Tag Archives: Mark Steel

Mark Steel: Bankers should bail themselves out

Thirty years we’ve had, of unfathomably wealthy bankers and dealers being justified as part of the free market.

So they boasted: “I’ve just got my summer bonus and spent part of it on a small African nation which I burnt down for a laugh,” or went to restaurants that charged a thousand pounds for meals such as “asparagus boiled in panda’s tears” or bought cars that ran on liquified diamonds, and it was all proof we lived in a free society in which we were paid what we were worth and couldn’t rely on state handouts. Then the minute their scam falls apart, they’re straight on to the Government squealing “Can we have a free state handout please, our bank’s gone bust.” They’re like spoilt students who go back to their Dad for more money because they’ve blown a year’s allowance in one week. But this soppy government will go “You already had fifty billion quid, what have you done with that? Well alright, here’s another fifty billion we were saving for kidney machines, but this time be careful.”

It’s so obscene you get comments such as the one yesterday that went “The money men have made fools of us. In the years of their dominance they insisted the markets were the highest judges and must be left to rule. Now the markets are signalling their downfall, they’re running sobbing to governments and taxpayers, begging for our money.”

And that piece of class-hatred came from Max Hastings in the Daily Mail. Because the explanation for the current crash from people like that is they were right to demand an unregulated free market, as society could only be run efficiently if the world’s finances were put in the hands of these bankers. But then it turned out these bankers were more interested in their private wealth than in the good of society as a whole – and fair’s fair, no one could possibly have anticipated that.

So, as Gordon Brown has become so friendly with Thatcher, maybe he can put her to use. He should tell her she’s about to make a speech at the Conservative conference, but fill the room with city executives, who’ll be told “You can’t go on paying yourselves more than you earn. We can’t allow those who can’t stand on their own two feet to sponge off the state.”

Then they should all be sent down the job centre. At first they’ll complain “There’s nothing for me in there. I trained for two whole hours to get my qualifications as a parasite and there’s no parasite jobs going at the moment anywhere.” Then, just as people who claimed benefits when they were working have to pay the money back, all the bonuses they received for boosting their company’s shares will have to be returned, now the shares are worthless. And if they haven’t got it they should be herded into a new social category called “pension slaves”, in which they spend the rest of their lives doing errands for all the people whose pensions they’ve ruined.

Instead the politicians and businessmen will all join together in saying: “It seems that everything we’ve been saying for 30 years has turned out to be shite. In these circumstances, it is imperative that those people who became immensely rich out of creating this shite should be compensated heavily. It is also of great importance than we pay no attention to anyone who warned us this was bound to end in shite, as the only people trustworthy to get us out of it are those that put us in it. Carry on everyone.”

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Mark Steel: A French lesson about the poverty of rich countries

One impact of these strikes in France is that it’s confused some of the people who write about such events. Which is why you get articles that seem to go “In a modern globalised economy, old-fashioned militancy simply has no power. That’s what these train drivers must realise as they bring the entire country to a stand-still, their powerless union wrecking the economy, not just of France but of Europe and most of outer space. And now loads of other workforces are coming out on strike as well! Haven’t they read my book explaining how this can’t happen any more? So now, because of them, to get to my lecture entitled, ‘The utter futile pointlessness of ever imagining a strike these days could have the tiddliest impact’ I’ve got to bloody well walk!”

Also, being French, the strikes have been carried off with a certain panache. For example, opera singers joined in the dispute, which must have made for the most imaginative picket lines, the soprano and alto alternating lines of “You are a scaaaaab” – “I’m going to work” – “You are a scaaaaaaab” – “I’m going to work” – “Then I must cast this rubble at your face, sir.”

And now, in protest at the proposed closure of 200 courts, the legal profession and even judges have voted to strike. Perhaps the judges will have a demonstration, where they shout “What do we want?” – “In answering that chant I want you to consider carefully the evidence provided.”

The case against the strikes is the genuinely old-fashioned one, that the workforces involved are defending privileges, such as pensions after 30 years of work, which can no longer be afforded. So an economics lecture supporting the French government would say, “It was one thing having these pensions back in the 1960s when we were much poorer, but now society is much richer they’ll have to be scrapped. Because as everyone knows, the richer you get, the less you can afford things.”

This is why lottery winners, as soon as they collect their cheque, sell all their records and turn the heating off, aware they’ll no longer be able to wallow in their old privileges. And it’s well known that when the plough was invented, all the peasants were gathered together and told, “This little beauty will do the work in half the time. And that’s marvellous because it means now we’ve all got to work five hours extra every day”.

The argument to scrap these “privileges” goes on to explain that they cripple the economy, making everyone worse off. So presumably the French should be more like the British, because we’ve been far-sighted enough to have much worse pension schemes, and our working week is on average 2.63 hours longer than the French one. So obviously that makes us better off. But even we’re lagging behind truly modern economies, like Burma, where there are no pensions and people are forced to work all day and night or be whacked with a stick. They’re rolling in it, the jammy bastards.

Seeing as the new government in France is determined to smash the culture of unearned privilege, Nicolas Sarkozy must be familiar with the characters at the top of the French rich-list. The No.1 spot in this list is a surprise, as you would imagine it must be occupied by a train driver from Lille with lots of stubble, but it turns out that it’s Bernard Arnault, chairman of Christian d’Or, who’s worth $21bn. He must be in a really outdated union.

It can appear to be a miracle that anyone in France could get that rich, because the place is often presented as a basket-case in which businessmen can’t set up the slightest project without provoking a demonstration involving 10,000 burning pigs being dumped in their garden. But the French economy has grown at a similar rate to the rest of the Western world over the last 10 years, with one main difference, that the richest one per cent haven’t become three times richer in real terms over the last 10 years, as they have in America and Britain.

This boom for the super-wealthy might be connected to the attitude of Labour’s John McFall, chairman of the Treasury Select Committee, who was asked this week whether Northern Rock should be nationalised. And he replied: “I’ve spoken to no one in the City who feels that’s the way to go.” So that’s how economic decisions are taken. The Government rings up the City and says, “Who do you think should pay for this latest crisis? Should it be you, who caused it, or everyone else, who didn’t cause it? I see – everyone else it is then. Thanks for your expert analysis.”

Sarkozy represents the frustrated wing of French business that wants their country to be handed to the same City types, their one per cent. Whereas some of the strikers appear to have grasped that when a government proposes cutting pensions, closing 200 courts, cutting 11,000 primary school teachers and privatising parts of the university system, these aren’t random flights of madness but part of a pattern. And surely any policy that says, “The way we run our railways is outdated – let’s run them more like the system they have in Britain”, can’t be allowed to succeed.

* The Independent
* http://comment.independent.co.uk/commentators/mark_steel/article3179607.ece

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Mark Steel: However debased the image, Che’s legend lives on

The image of Che Guevara is perfect for the modern world, not just a revolutionary but a celebrity revolutionary. Posh Spice probably sees his picture everywhere and screams “Why can’t my agent get me on that many magazines and baseball caps?” Even if she’s read this week’s commemorations of his death as a guerilla 40 years ago, she’ll imagine he spent his days running through a Cuban swamp with Churchill Insurance on his combat fatigues.

Or that he often stopped to film an advert in which he says “Hi, I’m Che Guevara, the world’s most famous guerilla. But you know, when I’m trying to fire on government agents the last thing I need is to lose concentration by worrying about my split ends. That’s why I use new Clairol Herbal Essence conditioner, to give my hair extra bounce, and my ambush extra pounce.”

It clearly didn’t do Che’s brand any harm to be a revolutionary who countered most images of the revolutionary. So his account of his road trip, The Motorcycle Diaries, was reviewed in Bike News as “Six months of high drama in which the main concerns of Che are where the next drink is coming from, where the next bed is and who might share it.”

Apart from anything else, this is probably the only book by a revolutionary to be reviewed at all in Bike News – unless there’s one of Marx’s The Communist Manifesto that goes: “Very disappointing. Hardly mentions bikes at all.” Or another of Mao’s Little Red Book that starts: “Why go on that long march when a Kawasaki 850 would have got him there in two days at the most?”

But also, no matter how debased his image, and how many watches and bars and cocktails and shirts he appears on, even if people don’t know much about him, they’re aware he was a little bit naughty. Through 40 years of posthumous commercialism, he’s somehow survived as a rebel. And that’s probably reasonable, seeing as how he helped to overthrow the old government in Cuba, became head of the bank, but then left in disguise to go to the Congo and then Bolivia to start all over again.

The CIA compiled a report on him that said: “Che is fairly intellectual for a Latino.” And in a further attempt to get a job as a phone-in host on TalkSPORT they added “Unusually for a Latino, he doesn’t submit to their native rhythms.” So it’s possible the CIA reports were being written by a bloke in a pub in Kent. And it went on: “And you’ve got to watch yer Mexicans, wearing them tablecloths and screaming ‘Yrrrrrr yahaha yeehaaah’ and firing guns everywhere. Mind you, I’d still take them over the French.”

It would seem that Che’s most obvious legacy is in Cuba, where the government he helped set up survives, in spite of US blockades, countless farcical assassination attempts on Castro and still being on George Bush’s list of countries sponsoring terrorism. And the regime it replaced was run by gangsters, in which one-third of all public payments went directly to the corrupt President.

But this is where the idolisation of Che becomes a problem. Because for many people this image is part of a Cuba that’s all it claims to be, a socialist beacon of equality and justice that doesn’t fit the reality. Because much of the workforce has no choice but to work for dire wages, many of them servicing foreign companies or tourists, but any attempts to organise trade unions or opposition movements are stamped on.

Within this atmosphere of no dissent, Che is almost treated as a messiah by the Cuban authorities and their supporters, and you can no more suggest he was flawed than you could shout in church during a sermon about Jesus: “I bet he didn’t kiss Judas – he just thought ‘I’ve ballsed this situation right up’.”

I came across a tiny version of this deification of Che, courtesy of a cosy cafe in my area, in which the walls are covered with Che pictures. So one morning I went in for a cup of tea, and was told “GET OUT”, because the owner had heard a radio programme I’d done, which was mildly critical of her hero, and I’ve been banned ever since. The strange thing is I admire her for this, and I’ll be quite disappointed if she ever lets me back in.

The real Che was clearly flawed, because when your plan to overthrow a government ends in a group of 11 hiding in a hill with no support and getting shot, that suggests things haven’t gone entirely to plan. And the Cuba he helped to create is flawed. But his main legacy is to leave behind a symbol of opposition.

And there can never have been a politician less on the make. When some students invited him to speak at their college, offering him a fee, he went berserk, saying he could never accept money for what he saw as part of his duty. Maybe a few years later the same college tried to get Cherie Blair, and she went similarly berserk, screaming “Only 20 grand? Don’t you know who I am?”

So although millions of companies have used his image, it’s always in an attempt to appear on the side of spirit and rebellion. It still signifies something. So it can be worn by millions, including many who probably disagree with most of his ideas, but it’s never been more popular in South America, and you’re unlikely to see it worn by Margaret Beckett or Donald Rumsfeld or Noel Edmonds. And even if Gordon Brown had piercing blue eyes and a Marlon Brando laconic smile, in 40 years no student would put up his poster and say: “His vision for the future, man, it was, well, cool.

* Published: 10 October 2007
* The Independent
* http://comment.independent.co.uk/columnists_m_z/mark_steel/article3043717.ece

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