It’s Not About Chicken

Don’t get me wrong, I like chickens. As a child I loved visiting the farm and feeding the little chicks in their pen. I just don’t think when deliberating what’s at stake for the U.K in signing a post Brexit trade deal with the United States that poultry should be the focal point of debate. 

From Jeremy Corbyn to the BBC it seems everyone has bought into the idea that  chlorinated chickens entering the U.K food chain is the number one objection to a trade deal with Donald Trump. It’s bewildering to see political debate on respected current affairs progammes ask “Does Britain really want chlorinated chicken?” As if the primary impact of a trade deal with with the U.S is the quality of KFC.

To clarify, in the E.U chicken producers must adhere to strict hygiene and welfare regulations throughout the process of rearing, slaughtering and producing poultry. But in the U.S, regulation and hygiene standards are incredibly lax and substituted with a legal requirement to wash chicken carcasses in chlorinated baths to kill off bacteria, remove feces and make chicken safe to eat. What misery and disgusting conditions are inflicted upon chickens before they are slaughtered is for the market to decide.  

This is one example of how safety and welfare standards differ dramatically in the United States compared to the European Union. And it’s significant because when trade deals are signed, states usually agree to give equal access to producers from both countries to each other’s market.

If U.S producers are allowed to flood U.K supermarkets with cheap chlorinated chicken the question is, will giant American food conglomerates have to sign up to stricter hygiene measures to match the U.K’s regulations? Or will the U.K ‘harmonise’ its laws with the U.S and lower standards for everyone?

One might argue that this is a false dichotomy. Just because we allow U.S produce into Britain doesn’t mean we have to lower our standards for British farmers here. Britain can still enforce higher welfare and safety standards.

That is true but let me present the following scenario. A 2014 Populus survey found that price is the most important factor in purchasing meat for 61% of U.K consumers. If  supermarkets were to be flooded with cheaper American produce, and U.K poultry farmers started going out of business because consumers were switching to the cheaper alternatives, do you think the government would let British poultry farming collapse or would they slash regulations to cut the costs of production and make U.K farmers more competitive?

This is the context in which U.S chlorinated chickens should be discussed. It should be a gateway to a wider conversation about how a trade deal with the U.S will likely be a pretext for deregulation, threaten British industry and provide massive companies like Tyson foods with extensive legal rights in the UK.

But that’s not what happens, the public debate starts and ends at a costs/benefit analysis of eating chlorinated chicken. The economic right love this, as it presents objections to a trade deal as minor and rather trivial. In reality a trade deal would be a massive corporate power grab for U.S multinationals to ransack the welfare state and hamstring future regulation by gaining legal standing to sue the British government for potential infringements of investor rights guaranteed under a trade agreement.

This power transition is what Brexit has always been about for the American and British right. “Throwing off the shackles” of the European Union, of democratic accountability  and state controls in order to turn Britain into market run hellhole where government has no role in healthcare or food safety.

We must begin to take back control of the conversation and counter the narrative that objections to the deal are trivial in matter. Next time someone tries to drag the debate towards the pros and cons of chlorinated chickens – let’s politely tell them no. That we’d rather start from the point of corporate power and the potential weakening of democratic state controls. That we’d rather start the discussion with what a trade deal would mean for the NHS, for the BBC and for other treasured public institutions. We’d like to start with who is lobbying for a deal, how much money they have spent and how much they personally have to gain. After that, we can go for wings.

 

 

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The Corporate Capture of Social Change

“If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change”

Anand Giridharadas isn’t afraid of controversy. His debut book Winner Takes All is a blistering take down of the faith put in the biggest beneficiaries of capitalism to lead capitalism’s reform and change the world for the better.

Be it the next Silicon Valley start up or philanthropic foundation, the underlying assumption pushed by the rich is always that business, entrepreneurship and the private sector are the most efficient and effective means of tackling society’s collective problems.

Giridharadas describes how even the language of social change which has historically been associated with grassroots movements, social justice and mass protest has been colonised by market logic and the billionaire class.

Rather than discussing social change as being rooted in rights, justice and systemic reform, the new corporate conception of social change sees inequality, climate change and poverty as a set of technical problems with market solutions. For these people  fixing the world is not about challenging powerful interests and overhauling a rigged economic system but about empowering “global leaders and opinion formers” to leverage “capital, data and technology to improve lives.”

What this actually means is cutting the public out of decision making for what the future should look like. Instead of community leaders, unions and businesses engaging in dialogue to decide whats best for their communities, we are instead told to look to McKinsey consultants and Goldman Sachs analysts to crunch numbers and provide reports on how to “restructure” the economy, to prepare for “inevitable” disruption and spur economic growth.

The glaring contradiction of putting the winners of our broken economy in charge of its repair is that the winners are actually quite comfortable with the status quo. Why would Goldman Sachs want solutions to social change if social change threatens their status, money and power?

By capturing social change within their control they are able to ensure social change is not pursued at all. Angel Gurria secretary General of the OECD describes the top down approach as “changing things on the surface so that in practice nothing changes at all.”

[END of part 1]

 

 

Why Fascism Is So Tempting

(Image: Sky News

Have we forgotten what fascism means? Today calling someone a “fascist” is  more an insulting slur than a description of one’s political ideology.

In a recent speech historian and author Yuval Noah Harari argued that too often is fascism confused with nationalism. Harari argues that nationalism has been one of the most benevolent ideologies in human history. Nations are communities built up of millions of people who don’t know each other yet care about one another and cooperate because they share a common belief in nationhood.

Some people like John Lennon imagined that without nationalism the world could live as one. Far more likely argues Harari is that we would be living in tribal chaos. The most progressive and prosperous nations in the world such as Sweden, Switzerland and Japan all have a strong sense of national identity. Conversely, countries with a weak sense of nationalism such as Congo, Libya or Afghanistan tend to be violent and poor.

The difference between nationalism and fascism is that while nationalism tells you the nation is unique fascism tells you the nation is supreme. In democratic nations most people have multiple layers to their national identity. For example I am loyal to my family, my employer my friends and my football team. None of these loyalties preclude loyalty to my nation. And when my identities do conflict, I strike a balance and hierarchy based on what is most important at the time.

Fascism on the other hand tells us to ignore complex identities. It tells us the only identity that matters is national. All moral and ethical questions can be answered by simply asking, is this good or bad for the nation? For the fascist, whether a movie, monument or massacre is justified depends on whether it advances or undermines the goals of the nation. Uncomfortable truths or individuals do not matter, what matters is collective order and national harmony.

The recent 29th anniversary of the Tienanmen Square massacre serves as a stark reminder to the horror of fascism. (Even if the description of modern China as a ‘fascist State’ is debatable.) Yet Harari argues that most of us do not understand fascism. In Western popular culture fascism is depicted as “evil” “savage” “cruel” with its leaders imagined as Disney villain caricatures.

If that was the case why is it so seductive? Why would people follow such evil, ugly villains? The problem with this depiction is that real-life fascism often appears valiant, beautiful and destined. This is something Christianity has understood for a long time. In Christian art, Satan is often depicted as the fallen angel – beautiful, charming and difficult to resist.

Fascism feels irresistible for similar reasons. Beauty, nostalgia and propaganda cultivate the belief of belonging to the most beautiful and special group in the world, the nation. To resist a return to fascist dictatorship we must not fear the politician who tells the ugly truth but the one that tells the beautiful lie.

There is No Anti-Elite

“If you believe you are a citizen of the world you are a citizen of nowhere”

 

Theresa May condescendingly cackled as a rapturous applause erupted in the hall of the 2017 Conservative Party conference.

No longer was the Prime Minister going to tolerate the smug, cosmopolitan elite who spend their summers in San Francisco and winters in the Andorran alpine sneering down with disgust upon those who embrace national pride and British identity.

For too long the “citizens of the world” have had it all their own way at the expense of “ordinary, decent people”. And while the last three decades of  liberalization in the global economy have brought financial and cultural enrichment to the London elite it has come at the cost of devastating traditional industries and working class communities whose livelihoods depended upon the mining and steel industries.

Instead of trying to better understand this pain and work toward making globalization an inclusive project that works for everyone, elites have lazily opted to label those who are suffering as closed minded, nationalistic bigots.

The establishment has morally and politically failed to articulate a compelling vision of the future which includes a better life for working class people. Instead Parties have abandoned the poor in the dark corridors of Amazon warehouses to scrape by on the scraps of the gig economy.

Yet recent political events suggest this political ignorance is unsustainable. The rise of authoritarianism, increasing hostility aimed at immigrants and the collapse of political centrism reveal a rapid decline of faith in the liberal system. By downplaying the flaws of globalization, liberal elites have paved the way for self acclaimed “anti-elites” to claim the conversation and sprout the narrative that immigrants, experts and independent media are at the core of the problem.

Turkish writer Elif Shafak -a self described citizen of the world – best explained why anti-elites are not the answer to society’s ills:

“We have to make one thing very clear not everyone who voted for Brexit is a xenophobe, how could anyone think that? Not everyone who voted for Trump is an Islamaphobe and not everyone who votes in a certain way is a racist, of course they’re not it’s ridiculous!

But here is where I differ, the populist demagogues are also telling us that they are the spokespeople for the “real people” and I want us all to be very careful about that dichotomy. Who are the real people and who are the unreal people? What does that mean? We are currently seeing a shift in elites – one elite is losing ground [liberal elites] but let us understand that Marine La Pen is no less elite than the people she is criticizing. She is also part of the establishment. So many of the figures from Victor Orban to Vučić – one after another in every country, they’re also part of the elite except it’s a different elite with a different world view.”

The once maligned authoritarians of Europe are feasting on the crisis of European liberalism. Aided by the polarizing effects of social media they have exploited the anger and fear experienced by many in the precarious, instability of the twenty-first century. Part of that exploitation is trying to seduce us to believe the false dichotomies of an “elite” and “anti-elite”of  “patriots” and “traitors”.

In challenging the elite of cold-hearted globalization beware the elite of hot-blooded nationalism.

Why Satire Isn’t Funny

It’s often promulgated that satire is the great weapon of the powerless against the powerful. Nothing can send the unhinged megalomaniac or deranged despot faster into a toddler tantrum than simply being laughed at.

Yet there is growing criticism that today’s mainstream political satire serves to promote rather than undermine the establishment and extremist politicians. By providing the likes of Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg a platform to sit on comedy panel shows and project a “down to earth” persona, willing to “have a laugh” often at their own expense, the viewer (voter) is more likely to associate that politician with the entertaining likable character from TV as opposed to the extremist politician who wants to take away their healthcare or reproductive rights.

Author and scriptwriter James O’Farrell argues that politicians are actually desperate to be satirized as they know it elevates their profile and popularity. He is scathing of the smug, condescending, supposed “satire” of Donald Trump on shows such as SNL, arguing that there is rarely any meaningful or constructive purpose to sketches but that they merely exemplify the arrogant, dismissive attitude of America’s elite toward a serious threat to the future of democracy and global power dynamics.

“At times where there ought to be outrage, comedy substitutes it with ironic acceptance”

The countless number of comedians who masquerade as political commentators see Trump as a goldmine, an endless supply of gags. But is this laughter helpful? Or is it emblematic of the same ignorance The New York Times editor Dean Baquet acknowledged when saying  “we missed it” in relation to the paper’s failure to chronicle the rise and genuine appeal of Donald Trump in a grossly divided, unequal society before it was too late.

Satire can be a brilliant means of entertainment but is it the politicians who are getting the last laugh?

Boris? Trump? Rees-Mogg? How Social Media Gave Us Pantomime Politics

Ridiculous statements go viral. From Boris’s bombastic Libya remarks to Trump’s daily Twitter toddler tantrums, nothing gets our thumb tapping that retweet button faster than outrageous political buffoonery. Be it virtue signalling, endorsing or simply showing our sheer shock and dismay, social media users love reacting to silly soundbites as newsfeeds are coloured with witty one line responses and hastily published news articles looking to cash in on clicks.

Welcome to the age of pantomime politics. The digital marketplace where politics is reduced to its entertainment value while social and monetary capital is earned through the capture and re-sale of human attention.

And few have capitalized more by capturing the human brain by the shareable click than Jonah Peretti the creator of Buzzfeed. Peretti was a pioneer in understanding what makes us click and share.

Buzzfeed discovered that humans are programmed to react impulsively with either alarm or allure to images of Sex, food, death and gossip the fundamental components of the survival instinct. This neurological understanding allowed Buzzfeed to create an incredibly effective albeit cynical digital media strategy premised upon producing content that hacked the basic impulses of human biology.

buzz

As Tim Wu, author of “The Attention Merchants” explains: “These modern day clickbait things are getting at very basic principles of our neurobiology that are there for a reason,”

Developing tricks of the trade to attract attention was by no means a new phenomenon but with the changing medium of human interaction from the physical to digital landscape mastering the art of clickbait became a revolutionary development to trap and capture consumer attention like never before. The smartphone era enabled media companies to become omnipresent in our lives, pressing biological and psychological buttons every second of the day with the aid of addictive technologies, push notifications and personalized algorithms enslaving us to their ‘ping’.

As Ian Leslie writes:

“Be it the emails that induce you to buy right away, the apps and games that rivet your attention, or the online forms that nudge you towards one decision over another: all are designed to hack the human brain and capitalise on its instincts, quirks and flaws. The techniques they use are often crude and blatantly manipulative, but they are getting steadily more refined, and, as they do so, less noticeable.”

If this phenomenon was confined to the online arena of cat videos and “5 things you have to do before you turn 25” it would be worrying enough but it’s the invasion of clickbait into the sphere of political commentary that is such a threat to democracy and social order itself.

As the commercial viability of print journalism has dramatically declined, traditional media outlets have began marketing their content in the style of Buzzfeed while new digital media outlets have simultaneously begun branding themselves as reputable news sources competing in the same space as The New York Times or the BBC.

The 2016 U.S election is a recent example of how this plays out in practice harming democracy on a number of fronts. A current Senate hearing investigating Trump’s ties with Russia has heard that 1,000 people were hired to create anti-Clinton misinformation “news” sites in key US states during election. Most of the supposed “Fake News” outlets were coming from countries in the Balkans allegedly being bankrolled by the Kremlin.

Post truth became a popular reference describing how people were believing things that “feel right” or that “should be true” as opposed to facts. But with the barrage of information and the reality thaat reputable news sources were often exaggerating stories for clicks It was almost impossible to disentangle the “fake news” for the purposes of political subterfuge from the hyper exaggerated junk stories published for the purposes of simply drawing clicks.

The culture of clickbait has led to the demise of journalistic standards and ethics as more and more stories are selected on their potential virality rather than their public interest value. Important investigative journalism is no longer funded by traditional media as it simply isn’t generating website traffic while snapshot stories pitting social subgroups against one another has shown to be far more effective at drawing in the crowds.

Our political discussion and headlines are now dominated by personal spats and horse race politics while significant analysis on policy substance is continuously being downgraded beneath political entertainment.

 A tragic play featuring 140 characters

Jacob Rees-Mogg is the latest pantomime villain to pop up in the British political sphere with his caricature Tory persona and playful media interviews.

jacob

 

Mogg became a viral internet icon after a video of him casually dropping the word ‘floccinaucinihilipilification’ in parliament spread like wildfire. In a similar vein to Farage and Trump, Mogg is admired for his “Tell it like it is” attitude unafraid and unapologetic of his conservative, Christian views.

Admittedly, he is an infectiously entertaining character. Watching a Mogg interview is like watching a 13th Century pampered Prince John transported through time and put in a suit. There is a complete disconnect between the reality of Rees- Mogg as a politician and the playful character who’s every word is an opportunity to create memes, gain social credit and personal brand points by mocking.

Mogg, Boris and Trump oh what will they say next?

Welcome to the world of pantomime politics.

Vegas Victims Have No Right To Healthcare

With No Public Right to Healthcare GoFundMe is only way Victims of Mass Shooting Can Afford To Be Looked After.

 

In the aftermath of routine mass murder with legally purchased weapons of war, we in Europe tend to turn our heads west with disgust at the outrageous absence of gun regulation. Rarely however, do we examine the equally disturbing humanitarian disgrace that is the absence of a universal public healthcare system in the richest country on earth.

I was dismayed to read that Vegas County Commissioner Steve Sisolak has had to set up a GoFundMe, the private crowdfunding online service to try and raise money for victims to receive proper medical treatment and care. How humiliating that with the largest mass shooting in U.S history the victims have to beg for charitable donations rather than be cared for by their state. Nevada’s Republican Governor Brian Sandoval vetoed legislation in June that would have allowed Nevadans to buy into the state’s Medicaid program.

Its important to remember that thoughts and prayers are free, when the likes of Trump and Lindsay Graham grandstand about their horror at “Pure Evil” watch their wallets and not their words.

The next is an excerpt from The Intercept on the extent of the problem:

“Asking strangers for charitable donations to tackle medical bills is ubiquitous in the United States. A report by NerdWallet released in 2015 found that $930 million of the $2 billion raised by GoFundMe since its 2010 launch have been related to medical bills. Yet NerdWallet’s comprehensive survey of crowdfunding sites found that barely 1 in 10 medical campaigns raised the full amount they asked for.

Contrast this American experience with that of some of our allies. In June, dozens of people were injured and eight people were killed when London terrorists ran a van through a crowd and then proceeded to stab multiple people. It was the second major terror attack of the year, the first one being in March in Manchester.

In the United Kingdom, most health care is free. The National Health Service, erected in the ashes of World War II, provides comprehensive health care to all British residents.

At the London attack, NHS staff were on the scene within  six minutes,aiding the injured. Last month, the NHS gave a special honor to the first responders, nurses, and doctors who aided the victims of the London terror attack. “They highlighted the resilience and the compassion of the NHS staff who time after time responded to victims, who had suffered unimaginable injuries – putting the needs of those people first. This is the NHS at its best,” Jane Cummings, chief nursing officer of the NHS, said.

In the Manchester attack, American Kurt Cochran was killed. His wife, Melissa Cochran, returned to the U.S. with the need for continuous care. With no American NHS, she had to set up a GoFundMe to finance her treatment. Thankfully, this one both met and exceeded its goal, having raised $83,512.”

 

Watch Kyle Kullinski discuss in more detail here: