Tag Archives: capitalism

Comedy scriptwriter unmasks capitalist economics as no better than voodoo

(This was also published on the Indian news website WeSpeakNews)

Mark Kelly turns his back on the police state (and the dog)

With Greece and Spain still teetering on the brink of financial collapse, the NatWest Bank’s computers refusing to transfer money to anyone for two days this week and comedian Jimmy Carr getting attacked by the Prime Minister for tax-dodging, it seemed like a good time to talk money with comedy scriptwriter Mark Kelly, not a man known to dislike Marxist-Leninism.

“It’s perfectly reasonable for economists not to know what to do,” Mark said to me in a cheap cafe in Soho (I was paying), “because Economics is not a science in the first place.

“If you have a problem with an aeroplane, then aerodynamics IS a science. There’s a cause and effect as to why a plane isn’t working and you can fix it. You can’t do that with Economics because there’s no verifiable cause and effect. Economics is essentially no different from voodoo. It’s all based on belief. Things only exist because you believe they do.”

“Well,” I said, “I was always crap at Economics at school. They forced me to do Economics for ‘A’ Level because they said I had to ‘do a science’ and I was even more crap at Chemistry and Physics. I was useless at factual subjects because I could never remember abstract facts like Sodium Chloride = NaCl and Methyl Chloride = CH3Cl but I was good at conceptual subjects like British Constitution where you could discuss things. I was good at waffle.”

Mark quite rightly ignored this (and I added in those chemical system details when I was writing this blog). I was waffling.

“I think,” Mark said, “that the best essay on economics – but I would think this – is one by Lenin on fictitious capital. The idea of capitalist economies creating fictitious capital. Money breeds money. The history of capitalist economics is primarily the history of debt and debt itself can ultimately only be collected by force.

“So America has a phenomenal level of debt, but no-one has the nerve to call in America’s debt because, if you do, they’re suddenly going to find that you’ve got a very oppressive regime and it has to be overthrown. America can’t be ‘called’ on its debt, despite the fact it has an enormous debt… but other countries can.

“If you have a big enough debt, one of the ways of dealing with it is to get rid of the person you owe the debt to… in other words War. Bourgeois economists would never include War as an economic strategy; but it is.”

“So,” I said, “Greece should basically declare war on Germany and France?”

“It’s their best bet,” Mark replied. “No, seriously, what they should do is build an enormous horse, push it over the border and then, at night, the horse opens and all the Greek Communists come out and fiddle with the other bank’s computers.”

“Computers are the soft underbelly,” I said, “The NatWest computers have been in chaos the last two days and transactions were not being processed. A friend of mine who has been involved in banking computers said it sounded to him as if someone had tried to hack into the main computer system or its twin – because they presumably have a back-up system somewhere in some un-marked building.”

“Well, as for computers…” said Mark, “with the very very sophisticated credit default swaps, the parcelling-up of debt and stuff… basically people like Goldman Sachs have been employing for 20 years or so – well, really since Reagan became US President – they’ve been employing enormously highly-rated mathematicians and some of the formulae they come up with in credit default swaps and so on are so sophisticated that there are literally only a handful of people who understand the formulae.

“So banks have been operating on the basis of formulae which they’re quite happy to admit they themselves don’t understand. It’s ultimately no different from voodoo. You’re just taking the word of other people and everyone has a vested interest in taking everyone else’s word and that, itself, is the essence of a bubble. So you have a housing bubble or you go back to the 18th century and you have the South Sea Bubble and the Tulip Bubble in the 17th century.”

“The Tulip Bubble?” I asked.

Mark quite rightly ignored me.

“People,” he continued, “talk about The Market now as if The Market were a human being. What would The Market say? How would The Market react? As if The Market were a rational person with an identity, whereas it’s not. It’s composed of an enormous number of irrational, deeply avaricious fuckwits all racing around saying Buy! Sell! Buy! Sell! 

“The choice is between a rational, planned economy – which is what Lenin was after – and… and… the irony is that capitalist economics is actually anarchy in the worst sense of the word: it’s utterly chaotic.”

“Well, yes,” I said. “Pure capitalism without any restraints is pure anarchy because the strongest person wins.”

“It’s not a science at all,” Mark said, “It’s no different to voodoo. The basic problem isn’t how to fix the system. The problem is the system itself.”

Then we carried on talking about comedy clubs.

It seemed the best thing to do.

Leave a comment

Filed under Comedy, Economics, Finance, Politics

Mafia capitalism takes the same route as the Titanic on its maiden voyage…

Capitalism with a dash of  socialism to add a restraining touch of morality  is, arguably, the least-worst economic option for running a country’s economy. Certainly better than Communism under inevitably self-perpetuating elites.

But shareholder-based capitalism is flawed and possibly doomed, because its aim is the short-term maximisation of profits for the shareholder rather than the long-term growth and health of businesses in which the shareholders invest. The aim is short-term profit-taking, not efficiency. In that sense, it has the same flaws as countries run by dictators or businesses run by criminal organisations… or, indeed, countries run by criminal organisations.

Which brings me to Italy.

I have just arrived in Milan for a couple of days.

I have blogged about the Mafia before…

According to a report issued two days ago, the Mafia is now “Italy’s biggest business”. But this is hardly news – ’twas ever thus in my lifetime.

Post-War Italy was, in effect, run by the secret Masonic lodge P2 (Propaganda Due) for around thirty years: an unholy alliance of politicians, big business, the military, the intelligence services and the Mafia. It was a conspiracy theorist’s most paranoid dream come true.

The real ‘new’ news story about the Mafia’s financial power seems to be that the current world financial crisis has particularly hit Italy and has partially unified the traditional Mafia groups.

In the current economic crisis, traditional banks are reluctant to lend, so many Italian businesses nationwide have been forced to borrow at crippling rates of interest from organised crime, including the three big Mafia groups – the Cosa Nostra, the Camorra and the ‘Ndrangheta.

As a result, the Mafia now have an alleged annual turnover of around £116 billion with reserves of 65 billion Euros, making them “Italy’s biggest bank”.

This is according to a report issued a couple of days ago by Confesercenti, a prominent employers’ association which represents 270,000 small-to-medium businesses. They simply called their report Criminality’s Grip on Business  and it says the Mafia account for around 7% of Italy’s Gross Domestic Profit – and we are talking very ‘gross’ here.

Marco Venturi, the president of Confesercenti, was quoted as saying: “According to our estimates, loan sharking caused the closure in 2010 of 1,800 businesses and destroyed thousands of jobs. Right now, Mafia Inc is the only business enterprise willing to make substantial investments.”

That sounds to me like a man with an eye for publicity.

But, basically, if you are running a small business facing ruin and potential closure in the current economic crisis where banks are only interested in short-term strategies, you have few options to try to save yourself except to borrow from the Mafia… which ironically may itself result in ruin and the potential closure of your business.

Small business owners with tight margins and limited cash flow also, as always, face extortion and straight robbery by the Mafia, at a reported rate of one crime every minute.

This week’s Confesercenti report says the influence of various mafias is now being felt not only in traditional strongholds such as Naples and Palermo, but increasingly in the wealthy north of Italy, in regions such as Lombardy – in other words, the country’s business capital of Milan – and the report says the mafias have expanded there with the “complicity” of some politicians, as well as lawyers and accountants.

Again – perhaps especially in Italy – that comes as no surprise.

Another report this week – by Libera, an anti-Mafia association – says the average adult Italian spends nearly 1,300 Euros every year on slot machines, bingo and other forms of gambling. This 76 billion Euro market is Italy’s third biggest industry and the Libera report claims the Mafia have also now moved into what the report calls ‘new’ areas of business such as public health, transport and logistics.

Milan is known for its fashion industry and now seems to have picked up the latest street fashion – criminal organisations running not just Big Business but the country’s infrastructure.

Well, that is the story.

In fact, I think, as I said earlier, this is hardly news – ’twas ever thus in my lifetime.

In Italy, traditions run deep.

1 Comment

Filed under Crime, Economics, Italy, Politics

The greatest mystery in all of China is to be found in a Northwood restaurant

I will be going to see more movies in the China Image Film Festival in London later today.

In round figures, there are 4,000 cinema screens in the UK.

In China – a vastly larger country – there are only 6,000 screens.

But, within the next five years, China will have 20,000 screens and will become the second biggest film industry in the world after the US – larger than India’s Bollywood. In the last year alone, there were 500 films made in China.

I had a meal in a Chinese restaurant in Northwood last night, not far from ’the bunker’, and got home to watch yet more on the BBC News channel about a world economic situation that is barely – or perhaps not – under control. All the ‘advanced’ countries seem to be in debt that will stretch decades into the future.

But China is sitting on vast amounts of money. The irony of a Communist country becoming rich on capitalism.

The last decade was all about China making things but the next decade will be all about China owning things.

Which reminds me of something a history teacher once said as a throwaway line at my school when I was about 13.

He said: “Civilisation and power moves westwards because invading armies have always ridden westwards, following the daylight.”

Trite, of course.

But, in the northern hemisphere, it is roughly true.

At the moment, power is moving from North America to the Pacific Rim (a phrase that always sounds to me like a dubious sexual practice).

What confuses me is that the Chinese are very expansionist of late.

They have been putting money into Africa, especially into very suspect regimes, for a couple of decades. They are building an aircraft carrier or, at least, have refitted a Russian one. They are now investing heavily in the West.

This seems very un-Chinese. The Great Wall was built to keep the uncivilised long-nosed foreign devils out and to preserve the integrity of China which, with quite a lot of justification, looked inward at itself as the only truly civilised place.

Japan was always the regional expansionist power, not China.

Of course, there was the invasion of Tibet in 1949, but that seemed an unfortunate exception to the rule and a knee-jerk reaction after Mao Tse-tung’s Communists took power.

It seems to be very un-Chinese to be expansionist. It is a great mystery.

Though, sitting in a Chinese restaurant in Northwood last night, it was secondary as a mystery in my mind to the greater ongoing mystery of why the Chinese – who, let’s face it,  invented pretty much everything – never invented the teacup handle not the knife-and-fork. And why on earth were chopsticks thought to be a good idea in a nation where the staple diet was and is based around small grains of rice?

Life is a constant mystery.

Leave a comment

Filed under China, Food, History, Movies, Travel

Even average run-of-the-mill advertisements today are a bloody sight better than Van Gogh ever was – and funnier

I was talking to comedian Martin Soan‘s daughter Sydney yesterday.

She is writing what sounds like a fascinating university dissertation on Humour in Graphic Art and I told her I don’t think her father is actually a comedian at all – he is a performance artist with humour in everything he does. Art ain’t just Tracey Emin’s unmade bed in a Saatchi gallery.

A famous English comedienne once wisely told me that, because of the money involved, the best creatives go into the ad industry, the second best go into television and the third-rate go into PR for the publishing industry because there’s no money into it.

People complain about advertising hoardings in the street but they wouldn’t complain about a new art gallery which has free entry and, every day, changes the art it displays. That’s what ads are. You drive down the road or you walk down the street or you take a tube train anywhere in London and you’re travelling through an ever-changing art gallery. Some of the most creative people in the country are creating continually visually and verbally exciting works of often high originality, displaying them across the country at roadsides, on buses, in trains and stations… and these very creative and usually very costly visual works are constantly being changed for something new and equally visually stimulating and original.

In the Renaissance, art was sponsored by people who had the most money – the Church and the Medicis. The same applies today. The ad industry, using commercial businesses‘ money is sponsoring sometimes great, though always transient, art. I still remember some of the images in a famously surreal Benson & Hedges ad campaign of long ago. They were a bloody sight better than Van Gogh’s awful pictures of sunflowers or dodgy-looking chairs. And I remember the Benson & Hedges cinema ads. Particlarly one shot in the desert with a lizard and an isolated luxury house with a swimming pool.

People complain about ads between TV programmes but they don’t complain about the quality of up-market art films on TV or in the cinema. Per minute of screen time, an ad very often costs more than a mega-budget movie. And often both are directed and designed by the same people.

The ad industry attracts, most often, the brightest, best, most creative visual talents in the country because that’s where the money is. The best graphic artists, the best photographers, the best directors, make-up artists, designers and cinematographers earn their living from the ad industry. The highly-regarded British film industry is built on the financial cashlow provided by our ad industry which supports and stimulates the talents of the best creatives.

Capitalism?

It’s bloody great for Art and ‘twas ever thus.

But what I don’t understand is this…

It seems to me that US ads are concerned with selling the qualities of the product – all those dull shampoo ads telling you the scientific reasons why the product supposedly works.

It feels like UK ads are more concerned with making jokes, adding surreal images, linking the product to a general but very vague happy feeling. What are those Guinness ads about? They’re not about the quality of the beer – not when you are watching Peruvians doing odd things in Andean villages. What are the Marks & Spencer ads about at Christmas? Not about the products they sell; this year it’s all about Peter Kay and Twiggy prancing around very entertainingly.

US ads have a tendency towards the hard-sell. UK ads seem to be soft-sell sometimes to the point of the joke or the surreal image overwhelming the product. The artists seem to have taken over the asylum.

What’s that all about?

Is it because, as American comic Lewis Schaffer currently says in his act, the British like to define themselves by their humour – or, as Colonials like him would say, humor?

All countries believe they have a sense of humour/humor but Britain, suggests Lewis, is the only country that actually thinks its strongest defining factor is its humour. Even Margaret Thatcher had to try to appear to have a sense of humour to soften her image. Being seen as ‘strong’ is not enough in a British leader; he/she has to be seen to have a sense of humour.

President Obama has to show humour too, for PR reasons. But Americans do not see humor as their best characteristic.

The Americans arguably like to see their best quality as being go-getting and full of energy. The French define themselves by their food or as great philosophers. The Germans are efficient. But the British think their single main national defining characteristic is their humour.

To an extent, you can get the feel of a country by watching the type of ads they create. In UK ads, humour often seems more important than products’ qualities.

For sure, any day, I’d rather watch Peter Kay dancing in a Marks & Spencer TV ad than hear about the quality of their beans or sprouts – or look at another badly-drawn bunch of sunflowers by Van Gogh.

1 Comment

Filed under Ad industry, Books, Comedy, Consumer Affairs, Movies, PR, Television