Sunday, 25 December 2016

The Christmas Carol doesn’t make me think of the Nativity: it makes me think of Kermit the Frog as Bob Cratchit doing a tap-dance

We all know what Christmas Day is about. Gazing through suburban drizzle at the Tesco Metro sign behind the slate grey rooftops and wondering how long you can last without self-harming? No: it’s about snow, and family, and a roaring fireside, and tradition. Or more accurately it’s about watching snow and family and a roaring fireside and tradition on a massive Toshiba plasma while you attempt to stifle domestic resentment with an evening of Sky One and burpy alcoholism.

Yes! All up and down the country, the blissful, holy peace of Christmas morning is aflutter with the happy sound of gigantic flat-panels flickering to life and bringing Victorian sideburns and hansom cabs clattering into the living room… It’s Christmas; it’s yet another adaptation of Charles Dickens.
Feeling the festive spirit
I tried reading a book by Charles Dickens a few years back. I advise against it. Dickens wrote over six hundred novels, each of which is twenty thousand pages long, and every single paragraph is couched in impossibly meandering, ornate thickets of narrative foliage. Sometimes it seems to take weeks just to reach the next full stop; the average Dickens sentence is longer than many modern short stories. 
I've never understood the national love-affair with Dickens. The Angelic children and chaste maidens, the saintly paupers, the grasping social climbers – it all just feels so stagey, so hackneyed. Call that a character? I swear I’ve cut out figures from the back of Frosties packets with more psychological depth. wonder if investing all the Dorrits' money in that precarious pyramid scheme is going to turn out well? Who could that mysterious, motherly old crone be who keeps coming to watch like a mother at the gates of the factory that belongs to the “orphaned” Thomas Gradgrind? It’s all about as surprising as a GPS update; so how can something so well-loved feel so howlingly obvious 
Well, there’s a very good reason: TV adaptations. In other words, the reason we feel like we've seen it all before is because… well, because we have seen it all before. If the twentieth century represented a sort of mass move towards literacy, then the twenty first heralds the rise of the post-literate culture, a world that’s moved beyond the book. Media has cycled and recycled the giants of literature into marketable (and profitable) cliché. The result is that we’ve encountered their motifs so frequently that it almost feels underwhelming when you come across them in print.
“What’s Scrooge doing in a book?” was what occurred to me, as I flicked disinterestedly through the Christmas Carol in Waterstones. He actually felt rather out of place there, as if he’d strayed off the screen from an ITV special and accidentally got left behind, presumably wishing he’d stayed in his trailer. Why would anyone read about Fagin when Fagin's currently co-starring with Danny Dyer on the West End? Or bother to churn their way through about nine hundred chapters of the saintly orphaned Nell when they can see the saintly orphaned Nell doing Celebrity Come Dine With Me?
In this sense, the adaptation has become more important than the work it’s based on. It would take a very high minded household to produce a young adult today who came to Dickens afresh; in fact, I’d say it’s almost impossible for someone born in the last few decades to approach the great writers except through adaptations. How many people recall Pride and Prejudice for its sensitive exploration of social propriety and familial bonds, against the ones who just remember Colin Firth jumping into a fishpond? Say ‘Dickens’ to most people and they don’t think of books, they think of fake snow and Bafta-alumni. In my case, A Christmas Carol doesn’t evoke the Nativity: it brings to mind Kermit the Frog tap-dancing to upbeat musical numbers as Bob Cratchit. 
Not that any of this is particularly new of course. Humanity has always spent a significant part of its time rewriting its bygone sages. Shakespeare was ‘reinterpreted’ with rather astonishing results in the nineteenth century by various luminaries including Thomas Bowdler, who cut out all the nasty stuff for a family edition – effectively a pre-television age of editing for the watershed. Poet laureate Nathan Tate went even further and improved King Lear by giving it a much-needed  happy ending, an interpretation which seemed to go down well with Victorian audiences. In our own day the production line of recycled literary classics chugs away so fast that the adaptation is arguably a whole new genre in itself. A recent Wuthering Heights movie played like a cross between a German silent expressionist film and an extended episode of Emmadale; Nicholas Nickleby was combined with social commentary on abuses at elderly care homes. At this rate it can't be long before we see Bleak House presented in three minute story-bites acted out in text-speak by a group of hooded youths standing beneath a flashing T-Mobile sign to a backing track of pounding dubstep. Well, at least it’d give the Rada graduates some new dialogue to learn.
The result is that the Dickens industry acts as a sort of colossal ‘spoiler’ to anything he actually wrote: the staples of classic fiction feel familiar because we’ve already met them elsewhere. A post-literate society doesn't necessarily know more, but it is more knowing. So perhaps that’s why I groaned as I stumbled through yet another Dickens ‘revelation’ that was so obvious to me it might as well have been painted on the side of an articulated lorry and driven through the narrative crushing curiosity shops along the way. ‘You can’t seriously expect me to buy that,’ I gasped to myself: it was just so trite and hackneyed that it felt…
… Well, how shall I put it? For want of a better word, it felt positively Dickensian

Thursday, 1 December 2016

UK seeks extradition of dangerous extremist

Sources close to Whitehall have suggested that the government will be seeking extradition of a man with dangerous extremist views.

Although he has lived in the UK for some time, the extremist bears a foreign surname, claims ancestry among migrant populations, and has worked for decades alongside various other extremists in Europe to destabilise British society.

He cannot be named.

Reports suggest that the extremist’s dangerous rhetoric has caused deep divisions in society and may be responsible for the loss of thousands of jobs, a rise in violent crime and the possible collapse of the entire economy.

“ISIS themselves couldn’t have done a better job of wrecking the nation,” one source close to Westminster said.

"Arsehole," he added.

Rumours suggest the extremist will be strongly encouraged to seek refuge elsewhere, and may be able to find work in America.

“We’re not racists, we just think there’s a place for a sensible discussion about emigration,” said a spokesperson from the Home Office. “Specifically, this man’s emigration.”

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Who’d have thought it? Sneering at people doesn't win them over

Like many people, I spent the morning after Trump’s election on Facebook.

Yes, I know. Lazy. But I had a reason. I want to understand the echo chambers that are shaping our views. How else to connect? How else to commiserate with people I knew about the imminent end of the world? Lots of my friends are writers and comics; by mid-morning I was starting to feel that Armageddon might not be so bad if at least we retained our sense of humour.

But one comment stuck in my mind. It was from a British stand-up, posted sometime in the early hours after the result was declared, and it was this.

One useful statistic to come out of this election is that at least 57 million Americans are assholes.”

I should say that it wasn’t representative of the guy’s output. I haven’t seen his stand-up but I’ve followed his Facebook posts – fast, frequent and hugely popular – for a while. Most of the time they’re extremely witty and inventive. 

But this one?

57 million Americans. You blink at it, in the same way you gasp at something in Family Guy, Onion, Louie, in a “Did they actually say that...?” kind of way. But aside from any issues of offence, what’s really interesting here is the assumptions that post reveals. I think they’re important. In fact I think they might even partly explain why we’re contemplating a Nightmare in the Oval Office.

The comedian in question (I’m not going to name him) is a fairly typical British comic, part of the left-leaning comic boom that exploded since the 2000s with a mission to deconstruct misogyny and xenophobia, refute the men’s movement, challenge the ideas of UKIP or the American Alt Right. Fine. I’ll admit that’s partly why I find him funny, since I share those views. But a post like this – though it might have been made on no sleep in the heat of the moment, when much anger is habitually spilled – suggests a slightly darker side to this progressive mindset.

Here’s what it reveals.

First, it assumes it’s okay to talk about America in the way that someone like Donald Trump talks about Islam. Would my comedian use the same language to talk about India or Brazil? I think not – and for good reason. It reflects a generation of the British left that grew up being taught to mock America after the invasion of Iraq, who speak in an aggressive, secular, anti-US Imperialism tone, with an assumption that anybody is fair game if they don’t agree with you.  

But the second point is much more interesting.

57 million Americans are assholes because they don’t agree with this comic. Really? All of them? That’s nearly the population of Great Britain. And why exactly? Because they dared to differ from him in their views on race or gender or climate change and show it in the ballot box.

Is this the level to which civil discourse has descended?  

I know I’ve written about this before, but I think it’s too important to let alone. There’s a huge problem on the left with sneering at people who aren’t deemed “virtuous” enough in Millennial liberal terms – those we like to call racists, misogynists, homophobes, and so on. It reflects a simplistic binary mindset – a world of good and evil, them and us, fools and sages, with ourselves cast (of course) on the side of Luke Skywalker.

Now, I don’t like Trump. I think xenophobia was a huge part of his attraction. But this kind of sneering doesn’t just cause offence. It helps to cause alienation and anger. And that anger makes people vote for right wing populist causes. Like Brexit. Like Trump.

Every time the electorate fails to vote liberal we get much head-scratching at the fact that the working classes who used to vote left now vote right. I think there are many, complex reasons for that. But couldn’t a part of it be because they’re sick of being branded as bigots?

Much of Facebook has become a sneering machine aimed at people who fail to display enough liberal virtue; many of these people, like Brexit or Trump voters, are working class. The result is a sort of mass stealth snobbery. I’ve seen people referred to as scum, trash, dickheads; I’ve heard them referred to in ways that would be declared hate speech if it came from the right.

And here’s the ironic thing: while witty, erudite, left-leaning pundits like my friend are flawless in defending the rights of minorities (and a good thing too), they also overlook a huge, glaring, economic minority, one that sits within their own midst – the millions of displaced people in the ex-industrial areas, the north of England, the Welsh valleys, the US rust belt. The laid-off. The jobless. The despised. The places that voted for Brexit and Trump.

I live in one such area. I brush up every day to people whose opinions differ radically from my own on things like migration, sexual orientation, feminism. I don’t count close friends among them. But neither do I want to brand them as assholes for the crime of not agreeing with me. Rather I’d like to try and talk to them. Understand them. Perhaps, you know, maybe even put my point of view across. 

Take yourself away from the safety net of social media, and you realise it’s possible to try and understand people whose opinions you don’t share without resulting to abuse. The sociologist Arlie Hochschild recently moved to Lake Charles, Louisiana, a town of 75,000 all but ruined by the petrochemical industry in an attempt to understand the roots of Trumpism. How did Hochschild do this? By talking to people. Yes, people who liked the Tea Party. Or Sarah Palin. Imagine!

I don’t want this essay to be misconstrued. I feel deeply uncomfortable around sexism, xenophobia and I feel quite sick at the thought of the four years to come. But I also believe that the left needs to start listening to these “left behind” people rather than screaming at them, patronizing them, or calling them assholes – or God knows what the next blow to the liberal dream will be. All the indicators suggest that this swing to the right is going to get substantially worse before it gets better; we may well be facing eight years of Trump, or at least another populist Republican. (The Right’s on the rise in continental Europe too; sound familiar?).

So let’s try and understand rather than condemn. We should be building bridges not burning them. To put it another way, if Trump called 57 million people assholes, would we let him get away with that?

Saturday, 2 July 2016

“Creative economy”? Sounds like some creative bullshit to me

If you want to listen to new music, then support the artist. Who would argue with that? It’s the plea that’s been made by musicians since the onset of the digital revolution, and it was the theme of Jay-Z’s press announcement to the New York Times when he launched the “artist-owned” streaming service Tidal in 2014. An attempt by sixteen celebrity stakeholders to challenge the likes of Spotify and Pandora and restore some dignity into the streaming market, the platform claimed to charge the consumer higher fees in order to return more to the musician (75% of revenues go back to the industry in comparison to the usual 50%). Sounds good – right?

Sure. But clasp your branded headphones on tighter and you might have noticed  something a little odd about the mood music. Listen to the phrases bandied around: “come together”; “mission”; “change the status quo”. This is the kind of language you’d expect in a DIY band, a non-profit workshop. The celebrities involved must themselves owe repeat fees on the number of times they’ve spat some permutation of the words “artist owned” – as if to vaguely suggest that Tidal is a grassroots venture, something of the people and for the people, a kind of artistic co-op.

Ah, but wait – like United Artists last century, Tidal was actually a company launched by multi-millionaires with massive industry clout who’ve come together to get a better deal for themselves (this time with some unseemly bleating about how their vast fortunes are being eroded by streaming sites). The only real sharing involved takes place amongst the “creative 1%” – the same kind of “sharing” that occurs between the respective partners of a megacorp merger as they divvy up stock options. You’d have to work hard to spin that as a co-op.

What the blurb around Tidal really represented was a particularly modern trend: wrapping up “creativity” in the language of community and collaboration, so that, all too often,  nobody looks too hard at the hard economics. Especially at the thorniest issue of all –  payment.

Attempt a career in the creative industries, and you will often encounter this inclusive, utopian language, often in the context of explaining why it’s impossible to pay you. Invitations to forgo payment in order to “get valuable experience”. Invitations to lend your time because it would “look great on your CV”. Apologies for lack of compensation mitigated with a promise to profit-share at a later date. You, the creative one, are lucky enough to have the chance to express yourself and hone your craft; how could you possibly expect money for that?

Please support your local millionaire

This isn’t just restricted to creative workers – it’s the spirit of the shiny digital economy. Take the recent example of the Camden Town Brewery. Yes – shock horror – the CTB, a fledgling, for-the-love-of-it startup just half a decade ago, has done so well that it’s now being sold off to a major. The sum, as you may have guessed, is no small beer.

There’s nothing all that unusual about majors swallowing up minnows of course – and nothing unusual about plucky startup entrepreneurs suddenly finding themselves rich. It’s the spirit of our age after all. But there’s an added twist to this one. Camden Town Brewery may have made great craft beer, but they had more than a little help along the way.

“We think there’s a real appetite for a company that can grow while staying true to its roots,” the company said on the pitch for its 2014 crowdfunding campaign, which included a zippy video hosted on Crowdcube. “There’s something special about drinking great beer here that originated in Camden.”

Keep it local, do something for the community – this was a David vs Goliath campaign that appealed to the Little Guy in the face of all the nasty corporates. And it worked: CBT would smash their total and go on to raise £2.75 million. Hooray for community spirit!

So it was perhaps a little bit of a surprise to the people who helped fund the company’s growth that CTB has turned round and used that growth to help sell out to a rather less community-minded outfit: drinks global megacorp Anheuser-Busch InBev. David might have thrown a few rocks at Goliath, but the hostilities are apparently over. Now they’re having dinner together.

It’s not the first time a crowdfunding campaign premised on beating the faceless corporates ended up joining those very same faceless corporates once the chequebook came out. But the CTB sale is interesting because it tells us about something more than just crowdfunding. It’s an example of a growing trend: to employ the language of creativity, community and collaboration to give a more caring sheen to the profit motive. And that's something common to both companies and individuals alike. 

Take the example of "Queen of crowdfunding" Amanda Palmer, singer/writer/networker/whatever and all-round "creative". Back in 2012 Palmer appealed to her fans to help fund an album. On the face of it this seems fair enough: in a world determined to get music for free, it seems only reasonable for musicians to monetize in other ways. Palmer smashed her target and went on to raise over $1 million from her backers, releasing her album and setting off on tour. Thanks, community! One thing though: the million dollars wouldn’t actually go on anything as prosaic as actually paying guest musicians. It had apparently all gone on “airfare, mailing costs, and personal debt”. Palmer may have turned community spirit into her own handy loan repayments, but the musicians invited would be getting paid in hugs.

“I’ll feed you beer, hug/high-five you up and down (pick your poison), give you merch, and thank you mightily,” she chirped on her website as she attempted to crowdsource a little free labour – or rather artists sufficiently motivated by community spirit that they were prepared to work for free. Because after all, isn’t that what artists do these days?

But if we step back from all the rhapsodizing about caring and sharing, it’s worth remembering that after a decade of leveraging online peer-to-peer communities, today’s creative economy is a place of punishing inequality. Crowdfunded or no, most musicians earn a pittance from their recordings. Writer incomes have collapsed to “abject” levels; unpaid e-authors report tweeting while writing and rising at dawn to promote themselves on social media before their paid job. Many creatives find themselves increasingly burned out by the demands of marketing themselves; one prize-winning author in search of a way to fund his book recently offered to sell his own blood.

We should beware words like “community” and “artist owned” when they come up in business contexts. In our mediated age, they’re the verbal window-dressing of the moneymaking process – a handy way to airbrush personal gain. That’s how a private craft beer company can justify making millions from a product part funded by donors; how Tidal can call itself “a place for connection between artists and fans” that “promotes the health and sustainability of our art”. The idea of crowdfunding was that it would unleash the creativity of artists and innovators; to pay the way for creative work in a world that’s bypassed paywalls. But spinning business-as-usual as community collaboration? That is creative.

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Corporations that care? Don’t believe the spin

(Originally published June 2016 New Internationalist magazine)

Interested in hearing Coca Cola talk about sustainability? How about a Walmart lecture on corporate responsibility? Even better, why not do it amidst the palms and beaches of an island resort, swapping the suits for swimsuits between sessions?

Welcome to the Sustainable Brands conference 2016, where scores of executives are gathering gathered this in June on the Paradise Point resort outside San Diego to promote the role that major corporations may take in shaping the future. With 200 speakers, plenaries, breakouts, workshops, an ‘“activation hub’” – this annual conference has something for everyone, from talks on ‘“Awakening Corporate Soul’” to ‘“How to Factor in Breakthrough Technologies and Deep-future Trends in the Innovation Process Singularity University’”.

Founded in 2006, the Sustainable Brands franchise is one of the world’s most lurid celebrations of ‘“progressive self-interest’” – the belief that the invisible hand of the market is the best way to tackle capitalism’s inconvenient side-effects such as emissions or worker exploitation. The list of attendees at SB16 the 2016 conference was certainly comprehensive, from socially minded institutions like all the way up to megabrands like McDonald’s, Ford, Toyota or and Proctor & Gamble., and the general emphasis is on brand strategy, design innovation and “communications”. (For the record, ‘“sustainable’” is a reassuringly vague term that seems to boil down to discoursing on how awesome it is to think about your footprint.).

Non-binding buzzwords

Sustainable Brands and conferences like it have become a kind of corporate eco-tourism for the Fortune 500, a feel-good love-in that bestows both fuzzy optimism on those who go as well as heaps of gooey green PR. After all, real, structural change like making serious emissions cuts is incredibly expensive; far easier to appoint someone “VP of Social Responsibility”, fly them to a conference like Sustainable Brands (trailed by a cloud of blogs, webinars, PR puff and drooling sponsored articles) and give an inspiring speech about corporate ‘“vision’”, ‘“values’” and whatever other stirring – but non-binding – buzzwords they can cram in. They can then claim a role as selfless sustainability educators, which is yet more  positive PR for the firm. Ker-ching!

No wonder it’s a booming niche market. Also on offer in June was the Verge Asia Pacific Clean Energy Summit in a Hawaiian Village oin the tropical island of Honolulu (the promotional video clip shows sparkling travel-brochure blue seas and sandy beaches). Or there’s Fortune magazine’s Brainstorm E, previously Brainstorm Green, with speeches by green icons like American Electric and Goldman Sachs. Not to mention the plethora of smaller conferences for corporate sustainability (in May alone Sustainable Brands also had conferences in Cape Town, Barcelona and, Istanbul, with more slated for the months ahead). 

It’s easy to laugh at the idea of huge international companies flying their executives thousands of miles kilometres around the planet to sleep in Balinese bungalows with lagoon views in the name of environmental awareness. But this is more than just reputation laundering. It’s part of a growing trend in the corporate world to ‘“stakeholderizse every conflict”’ as the environmental campaigner Peter Gerhardt puts it – to embrace your critics in a dialogue, to adopt and co-opt their language, making it harder and harder to be oppose them.

So far from just being a conference platform, Sustainable Brands sees itself as an entire ‘“community’”, and boasts live and on-line events, lectures, peer-to-peer learning groups and a regular newsletter as part of its media network (sorry, ‘“eco-system’”). It welcomes bloggers and journalists to its fold, encouraging them to submit to its various channels in order to ‘“invite stakeholders on interactive, co-creative journeys’”. Mysteriously, the approaches of this magazine for an interview with the organizers were ignored (perhaps New Internationalist isn’t seen as sufficiently co-creative?) but if the attempt is to control the conversation, it seems to be working. When I typed ‘“sustainable brands’” into Google News, every single one of the hits on the first page were articles published by Sustainable Brands themselves (and when they’re not, other like-minded greenwashed business media such as CSRWire and Brandchannel step in with gushing positivity).

A wholesome-sounding title like ‘“Sustainable Brands’” also provides a kind of green umbrella for companies who want to buy a little ethical kudos. The conference website proudly displays a list of approved companies it generously calls ‘“solution providers’”, which turn out to include BASF chemicals, Jetblue and Price Waterhouse Coopers, while some of its attendees are themselves green umbrellas like the ‘“Sustainability Consortium’”. The name sounds wholesome enough, so few will bother to find out that the Sustainability Consortium is actually a group of academics working alongside Walmart.

Creating an illusion

Greenwashing is nothing new, but on this scale, performed with this gusto, it’s dangerous and insidious. The attending companies who agreed to speak to this magazine all obediently praised the conference (‘“NGOs and governments are not going to solve the world’s problems,; business will,’” said the profit-sharing coffee start-up Thrive, which also supplies Sustainable Brands). But how to square all the leafy language with the naked wealth-lust of a talk like ‘“The Billion-dollar Purpose-led Brand Club’”? Are we really supposed to believe, along with Richard Branson, that the pursuit of serious wealth will also conveniently save the planet? When sustainability is reduced to a fashionable (and optional) accessory it seriously undermines the efforts of thousands of activists, campaigners and social entrepreneurs around the world.

It’s only fair to point out that SB16 this year’s Sustainable Brands conference also hosted worthwhile worthwhile-sounding talks on tackling sex trafficking or supply supply-chain exploitation, and that some of its attendees do show a genuine commitment to values-led business. A minor tweak in the supply chain of a multinational transnational like PepsicoPepsiCo or Diageo, both attendees, could improve the lives of tens of thousands of people. But we shouldn’t let a few gestures by the world’s largest multinationals transnationals fool us. 

By creating the illusion of a corporate world that cares, Sustainable Brands and its ilk effectively de-politicise politicize any real opposition, and reduce solutions to a matter of consumer choice. The conference newsletter is peppered with articles emphasizsing small-scale consumer awareness and recycling campaigns over actual structural change, as well as utopian magical thinking that assumes innovation will solve the problems. ‘“Young Entrepreneurs Are Key to Feeding the World’,”, runs a headline with typical nonchalance – but not, say, an examination of neoliberal trade arrangements or rich-world farmer subsidies.

Ultimately, Sustainable Brands is sadly just the visible tip of the iceberg in the corporate world’s attempt to co-opt the conversation around the issue of their footprint. A multinational transnational like Unilever has its name on so many green task forces and institutions that, as George Monbiot pointed out, it resembles an arm of the United Nations. It’s far from alone. In our age, corporations with deep pockets are shrinking the space for meaningful opposition, and platforms like Sustainable Brands help to do that. We shouldn’t be trying to understand the role of brands in shaping our future. We should be trying to understand the possibilities of a future without them.