Turning A Solution Into A Problem

This is the text of the planned talk for Friday Room which I placed on my blog.  It has a particular style which is perhaps not in keeping with the general tone of this WordPress site, but after some consideration I decided the most straightforward way to present this would be simply to post it again here.  I see this more as an opening to discussion than anything else, and in view of the facts that “a week is a long time in politics” and the pace of technological change, this could become quickly outdated.  I am also continuing to research the subject as I’m fairly fresh to it.  Anyway, here it is:


This is a map of the proposed North American Technate, one goal of the Technocracy Movement of the 1930s, whose symbol was the Monad:


The crucial things to remember about automation are that it ought to be a solution rather than a problem, and that as technology it’s not new, but part of our nature as hominins since we were Australopithecines.  Hominid tool use is primarily motivated by a drive to ease life and raise living standards and automation is just a continuation of this.  Any illusion of scarcity is artificial and unnecessary.  The corollary of automation should be something like a basic income scheme or a technocratic social order, and to be frank I can’t understand why everyone isn’t outraged that this still doesn’t exist and isn’t demanding that it happen immediately.  The fact is that there is simply no reason for anyone to be exploited or to have an unacceptably low standard of living.  It’s hard to imagine a bigger scandal than this in the whole of human history, and this scandal isn’t even new.  I can only imagine there is a psychological need for some people to imagine they’re superior to others.


Right hand image is by Jononmac46 – CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33751770


Technological change through the Palaeolithic seems to have led to increasing population and life expectancy, suggesting that the advent of new technology increased hominid fitness to survive and thrive in its environment.  The adoption of agriculture has a number of drawbacks in this respect, such as the possible emergence of a more hierarchical society, patriarchy and the problems of managing infectious disease and malnutrition due to the change to a lifestyle to which we are adapted, but in some ways there was a further increase in living standards brought on by technology, at least for some.  However, inequality grew and there was a drift away from providing for the common good.

The Industrial Revolution brought fear that means of livelihood, now substantially centred around factories, would be lost with increasing mechanisation.  It was actually suggested quite early on that those who were put out of work by machinery should simply be paid enough to live on, although I can’t track down a source – it may have been  late eighteenth or early nineteenth century.

An argument frequently deployed against basic income is that it’s psychologically damaging and another is that it could lead to unrest or lack of motivation.  People are seen as benefitting from paid work with employers and as primarily motivated by monetary gain.  However, if work is worth doing, literally, i.e. it is heart work which fulfils a fundamentally useful social function and cannot be automated well, then it’s worth doing without pay.  The wages paid for work have the function of supporting someone financially who doesn’t have the time to support themselves by pursuing a hunter-gatherer way of life or self-sufficiency in other ways because they’re working for someone else.  This compensation needn’t be from the actual employer.  Much unpaid work is already done, such as parenting and housework, and the motivation to do those tasks doesn’t come from the prospect of monetary gain.  There is also much work which simply should not be done.  Financial services come to mind, and there’s nothing to be proud of in being a citizen of a nation which is a world leader in swindling people out of their income and forcing them into debt, which is basically what financial services amount to much of the time.  As far as mental health issues are concerned, much work is seriously deleterious to happiness and the constant anxiety and depression which emanates from the symbolic estimation of people’s lives as worthless and expendable and the removal of meaningful work from their lives definitely constitutes a mental health hazard.  These factors need to be set against the supposed dignity of “work” in the restricted sense of the word, namely paid work with an employer.  A change in the relationship with income could also free parents up from having to organise childcare in the form of state schooling, which is clearly now superfluous as a means of relevant or efficient education.  Incidentally, education needs also to carry the message of self-motivation in its delivery, which is currently impaired by societal factors.

It should also be borne in mind that there can be virtue in useless employment.  If your job involves providing essential goods and services there is a sense in which you are holding the beneficiaries of those services to ransom by asking to be paid for doing that.  Work which is “useless”, such as in the creative arts and entertainment, is more interchangeable.  It can “say” something important but an audience can prefer Ben Jonson to Shakespeare or the Stones to the Beatles.  Consequently it makes sense to ask for money in such a situation.  If the work is something like providing adequate sanitation, growing food, putting out fires or life-saving medical treatment, that work needs to be renumerated in a way that is unconditional in order to prevent the ransom situation from arising.  This is another way in which basic income could address the problem.  It may of course also be that such essential work is more likely to be replaced through automation than less vital work, which is another reason for basic income.

There are in fact both left and right wing arguments for basic income, each providing a counter-argument for the other side.  The right wing case is that it simplifies the welfare system.  Milton Friedman argued for it as a “negative income tax”, i.e. a tax which is paid to individuals below a certain income threshold.  This would make it means-tested and thus introduce bureaucracy.  It’s also seen as reducing the incentive to work, and in this scenario work is seen as an unequivocally good thing because considerations are primarily in terms of traditional economics and work is not seen as an intrinsic part of human nature.  This potential disincentive could be seen as a bad thing from a left wing viewpoint because it could reduce the potential number of trade union members.  Another right wing argument is that it could completely remove the need for the lowest paid employees to be paid at all by an employer, and lead to abolition of the minimum wage.  Friedman also questioned whether those relying on basic income should still have the right to vote, since he saw them as inevitably voting for increases in basic income, making the scheme impractically expensive.

A number of potential problems have been raised regarding basic income.  One is that it could lead to inflation of accommodation costs.  Since everyone would then have a certain guaranteed income, rent and other costs might then rise according to market forces, thereby wiping out any advantage it might have.  Possibly for this reason, some people advocate that the level of basic income should be set slightly below subsistence level.  It’s also possible that those with greater needs such as the disabled would not be provided for because the welfare state would potentially have been dismantled.

One of the most obvious objections to basic income is its affordability.  This would depend on it being initially unaffordable because the cost of not having basic income is enormous.  If you consider, for example, the expense of dealing with mental illness, homelessness, physical ill-health and crime resulting from poverty, if unaffordability is the strongest argument against it, it would have to be that it would be too expensive even to be considered as an investment in the future.  Some people also believe that new jobs will arise as automation proceeds, a phenomenon seen as having occurred throughout history.

Leaving the objections aside, I see basic income as a solution to many problems.  It removes the motive to do harmful work just for the money.  It means the lowest-paid employees needn’t be paid at all.  It reduces the bureaucracy of the welfare state.  It means that people will work for its own sake rather than for money.  It will also save money because of the cost of crime, substance abuse, poverty, homelessness and poor physical and mental health.  However, I consider the reasons it isn’t implemented to be unconnected to any of these things.  Not having a basic income is cost-effective, I think, because it means the poor live in fear, which has both social and psychological functions.  The fear of penury prevents poor workers from demanding better working conditions and job security, meaning that a frightened and ground-down workforce is cheap and disposable.  This means that the vast investment necessary to ensure the existence of a large number of desperate, hopeless people pays for itself many times over.  I’ll come back to disposability in a minute.  It also performs an important psychological function, although at the cost of preventing a generally happier society.  It isn’t enough for some people that they succeed in their own terms of wealth and possessions.  It’s also important to them to know that there are many other people living in misery and want, not knowing where their children’s next meal is coming from or if they will die of hypothermia tonight, because it makes them feel more secure and valuable as individuals themselves.  Against this can be placed the issue that the happiest societies are the most equal in terms of income.  These are the reasons, I think, that basic income will never be implemented.

On the matter of disposability, it occurs to me that the response of the rich and secure to an automated society would not be so much concern for the physical needs of the poor and unemployed as fear that these idle hands are expensive to maintain and yield no return, and that they may rise up against them and overthrow the system.  Consequently, the rational response may be to drive them to an early grave either through their own decision to kill themselves or simply by not bothering to take care of them at all, which is of course very cheap.  Maybe what the rich really want is for most poor people simply to die.  Basic income doesn’t achieve that, so that’s another reason it may not be implemented.


This is the belief that society is best managed by experts in the likes of engineering and science rather than by politicians.  This idea was particularly popular in the 1920s and 1930s but was overtaken by events such as the Great Depression and Second World War.  As can be seen from the map at the top, technocrats in North America believed in the unification of the North American continent and nearby areas into a unit they referred to as the “Technate”.  They had what they referred to as the “Energy Theory Of Value”, which was that the basic measure common to all goods and services is energy, so the sole scientific foundation for the monetary system is also energy.  Therefore they would issue energy certificates to individuals instead of money which could be exchanged for the equivalent energy use.  To take a simple example, someone who shifted sixteen tons two metres vertically during a day would then be entitled to use the same amount of electricity or fuel, or to buy food providing that amount of energy, having taken the work done to provide that, to the same amount, so they would be another day older but they wouldn’t be deeper in debt unless they were using more energy than they were expending.

Technocracy could be seen as the extension of automation all the way up to government.  There are, however, various problems with it.  It’s not clear, for example, which kind of expertise, or within that which theory, is more appropriate.  It’s notable, for example, that educational theory and the psychology of learning are quite different in nature, so  which system would be applied to educational policy?  Theories are not free of value or political bias either.  Evolutionary psychology, sociobiology and social Darwinism all spring to mind here, as does Lamarckianism on the other side of the political spectrum.  Technocracy was also used recently and controversially in Italy to implement neoliberal economic policies.  Technocrats are also distant from popular opinion, although the two may sometimes coincide.  Technocracy is not democracy.  However, it also strikes me as potentially quite left-wing because it doesn’t rely on “the school of hard knocks”, which may or may not be a bad thing.  Right wing anti-intellectualism would seem to be opposed to that.

The Venus Project is a modern manifestation of technocracy.  This is a long-term project started by the architect Jacque Fresco and featured in the film ‘Zeitgeist Addendum’.  Fresco’s view, which I happen to agree with in general, is that the alternatives for the future are utopia or oblivion, with utopia in the form of technocratically-organised sustainable cities.  Like other forms of technocracy, however, there appears to be little room for non-conformity.  The main problem as I see it with the Venus Project is that the will to save the world is not there.  I would argue that the laws of thermodynamics, particularly the tendency towards entropy, mean that there is a drive towards self-destruction in all living organisms, which is of course balanced in part by evolved homeostatic feedback mechanisms but cannot be completely eliminated.  This is what Freud called Thanatos, and although his ideas are largely discredited this one in particular is useful.  There may be a tendency for people to turn against positive, life-affirming and optimistic ideas and plans precisely because they have those features.  Therefore, to me the optimism and positivity of both technocracy and the idea of basic income are the precise reasons why they will inevitably fail.

The Gig Economy

Before I get down to discussing this, I should define what I mean by this currently popular term.  The “Gig Economy” is a labour market characterised by the prevalence of short-term contracts or freelance work.  The likes of Uber and Deliveroo are often focussed on in this respect, where people are nominally self-employed and have none of the recently acquired entitlements which employees normally have because of this but also get all of their work from one source.  In other words, it seems to be a ruse designed to get round legal requirements for employers to provide their employees with such things as pension schemes, sick pay and the like.  Zero-hours contracts are another common feature of these situations where people are employed by others.

Two things strike me about this.  One is that this sounds like the kind of situation with which working class people have long been very familiar.  The difference, I suppose, is that people from a middle class background have greater social capital and are therefore able to make more visible fuss about it, and also their mind set may have been less ground down than working class people’s, although it will shortly probably be down there.  In other words, the middle class is disappearing for this reason as well as automation.

The other thing about this, to me, is that it sounds a little like an inferior version of what’s been called the “Catholic Economy”, and that there may be a connection there.  There is a somewhat convoluted link between the concept of the catholic economy and the coalition government which formed after the 2010 election.

The catholic economy, although initially associated with the Roman Catholic Church, is now probably better referred to as distributivism.  This is the idea that private ownership is important to all members of society and a basic right, and that the means of production should be distributed as evenly as possible throughout society.  As such, the idea is not easily categorisable as either right or left wing.  A distributivist society would be one in which most people are self-employed sole traders, though they may be organised into guilds.  It sees both capitalism and socialism as products of the enlightenment and prefers to hark back to a mediaeval system, though I would see that as very idealised.  Against that, of course, it could be said that my own description of pre-agricultural society itself partakes of the myth of the Noble Savage.

Distributivism goes hand in hand with the theological position of Radical Orthodoxy, which rejects modernity via postmodernity to arrive at a position where the world is interpreted theologically, science and similar disciplines being seen as essentially secular, atheistic and nihilist.

The reason this is relevant is that Phillip Blond, a proponent of Radical Orthodoxy and distributivism, was a key figure in the construction of the “Big Society” agenda of Cameron’s Conservative Party, one of whose slogans held that “there is such a thing as society; it’s just not the same as government”.  This is presumably meant to emphasise the idea of the organic growth of customs and institutions into a society which works for all without state intervention, but also notably without the intervention of monopoly capitalist corporations.  This seems however to be largely a rhetorical device.  To illustrate, consider the coalition government policy on free schools.  The idea seems at first to be about giving parents, religious groups and others the legal right to establish their own educational institutions.  However, education need not be carried out in specific physical premises or locations.  It could be online, achieved via home tuition, take place in rented rooms or in people’s homes.  However, legislation required free schools to have physical premises, which immediately prices poorer people out of the situation and involves property or building firms quite heavily in the establishment of such schools when it is in fact entirely unnecessary.

I suspect that the gig economy is in fact what’s become of the catholic economy in the hands of Conservative pragmatism and realpolitik.  Hence a lot of people are nominally self-employed now, and in purely technical legal definitions of the situation there are now a lot of self-employed sole traders just as there are supposed to be under distributivism.  However, these people own precious little and are fragmented, having little recourse to professional bodies, trade unions or guilds, and consequently they have few rights and little power.  The situation, nominally, does however seem to have quite a lot in common with Phillip Blond’s ideas even if he would himself wish to dissociate himself from them.

This dissociation, however, could be key to the success of a more left-wing approach.  Just as New Labour in government didn’t do what many Labour members and voters wanted it to do, it seems to me equally possible that the current Conservative government isn’t doing what its own members and voters wanted it to do either.  This dissatisfaction, which I believe must exist, is probably fairly typical of the disillusionment felt by ordinary voters and party members when their party is in office.  It could also potentially be exploited by the Labour party as it is now.  It’s been clearly demonstrated that the practical result of the Big Society is just business as usual and the permanent government rather than anything like distributivism, and I suspect there is a strong groundswell of dissatisfaction among people who voted Tory and are now repenting at leisure.  I suggest therefore that this is something which other groups could capitalise upon, and obviously I have Labour in mind here.

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Can threats bring peace?

Friday 1st September, 7:30pm, Unity House, Fennel Street, Loughborough

Loughborough Peace Group sent a petition to the Foreign Office urging our Government to join the UN Nuclear Ban negotiations. Alan Duncan replied: “As a responsible Nuclear Weapons State, the UK continues to work towards creating the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons. However, we will not sign the Treaty………..” We wondered quite what ‘responsible’ meant in that context. Like the United States, perhaps?

On Friday, I would like us to explore the roots of the present situation, and why local nuclear-free treaties like the one proposed by Japan and South Korea, and the UN global one signed by over 200 nations, are being ignored by the Nuclear Powers. What ‘conditions’ have they in mind?

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I Daniel Blake Film Showing and Welfare Rights

Screening of I Daniel Blake at Unity House on 22nd July. Sponsored by Loughborough Labour and Unite Community. We will have Welfare Rights Advisor Reiza Khan speaking afterwards. Entry £5 (£3.50 concessions, benefit recipients free). Please share!

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For Jo Cox

For Jo Cox


Liz Gray

If we had words to gather

and ravel up a life

knit the years as yet unlived

slit by shot and knife;

if we had wool to work it

to stitch it, row on row,

a life cast off too early

the pattern yet to show;

if we could knit it better

back and sides and arm

if, by the stitches of our hearts

we could unpick that harm:

for were you then so wicked,

corrupt, self-serving, dark?

Had you then deserved that bullet

so to find its mark?

No palaces at Westminster

you had a narrow barge,

your heart went out to Syria

because your life was large;

and there is a Birstall everywhere;

you’re everyone’s MP

democracy’s shot down today

outside your surgery

and there are no words to gather

just the silence that is grief

as we stand arm to shoulder

with shock and disbelief.

Our verses stumble, fall down

and die within the breast.

Speak only what is in our heart

and silence

is the rest.


© Liz Gray 2016

I give permission for it to be circulated to appropriate groups or individuals, provided that copyright is always attached.
Liz Gray
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General Election 2017 – Reactions and Responses

Friday 16th June, 7:30pm, Unity House, Fennel Street, Loughborough

A open discussion of the consequences of the unexpected outcome of the General Election.

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Open Letter for A Loughborough Progressive Alliance

Open Letter for A Loughborough Progressive Alliance


Jewel Miah, Labour Candidate
David Walker, Liberal Democrats


Dear Jewel and David,

Tonight I was selected as the Loughborough Green Party candidate for the 2017 General Election.

However, in a departure from normal politics, I and local activists of the party have declared a willingness to withdraw my formal nomination if progressive left-of-centre parties can agree to get behind the most likely challenger to the Conservative candidate, Nicky Morgan. In all fairness this is likely to be Jewel, even though we know it will be an uphill struggle regardless.

The caveat for this withdrawal is that a progressive candidate is one who:

Supports a change to our voting system to deliver true and fair representation of the people such that all parties are represented according to the proportion of votes they receive, and who will advocate for and campaign actively in favour of such a reform both within Parliament and wider society.

Jewel has already endorsed PR in principle, and I am sure you do too, David.

Secondary caveats are:

a) Will support policies which keep our public services fully accountable to the electorate at local and national levels, with an end to the ideologically driven sale of our national assets to international corporations and foreign governments.

b) Is fully committed to the Climate Change Act, a ban on fracking, and creating a million or more professional jobs by transitioning to cleaner and more efficient energy systems, and ending the air pollution crisis in our towns and cities.

c) Is committed to ending income inequality, through measures not based solely on equality of opportunity, but with a focus on equality of outcomes. This means an end to the war on the poor through austerity and punitive workfare, and an immediate end to measures which deprive people of the dignity of enough to live on without depending on foodbanks.

d) Will end the attack on young people’s futures with a restoration of all benefits entitlements, including the Education Maintenance Allowance, a return to free tuition instead of ever-increasing student loans, and the removal of restrictions on Housing Benefit for under-25s.

The Greens have well-developed solutions to many of these issues, but recognise that the left-of-centre parties also have their own ideas; we have, as a party, consistently said we do not have a monopoly on good ideas. A more deliberative and democratic politics facilitated by democratic reform of our election system will, we believe, deliver better, longer-term solutions to the many difficult challenges we face. From the local WI, to the Parish Council, local authority, and in small enterprises, large corporations, and government, the maxim “better decisions are made when more people are involved” is self-evident and widely supported.

The Liberal Democrats are urging us to vote “to change Britain’s future”, Labour want us to vote “for the many, not the few”, and Greens advocate voting “for the common good” and “standing up for what matters”.

In contrast to these collective approaches for more democracy, the Tories argue only for “Strong and Stable Government”. This appeal, to be given the authority to act from strength, can only mean a further slide towards a more authoritarian politics, where the people can no longer have the freedoms to build their own preferred lives, and build strong resilient communities, as they see appropriate to create a good life and good society for us all. They are forced to succumb to a Conservative dogma of the free market over the rights of the individual and community, with dire consequences for the material, spiritual and mental wellbeing of our people and a disaster for our environment and the species we share it with.

Definitely not for the common good; definitely for the few, not the many; and definitely not the future our people are looking for. We are in difficult times. This election is a ground-breaker that will, as Caroline Lucas has said, be more than a change for the next 5 years, but for a generation.

The only way of unseating Nicky Morgan is to work together and pool our votes and explain to the electorate what we are doing. We recognise that it will be nigh on impossible for you to withdraw, but of you make a public declaration of support, we will have enough to work with to urge voters to get behind Jewel.

To this end, let’s get together to see how we can make a change for the common good, and for the many, for a better future for our country, to begin to build the progressive alliance, and create a local exemplar of just what we need to do to take back our country. Let us show some courage, and leadership. Others are doing this too :


Kind Regards

Dr Philip Leicester

Loughborough GP

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No Friday Room tomorrow (5 May)

This update is to confirm that we will not hold a meeting in our usual first-Friday-of-the-month slot tomorrow (5 May), due to today’s local elections having their count then, and to the snap general election diverting much attention recently.

We had planned to discuss “The Gig Economy and Basic Income” soon, and this will now be postponed until later in the summer once the general election results are known.

There may be an extraordinary meeting (or even a hustings) on the general election later this month: watch this space!

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