Monday, 14 November 2011

Thoughts from the discussion last night

Something unexpected happened to me last night: I agreed with someone who’d once stood as a conservative MP. Her name was Hannah Foster, and she came for discussion about the role of the church in politics at the Cathedral last night which was attended by some people from Occupy Exeter, people who were part of the cathedral, and some students as well.

I came to the discussion, if I’m honest, feeling very negatively towards her, unable to conceive of how someone could be conservative and Christian at the same time. And with all the cuts and chaos that eventually the Conservatives came to power has left me feeling very angry, and seeing anyone who is Conservative as the enemy. I came with the assumption that her background would be, as David Cameron’s is, privileged and that she’d never experienced what I call “real life”. But then she talked about how she left home at 16, and was very badly dyslexic and it hasn’t been picked up, and that her parents were alcoholics and I realised her life had not always been easy.

When I talked to her, (and more importantly when I listened to her), I realised that she was motivated by the same things that I am: a desire for a fairer world, and a more equal world. In something as we were very different, and I did not agree with a lot of what she said about how to bring about positive change. But I did agree with some of it.

And she did listen to me and other people, and not in the way where people listen just long enough to work out how to argue back, but in the way that people listen because they want a genuine exchange. She was, in her own way, the 99% too.

Personally, I don’t feel that being Christian (or being spiritual in any way) and being conservative are easy bedfellows. They are not things that fit comfortably together within me. But I also realise how easy it is to be blinded by preconceptions, and what we bring to our own views of what it means to be “Conservative”, “Christian”, “capitalist” or “anticapitalist” “secular” and many other things. It is easy for it to become “us” and “them”, And I think the media tends to encourage these divisions by labelling people and pigeonholing them. Complex situations cannot be understood in a twitter update, a Facebook post or a slogan.

And that’s why I like 99% movement, because it acknowledges the complex mesh of beliefs, experiences, and individual needs without feeling the need to oversimplify them into a single rigid belief system. We are not united by what divides us, and yet it is easy to get caught up in those divisions, rather than by what we have in common. And often we can’t learn what we have in common with others until we talk to them and listen to them.

I say this knowing that I’m not always very good at listening, and sometimes just don’t want to do it, especially if I feel strongly about something or if it seems urgent to me! But I think that listening to other people is the most radical thing people can do to bring about change. I think change will only come one conversation at a time. So for me Jesus would be inside AND outside the church, because he would want to talk to everyone!

Sunday, 6 November 2011

• Privatising the NHS? It's already happened…

Along with all the other joyous changes that the current government is making the public services, one of the most strongly for figure being the privatisation of the NHS.

But one of the most important parts of the NHS was actually privatised years ago, barely making it into the public sector before it was swallowed up by big companies. Swallowed being the apposite word here, as that sector is the pharmaceutical business. The pharmaceutical business and the NHS have had an uneasy relationship with each other. The pharms have the money to do the expensive research and equally expensive rigourous testing required for a drug to be accepted by NICE. This works well in theory for the cash-strapped NHS, who end up being able to take advantage of medicines without having to outweigh the cost of creating themselves.

And perhaps in the short term (which is pretty much the only place that politics ever exists) that is a positive thing. But in the long term it's creating huge financial and health problems for the people of Britain because the pharmaceutical companies can hold the NHS to ransom, for whatever price they wish to put on their products. And while part of the high costs of some medicines are because you're not just paying for the medicine but for the research and testing behind it, part of it is just greedy profit. There has been a lot of discussion about companies creating generic brands of for example HIV and malarial drugs so that people in the poorest countries can be treated for these illnesses, but in this country are NHS is struggling to pay the high prices the pharmaceutical company demands.

And yet in an age where resources are stretched, and GPs are only allowed 10 min with their patient, there is a heavy reliance on medicines as the first port of call of treatment. Doctors place great trust in these medicines, but are often unaware of the long-term effects, the side-effects, or how different medicines interact with each other.

But drug companies are made for profit, not for the advancement of human health or knowledge, or enabling people to be treated effectively and in the most cost efficient way possible. I realised this the other week when I went to pick up my prescription of melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone which helps regulate your sleep pattern (something I have a lot of trouble with). It's available on the Internet for around £10, but when I look to my prescription someone had written a note saying that it costs roughly £60 for the same thing. The melatonin on the Internet is generic, just as paracetamol and ibuprofen are, and so it costs much less. But the NHS cannot use the generic brand because it hasn't been tested. And it cannot be tested because the generic brands do not have the money to do so, and without that testing they cannot be prescribed.

It also means that chemical medicines dominates treatment plans, even when there are non-chemical, equally good ones that are less invasive and have less side effects. For example in fibromyalgia there is a machine called the Alpha-Stim thats uses electromagnetic pulses to interrupts the pain signals, and actually rewire how the nerves work. It's been found in their studies to work for over 50% of fibromyalgia sufferers, it is non-invasive, it has no side effects. But it also doesn't have the funding for the publicity and the expensive research and testing needed to be able to be used on the NHS. It is also, in the short-term, more expensive because it requires an initial outlay and the funding is always so tight in the NHS that such things that group could provide long-term benefits, are passed over the things that are less expensive in the short run. But in the long term when you add up pain medication, incapacity benefit, Disability Living Allowance, and personal care for years and years, an initial outlay of £550.00 now is nothing.

So I feel that firstly, treatment costs and benefits should be measured over years, not weeks of months and weighed against the long term cost to the government in benefits and care, and of human suffering, not just what is cheapest in the short term. And secondly, I feel that instead of further privatising the NHS, it would be beneficial to the NHS to de-privatise, or at least better regulate, the pharmaceutical companies. Because they are entirely controlling the direction in which medicine is taking this country, and creating huge profits themselves at the expense of people's health.

It makes me remember that next time I see a local health authority being criticised for not spending money on a particularly expensive drug, that the reason the drug is so expensive is in large part due to the power the pharmaceutical companies have to set the prices of the drugs they sell, and it is at their door that the blame, ultimately, should be laid.

Sunday, 30 October 2011

7 billion and one, 7 billion and two, 7 billion and 3.......

On Monday it is estimated that the world population will top 7 billion for the 1st time in history, a ridiculously high number that calls into question the sustainability of that many people on the planet already groaning under the weight of human life. This population boom has in many ways come from a good place: maternal mortality rates are down in many countries, as our infant mortality rate and stillbirths, due to the improved medical knowledge and care that is saving lives. The eradication of diseases such as smallpox and the increased availability of drugs such as antibiotics have also helped prolong the lives of adults and children.

As late as the 19th century in England, women could expect to lose up to half of their children, and many mothers did not live to see their children grow up. So though much of the increased population is due to a positive change in mortality rate, people are still having as many children as they once did. Sometimes this is through choice, some of the time it's because they cannot afford contraception or it is unavailable, but often it is because their culture or their faith forbids them to use it. Through the ages those who have made very reasonable suggestions that contraception be used to control population rates, have been imprisoned, have lost their jobs, been socially ostracised and even killed just for suggesting that perhaps it might be a good idea to not have children the world which cannot be fed and cared for properly.

The church has over the years been responsible for cruelty, war, hypocrisy and basically killing anyone who disagrees with them. But I think in terms of effect the single most destructive and irresponsible thing that the Catholic Church has done is to impose a ban on contraception for its subjects. It is in no small part responsible for the growth in human population, not to mention putting mothers lives at risk, and increasing poverty by forcing families to have more children than they are able to provide for properly. If a mother and father have 2 or 3 children, they may be able to afford food, and education for them, enabling them to pull themselves out of poverty. But once the family has 5 or 6 or even more children, this becomes impossible. The horrific conditions of children who lived in urban areas in the Industrial Revolution, were in large part due to their parents having more children than they could afford to look after. And so the Catholic Church (and many other churches to) force children into poverty and being uneducated.It is perhaps cynical to think that actually that is what they want, for poor and badly educated people are much easier to control. But the consequences are the same.

The horrifying thing though is when you start to look at the reasons for the Catholic Church, (and then the Church of England subsequent to that) had for banning contraception. Part of it was to do with the concept that sexual intercourse should only be for the purposes of producing children, and so having it in any enjoyable context was unnatural and sinful. This of course doesn't make sense because the Catholic Church also allows natural birth control, perhaps this allows them to hedge their bets in a sort of “well, we're not actually doing anything to prevent conception, we are just organising it to allow the least likeliness of it happening" way.One cannot reason with the concept of sexual enjoyment for only pleasure is sinful.

But the other reason for it was based on some very dodgy biological knowledge. Up until that time it was believed that life came entirely from the man, and women were seen as more like living incubators, not the initiators of life itself. For a long time it was believed that men's sperm contained tiny individual human beings, which then grew inside the womb, but were from conception already formed, much like Thumbelina. This was an ancient idea, which also led to Catholic and Jewish leaders banning anal sex and masturbation as it was seen as the loss of life. I pity the young growing men in centuries past who have woken up after a pleasant night's dream to find they had committed mass genocide.

Even the discovery under the microscope of sperm existing in seminal fluid and not looking at all like miniature people men were still seen as the creators of life. In fact the myth was so strong that many scientists said that under the microscope the sperm had arms and legs! It wasn't until the 1840s that a German scientist named Bischoff discovered that a woman released a monthly egg and had some part in procreation. And this meant that there was absolutely no distinction between abortion, infanticide and contraception, because their lack of understanding meant that they actually believe them the same thing. The fact that they laboured under such misconception that so many thousands of years would be funny if it wasn't still causing misery, pain to families, denying women the right to control what enters their body, and putting a strain on the planet by increasing its population. It makes me want to, as Bill Bailey once said, “to lunge wildly at the Pope", or at least wish very hard but St Thomas Aquinas, St Augustine and the Pope himself come back reincarnated as one of the women their irresponsible morality has forced to give birth. Or perhaps come back as a cow and learn the joys of having suction attached to your udders. Either a fine with me.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Sticking up for Capitalism

Capitalism "An economic and political system in which a country's trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit".

Socialism: "Any of various theories or systems of social organization in which the means of producing and distributing goods is owned collectively or by a centralized government that often plans and controls the economy"

I've been somewhat annoyed in the past few weeks, as I'm sure many people have, that the “occupy Wall Street" and “occupy the London stock exchange" are being seen as purely anticapitalist. Whilst the worldwide recession was no doubt due to an unregulated capitalist system, where a few had control over the many, and the wealth is held disproportionately by the few.But I think there are situations in which capitalism be a positive system, and that really depends on how the company works, and who the profits benefit.

'Shared Interest'

One of these examples of positive capitalism is the rise in microfinancing. This is a situation in which companies such as “Shared Interest" lend small amounts of money to businesses in developing countries, to enable them to start up businesses, develop businesses further, or offer training and loans for equipment to enable them to run more efficiently and with a greater profit margin. So many ways they are like banks, but with a number of important differences.

1) The company is owned by its members, the members have an equal vote regardless of their account size, meaning that the company doesn't become controlled by a few shareholders and this prevents collusion between the heads of the organisation and its shareholders.

2) Because its members are at shareholders, any interest gained goes directly back to the people who invested in it. Where is in normal banks the vast majority of the profits go back to a limited number of shareholders because those who bank with them are not shareholders.

3) It is an ethical company, and only invests in fair trade, mostly small businesses, which are ecologically sustainable. It has a social conscience, investing in businesses for people who would otherwise not be able to work such as disabled people and women. They invest in areas of the world which are sometimes dangerous such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, enabling people to make money who would otherwise not be able to.

4) It loans responsibly to businesses, not loaning more than they might be able to pay back after a careful evaluation of the businesses needs.

So this all sounds quite like socialism, but the businesses are run for profit, and that profits goes back to the members who are shareholders, it goes to the businesses themselves and the people who work for the business. And any extra profit that Shared Interest gains, is put back into training, and further investment, and in grants to companies who are in financial difficulty. A lot of the places in which they invest suffer environmental damage in the form of floods, or polluted water, and these grants are given to help the businesses back on their feet.

So everything in the company is put towards generating profit, it's just that that profit don't benefit the few but everyone. The members benefit by sharing in the profit, and in interest rates, the businesses themselves, and their owners benefit. But all so everyone who works in the business benefits because they are run according to fair trade policy. And because the businesses are environmentally ethical, the environment benefits as well.

This doesn't mean, of course, that you get much interest or profit as a shareholder. But I think that's really how it should be. Those who work in shared interests and the board of directors do not receive huge bonuses or salaries, as happens in banks. The businesses that they lend to you not scoop off a large part of the profit, as happens in large corporations, and the members who are the shareholders also don't make vast amounts of money as happens in most investment banking. But everyone makes some, everyone makes enough, and that is what I think the me is at the heart of this new movement around the world. People are asking the complete equality, just for the more fair society. And he think capitalism used ethically can help bring that about.

Monday, 17 October 2011

In light of the current issues I will be talking first of all about capitalism, where it came from, how it works, what it's history has been, and new ideas on how we can live in a different way, and how it has come to be reflected in our values and experience of pretty much all areas of our life.

"Capitalism is at once far too rational, trusting in nothing that it cannot weigh and measure, and far too little as well, accumulating wealth as an end in itself." —Terry Eagleton, Harper's, March 2005.

The C word

It's a dirty word, and people have been throwing it around a lot lately, in protests in America like occupy Wall Street, by politicians, and even by people such as Noam Chomsky. It is being branded as an anti-capitalist movement, with capitalism coming under fire as much of the cause of the current recession, the inequality in the distribution of wealth, the inequality of power amongst the rich and the poor, as well as being responsible for environmental damage, undermining fair trade, fuelling wars, and supporting political and economic corrupt. Which is a heavy load to be laid at a systems door. And it made me think: Actually, what is capitalism? What defines it? Where does it come from? When does it begin? Is it inherently bad?

The problem with news is that it's new, I realised in the end what I really needed was olds. So, this is my attempt to make sense of the mess we are in, why it has happened, and looking at what the way forward should be.

The Industrial Revolution


There isn't a clear-cut point at which capitalism became the main economic system in this country, but in the 18th and 19th-century there were a number of changes that made it accelerate hugely. One of which was the enclosure of common land by the gentry through a series of acts. The rationale behind this was that new developments in agricultural technology and knowledge made it now less efficient to have individuals farming the collective land. But this was mostly just used as an excuse to increase the wealth of landowners, and to make the poor poorer and even more dependent on their landowners for work, food, and wages. The acts gradually took away more and more of the land on which people had lived and worked for hundreds of years. Before, they had been growing their own food, fuel for heating and cooking, keeping animals, and living on this land. But the Enclosure Laws had forced them to become waged workers, who paid rent for the enclosed land on which they lived.

It's hard to have the capitalist system if there aren't wages. For many hundreds of years people had worked mostly for themselves, and provided themselves with all the things that we now buy, using raw materials that came from their land. The value of things was set by the community in which it lived. But taking away the land and the beginning of waged work meant that people had to buy what they'd previously made for themselves.

A moving population

The Industrial Revolution also had a profound impact on social mobility. For many hundreds of years most of the population lived in the countryside. With increased industrialisation, people were pushed into towns in order to in Cotton Mills and new factories. It became easier to mass produce things, and this had a particular effect those whose income came from home and cottage industry. This led to the formation of the social group The Luddites who tried to fight back against the changes which had left them without jobs. They even went as far as breaking the new looms which they saw as enemy which had stolen their old way of life. Without the resources to live independently, and the reliance on waged earnings, the poor became held hostage to the rising middle classes to whom they worked. The middle class was newly created, populated by entrapenures who had made a huge wealth from industry.

The railway system

Of course all of the materials needed for industry needed to be transported to and from the factories. The new railway system allowed relatively cheap and speedy transportation of large quantities of materials, as did the new canal ways. It's hard to tell which came first, but the growth of industry definitely pushed forward the development of Britain's national transport systems. What is certain is without this transport system, mass production would have been unable to undercut traditional cottage industries.

Unregulated Capitalism

But the ironic thing was that it wasn't the Industrial Revolution itself that created the horrific urban poverty that mentions in many of Dickens novels. It was the unregulated capitalism which meant that there was no minimum wage for a disempowered class of people who had no other way to survive except to work in these horrific conditions. And that is the problem with unregulated capitalism i.e. "capitalism without an ethical framework preventing exploitation and allowing the workers to benefit as well as the businessmen".

Things are the same today. The desire for ecologically sound, fair trade companies now, is the same desire that led political activists, writers, and ordinary people to fight for the rights of the working population.

The problem of unethical capitalism in the end, is that it's measured not just by productivity, or the benefit to society, but as accumulating wealth as an end in itself. This makes it intrinsically unstable, because the value of things cannot exponentially increase. But I still think that there is ethical capitalism, the capitalism which benefits both workers and employees and the world at large. And I'll be talking a bit about this in my next blog.

Welcome to my blog!

Dear All,

Ten years ago this September I embarked on a three year BA course in English and Philosophy (with a few modules of sign language thrown in). I loved all of my modules, especially the philosophy, where being opinionated and argumentative was seen as a good thing.

And despite the fact that in those ten years since I have not found use for these things, the truth is I just can't stop philosophising and wondering about things. Religion, sexuality, death, disability, culture, poetry, music, money, history, sporks and the nature of the divine. The only things I have come to any definite conclusion on are the sporks.

Thanks for taking the time to read my posts. This is a forum in which to talk about and share ideas, so I welcome constructive feedback and to hear peoples thoughts. Knowledge is a thing best shared. Experience is a thing best shared. Let's do both!