions need to be in place. First, it is crucial that the basic income should be provided not just to women, or, more specifically, to people carrying out reproductive labour (parents or carers) but to everybody, regardless of gender or social status. Second, it should be provided as a right of citizenship or residency and not as a reward for carrying out work that would otherwise be unpaid. And third, it should not be seen as a substitute for the provision of public services.

With all these conditions in place, a universal basic income could become a means of offering both women and men freedom to choose how to divide their time between reproductive work, paid work in the labour market and other activities, and decide what proportion of their income to spend on buying in services rather than providing them in kind, in the knowledge that the welfare state is available as a safety net when things go wrong.

It could also go some way towards addressing the less obvious bur more deeply corrosive personal effects of economic dependence: the way that it can lead to ‘breadwinners’ feeling trapped in their roles and resentful of their dependents’ apparent freedom from the constraints of the employer’s clock, as well as leaving their dependents struggling with guilt, obligations to show gratitude or feelings of pressure to engage in coercive sex, or even put up with violence or abuse to keep a roof over their heads and those of their children.

A universal basic income might, in other words, actually lead to better relationships as well as a more equitable society, providing a genuine basis for liberation.

Forty years after the demand for financial independence was first raised, have we at least reached a moment when mass support might be available for actually achieving it?

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The key criticisms of basic income, and how to overcome them

I quite often write blogs for sites other than my own. It has been suggested to me that I should post them here too, to make life easier for followers who like to see things in one place, so here is one that was published on the Open Democracy website on 14th December.

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How can a universal basic minimum income be made compatible with socialist principles and avoid inadvertently furthering a neoliberal agenda?

More than one in five UK workers, over seven million people, are now in precarious employment according to this analysis of official figures by John Philpott. Since 2006, the numbers on zero-hours contracts has grown by three-quarters of a million are and over 200,000 more are working on temporary contracts. My own recent research has found that some two and a half million adults in the UK may be working for online platforms like Uber, Taskrabbit or Upwork at least once a month, with about 1.2 million people earning more than half their income from this kind of work. A growing proportion of the population is piecing together an income from multiple sources, in many cases making even the concept of a fixed occupation anomalous.

Large numbers of worker do not know, from one day – or even hour – to the next if and when they will next be working. Yet we still have an anachronistic benefit system based on the principle that any fit adult (and, under the current regime, many who are less than fit) must either be ‘in work’ or ‘seeking work’. The old Beveridgean welfare state model is, in short, bust. What is left of the old welfare safety net is fundamentally incompatible with a globalised just-in-time labour market in which workers are increasingly paid by the task.

The victims of these incompatibilities are among the most vulnerable in our society – forced to take any work that is going but often unable to claim benefit when none is available. They are caught between the rock of harsh sanctions regimes and the hard place of capricious and unreliable employers, often with no dependable source of income whatsoever. And the numbers of these people missed by the safety net keep growing. The use of food banks has increased more than forty-fold since 2008, the estimated  number of rough sleepers has risen by 55% since 2010 and the number of children in poverty rose from 3.7 million in 2014-2015 to 3.9 million a year later – an increase of 200,000 in just one year. Something is clearly terribly wrong and the increasingly urgent question is how to fix it.

This is part of the problem to which the concept of a universal basic income (UBI) now presents itself as a solution to an expanding range of analysts. UBI is not only promoted as a way to update the benefit system to bring it into line with new labour market realities. It is also seen as a way to reward carers and others who carry out unpaid reproduction work in the home, to support artists, enable lifelong learning or give more autonomy to disabled people. This once-marginal idea is now seriously espoused in the UK by the Green Party, the Scottish Nationalist Party, some trade unions and sections of the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties and Plaid Cymru. Further afield is also actively promoted (including setting up experimental schemes) in Finland, the Netherlands, India, South Africa and, at the neoliberal end of the spectrum, by high-tech entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley.

At the headline level, indeed, UBI can seem to represent some sort of magic bullet that will solve all these problems simultaneously, and is often promoted as such. But a closer examination of the various models proposed reveals considerable differences between them. If these are not recognised, attempts to operationalise it could lead at best to risks of unintended consequences and at worst deep political fissures that could even exacerbate some of the problems UBI is intended to address. Most attempts to model how UBI could be implemented in practice in the UK (for example by Howard Reed and Stewart Lansley, Malcolm Torry and Gareth Morgan) have looked at it in what might be called a policy-neutral context, in which all other features of the economy and the tax system remain unaltered. But of course the reality is that any change in government policy that could lead to the introduction of UBI would be part of a much broader political upheaval that would transform many of these other features. Abstracting UBI from its broader setter in this way makes it harder to see such potential hazards.

For people who believe that the world’s sixth largest economy should be able to protect its citizens from penury, and are committed to (re)developing a welfare state that reduces social inequality and enhances choice and opportunity for its citizens, perhaps the time has now come for a serious debate, not just about the pros and cons of UBI in the abstract, but about which other policies it should be linked with to ensure that these objectives are met. This involves grappling with some difficult questions. Here I look at four of the risks that could arise if a UBI is introduced without such policy safeguards.

The risk of driving down wages

In the abstract, the relationship between a UBI and wage levels can be argued to be either positive or negative. Some argue, quite plausibly, that a guaranteed minimum income would enable people to be much choosier about which jobs they accept, giving them options to turn down really exploitative wage rates and perhaps even providing them with the equivalent of strike pay to enable them to negotiate more effectively with employers without their dependents suffering.

An alternative view draws on the experience of tax credits (and now, universal credit) to point out that providing an income top-up is, in effect, a subsidy to employers who pay below-subsistence wages. In 2015-2016, this subsidy was estimated at about £30 billion. Had this been paid out by employers as part of their wage bill then this would also have led to an increase in national insurance and tax revenues. These credits therefore represent a factor which, whether inadvertently or not, increase inequalities between those who rely on their wages for their livelihood and those who derive their incomes, directly or indirectly, from corporate profits.

If a UBI is not to exacerbate this state of affairs, it is imperative that it is linked to a high minimum wage and one, moreover, that can be linked to systems where workers are paid by the task, not just to hourly rates.

The risk of undermining collective bargaining for employer-provided benefits

An important argument against UBI comes from social democratic parties and trade unions, especially in parts of continental Europe with a strong tradition of sector-level bargaining, who argue that its introduction would undermine their efforts to make employers pay into schemes that provide negotiated benefits, such as pensions, health insurance or childcare. A UBI provided by the state would, they contend, shift the burden of paying for it from employers to the general taxpayer. As Richard Murphy has shown, ‘the poorest 20% of households in the UK have both the highest overall tax burden of any quintile and the highest VAT burden’. This shift would therefore exacerbate inequalities, rather than reducing them, at a societal level.

To avoid this risk, it is therefore important that the introduction of UBI should be accompanied by measures that support trade unions’ abilities to bargain with employers at company and sector levels for benefits for their members, by protection for existing company pensions schemes and by other measures that ensure that employers continue to contribute their share of the cost, for instance through employers’ contributions to National Insurance.

The risk of undermining collectively-provided public services

By giving everyone cash, neoliberal models of UBI play along with the grain of an increasingly marketised economy in which services are individually purchased from private providers. There is therefore a risk that UBI could become a sort of glorified voucher system, undermining collectively provided public services that are designed by bodies democratically answerable to the communities they serve, under the guise of offering individual choice. Quite apart from the considerable risks that this poses to democracy, social cohesion and the quality of services, this could disadvantage individuals with special needs who require more expensive and/or specialised services than the average, exacerbating inequalities even while purporting to offer everybody the same.

It is therefore imperative that the introduction of a UBI should be embedded with policies that protect the scope and quality of public services and their collective and universal character.

The risk of creating racist definitions of citizenship

If a UBI is defined as a right of citizenship, then this raises the question of entitlement: who is, or is not, a citizen? And on what basis is their right to UBI established? A final serious risk associated with the introduction of UBI is that it could become linked to a narrow definition of citizenship from which some people (for example refugees, asylum-seekers or residents who do not hold UK passports) are excluded. In addition to the support this could give to racism and xenophobia this could also lead to a two-tier labour market in which people who are not entitled to UBI become an exploited underclass.

The introduction of UBI must therefore be integrated with humane and well-thought-out policies on immigration and citizenship, perhaps by linking entitlement to the place of residence, rather than nationality.

Conclusion

I have highlighted here what I see as four major challenges that need to be confronted if UBI is to be introduced as a genuinely progressive initiative that can restore some dignity and security to the most vulnerable members of our society, enable a flexible labour market to function in ways that avoid exploitation while encouraging entrepreneurship and creativity and reduce social inequality. In doing so, I do not wish to pour cold water on the very idea. On the contrary, I think that, at this moment in history, it is crucially important – so important that what is needed now is a debate, not about the abstract idea of a UBI, but about how it could be introduced in the real world in a way that is genuinely compatible with social-democratic and feminist ideals and starts to rebuild the train-wreck that is currently all we have left of the 20th century welfare state that so many people worked so hard to create.

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Not in a shy way

It was entirely predictable that Trump’s first dance as president of the United States would be performed (with some cartoonish mouthing of the words) to the tune of ‘My Way’, playing out in a manner beyond irony the triumph of braggadocio in 21st century public life.

It is hard for anyone with any degree of self-awareness to believe that this is entirely serious. Surely, we think, that degree of ostentatious and clichéd vulgarity must be enacted with a tongue lodged firmly somewhere in a jowly cheek: two tiny fingers raised to the good taste of those who manage the world; the jester releasing his evil-smelling trump (in the colloquial British sense of the word) in the deodorised boudoir of the establishment.

Then comes the awful realisation that this is absolutely for real. The foot-stamping toddler really does want his own way. The occupant of the gilded throne-room really does believe he has a right to rule and annihilate what stands in his path.

What has happened to the world in which modesty is a virtue, lights are hidden under bushels and, whatever you’ve got, it’s unladylike to flaunt it? Even to ask such questions, for someone on the left, is difficult. It puts us on the side of gentility, privilege, convention. It aligns us with that very establishment we thought we were critiquing. And it makes us vulnerable to accusations of snobbery – of being, Heaven help us, ‘North London intellectuals’, deploring the vulgarity of the working class (to a soundtrack of classical music) even while we purport to be placing its interests first.

Its conflicted relationship to popular culture is, perhaps, one of the factors that has contributed most to the intellectual paralysis that seems to have overtaken many on the British left in the aftermath of the Brexit vote. Vulnerable to accusations of elitism, many are uncomfortable talking about the cultural pleasures of cosmopolitan connectedness. They would rather parade a connoisseurship of punk music than of Baroque ceilings, of real ale than of wine, just as it is easier to write a PhD on Eastenders than on Jane Austen if you want to keep your socialist credentials.  While some are happy to subject aspects of popular culture to detailed deconstruction (often in impenetrable language), others are afraid of losing touch, or seeming pretentious, anxiously submerging themselves in activities that reconnect them with their roots, from football to rock and roll. But even such immersion can be accompanied, as the late, lamented, Mark Fisher described so eloquently, by a haunting sense of inauthenticity – of being a fraud who has ‘somehow faked his way through’.

In these days of social media, there is perhaps, no innocence left when it comes to the experience of culture: no experience that is unmediated by the thought – even if resisted – of how it can be captured, reproduced, tweeted, misrepresented, mashed up. In a representational world in which just about everything can be both aligned and opposed to just about everything else, the logic of ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’ comes adrift. This makes even the sense of belonging ambivalent, and fraught with risk.

It may no longer be possible to recreate the kinds of social spaces that were available for earlier generations of critical misfits to occupy – the Bohemias (whether in the form of physical districts or literary circles) where intercourse took place between artistic, political and sexual transgression and it was equally OK to criticise the ruling class and consumerism. But perhaps new ones will emerge. In the meanwhile, if we want to communicate beyond our own small circles we have to shout, over the cacophony of social media in which everybody else is doing the same, in the hope that somewhere out there will be another voice that responds to ours, in doing so breaking all those taboos against showing off and opening ourselves up to the accusation of not listening properly to others. We have, in short, to engage in precisely the sort of trumpet-blowing our democratic instincts (not to mention our desire to be liked) warn us against.

The question facing us is how to emerge from this paralysis and start moving again. This requires not only putting weight on limbs we may not entirely trust (and letting go with others) but also deciding  whose hand to hold and in what direction to move: to find a way of substituting ‘our’ way for ‘my’ way. And even, maybe, finding some way to do it in a shy way.

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Best wishes for 2017

2016 was a year in which the world turned upside down in so many ways. And nothing seems to sum it up better than this shop window display I spotted this morning in Belgrade with its astonishing juxtaposition of icons.  Hoping 2017 will be better for us all. Onward and upward!

Posted in Greetings, things visual, Uncategorized | Tagged | 1 Comment

How global IT companies screw up your daily life – another example

 

I have been seriously thinking for the last six weeks or so that I am developing dementia, after repeatedly finding that entries I had made in the diary feature on my iphone (on which I have relied for years) were appearing on the wrong day. I now discover that this is caused by a horrible redesign – made with no warning to users whatsoever. Before the last (unasked for) upgrade if you were trying to fix an appointment you could see (in calendar mode) which days did – or did not – have some activity in them. You could then click on any given day to see what appointment was already there (suppressing the minor annoyance that Apple might have chosen to mark something like St Andrew’s Day, or Valentine’s Day and that it was in fact free even when it didn’t look like it) or you could add a new appointment. The software, in other words, took you straight from the month view to the day view via a click on the date. There used also to be an intervening week view that showed each day consecutively so you could see details of what was on for each day. Since the last upgrade they have introduced a quite different intervening view that does not list all the days consecutively but lists every diary entry. If there is more than one thing on any given day, each item is given its own entry, but if there are days with nothing entered it simply skips them. I thought this was just a visual change but now realise that the functionality has also completely altered.
Yesterday I was trying to make an appointment in January. Looked at the month view and found that there was nothing on from the 11th to the 15th and clicked on the 11th to add the new appointment. But the software didn’t take me to the 11th – the page it opened was the 16th – the first on which I had another appointment already entered. The only way to add the new appointment was to enter the new date manually as a changed start time. It has clearly been doing this ever since the last upgrade. This explains why at least four appointments I have made in the last month have ended up appearing on the wrong dates. There are many more set for the future and I can see that I am going to have to go through them all, checking each one to make sure it is entered for the right date. Hours of my time wasted all because some little geek working for Apple (probably in dreadful conditions in Bangalore) didn’t think this thing through, and nobody bothered to offer customers a choice. This same upgrade, I may say, also unilaterally took it upon itself to assume that an appointment I made in Toronto needed to be adjusted by 5 hours to bring it into line with UK time – resulting in another huge diary disruption.
I could manage my diary just fine on a Nokia communicator 20 years ago. But now we are in an era where our every labour process, paid or unpaid, is determined by these global corporations. An activity as simple as jotting a note in a diary electronically, rather than on paper, now involves effectively filling in a form. And this form is not designed to enable independent individuals to manage their lives autonomously but to facilitate corporate control of time management and maximise rental incomes to software companies, telecommunications suppliers and their ilk.
In the last four or five years I have been struck by the spread of those practices whereby messages are sent directly to your diary by other people using Outlook. An alert will suddenly pop up asking you to accept or reject a meeting request from someone you may or may not know. At first these came from other people in the university I work for, and were, I assumed, linked to the fact that we were all on the same email system, but now they come from all directions – neighbours, people I have agreed to do talks for, and even, the other day, somebody inviting me to a party that way. Intrusion into other people’s time management has been appified and normalised. If you fail to ‘accept’ or ‘reject’ or, worse, fumblingly press the wrong button, which has interecepted your urgent attempt to do something else, there will be social consequences, as well as potential financial ones (like those that occur when you do not realise that, lurking in a website from which you have purchased something, there is a hidden area where you are supposed to deactivate automatic renewal).
Last night I spoke at a book launch in Oxford for this remarkable book by Bob Hughes and the audience discussion turned to the question what to do about it (‘it’ being the toxic effects of technology more generally). Two ‘solutions’ stand out as the most obvious.
The first of these is to resist the new technology and go back to the old. In this particular case this would mean going back to lugging around a heavy address book and diary and pen wherever I go. With my low haemoglobin  and bad shoulder this would be an increasingly painful solution as well as doing little to reduce the world’s consumption of paper. it would additionally, in these days when arrangements  are made by text and email, require a lot of cross-referencing with other sources of information. There is also the reality that my handwriting is not the most legible and a note made, for example, on a moving bus, is liable to be open to several alternative interpretations. And the ever-increasing risk of physical loss or damage, from absent-mindedly leaving it behind somewhere or having the bag stolen, or spilling coffee over it.
The second ‘solution’ – the one that, over the years, I have heard proposed by more (usually young and male) techies than I could count, is to develop alternative applications, using open source software. This means having to invest a huge amount of personal time and effort (unpaid of course) in learning how to use this software and, if you are not a denizen of any hackerspace, simply swapping dependence on one lot of techies (poorly paid by global corporations) to another (apparently working for free but actually, of course, with their time subsidised by rich parents or spouses, day jobs paid for by others or some form of rent or taxpayer subsidy).
In the here and now neither of these is an attractive option for me.So I guess that, until the workers of the world unite to build a better society, I am just going to have to grit my teeth and keep learning the new codes and filling in the forms and installing the new apps at the diktat of these global corporations, rendered dumber (and angrier) by the day by their Taylorisation of my daily life.
Posted in Autobiography, Labour in the 21st century | 4 Comments

All that suffering. For what?

I cannot have been alone in my reaction to yesterday’s Autumn Budget announcements from Philip Hammond in which the government promises that underpinned the austerity agenda for the last six years were at last pronounced officially dead. What I couldn’t stop thinking about was the huge toll of human sacrifice those false promises had brought about: the elderly people hounded out of their council homes because there was one bedroom too many, the dying people deprived of benefits because they turned up a few moments late for a Jobcentre appointment, the disabled people put through humiliating and painful tests, the defeated expressions on the faces of proud people forced into demeaning make-work jobs, the shame of having to turn to a foodbank to feed one’s kids. So much pain. Then, all unbidden, the words came into my head from that Stanley Holloway comic monologue, so often requested on the radio in my childhood, called Albert and the Lion, in which the mother of Albert (who has been eaten by a lion at the zoo) is consoled by a magistrate with the thought that she can always have more sons and replies, indignantly, ‘What, spend all our lives raising children. To feed ruddy lions? Not me!’.

Whether those lions are seen as stand-ins for war or for capitalism, the joke, certainly understood by most people in the self-deprecating 1950s when I first heard it, hinged on the fact that of course, people always DO go on raising children, whatever the cost, whatever the sacrifice. In fact for most people, having children is the best and most altruistic thing they ever do in their lives. Having children, or grandchildren, or nephews and nieces, or loving the children of others, gives you a stake in the future, in peace, in public order, in a society that values more than just making money. It is actually society’s main protection from nihilist destructive rage, crime and greed gone mad.

Against all rational self-interest, in the knowledge that it will make them poorer, deprive them of sleep, of chances to go out in the evening, of holidays, people just go on having babies, drinking in their smiles, saving up to buy them treats, then later worrying themselves silly every time they fail to come home on time, trying desperately to protect them from pain and, yes, putting up uncomplainingly with horrible jobs just to try to assure them a secure future.

It was reported at the end of June this year in the Guardian that the number of children being brought up in poverty in the UK had risen from 3.7 million in 2014-2015 to 3.9 million – an increase of 200,000 in just one year of austerity programmes. If you listen to the way the parents of these children are described in the right-wing media, or see how they are treated by the Tory state, you would think that choosing to procreate is an act of pure selfishness, embarked on to jump the queue for social housing, or claim a bit more benefit. Rarely is it recognised that what parents are actually doing, often at great cost to their finances and their own bodily wellbeing, is bringing up the next generation of workers and taxpayers on whom the economy depends. Instead of being rewarded and praised for this, they are demonised.

If there is one single argument, above all others, for the need for a universal basic income it is this: to secure a future for our children – social reproduction – that does not have to be bought with such suffering (I was going to write ‘needless suffering’ but of course in this unequal world we know that there are those who benefit from it).

 

 

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The end of the middle

There was a sudden moment yesterday morning when I was hit (it felt bodily, like a punch) by the realisation that it was really likely that Trump would win the US presidential election. I was half-watching the morning news on the BBC while preparing breakfast and they showed clips of the final rallies of the two candidates: Clinton in Philadelphia, embracing Bruce Springsteen, and Trump addressing a crowd in New Hampshire. What jolted my attention was Trump’s language: ‘Tomorrow’, he said, with complete confidence, ‘the American working class will strike back’. Wow, I thought, he actually said it; he actually used that phrase ‘working class’ which has always seemed so inexplicably taboo among mainstream Democrats. And I felt a deep conviction that he understood precisely what he was doing when he used it.

For years, I, and no doubt other people on the European left, have been puzzled by the way, across the Atlantic, workers have been persistently described as ‘middle class’. It could perhaps be explained in several ways: negatively, as a way of disassociating from any hint of communist leanings; more positively as an appeal to the aspirations of the poor in a society that has grown through upward mobility, particularly of second-generation immigrants; as a way of fudging class differences in an electoral system in which victory can only be won by broad alliances between what Marxists would regard as proletarians and elements of the petit bourgeoisie.

One of its many effects has been to make it difficult to speak clearly of class at all. People are analysed in their capacities as consumers, or in relation to their ethnicity or other demographic variables, but rarely in relation to their role in the economic division of labour. Although the industrial working class may be romanticised nostalgically (interestingly enough not least by Democrat supporters like Bruce Springsteen) it is marginalised in general discourse. An increasingly fictionalised idea of a centre ground made up of ‘hard working families’ is substituted for them in the mainstream discourse (echoing the language of the 1990s centre-left political discourse which presumed a fuzzy middle ground in which ‘third way’ politics would work).

Tragically, this dissolution of clear class analysis has been echoed on the left as well as in this centre ground, where concepts like ‘the 99%’, the ‘multitude’ and the ‘precariat’ have been substituted for that of the working class.

By not daring to speak its name, these deniers have opened the door to a reframing of working class identity. If the people (workers or former workers) who perceive themselves to be losers of neo-liberal globalisation policies and know very well, and rightly reject, the designation ‘middle-class’ feel that they are not being ‘seen’ by social democratic parties then they will look for other leaders who recognise them for who they are and seem to care about what they fear. And what we are seeing, in the USA as in the UK and other parts of the world, is that those who do so are rabble-rousing, xenophobic populists.

Working class people who have been told they are middle class know that they have been lied to, and will not trust the politicians they believe are liars. The unfolding tragedy we are living through shows that they may then become open to believing other liars, who persuade them to deflect their rage against fellow members of the working class, whom they do not recognise as such, having been deprived of the analytical tools to do so.

To paraphrase G.K. Chesterton (on god): When men choose not to believe in socialism they do not thereafter believe in nothing, they then become capable of believing in anything.

But I will try to end with a glimmer of hope, this time from Hegel.

hegels-owl

Posted in Labour in the 21st century, political reflection, Politics, The world | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Being got. Or not.

Earlier this month I gave a talk in Toronto reflecting on how the role of women as public intellectuals changed (or did not) over the last century. The starting point for this discussion was the life of my aunt – Jacky Tyrwhitt (1905-1983) – who, amongst many other achievements, was for a while an important member of what is now called the Toronto School of Communication (the theme of the conference at which I was speaking). She was a major figure in the development of urban planning, building connections from the garden cities movement in the early part of the 20th Century via post-war reconstruction as Keynesian welfare states were being built, Modernist architecture, the development of low-cost housing in South Asia, to the futurism of the 1970s, taking in environmentalism, and garden design en route, not to mention links with major figures in the development of modern art and music, and training several generations of planners. As someone said, perhaps one of the most important people you never heard of.

It was a very interesting and revealing experience for me to research her life (which, as far as I know, has been the subject of only one biography – Jaqueline Tyrwhitt: A Transnational Life in Urban Planning and Design by Ellen Shoskes). And humbling to discover how much I did not know about her work, and how much it must have cost her to devote so much time, effort and money to rescuing me (as well as siblings and the sons and daughters of many of her friends) from the various youthful predicaments we found ourselves in while managing her stressful working life. In retrospect, I am ashamed both of how nasty I often was to her – nasty as only a teenager can be who takes a degree of unconditional love for granted – and how unthinkingly I rejected many of her values as part and parcel of a kind of establishment thinking I regarded myself as in rebellion against.

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Jacky Tyrwhitt in 1938

One of the things I spoke about in Toronto was the public invisibility of much of her work. She seemed largely content to be a power behind the scenes, acknowledged only by a few key figures in the know. Much of her work was what I now call ‘intellectual housework’. She brought people from across the disciplines together in networks, organised conferences, designed courses, wrote textbooks, put together grant proposals, edited and translated other people’s work, negotiated with publishers, founded and edited journals, intervened tactfully to bring peace between warring egos, encouraged young scholars and artists, introducing them to potential employers and patrons, and generally facilitated the flowering of others’ work. Much of her career was precarious, slipping from one short-term post or freelance contract to another, denied tenure and dependent on the goodwill of male sponsors.

Although she sought out the company of strong women as mentors, collaborators and friends – a by-no-means-exhaustive list includes Ellen Willmot (garden designer), Eva Taylor (first woman professor of geography in Britain and, for all I know, the world), Innes Hope Pearse (doctor involved in setting up the Peckham health experiment), Ruth Glass, (sociologist), Catherine Bauer (US public housing activist), Margaret Mead, anthropologist, Ruth Benedict (another anthropologist) and Barbara Ward (economist and pioneer environmentalist) – a huge amount of her intellectual effort went into promoting and bringing to popular notice the work of male stars. An early example of this was her monumental Patrick Geddes in India, published in 1947. In this book she self-effacingly knitted together a range of the writings of this pioneer planner from disparate sources to assemble a coherent account of his thinking  and make it accessible to a wide audience. She also took on the role of translating from the German and editing the huge doorstoppers (Space Time and Architecture and Mechanization Takes Command) of another Great Man, Siegfried Giedion,  as well as oiling his relationships with global communities of scholars and architects. Although Giedion acknowledged in private correspondence his many debts to her for helping him clarify his ideas and, indeed, writing large chunks of these Great Works, he neglected in public to acknowledge her as anything more than a translator and editor. Her considerable originality of thought was rarely acknowledged – her thoughts expressed through the lips of others, who all too often took credit for them, and much of her writing nestled invisibly in what we would now call ‘grey literature’ (official reports and policy documents, briefs, grant proposals and the like).

The more I researched her life, the more I saw parallels with my own career and that of other women contemporaries.Even while I thought I was rejecting her example, it seems that I might have have been absorbing it unconsciously as a role model. Or perhaps we are all shaped by larger patterns which have persisted over the last century despite the huge changes that have been made in women’s public positions.Which led me to meditate, not for the first time, on how it is that women’s original ideas come to be publicly recognised (or not).

The day after doing this talk, I gave another lecture in Toronto, this time at York University, on a topic that lies close to the core of my own research interests. On the face of it, this could be taken as perfect proof that things have changed. Leo Panitch gave me a glowing, highly flattering, introduction as a leading Marxist theorist. The audience was attentive and respectful. I felt understood and acknowledged, as I rarely do.  The fact that this happened (thanks, in great measure, to the generous patronage of Panitch and his colleagues on the editorial board of Socialist Register and at York University’s Department of Political Science and its Global Labour Research Centre) gives me permission, so to speak, to discuss the many occasions when such recognition has not been forthcoming. Like people from other groups that are under-represented in the Academy and in public life, neglected women are always vulnerable to the suspicion that they may simply be second-rate and deserve to be ignored. Counter-factual narratives that imagine how different the story might be if one were masculine or white must remain at the level of speculation. And however much we find our stories confirmed by others who share our gender or ethnicity, while our white male friends look blank and ask ‘Are you sure you aren’t just being paranoid?’, a kernel of self-doubt remains.

So I am hoping that I can put to good use my kind reception at York and its vindication of my right to be heard to share with other women (and men) some of the things I have observed over the years, in the expectation that these observations will be heard as credible testimony, not just sour grapes. All I can offer here are descriptions of some of the ploys  (no doubt largely unconscious) I have seen being adopted in the past in relation to my own contributions, and those of others, to scholarly or public discourse. I cannot give advice on strategies for dealing with these ploys because I have failed to find any, at least any that are ethical,  that work effectively. No doubt some do exist because there are, thank goodness, some women out there who have achieved public recognition for their original ideas. But I don’t know what they are. Maybe somebody with the time to do so could investigate what these might be and share as a general service to womankind. In the meanwhile, this is the best I can do.

Not being got

One of the most common experiences is simply not being understood. A woman puts forward an idea and it is ignored or misclassified under some pre-existing category. If it clearly departs from received wisdom in that category it may be reclassified as a feminist critique of it (safely filed away in the ‘gender’ box, which means it does not need to be absorbed into the canon but may be awarded an occasional footnote reference). In some cases it may be seen as quaint or quirky, a light subjective take on a serious subject, to provide a moment’s amusement before the audience’s attention moves back to the Important Issues. If what is being proposed is an idea about how to proceed, perhaps in resolution of some generally recognised problem, it will most likely be dismissed as impractical or irrelevant – unless or until it is picked up by a male champion, in which case it will be seen as his idea. (The male champion then has it in his gift to offer the woman the chance to do the work of developing and implementing the idea, under his name and authority, as an alternative to simply stealing it. She has the choice of gratefully accepting whatever small acknowledgement is offered or walking away, leaving him in possession of the idea. Here, a lot will depend on the extent to which she feels ethically committed to seeing it implemented as a socially good thing. And also on her financial circumstances. Can she afford to walk away if this will deprive her of a source of income?).

Being got but gobbled

Which leads me on to the next type of experience: being ‘got’ only too well, but not acknowledged as the owner of the idea. There was a small example of this at the end of my lecture at York when a member of the audience came up to me afterwards and said, no doubt intending it as a compliment, ‘everything you just said is exactly what I say to my students’ (to which one can only, while nodding politely and asking what he teaches – it was of course a he – silently answer ‘so where is the article in which you have published these thoughts that are so identical to mine?’). More usually this kind of response is more overtly patronising, or even aggressive.

One variant, particularly prominent on the Troskyist left, used to take the form of a sentence starting ‘While you are correct in what you say about x, you are incorrect when you do not also argue y (y being, typically, a statement of the need for a revolutionary workers’ party). In other words, ‘we already knew what you said because it is part of our party “line” –  or will be from now on if I have anything to do with it’. These days the same sentiment is more likely to be expressed as a simple statement, from the (usually youngish and male) commentator to the effect that he agrees with what you have just said, as a preamble to a lengthy speech in which he states the rest of his party’s opinion. This is often delivered with a lordly air that reminds me irresistibly of the Man from Del Monte in the old TV commercials who would descend on a village and sample the fruit, while the villagers looked on anxiously, to be greeted with rapturous gratitude when it passed the test. ‘The Man from Del Monte said yes!’ they would scream in delight as they launched into a frenzy of colourful local dancing. The hidden message is crystal clear: no woman could possibly have any motive for presenting an idea other than that of seeking masculine approval. Once this approval is granted, the idea becomes part of the general property of the approval-granting young idealogue-arbiters, no more to be acknowledged than if it had fallen from the sky (or indeed a fruit tree). And you are supposed to be really grateful that you have been privileged with this seal of approval. That you may not give much of a damn whether or not some callow youth  agrees with you or not, but are more interested in opening up a general debate in which ‘lines’ are set to one side in the interests of creative and open dialogue seems to be beyond their comprehension.

Among mainstream academics, the forms of appropriation are somewhat different, though no less pernicious. Let me give you one example (I will try to keep the details vague to avoid publicly naming and shaming the gentleman in question). I developed a concept that I had been using for a decade or so for analysing an aspect of the global division of labour. This concept was then taken up by various people in national and international government departments. An academic from an Ivy League university with whom I had been in contact (including finding funds in a tight budget to invite him to a conference I was organising in Europe and putting him in touch with some important figures among those aforementioned bodies) then published an article in which he claimed ownership of this concept. When I pointed out, quite gently in an email, that this was a concept i had developed, and that my role in developing it had indeed even been acknowledged in print by one of those government people, his response was not to make any attempt to reference my work but to say ‘Well I would have come up with the idea anyway sooner or later anyway’.  In other words, anything that a woman like me could dream up must, de facto, be supremely obvious and not worth acknowledging as an original idea (Whether he would have acknowledged it if I had been a man is one of those counter-factuals that can never be verified).

A subtler version of this strategy involves taking ideas from conference presentations and grey literature, claiming them as their own, and not citing the originator of the idea because this originator has not published it in a high-ranked peer-reviewed journal. But even publishing in the agreed ‘scientific’ way in such journals is no guarantee of being cited. This 2013 study by Daniel Mailiniak, Ryan M.Powers and Barbara F. Walter found that women are systematically cited less than men (after controlling for a large number of other variables) with articles by men cited on average 4.8 more times than articles by women. So, sisters, if you want to be publicly known as the owner of your ideas, beware of people who come up to you at conferences and ask ‘has this been published anywhere?’ or ‘could you give me a copy of that report you mentioned?’. Alternatively you might just be altruistic enough, or committed enough to being a teacher,  to want to share your knowledge with the world and wait for the thanks that might come, you never know, twenty years later from a grateful mid-career researcher you helped to get launched.

Another related strategy is a little more preemptive. It involves talking the people who commissioned you to write the ‘grey’ report into giving them an advance copy, and then publicly announcing your results as theirs while you (in accordance with your contract) are still respecting the embargo. On one occasion a report I had written was to be launched at a big international conference. I was asked by the organisers to suggest someone to chair it and (thinking I was doing a favour to somebody whose profile up to then had been distinctly national) I suggested a man who asked for an advance copy of the report but then, instead of introducing me to the assembled multitude, proceeded to take up some 50% of my allotted time presenting my main conclusions as his own generalisations that were ‘setting the context’ for my presentation, which was thereby reframed as a bit of empirical research slotted into his grand theoretical overview. On another occasion a consultant who saw himself as a rival actually took the charts out of an about-to-be-press-released report  I had written for a government department (of which he had managed to wangle an advance copy) and put them into a powerpoint presentation which he showed to the press the day before the launch date. The publication of another report I wrote for a different government department got held up by over a year but, in the meanwhile, somebody gave a copy to an academic who used its contents as a ‘case study’ in a very well-funded research project. Is this out-and-out theft? or just a kind of opportunistic version of ‘finders, keepers’? And does it happen to men too? Who knows?

Message massaged into medium

Finally I come to the strategy which, I suspect, was the one most used against my Aunt Jacky. She herself warned me against one aspect of it when, in the 1960s, she repeatedly told me ‘It is really useful to learn to touch-type. But when you apply for a job don’t on any account let them know that you can do it. If you do you will always be treated as a secretary’.

secretary

Illustration from a 1960s secretarial training textbook

For readers too young to remember, I should explain that this was a period when any office worker (including myself as a junior commissioning editor in the mid-1970s) was allocated the services of an individual secretary, or access to the services of a pool of typists who took shorthand notes, worked from your long-hand draft or, a bit later, from an audio recording of your words and typed it up on a manual (later an electric) typewriter, with several carbon copies, each of which had to be corrected separately in the event of a typing mistake. The typed letters or other documents were then returned to the ‘author’  for correction and signature. The only people who were not specialist typists who had typewriters on their desks were writers and journalists, considered an eccentric and specialist breed. Most secretaries did a great deal more than typing. They assembled random utterances into coherent sentences, corrected grammar and spelling and adjusted  the form of address according to rules of etiquette. Secretarial training manuals from the period are  enlightening. They include things like how to address a Member of Parliament or a Bishop, how to dress and how to serve coffee as well as technical tricks like how to centre text (find the middle of the line then count the number of characters in the heading backspacing once for each two characters), when to use a semi-colon, how to lay out an invoice or calculate compound interest and how to communicate with the post office. The ‘skills’ of typing, editing etc. were elided into a bundle of other roles, many of them strongly gendered, and ended up becoming almost invisible as skills, just part of a taken-for granted set of feminine attributes that no more deserved to be publicly credited than the labour of ironing shirts or cleaning the floor.

This kind of elision also takes place between writing and editing and a range of other technical skills. In these days when everybody is supposed to type their own articles there are still things that only some people know how to do well, such as inserting tables of contents, formatting charts, putting headers into the correct style, adapting templates, uploading documents to websites,  and, of course, still those old tasks of putting everything into good English (or whatever other global language is required), correcting the spelling and grammar and, to use the current jargon, ‘pulling out the key messages’. And it still seems to be the case that when women do these things they are seen as nit-picky technical details that are too unimportant for the Great Male Author to bother himself with that do not merit attribution (although when men are required to do so them it is suddenly pointed out that they take up a huge amount of time). I will end with just a few examples from my own experience (I am really not exaggerating or making these up).

‘Well we (two guys) are the real authors. Ursula just did the writing’ (about a co-authored book for which they had contributed – very – raw drafts of two and a half chapters, out of a total of thirteen).

‘Would you mind taking your names off the report so I can submit it as my dissertation’ (addressed to me and another woman who between us had done about 97% of the work on the report and added this guy’s name as co-author for form’s sake).

‘Well I really must insist that I am named as co-editor’ (from a guy who had negotiated some changes with one contributor out of 12 to a journal special issue).

‘Yes I know you did a lot of the work but I really need to claim this as my publication because my university is putting a lot of pressure on me to generate impact’ (self-explanatory. of course this was also a guy).

I could go on, but I won’t.

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Varieties of xenophobia

An ugly wave of racism has been unleashed in the aftermath of the Brexit vote, and, given the explicit appeal to anti-immigration sentiment used by the UKIP and Tory elements in the ‘out’ campaign, it is easy to explain the outcome of the vote as a simple expression of xenophobia.
Yet the left Brexit (Lexit) campaigners are adamant that this is not the case and their arguments are backed up by some evidence. This documentary, for instance, shows sincere, thoughtful, class-conscious working-class people (in this case, veterans of campaigns against pit closures in a Yorkshire village) repeatedly and convincingly insisting that they are not racist, by which they mean that they are not hostile to immigrants. On the contrary, their hostility is directed squarely at ‘Europe’ and the neoliberal politicians in the UK (including the Blairites) they see as in league with it.

What has struck me throughout this debate has been the extent to which Lexit supporters, like others across the British political spectrum, insist on seeing ‘Europe’ not as a terrain in which different players (including the UK government) advance and negotiate different positions – part of the same broad political field in which other decisions are made, whether at local, regional or national levels – but as some alien, autonomous body, impervious to pressure from below, which imposes its diktats from afar.

In puzzling about why this should be the case, it occurs to me that this may be partly the result of a very different kind of xenophobia. Not the racism directed at refugees and immigrants who are seen as undercutting native workers in the labour markets, or claiming shares of increasingly scarce public resources, but another, peculiarly British, kind of xenophobia directed at what might be called the European officer class.

Popular perceptions of Eurocrats bear many striking resemblances to portrayals of German officers in films and television programmes from the mid-20th century that are still shown today: cold, clever, bullying, unfeeling, sticklers for the rules and possessing a power that cannot be challenged directly but must be subverted by courage, ingenuity and humour.

Dad’s Army, the sit-com set in World War Two is still shown on BBC2 most Saturdays (the last episode was shown on June 18th, five days before the referendum). I imagine there are few British people who do not know by heart its theme song ‘Who do you think you’re kidding Mr Hitler, if you think Old England’s done?’ and, in their heads, echo Bud Flanagan singing ‘We are the boys who will stop your little game. We are the boys who will make you think again’. And any channel-hopper looking for an alternative to sport on television on a rainy weekend afternoon is liable to come across yet another repeat of The Great Escape, Mrs Miniver, The Dam Busters or another of the countless films set during the war, which formed the perceptions of ‘Europe’ most obviously for those who grew up in the 1940s, 50s and 60s (and who, perhaps not coincidentally, were most likely to vote ‘no’) but must also have penetrated the consciousness of younger generations.

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Opening title sequence of Dad’s Army, still regularly shown by the BBC

‘Allo, ‘Allo, with its crude stereotypes not just of Germans but also of French and Italian people, is not shown so regularly on the main channels these days, but there must be few people over the age of 30 who are not intimately familiar with it and its cast of characters. Its portrayal of the Italian Captain Bertorelli buttresses that of southern Europeans in other programmes (like the Spanish waiter Manuel in Fawlty Towers) to confirm a notion of incompetence and incomprehension that might (I am guessing here) not just characterise the British stereotype of Mediterranean people but also resemble some German ones too – for instance the idea of Greeks (who statistics show to be the hardest working people in Europe) as lazy, profligate and corrupt. In the UK referendum debates Greece was much discussed, as a victim, with some elision between the idea of a bullying Germany and a bullying ‘Europe’. This can be read in part as solidarity with fellow victims of austerity against neoliberal aggression. But it also has parallels with earlier popular British reactions to what was seen as German aggression, such as the widespread sympathy for ‘poor little Belgium’ when it was invaded in 1914.

Put together, this confusing jumble of stereotypes creates an idea of Europeans that is simultaneously sinister and comical: to be taken very seriously as a threat to independence and democracy; but not to be taken seriously at all as fellow members of a forum in which intelligent debates can be held and decisions made. Underlying this is an unspoken assumption of British moral and intellectual superiority.

This is an attitude I have come across again and again since I started working on European research projects in the 1980s. Though grateful for the money, and for the chance to meet in beautiful and historic locations, many British academics I came across showed a sneering condescension to their European colleagues. In several fields it was assumed that non-British ideas would not be new (obviously anything original and worth saying had already been published in English-language journals) and that only the UK partner had the overview. The view was often expressed that any old thing would do for a European report. It was something that one was contractually obliged to deliver but not worth wasting original thought on. Some thought that their main role was to put others’ work into good English, writing superficially and journalistically, correcting linguistic errors, highlighting empirical results and avoiding theorising (the notion of big theory as somehow unBritish still has a strong hold in some quarters).

Things have changed quite a lot in recent years, I am happy to report, but a lot of this is due not so much to new and enlightened thinking among native-born academics but to the way in which younger generations of scholars across the rest of Europe now write and speak English so fluently, and are so well-read in the English-language literature, that they can no longer be patronised. It is perhaps in no small part due to this development that few academics figured in the Lexit camp; most now have first-hand experience of collaborating with colleagues from other countries in ways that have generated mutual respect and, at least in the social sciences, an understanding of the need for solidarities.

In other occupations  people have less direct contact with continental counterparts in their daily working lives and their views are more likely to be shaped by experiences on foreign holidays, where their encounters are with people whose jobs are to serve them, or with officials.

It is particularly ironic that we may be seeing the triumph of a brand of xenophobia that sees European politicians as a combination of dangerous totalitarians and ridiculous buffoons at this particular moment. Because what we are faced with in the UK right now is the prospect of a government run by precisely such dangerous totalitarians and ridiculous buffoons. In a reversal of the adage that says tragedy comes first, repeated as farce, might we now see Chaplin’s farcical Great Dictator about to become a tragic reality?

 

 

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