One way to stop being a neoliberal employee

On paper I was practically a perfect neoliberal employee.Grew up around the world (I can live anywhere, I’m flexible and adaptable! I’m part of the international community!) speak fluent English and passable Mandarin, highly educated with a  Masters degree from Imperial College London in a numerical subject (I can problem solve rationally! I have a technical background yet I can also communicate effectively!),  respectful of authority, apolitical, un-religious, creative but not too creative (don’t worry I won’t challenge any underlying assumptions!), the only thing lacking being my dislike of competitive sports (sorry I don’t like playing by rules and I don’t feel the need to beat other people to enjoy myself. I will voluntarily spend a large chunk of my free time in a gym to combat the ill effects of sitting in an office though, don’t worry!). In a 6 year period I  worked for a number of large corporations in London and in Hong Kong – KPMG, AECOM, ARUP, AECOM again, ACCENTURE, and then for a much smaller firm Climate Consulting and finally CBRE.

I was never fired from any of these jobs, but I got bored and couldn’t see the point in the work I was doing and wanted to change something, anything to avoid what was happening being my actual life, and so I would quit and start somewhere new. Then whilst at CBRE my body shut down. Not completely, but my arms were in constant pain and I could only  hold a cup of coffee if I used two hands the muscles were so weak, sitting at a desk for longer than 10 minutes caused excruciating neck pain, at times I was hobbling my ankles and knee hurt so much, and my periods stopped.  Enough at the age of 29 to require me to retire from the working world.

For the first year or so after my ‘retirement’ all I had time to think about was my health. It is amazing how time consuming it is to be ill. The constant appointments, tests, results, conflicting opinions and day to day management of pain took up much of my attention. Recovery was slow (and still not complete), and mainly just involved rest. I met my husband to be and got pregnant and kept concentrating on my health for the baby. The first year of her life, moving house and getting married is a blur. Its only since she’s started napping well and sleeping through the nights, and my arms no longer hurt on a daily basis and I don’t have to worry about money because my husband is looking after us,  that I’ve had time to actually think.

So of course what do I think about first? Myself, naturally. How I fit in in society. How well I am doing in the supposed competition that is life.

Well, my lack of employment means that I am a failure.  I have squandered my education and all the work opportunities given to me by not having enough ‘grittiness’ to climb the corporate ladder. My health problems are a sign of weakness, and if I just tried harder and had the courage to believe in myself I could overcome them.  For being a stay at home mother I am admitting my lack of ambition and my brain must slowly be turning to mush without the outlet of work. Given my daughter is over the age of 3 months she should really be looked after by a low-paid female worker who has fewer educational qualifications than I have.  I’m denying somebody else a job, make no money,  sponge off my husband and my family for what little I do spend and am a drag on the economy and therefore society.

Despite having a beautiful baby daughter, loving husband, family and friends, if I think like this I get depressed. To be unemployed and have a chronic health problem, is to be useless and ‘losing’ at life, and given my abject dislike of shopping I can’t even point at any consumer items I own to try to make it look like I’m ‘winning’.

Getting out of this fug of depression only happened once I started reading more non-fiction (see my Reading List blogpost), and instead of seeing myself as a problem, started seeing society as the one with the problem. Which may seem like something someone with mental health problems might think, but when Donald Trump is president,  you have to admit there is something going badly wrong somewhere and it’s unlikely to be just down to an issue with my brain chemistry that can be solved by me popping an antidepressant pill and attempting mindfullness while doing the dishes.

To avoid any further fugs of depression or to apathetically slide into thinking that the end of society as we know it is:

a)inevitable and there is nothing I can do so I might as  well consume as much as I can, fly as much and as far as possible and ‘enjoy’ myself to the max before it all burns to the ground and only the super rich in their maximum security fortresses (which they have conveniently designed to withstand climate change despite not believing it exists) survive

b) not going to happen because we will find some amazing technological fix that means we can continue as is, so I’d best keep up the consumer frenzy so that the technological overlords know what lifestyle it is that I want them to design for

c)not going to happen because global warming is a giant hoax (as is pollution and antibiotic resistance) and one of the incredibly sensible people Donald Trump has appointed to his team will stop him from triggering a nuclear war via Twitter, so I need to just chill out.

d)not going to happen because we will continue to keep more than half the world firmly in abject poverty and environmental devastation and I need to be able to squash any feelings of moral outrage and just make damn sure I and my family have enough money and the right passport and qualifications to stay on the right side of whatever walls/fences/flood defences/immigration points systems are designed to keep the other half out.(For this world view it helps to dampen your moral outrage if you believe you live in a meritocracy and/or in trickle down economics and the power of the free market, or if you are racist/believe it is human nature to be awful and so if it wasn’t you being awful it would be somebody else being awful ergo you must be awful even though you personally are not actually awful really i.e become a Conservative).

I’ve disengaged from the consumer aspects of our current society by deleting instagram from my phone so I don’t covet other peoples wardrobe/food/holidays (#blessed!) and drastically reducing my facebook usage.  I never click on online advertisements and to avoid other types of advertisements I rarely watch TV, read magazines or go into the centre of town, and I try to minimise my shopping to essentials as much as possible (as outlined in my consumer austerity budget). I avoid airports (essentially giant shopping malls with undignified security procedures) and mainly only travel to see friends and family.

I’ve also stopped spending my time in the socially conventional ways. I no longer go to the gym (thus avoiding music videos and the conformity of lycra) or do any structured exercise (I don’t like being told what to do and I find that looking after a house and a toddler provides more than enough opportunities for movement). I’ve updated my LinkedIn profile to tell the truth about the kind of work I would actually like to do as a protest against all the bullshit corporate jobs out there, and remarkably I’ve had no more recruitment consultants bothering me. For a little while I thought about doing an MBA or another masters degree, but I wasn’t sure my arms would cope with the computer use that would involve and I realised I’m finished with the current education system. The rote learning, tick box, store everything in your short term memory in order to pass the exam, lose all enthusiasm for the subject by the end of the course but have yet another piece of paper to prove your credentials to some higher power no longer holds any appeal.

 

While I’m actively disengaging from the consumer aspects of our current society and the conventional ways of spending ones time, I’m not disengaging from the world. I find I smile at people far more now i’m looking outwards. Rather than wanting to ‘switch off’ my brain and relax when I have spare time I want to use my spare time to TIME TO THINK ABOUT EVERYTHING. It’s not much spare time, admittedly, about an hour a day while my daughter is napping and an hour or so of daydreaming while I’m pushing the pram or watching her in the playground, but it’s a lot more than most people who are so busy/stressed/anxious they only have time to think about very focused things and actively want to block out the world with a screen when they find themselves with a spare five minutes.*

Binge watching a box set holds less appeal and I’m trying to read as much as I can instead.  I use Twitter to get recommendations for books and articles that don’t so much keep me up to date with news events as help to explain the underlying roots of these events. I’m interested in finding out about our current dominant ideology neoliberalism, feminist thought,climate change, economics, sociology, education and philosophy, and to this end I try to follow people with differing ideas to mine as well as those whose ideas and books I admire.

I’ve become more politically aware and active, having voted for the first time in my life this year in the EU referendum and then again in the Labour leadership election. I’ve written to several political leaders with my ideas (with ha, no response as of yet), and joined a local campaign here against the Brussels flight paths.

This year I want to get more involved in the local community and volunteer my ideas and time to institutions that work for change like the New Economics Foundation, Tax Justice network, 38 degrees, Jeremy Corbyns version of the Labour party and any more I can find. I also want to draw a cartoon series depicting a GOOD post-neoliberalism future (an option e) for the end of our current society), not a dystopian one because we seem to be painfully lacking in any kind of idea of what we DO if we are not on the treadmill of work and consumerism**, and having been flung off that treadmill but still having my basic needs met, I have some ideas. Roll on 2017.

 

*Read ‘The Stupidity Paradox’ by Andre Spicer for how this lack of actual thinking affects the workplace.

**https://opendemocracy.net/transformation/alex-evans/why-progressives-should-worry-about-myth-gap

 

 

Brussels Childbirth Trust

Kerry, one of the local community group leaders for the Brussels Childbirth Trust is sadly moving abroad. As part of her leaving present I drew her a cartoon of her and her family in the Grand Place: img_20161128_135743

This is how most of our local coffee morning group meetings go. Rice crackers are indispensable.

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Post Truth Politics, Trump and Airline travel

To all my friends who live all around the world I know how lucky I have been to travel and to be able to meet you, and for me to say this probably comes across as hypocritical or pious, for which I apologise. But we have all got to stop travelling so much. We need to look after and love where we ARE. Life is not a journey, it is happening right now and we are destroying it.

I live under what should be an emergency flight path in Brussels, piste 01. This flight path should only be used when there is a very strong north wind, and certainly not at night. Instead, when there is even a guff of north wind this flight path is used all day and all night over a highly populated residential area, and they have plans to increase the use of it, despite court orders to the contrary. In October this year there was a near collision of two planes on the runway due to the overuse of this flight path.  The planes fly so low that the noise stops conversation, and you can practically see the pilot. When one plane goes out of view you can hear the rumble of the next plane. It feels like we are under bombardment, and 430am after being woken by a giant cargo plane is not a good time to have me and thousands of other people even vaguely contemplating how much drones cost.

Please think about whether you need to fly the next time you are planning a holiday and try to cut down on the number of flights you take. Think about the people you are flying over going quietly insane, and the air pollution clogging up yours and their lungs. Hell, think about why you need a holiday away from where you live in the first place. What is it you don’t like about where you are? Why don’t you want to be where you are? I know why I don’t- because there is a 747 barre ling over my head filled almost entirely with people who are coming to Brussels to deliver a presentation that they could have done virtually, or coming home from a holiday where they spent half their time on their smartphone and zero time talking to a local person except to order a drink.

Ironically I want to jump on a plane to escape. But I’m not going to. I took one return flight last year, and one and half this year. Next year I’m planning to take none.  I want to fight for where I live and make it better, but not just by being an annoying NIMBY complainer who will then freely shit all over someone elses backyard.

The one positive thing I am taking from the planes rumbling overhead is that they quite literally WAKE ME UP to the consequences of my actions. There is no hiding with the luxury of distance between my consumption and the negative consequences of that consumption. I know what happens when I get in a plane, and it’s not pretty.

There is a lot in the media about how we now live in a post-truth world, and Donald Trump, king of changing his version of the truth has been elected president of the United States so it can’t not be true (can it?!?). And I think a big part of the reason we have this post-truth world is that  even within ourselves we have to lie and obliterate the truth in order to function ‘normally’ (i.e. not combust with rage or fall into a spiral of depression and anxiety). Every single bloody time I buy something I have to lie to myself. Pretend I don’t know that 5 euros for a T-shirt means a woman in Bangladesh is getting kicked to death for joining a union to fight for better working rights. Pretend I don’t know how much animal cruelty there is involved in my breakfast. Pretend I don’t know that to produce my smartphone there are factories in China with suicide nets. Pretend that in the countries where they make all the useless consumer goods we think we need that the air pollution isn’t so thick children can’t play outside.  Pretend that when the rubbish man takes my rubbish away it magically disappears. Pretend the beggar on the street is a drug addict who deserves to be there. Pretend climate change and pollution don’t exist and take a flight every month. Pretend that once I’ve redone the house, achieved a toned abdomen and can speak french that I will have time to help other people.  Pretend, pretend, pretend and lie, lie, lie. We get the politicians we create. The only good thing you can say for Trump is that maybe with the glaring obviousness of his colossal lies he will raise the awareness of our own and get us to change our behaviour, just like the aeroplane noise above me has obliterated my desire to fly.

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Left Wing/Right Wing or completely off piste?

I’ve been reading a lot recently, almost to the point of obsession as my daughter has been going through a good period with her napping and sleeping and there is not much else to do when you can’t leave the house. A few weeks ago my husband had a quick flick though the titles on my Kindle and complained that I was reading things that all shared the same hard left view point and that I should read something from the right (e.g. Milton Friedman) to avoid bias and being sucked into the personality cult of Jeremy Corbyn (too late- go Jezza!). This comment in relation to my reading list got me thinking about the whole left/right/centralist description of politics.

This is my reading list so far this year in approximately the order of reading ( I highly recommend all * items):

  1. Post Capitalism by Paul Mason.*
  2. Bullshit jobs by David Graeber.* (An article that describes my experience of employment perfectly, yet is completely at odds with the conventional view of employment)
  3. The Internet is not the Answer by Andrew Keen
  4. The Shallows by Nicolas Carr
  5. The Democracy Project by David Graeber*
  6. Debt: The first 5000 years by David Graeber*
  7. The Utopia of Rules by David Graeber
  8. The Happiness Industry by William Davies*
  9. The Limits of Neoliberalism by William Davies*
  10. Austerity: The Demolition of the Welfare State by Kerry Anne Mendoza
  11. The New Way of the World by Pierre Dardot*
  12. This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein*
  13. Profit over People Noam Chomsky*
  14. Chaos Monkeys by Antonio Garcia Martinez
  15. Documentary: The Masks We Wear
  16. The New Rulers of the World by John Pilger*
  17. Who Rules the World by Noam Chomsky
  18. Dark Money by Jane Mayer*
  19. Unfinished Business by Anne-Marie Slaughter (this is good but stymied by the ending chapter I thought given not everyone can be a CEO, and not everyone is doing work that is worthwhile)
  20. The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein*
  21. What About Me? by Paul Verhaeghe*
  22. Love in a time of Loneliness by Paul Verhaeghe (I do recommend this, but it is incredibly depressing)
  23. Just Money by Ann Pettifor
  24. Buying Time:The Delayed Crisis of Democratic Capitalism by Wolfgang Streeck*
  25. Moranifesto by Caitlin Moran (for some light relief)
  26. The Coming First World Debt Crisis by Ann Pettifor*
  27. Utopia for Realists by Rutger Bregman
  28. You don’t have to be stupid to work here but it helps *- Essay by Andre Spicer on Aeon. Bitterly cynical but describes my working life well.
  29. Imagined Futures by Jens Becker *
  30. Addiction by Design by Natasha Dow Schull

Thinking over the things that I have read I’m not sure that hard left (or even left wing) is a relevant description for many of the above books, or that we are even on the old Left-Right continuum of politics any more. Not many of the above books/essays agree with our current economic system , and yes because our current political system is completely inseparable and dominated by economics that makes them anti the current political status quo but does that mean they are left wing? Is what is happening right now in Britain central right politics?  If so shouldn’t right wingers be fairly happy instead of banding together to form hard right parties like UKIP because they are so pissed off? Has the movement behind Jeremy Corbyn solely come about because of a reaction to Central-Right policies? Or because of something more extreme?

The Brexit vote united hard right anti immigration nationalists and hard left anti free traders as well as a whole range of people in between, and allowed 17 million people to express the fact that they are not happy with the way things are. And I think that’s because we are very far from a central/moderate type of politics at the moment, but we are also no where near the far left OR right. I think we are closer to the 3rd point of a bloody triangle:

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Neoliberalism like most political terms is difficult to pin down to an agreed definition as people use it in different ways depending on their own personal political affiliations. In his book ‘What About Me?’ Paul Verhaeghe neatly summarises it as:

‘People are competitive beings focused on their own profit. This benefits society as a whole because competition entails everyone doing their best to come out on top. As a result we get better and cheaper products and more efficient services within a single free market, unhampered by government intervention. This is ethically right because success or failure in that competition depends entirely on individual effort. So everyone is responsible for their own success or failure. Hence the importance of education, because we live in a rapidly evolving knowledge economy that requires highly trained individuals with flexible competencies.’

For a more in depth description I would read books 9&11 from my list. Because of its free market, anti-government, emphasis on the individual being responsible for their own fate, it’s associated with the right but it has lost any anchor to an actual geographical place or physical reality (the economy must grow grow grow despite the fact we live on a finite world)  which I think sets it apart from the right, given they are also associated with strong national pride, respect for family, land and traditional values that impose limits and authority.

What we have now with neoliberalism is a global financial system where there are no controls on the movement of capital. Capital is not bound by borders or nation states it is above them – its the ‘international community’ its the IMF the World Bank, the hedge funds, the private banks, the giant corporations that can choose where to have their headquarters depending on the most favourable tax regimes, the offshore tax accounts… It’s the aviation industry that allows the international community to exist not being held to international climate change agreements despite being a major source of C02 emissions, not to mention air pollution and noise pollution that detrimentally affect the health of populations living near airports (I live under a flight path. I no longer ever want to go on a plane).  It’s English becoming the dominant language and business-management speak trickling down to apply to everything (‘efficient’ healthcare providers???? ‘successful’ parenting??? WHAT DO YOU MEAN???? If I raise her to be a good consumer do I get a prize?).

It’s competition being embedded  into everything and there being global league tables to rank everything from universities to corruption to happiness. It’s the answer for every woe to be to get an outside ‘independent’ body to audit the situation (who is measuring the measurers?? And what kind of measuring system are they using when very few things can be reduced to numbers without qualitative judgements being made?) and introduce more transparency and even more competition (but note this absolutely does not apply to breaking up big global private monopolies such as Google or Amazon).

It’s everyone individually being responsible for their own success or failure and encouraged to be an entrepreneur , who’s authentic and has their own ‘brand’, and nobody then taking responsibility for how their actions affect anyone else (oh you actually believed our marketing campaign and ate/drank our products on a regular basis and now have health problems? You must be an idiot.).

It’s not accepting that there are any physical limits to anything, the earths resources (see book no.12) or even our own bodies- athletes needing to push further and further to make those ‘marginal gains’ and seemingly all of them taking some kind of drugs (illegal or medically necessary) to do so, and every ‘successful’ person feeling the need to complete a marathon/triathalon/iron man in their spare time.

It’s as Wolfgang Streeck describes aptly in chapter 2 of ‘Buying Time’ the separation of capitalism from democracy as governments burdened by massive debts (brought about in large part by minimal taxes on the rich as they benefit from being able to freely move their capital about)  have to satisfy not only the needs of their citizens who democratically elected them but also their creditors – the international investors who want confidence that above all else that governments are able to service the debts they owe them now and in the future. Whilst citizens do not want to vote for a government that imposes harsh austerity measures and cut funding for vital public services and environmental protections, creditors clearly do , and markets or currency values will take a tumble as investors pull out if governments don’t make the ‘tough economic decisions’. And the swathe of citizens, myself included, who are also investors (have a claw on the property ladder, savings, a job in a multinational firm or a work related pension) feel torn between the two positions, not wanting the economic meltdown that is threatened but also not wanting public services we rely on and environment we live in to be destroyed and to have to stand by and watch as the poorest in society get trampled on.

And its all of us, though we try as hard as we can to separate our consumer selves from our concerned citizen selves, knowing that with practically everything we buy there is some degree of human misery involved , not to mention environmental degradation (cheap clothes made with child labour, phones that only last a year but were made in factories with suicide nets, food picked and packed by immigrants working for devastatingly low wages and pumped full of pesticides..) but feeling unable to make any other choice without rejecting society altogether (if you do not consume more than you need to survive, how will other people know what your status in society is?).

So I don’t think we’re at a point where we are anywhere near the centre. Or anywhere near the right or left. We’ve abandoned our sovereignty and democratic process not in the EU but in the global financial markets, and we’ve lost parts of ourselves that care about others to consumerism and the logic of competition.

And the brilliance of the simple ‘logic’ of the brightest and best getting the most rewards means that those who are failing (and if you are not at the top of your profession you are failing)  feel they only have themselves to blame and rage is turned inwards and manifests itself as depression/anxiety/self-harm instead of directed outwards to make any kind of societal change. On the off chance there is any rage left to spill over its directed by politicians and the media at immigrants/elites or both (e.g. in the case of Trump).

So how to change society and get us back to some kind of localised democratic ground that allows us care for and protect our physical selves and the environment we live in rather than push them to the limits,  when society has already changed us?

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Albania

Final holiday cartoon before I break into the political ramblings once more. This was mine and Sarah’s trip to Albania in June. I hate flying now I live under a flight path and have realised how awful it is and Sarah doesn’t travel well (she woke up at 4 or 5am every day that we were away) so I’m trying to make this flight our last one for a very long time, but it was so good to see my friends!

Sarah and Anja. The start of a beautiful friendship:

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