Three short reads for 2019

2 Jan

Coffee and funny money accountancy writ large … a supremely well penned salute to five heroic contrarians … the wickedly accurate putting straight, by a Presbyterian minister, of all who see in Donald Trump some mystifyingly aberrant wrong turn by a previously healthy democracy …

Three of the best, none of them marathon reads, for those with minds – and eyes – at least part open as the sands of time run down the neck of fate into the final year of the second decade of a century whose destinations we shudder to imagine while striving to avert.

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Remember back in 2012 when bigshots at Amazon, Google and Starbucks were summoned to a Parliamentary Select Committe on tax avoidance? Of the three, only Starbucks had cause for worry. Life After Amazon and Life After Google may be unthinkable, given the way the world now works,1 but Life After Starbucks necessitates no great stretch of the imagination – and no great act of renunciation. Switching to a brand less toxic would be easy.

Of course, the other big coffee chains are also taking the piss but our High Streets have oodles of indies who not only pay their taxes but, instead of that undignified milling round the counter as your order is processed, serve you at table – with better coffee and a smile thrown in. Bear that in mind as you read this piece by University of Sheffield professor of accountancy, Prem Sikka. It begins:

Caffe Nero has not paid any corporation tax in the UK for the last decade despite total sales of around £2bn through its 637 shops.

The company has consistently reported a loss. Accounting and tax losses in company accounts rarely connect with any commonsensical understanding of economic loss.

The losses, as I previously indicated, can be manufactured by the funding model chosen by the company’s controllers and financial engineering at Caffe Nero has also enabled it to wipe out its tax bill.

Caffe Nero is part of a maze of companies. The trail leads to a company called Saratoga Limited based in the Isle of Man and Rome Holdco Sarl registered in Luxembourg, which in turn is controlled by private equity entrepreneur Gerald Ford.

The complex structure gets in the way of a comprehensive analysis, especially as the accounts for the Isle of Man and Luxembourg operations are not easy to secure …

The Group’s most recent accounts for the year to 31 May 2017 reported sales of £313m (2016, £275m), gross profit of £71.5m (2016, £75m) and operating profit of £17.7m (2016, £17.5m).

Prem Sikka wrote the above in March 2018 so it’s stretching things to call it a new year’s read but I only came across it today, via a FB alert by a friend and former colleague. It’s the odd one out in its narrowly forensic focus, but by that fact exemplifies the broader themes of my other choices.

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Read number two casts a wider net. Posted on New Year’s Day in Renegade Inc, Truth, Lies & Intention is by blogger MarkGB and opens thus:

In 2003, the US & UK went to war in Iraq on a pack of lies: Iraq was not involved in 9/11, there was no connection between Saddam & Al-Qaeda, and the UN inspectors had no evidence of WMDs. George Bush & Tony Blair knew all this. The war narrative was a concoction to mask their true intention – to remove the government of Saddam Hussein that refused to kowtow to the commercial and geo-political interests of ‘Washington’.

I say ‘Washington’, rather than ‘US’, because the majority of Americans have no desire for war, and little say … as evidenced by the fact they repeatedly elect Presidents who promise a ‘non-interventionist’ foreign policy, only to commence bombing within a few months of taking office. Washington is a bribe-taking political circus, run for the benefit of banks, weapons manufacturers, global corporations, and foreign lobbyists – notably those of Israel and Saudi Arabia.

In 2007, when Wall Street Banks saw the inevitability of a crash in sub-prime housing debt they packaged up the ‘toxic waste’ and sold it to their gullible clients. It was their intention to protect themselves by screwing their customers and they did just that. As the crisis gained momentum however, it became obvious they could not save themselves by their own devices, ethical or unethical. What did save them was a trio of charlatans named Ben Bernanke, Hank Paulson & Timothy Geithner, who went ‘cap in hand’ to the financially illiterate & morally bankrupt George W. Bush … who agreed to put a net under Wall Street & throw the tax-payer under the bus. This ‘crime’ continued unabated on the arrival of newly elected ‘man of the people’ – Barack ‘Yes We Can’ Obama … who now openly boasts of his ‘achievement’ during his highly paid soirees on Wall Street.

What conclusions can we draw from this?

– Governments & powerful ‘elites’ concoct a narrative based upon their intention. The truth is of secondary importance, and when it contradicts the intention, it is viewed as theenemy’

– There is no need for elites to lie about everything. Lies are used to mask those intentions that are morally unacceptable to the majority of the population

– Imperial warfare and financial fraud are very…morally unacceptable to the majority of the population, and therefore require very big lies

… Of course, there are some who are motivated by truth, who do seek justice … but few are in positions of power. Neither will they be in the columns of Financial Times, Guardian or Washington Post. If mainstream ‘journalists’ started revealing the truth about what our ‘elites’ are really up to … or started asking ‘awkward’ questions…they would quickly find themselves with nobody to talk to: they would lose access to the insiders.

“Larry [Summers] leaned back in his chair and offered me some advice … I had a choice. I could be an insider or I could be an outsider. Outsiders can say what they want. But people inside don’t listen. Insiders, however, get lots of access and a chance to push their ideas. People – powerful people – listen to what they have to say. But insiders understand one unbreakable rule: They don’t criticise other insiders” – Elizabeth Warren

Given that, why would you ever trust a word of Larry Summers? Clearly, his intention is to protect & advance the elites. His master is ‘power’…not ‘truth’. He writes in the FT & the New York Times.

No, those concerned with truth will, by virtue of their predilection and of necessity – be on the outside … ignored if possible … however, when they achieve influence, or get dangerously close to revealing something damaging to the establishment – they become the enemy of those inside. This enmity is demonstrated through censorship, marginalisation, and ‘smears’, both in mainstream & social media.

There are a number of these people that I want to acknowledge here; to draw your attention to them if you’re not already aware of their work, and to celebrate them if you are. In 2018, they did more for ‘honesty’ & ‘objective reality’ than the entire population of the mainstream media added together. Come to think of it, the sum total of the latter would be a large minus figure, so it’s perhaps not the right compliment to give them.

Who would you salute? While I’d add a few names – Jonathan Cook for one, Pilger and Hersh for others – to the five MarkGB goes on to celebrate, I’ve no quarrel with those he does include. Brilliant Caitlin Johnstone is one, Syria heroine Vanessa Beeley another. Then there’s that other University of Sheffield professor, Piers Robinson, subject of my post, First they came for the socialists.

As for the other two, well, why not read MarkGB’s superb post in full?

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My third pick, written a year ago, is by Chris Hedges, Presbyterian minister and Princeton lecturer. It addresses with consummate eloquence a theme I’ve spent three years battling over, losing friends but gaining others. Those who quite rightly point to the hideousness of Donald Trump, yet see him as something new and egregiously rotten, are missing the point.

Here’s how Hedges begins. So taken was I by paragraph four, I was obliged to nick it for my masthead:

The problem with Donald Trump is not that he is imbecilic and inept—it is that he has surrendered total power to the oligarchic and military elites. They get what they want. They do what they want. Although the president is a one-man wrecking crew aimed at democratic norms and institutions, although he has turned the United States into a laughing stock around the globe,2 our national crisis is embodied not in Trump but the corporate state’s now unfettered pillage.

Trump, who has no inclination or ability to govern, has handed the machinery of government to bankers, corporate executives, right-wing think tanks, intelligence chiefs and generals. They are eradicating the few regulations and laws that inhibited a naked kleptocracy. They are dynamiting institutions, including the State Department, that served interests other than corporate profit and stacking the courts with right-wing, corporate-controlled ideologues. Trump provides entertainment; the elites handle the business of looting, exploiting and destroying.

Once democratic institutions are hollowed out, a process begun before the election of Trump, despotism is inevitable. The press is shackled. Corruption and theft take place on a massive scale. The rights and needs of citizens are irrelevant. Dissent is criminalized. Militarized police monitor, seize and detain Americans without probable cause. The rituals of democracy become farce. This is the road we are traveling. It is a road that leads to internal collapse and tyranny, and we are very far down it.

The elites’ moral and intellectual vacuum produced Trump. They too are con artists. They are slicker than he at selling the lies, and more adept at disguising their greed through absurd ideologies such as neoliberalism and globalization, but belong to the same criminal class and share many of the pathologies that characterize Trump. The grotesque visage of Trump is the true face of politicians such as George W. Bush, Bill and Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. The Clintons and Obama, unlike Bush and Trump, are self-aware and therefore cynical, but all lack a moral compass.

Again, here’s the full text. I don’t know about you but, for all I’m an atheist, I’d take a pew, should I find myself in his neck of the woods, for one of Chris Hedges’ doubtless rousing sermons.

Happy new year, folks.

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  1. To be precise I should say ‘the way the world works in the age of monopoly capital’ – another term for which is imperialism.
  2. Unsurprisingly, when Hedges’ piece was replicated in The Greanville Post, where I happened upon it, the editors were unable to hold back at that ‘laughing stock’ claim, interjecting that “this however is not to be regretted, losing respect for the criminal empire is a healthy development for all vassals and oppressed peoples”. Hear hear.

4 Replies to “Three short reads for 2019

  1. Phil, I’ve just finished a book by Jamie Bartlett called The people Vs tech, a quick read, but one you might like to give some attention. He’s a demos think tank man I thought I wouldn’t getuch from it, but I have found plenty in it that illuminates.

  2. All good.
    Happy new year Philip.
    My mind runs to a long conversation with friends who ran ‘The Rude Shipyard’ up your way as a small independent coffe house and book shop. A good job of it they did too, in my opinion, although it was interesting to hear how hard they worked at it when pitched against the economies of scale and tax evasion of the big chains. They sold the business in the end, and I cannot blame them.
    Who would I salute as an alternative to the increasingly brazen propagandists ?
    As well as those you mention, I like Max Parry’s writing. (His latest at OffG https://off-guardian.org/2019/01/03/why-frances-yellow-vest-protests-have-been-ignored-by-the-resistance-in-the-u-s/).
    I do though wonder that so few political analysts take the declining energy surplus into full account when trying to help us understand the changes that are unfolding today. I agree with Nafeez Ahmed and the peak oilers that it undergirds everything, yet it is almost universally left out of the analyses. Hard to swallow.
    Hedges is solid as ever. I wonder if you have read his book, ‘I Don’t Believe In Atheists’?. As good an argument as I have read against New Atheism as a political force.

  3. Happy new year to you too mog.

    I remember the Rude Shipyard well – a quarter mile from where, till the end of the nineties, I lived on London Road. Alas, I don’t recall going in and it’s less likely now I’ve moved from Sheffield to just outside Nottingham.

    I read the Max Parry piece yesterday and thought it excellent: a thoughtful and historically grounded perspective. God knows, we need more of both.

    Speaking of God, I’m not a militant atheist. An American friend – fan of Dawkins and the overrated Sam Harris – told me religion is a bigger threat than capitalism. Which to me is an absurdity beyond anything you’d find in the bible at its most far-fetched, and tells me little more than that he’s swallowed the war on terror narrative hook, line and sinker.

    I doubt I’ll get round to reading Hedges’ book though. Groaning under the weight of so many books unread, so many posts unwrit, I’m currently reading around the anthropocene v capitalocene debates on environmental destruction. Watch this space!

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