Monday, March 25, 2013

Of grandmothers and beneficiaries

It's such a curious creature, the modern grandmother. It was not something she herself did – bearing children – that defines her, but the fact that some of her children have borne children of their own. Yet she stands in some ways even more than the mother for the moral as well as material continuation of the species.

The grandmother is a model of virtue, the transmitter of matrilineal knowledge and wisdom who presides from a certain distance over the institution of the family. She’s a woman, but has been sexually deactivated. (Ads for Viagra or Cialis typically feature grandparent-aged men and women in domestic settings but you never see a grandchild in the house, do you?) At the cost of belabouring the point, it is a younger woman’s fertility that makes her who she is.

Image of a grandmother from a stock photopgraphy website. Possibly also an actual grandmother.
For some time – should I even be telling you this? – I have been collecting items in the press concerning grandmothers. I am particularly fascinated by the use of the word ‘grandmother’ in newspaper headlines. Take ‘Cannabis-dealing grandmother jailed’, a report from the end of last year on the sentencing of a pot dealer who operated in the Wellington suburb of Newtown. The presumed grandchildren of Sandra Jacqueline McMahon, 68, are not mentioned in the article at all. They appear to be immaterial to the story and unrelated to her offending. Yet it’s having grandchildren that makes McMahon’s vicissitudes interesting to the press (albeit it in a latest in a long line sort of way). I think it’s the confounded expectation. Grandmother equals good. Dealing drugs equals bad. So the headline immediately creates a tension. It makes you want to know more about this story. How did this happen?

Or consider ‘Man threatens grandmother with a metal pipe.’ This refers to an incident that took place in Feilding last year, when a man whose motorcycle had been stolen thought he heard its engine being revved at a neighbouring house and went with his grandmother to demand restitution, whereupon the man at the house grabbed a metal pipe and took a swing at the man at the door, which caused the grandmother to flee the scene. At the sentencing of the pipe-wielding man, Judge David Smith is reported to have reproached the defendant thusly:
He came to get his bike back, with his grandmother. You responded by arming yourself with a metal pipe. [The victim's] grandmother ran away screaming. She was certainly frightened by your behaviour.
I don’t know if there are specific laws in the books against frightening grandmothers, but on the evidence of this article perhaps there should be. Although in fairness the man didn’t threaten the grandmother with a pipe, as stated in the headline. He went for the grandson. But the story needed a hook and the grandmother was it. The judge concurred.

Even in the items that are thoroughly unamusing and lacking in curiosity value – see for instance ‘Grandmother dies after falling into 14ft-cesspit in her garden’ – the preference accorded to the noun ‘grandmother’ over the noun ‘woman’ (or retiree, or former teacher etc) is a source of some puzzlement to me. Is this how most women who also happen to be grandmothers self-identify? Is this how most people who aren’t journalists think of them? Or is this some kind of normative nominalism that reduces the individual to the most malleable abstract category available, furnishing a convenient peg on which to hang one’s preconceptions?

Of course this doesn’t happen only with grandmothers. I just wish that in the course of my collecting I hadn’t come across this.

I call the screenshot above, which I captured on Saturday, my thousand-word essay on New Zealand journalism, although it wouldn’t surprise me to hear that similar examples flourish abroad. Everything about it is abhorrent. The headline, the prominence – dominating the home page of the country’s most authoritative newspaper – the stock photograph chosen. I think you need to have displaced your humanity to produce an overall piece of journalism of this kind. And I don’t care that in time the headline was downgraded to the less turgid ‘Man killed lighting cigarette’, or that the report was pushed back into the regional section, whence it came. It still opens with that phrase:
An invalid beneficiary from Gore died from burns after he tried to light a cigarette while connected to an oxygen supply...
which suffices.

It wasn’t a man who died, you see. It was an invalid beneficiary, that is to say a person defined by the inability to work and the dependence on the taxpayers’ collective largesse (to the tune of a princely $14959.88 gross per year for a single adult, taxed at the source at the prevailing withholding rate). This person was further defined by his expensive vice, to the point of metonymical substitution via the image of a cigarette in the process of being stubbed out – which neatly doubles as a visual metaphor of the man’s death – then processed into a hit generator, a little pellet of news to be thrown to those (like me) who crave constant information on the affairs of the nation. This group in turn is comprised largely of taxpayers, that is to say people whose right it is to be informed of the circumstances of such deaths. We were paying for the guy’s oxygen, for chrissakes.

Most grandmothers in NewZealand are highly likely to be superannuitants, which is to say beneficiaries, but you wouldn’t call them that. There is politics, too, in such decisions, which however for the professional soon cease to be decisions and become automatic reflexes. Mother, grandmother, immigrant, beneficiary, Maori youth, unemployed: this isn’t who we are, but who we become when reality needs to be described in dispassionate shorthand. As if it were that simple. As if that human taxonomy didn’t contain, in highly compressed form, an entire ideology. As if the function of those common nouns weren’t to ensure that all of those stories – from the most trivial to the most tragic – taken together will reproduce, in mosaic form, the society we have come to believe in.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Idea for a movie in which aliens invade the Earth and fix the economy

Idea for a movie in which aliens invade the Earth and fix the economy. I haven’t decided how they’re going to do it yet. Maybe they’ll practice capitalism with an inhuman face: turn up at the meetings of the G8, the ECB and the Federal Reserve wielding powerful lasers; seize control of the banking system, start printing money and erase all debt. Or else they’ll introduce Marsism and collectivise everything. From each according to their ability, to each according to their need. Or you’re all going to die.

The new director of the International Monetary Fund

Idea for a movie in which aliens invade the Earth and eradicate poverty. They have studied us for a long time from their hideouts on Mars. Decades. Maybe centuries. They cannot understand the thing where some people seem to have too much of everything and many more people go hungry. But they won’t bother to teach a man to fish. ‘You have the resources,’ they’ll say. Then they’ll put all the money that Warren Buffet has on a single credit card and take the entire planet out for pizza.

Some will decry this as a populist move, but only after eating their ice-cream.

Idea for a movie in which the aliens don’t stop at symbolic acts of redistribution, but tackle deep structural imbalances in global production and trade.

How will they do it? They are the 0%. They are the hors-texte. Whatever solutions and resources they bring are external to the situation, non-contingent. It will truly be the End of History, as whatever happens next will lack explanation based on what came before. Like with BC and AD. Something truly new. At first it won’t seem right. Decisions are being made for us. But we’ll look at the economy and say hey, it is fixed. We had been struggling with this.

Idea for a movie in which we think about it and realise that bankers, bond-holders, the Troika, Shell, Coca-Cola: it’s not as if we were making our own decisions before. Ask Cyprus.

Idea for a movie in which we ask Cyprus. ‘Oh,’ we say afterwards.

The freedom-loving rebels are few. The external force is benign. This is what is truly strange. It is like no colonisation that anyone experienced before. And the system works. Whether it is capitalism with an inhuman face or Marsism, the economy stays fixed. Free from want or need, humanity is able to pursue higher things. Finally after many years the aliens get ready to leave. Our work here is done. You are saved. But the same few who rebelled against the aliens when they took over now wage a guerrilla war to stop them from leaving. Sabotage the ships. Chain themselves to the reactors. It’s as if the people of Earth were afraid of being left to themselves. But we have furnished you with a robust set of institutions, say the aliens, and it’s time for us to get going. They mumble something about being late for a barbecue on Venus. Frankly, it sounds like an excuse.

The aliens leave on a Thursday morning. History re-begins.

Idea for a movie in which you wouldn’t believe what happens next.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Corporate memory

In the end, they decided to ask him nicely. Would the former chief executive of one of the country’s largest state-owned enterprises kindly come and talk to a parliamentary committee on how he managed to bankrupt said company, please sir? It would have been rude to compel him, even though the committee was empowered to do so. Besides, the committee chairman reckons the former chief executive would be eager to accept the invitation, as some pretty harsh things have been said about him in the media and ‘he deserves the right to put his side of the story.’

Thus a principle of basic accountability is twisted into a morality about wronged oligarchs and those who dare to question them. At any rate it’s all theatre: even if he decided to turn up – as of this writing, he hasn’t made his answer public – the former chief executive might end up answering about but never for the common wealth he squandered and the livelihoods he destroyed.

In this, the dusk of the neoliberal era, the storyline is so common that it has become difficult to muster any real outrage. That a manager who is forced to resign by the catastrophic effects of his hubris or incompetence might keep drawing his seven-figure salary and look forward to a seven-figure severance, while all around him the lowly employees of his unravelling company are laid off without entitlements, no longer surprises us. Deep down, or more frequently right on the surface, we all know that the much celebrated risk-takers seldom take any risks. They are a caste more than a social class, insulated from the consequence of their actions; rewarded for failing as much as for succeeding.

This technocratic layer is like a lubricant in the contact area between finance and industry. Without it, economic activity as we have come to understand it would grind to a cluttering halt. So Don Elder of Christchurch, a graduate in engineering chosen to lead a company called Solid Energy that used to be in the business of extracting and selling coal, but that he has gradually converted into a much broader energy concern via a series of daring ventures, is also the principal – alongside his wife, a prominent lecturer in political science – of an investment company, and there is nothing peculiar about this. Why wouldn’t they manage investments on the side of their demanding and well-remunerated public sector jobs? In his case, spectacularly well-remunerated: $1.34 million a year, up from $320,000 when he took over the company, in 2001. The biggest and most decisive increase was between 2007 and 2008, when his salary jumped from $740,000 to $1,240,000. This by the way was under Labour, when Trevor Mallard was Minister for State-Owned Enterprises. The game only works because both sides are willing to play it.

The series of phantasmagorical investments through which Elder managed to ruin Solid Energy, fascinating as they are – see the two very good Campbell Live reports to date (1, 2) – are not what I wanted to briefly comment on. It’s about something that the new chairman, Mark Ford, said to the press when he had to explain how was it possible that Elder continued to receive his regular salary even after his resignation and the full extent of the company’s troubles becoming apparent to the new managers:
It's called risk management. I needed to have access, or the company needed access, to Don's memory to have a very smooth transition.

So, to recap: Don Elder, in the new chairman’s words, ‘works from home’. What this work could possible consist of is unclear, except that the new board and management might need to consult him from time to time about the mess he left. For this Elder gets paid a little over $5,000 per day, and according to Clayton Cosgrove he can look forward to another million in April, when his relationship with Solid Energy is due to finally cease. We pay for his salary and we pay for his severance, yet we don’t own his remarkable store of corporate memory, quite the contrary: in spite of the lack of a gag from either his chairman or the Prime Minister, Elder has consistently refused to talk to the national media, and it seems doubtful that he will speak to the Commerce Committee on Thursday. Or if it will, it will be on his own terms.

Equally as troubling is the fact that so much of the information about Solid Energy’s collapse should be locked inside the chief executive’s head, instead of being recorded in the internal documents and public filings of the company. What has been so hard to fathom in the last month is precisely how the workings of this public entity could be so opaque to the shareholding minister and the business media: Solid Energy’s sensational increase in value; the hyper-optimistic predictions concerning its lignite and biodiesel ventures; a forecast of the price of coal that was staggeringly out of step with the industry consensus: none of this was apparently visible to the government and financial commentators. Not even after the layoffs began, when Brian Gaynor – who last week excoriated the company for its ruinous investments in non-core activities – was busy reassuring One News that there was one single guilty party in this affair, and it was the fall in the price of coal. As soon as the price rises again, Solid Energy will be fine, he said.

This was six and a half months ago. Since then, a coal mine closed down and 220 people lost their jobs. This too is loss of memory, and in a region that has suffered dramatically over the years. It is a textbook illustration of how corporate obfuscation and amnesia are functional to the disappearance of labour and of the social texture of actual communities. Compared to these, the knowledge that Don Elder possesses is but a parody of memory. It is the knowledge not of how to fix things but of the very particular way in which they were broken, to be drawn upon so that something may be extracted intact from the wreckage. After all, since the estimated damage is in the order of $400 million, what’s a mere $5,000 per day to assist with the salvage operation? It may just prove to be the closest that Don Elder ever gets to being worth his salary.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Turn off your computers

I am not sure that this has quite sunk in yet, so I’m going to say it one more time, slowly. At the national election held in Italy last week, a party that is less than three years old gained over 8 million votes, equivalent to one quarter of all votes cast. This party didn’t pay for a single advertisement on television or in the print media. None of its members appeared on television or gave interviews to the Italian press. The party didn’t put up a single hoarding. All of the party's candidates were complete unknowns, whilst leader Beppe Grillo – who didn’t run for office – hasn’t appeared on national television since 1994.

This is not just new. This is something that wasn’t supposed to happen. Not in Italy, where the Left has spent the last twenty years blaming its inability to defeat Berlusconi on his at times near-total control of television and the press. Not in the United States, where the two presidential candidates last year spent USD1billion on television ads alone. Not in New Zealand, where political leaders are chosen on the basis of the media narrative that can be constructed around them, and must undergo extensive and seemingly unending media training as soon as they assume said leadership. Not in Australia, where the former leader of the Labor party defined viable policy as policy that could be explained on the current affairs show Today Tonight, and the supporters of the current leader make a virtue – and a shield – of the attacks she is subjected to from the conservative media. Not, I suspect, in any other country you might care to mention.

We have been taught for decades that political reality is framed through the mainstream media and by the mainstream media, a lesson often delivered in hectoring terms to the naïve idealist. Now, this. Not just the unlikely but the impossible has happened. The eight and a half million people who voted for the Five Star Movement belong to a country that nobody thought existed. A country whose reality is not defined by the press nor, more importantly, by television.

Even as I write this I realise I’m making it sound like a good thing, which perhaps it is. I happen to think the Five Star Movement is an anti-democratic and anti-progressive force, and have said so in my post-election analysis for Overland, but there are greater odds than usual that I might be wrong: we’re all scrambling to make sense of something that is quite explosive and new. However today I just want to talk about the existence of this other country: a country of over eight million people that has stopped believing in television.

When Beppe Grillo last appeared on television, in 1994, he made a joke about sounding like Howard Beale, the character played by Peter Finch and scripted by Paddy Chayefsky in the film Network. He asked his audience to warn him in case he lost control and crossed the line into mad prophet. He would then put on a clown’s red nose, to remind himself as much as the audience of who he really was. This was long before Grillo discovered blogging and the internet, a medium on which he could play Finch’s character without living a contradiction. Say ‘I’m mad as hell’ and mean it. Say ‘Turn off your television sets’ and mean it. There is in fact one little contradiction, if you look closely: that Grillo first became famous as a television comedian, in the early 80s. But at that time television reigned supreme and there really was no alternative to its hegemony. Now however you could imagine somebody like him becoming a famous entertainer without ever needing to court television. With a little more effort you could even imagine a movement similar to Five Stars growing without its charismatic (and despotic) leader.

We may be at the threshold of a new age, many times announced and yet only now finally materialising. An age in which the internet has surpassed television and print media as the primary means of framing the social and the political.

And still I realise I make it sound like a good thing, which perhaps it is. But we are not lacking for clues that it could go either way. The internet, even more than television or print, invites its users to think that it is all there is. And if the internet is all there is, then we should expect it to redefine what it means to be a person and to have a personal history; to erase class and race, purport to remove all social barriers; to define progress and equality in its own terms. (Hence the talk of digital citizenship, whereas nobody ever talked of television citizenship.) In its apotheosis, this line of thinking leads – as it has – to people planning not just to spend their life on the internet, but their afterlife as well. In the beginning was the medium, which was the message, which was the word. And that word was God, or the internet.

This particular brand of posthumanism has been foreshadowed and theorised for some time, both as the existential concern of individuals and in its social extension. Donna Haraway taught us to think of it creatively as a tool for progressive gender politics, while Katherine Hayles described in more sombre tones how information lost its body. But this is a new phase, and a giant leap from theory. This last election in Italy has given us a concrete glimpse of the potential of the internet to organise and mobilise consensus, no longer as an adjunct obeying the logic of older but still more powerful media, but rather as the single source of all discourse.

For elected members of the Five Star Movement, to appear on television is a crime punishable with expulsion from the organization. This is not a merely strategic stance; it is a quasi-religious one. One medium leads to the truth. Another leads to untruth. Thus the internet becomes its own grand narrative, one capable of reassembling and restructuring the social. Its politics is one of necessity: to do the things that make the internet less constrained, more pervasive. Progress and equality will follow, filling in the grooves traced by the social networks.

Then if one day in this country a new Howard Beale should come, there may no longer be literal windows out of which to shout: ‘I’m mad as hell.’ Or: ‘Turn off your computers.’