WHAT KIND OF A WORLD DO WE WANT TO LIVE IN?

Should the market and the continuing advances in science and technology be the ultimate arbiters of where we are headed? Neither are experiencing controls, and politicians are most reluctant to intervene in the innovations in robotics or the internet. As a writer, the internet has proven to be both a great assistant and a serious enemy: It distracts me from concentrated attention, steals my time and space to think, degrades my memory, and tends to attack my eyes, my spinal column and even my social life. I know I am not alone in these observations. I have not joined Facebook nor do I spend my nights tweeting, like the US President, but the younger generation will simply say that I am out of touch. I counter this by pointing out that technology is undermining bookshops, printed newspapers and human touch.

So where are we headed? Do we really want to transform human nature so that in the 21st century consciousness will be uncoupled from intelligence? Yuval Noah Harari, the popular new writer/philosopher, suggests three more mundane developments in the 21st Century which are likely to overwhelm our human experience on this planet:

  1. Humans will lose their economic and military usefulness. This will lower their value in economic and political terms.
  2. The human collective will retain its values, but not unique individuals.
  3. A new elite of upgraded humans will arise.1

Harari suggests that “The most important question in 21st Century economics may well be what to do with all the superfluous people?” Contending that humans have both physical and cognitive abilities, he points out that taxi drivers are likely to go the way horses did during the Industrial Revolution. He asks, “What will happen once algorithms outperform us in remembering, analyzing and recognizing patterns?” I tend to agree with him that in the dystopian world which may be facing us, real jobs and full-time employment will be reserved for an educated, technology literate elite. The new wave of top corporations such as Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft simply are not mass employers like Ford, General Electric, GM or Kodak used to be.

The progression of humans on this earth, from tilling the soil in 5000 BC to toiling in an Amazon warehouse, is not always obvious. Early in the 20th Century, Frederick Taylor in his celebrated book, Principles of Scientific Management, regarded workers as cogs in the industrial mass production machine. A century later we are asking why turn workers into machines when robots can do their jobs at a lower cost? Technology has produced ever more efficient ways of monitoring human capabilities and comparing these with the costs and greater profits from robots. Alas, money and profits in the capitalist system are becoming more important than human labor.

Some seventy millennia ago the improved capacity of the Homo sapiens mind started the revolution in which the DNA of one living species was able to dominate the planet. Now a second revolution may be on hand in which the scientific and technological advances of artificial intelligence will triumph over the genetic. Indeed such progress will succeed because of the collaboration between people and algorithms suggests Demis Hassabis the co-founder and CEO of DeepMind. He stated that “If we want computers to discover new knowledge, then we must give them the ability to truly learn for themselves.”2 Please note the personification of the computers!

Harrari adds that “high-tech gurus and Silicon Valley prophets are creating a new universal narrative that legitimizes the authority of algorithms and Big Data.” Just as free-market capitalists believe in the invisible hand of the market so Dataists believe in the invisible hand of the data flow. As the global data processing system becomes all-knowing and all powerful, so connecting to the system will become the source of all meaning. I hesitatingly accept Harrari’s proposal that “We are already becoming tiny chips inside a giant system that nobody really understands.”3

We are now at the stage of accepting that neurons, genes and hormones all obey the same physical and chemical laws of life on earth. However, it will take transcranial stimulators to enable us to decode the electrochemical brain process which determine our perspective, because the two separate brain hemispheres are not always in touch with each other. It is the left hemisphere which is the seat of our verbal abilities including our power to interpret the information that makes sense of our thoughts and experiences. it controls the right hand. The right side is more creative and is crucial in the areas of music, imagination, and intention as well as control of the left hand.

I suspect that ultimately spending untold billions on exploring the brain might be more productive than trillions invested in space exploration. The motivation which underpins the competitive advance of this new technology is in large measure an economic one, as evidenced by the market for shares in high tech. Of course there is also the drive of scientists rushing to publish their pioneering breakthroughs and getting these patented. The growth of technology in many ways resembles that of the market. The market is as blind as it is invisible. However, supply and demand cannot guide all of society. Neither can technology. If everything was determined by the market, the courts, the police, and the army would vanish. So would the entire economy. Mark O’Connell, who had studied this proposition, recognized that growth was mediated by corporations whose real interest was to make eventual profits out of reducing human life into data.4

The efforts of a future in which human minds might be uploaded to computers, is one aspect of Carbon Copies, a “nonprofit organization with a goal of advancing the reverse engineering of neural tissue and complete brains …creating what we call Substrate Independent Minds.” This non-profit group is funded by a number of adventurous millionaire investors who are seeking scientists who work “towards quantum leap discoveries that might rewrite the operating systems of life.”

Somehow I feel human cognition is demeaned when we reduce it to mechanic operations and along computational lines. The internet is proving to be the single most powerful mind-affecting technology ever. As it is the overwhelming flood of new data is extraordinarily disruptive. Many acquaintances suffer from neural addiction to Facebook, Twitter, the latest news and stock market results on top of the steady flow of emails. Studies have shown that cognitive losses from multi-tasking are higher than the cognitive losses from smoking pot. Aided by our smart phones and computers, we are able to multi-task. Apps on our smart phones serve as a calendar, a watch, voice recorder, alarm clock, GPS, camera, flashlight and news headliner. However, there is a cognitive cost for every time we are rapidly switching from one task to the next.5

Surveys show that almost a third of every working day is lost to keeping up with the information flow. The impact on the brain is barely understood and nobody knows how it will affect us socially. What seems certain is that it will transform our existence as homo sapiens has thusfar experienced it. Attention deficit disorders are affecting more and more children. Part of this is ascribed to the swift sequencing of images on the internet. The result is that 3 seconds is about as much time as will hold the attention of kids. How will this affect them in later years?

The universal change of pace already has had extraordinary effects in terms of consumption, obsolescence, renewal, inequality and lots of other conditions. I don’t believe the brain was built for the swift and continuing change that we are currently experiencing. The brain is adaptable and can accommodate small changes here and there, but not the continuity of alterations which are changing the face of the earth, employment, wages, round-the-clock news, ringing mobiles, blogs, and communications. Cyberspace has invaded our public and private lives, our economy and our security as well. While everything is changing, politicians have not appreciated nor understood the social revolution taking place. Few can accept the fundamental and rapid shifts in power. Currently there is no comprehension of who and how would control the new constructs as these arose. AI is certainly going to transform the lives of architects, lawyers and medical professionals. Indeed, it threatens to overwhelm us all. Because we have no idea what the job market will be in 2030 or 2040, we have few notions of what to teach our kids today.

Such realities are far from what may come next: The founder of the 2045 Initiative, Dmitry Itskov, a Russian high tech multimillionaire operating in Silicon Valley, wants “to create technologies enabling the transfer of an individual’s personality to a more advanced nonbiological carrier and extending life, including to the point of immortality.” One of the projects of the 2045 initiative is to create artificial humanoid bodies that would be controlled through brain-computer interface.

A conference in New York by Global Futures 2045 was focused on “a new evolutionary strategy for humanity.” The organizer, Randall Koene, a “trans-humanist,” sees the mind as a piece of software, an application running on the platform of human flesh. The complex transformation starts with the scanning of the pertinent information stored in the neurons of a person’s brain. Although incredibly complicated because of the seemingly endless connections between the neurons, the scan becomes a blueprint for the reconstruction of neural networks which are then transformed into a computational model.” Ultimately this would allow scientists to create any material form which technology permits. The human could choose to become large or small, with feet or with wings, like a tiger or a tree. The prospects may challenge the human imagination, but such projections of AI advances overfill me with forebodings of ultimate horror.

Ultimately, it is the arts that may become our human sanctuary when AI and robots will have replaced teachers, doctors, lawyers and policemen. Creating new jobs will not be the challenge, it will be creating ones where humans can outperform robots. The world we want will be one advancing direct experience, such as all the arts: music, dance, singing, painting, sculpting, writing , and acting . It would also endorse all the sports, running, swimming, , hiking, climbing, walking, and exercising as well as cooking, gardening, keeping pets, caring, loving, and travelling . The joys of all these activities will go far beyond the speculations of Alan Turing and his successors on the connections between randomness and creative intelligence. There is an urgent need for a re-evaluation of our relationship with the wonders of the new technology. *

Currently there is a widespread belief that the advances of technology, the internet and science are both unstoppable and to a large extent, desirable. Silicon Valley’s most prominent figures hold self-serving views that anything which slows scientific innovation is an attack on the public good.6

I liked Rutger Bregman’s outlook in, Utopia for Realists. This young Dutchman suggests that we can construct a society with visionary ideas that could be implemented, like the plans for a universal basic income. As an aging Utopian,
I have always endorsed building castles in the sky. Shocking ideas which are usually rejected out of hand, often return to become popular and even accepted. The questions of ethics in a world that will be so different are daunting. Optimistically, crises- real or perceived- can spark genuine change. Sometimes this can be mind-blowing: As Harari cautioned, human nature is likely to be transformed in the 21st Century because intelligence is uncoupling from consciousness. The countering encouragement he provides is that ultimately” It is our free will that imbues the universe with meaning.”7
—————————————————

1Yuval Noah Harari, Homo Deus, (2016)p.356
2Demis Hassabis, “The Mind in the Machine,” The Financial Times Magazine, April 22, 2017
3Yuval Noah Harari, “In Big Data We Trust,” The FT Magazine,August 27, 2016, p.14
4Mark O’Connell, “Goodbye Body, Hello Posthuman Machine,” The Observer, March 26, 2017
5Daniel J. Levitin, “Why the Modern World Is Bad for Your Brain,” The Observer, January 18, 2015.
6“Computer Security,” The Economist, April 8, 2017, p.75
7Homo Deus, op.cit

* Regulating the internet would require a change in the political mindset in both Europe and the United States. The invasions of privacy and security as well as the massive tax evasion by the largest internet companies have not sufficed to bring about the essential changes. The two prime decisions made by the creates of the internet and principally by Tim Berners-Lee were that there would be no central control or ownership and that the network could not be dominated by any particular application.

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NEW TRENDS IN APPRENTICESHIPS AND INTERNSHIPS IN THE ARTS

This blog is an attempt to deal with my deep concern for the millions of youths globally who cannot find jobs and who are not only angry but are also bewildered about what to do, where to turn to. Meanwhile our profit-focused planet is steadily introducing robots and new technology further challenging the employment of humans. The challenges are daunting.

In the past, an agricultural life did not require formal education. For the minority that lived in cities, most young men followed their father’s occupation or that of family members. Apprenticeship was viewed as the natural next step for those who did not go to school or who finished only the first level of education. The training they received provided them with skills that made them useful to society at large. The industrial revolution rapidly changed this with many youths entering large mills, coal mines and other industries, (as well as the military) while only a select few of the better-off went to university. The second half of the 20th century saw ever increasing numbers go on to higher education as society came to regard a college diploma as a kind of white-collar job guarantee.

In the 21st century many of the enormous numbers of college graduates who had not majored in the sciences, engineering or the law suddenly faced the reality that genuine jobs were few and far between and that they had not been trained or given skills that would enable them to find work. Temporary service jobs were just that. In some countries apprenticeships were one way forward, in others internships (the new socially acceptable nomenclature for apprenticeships) became more marketable.

Internships now are flourishing, but are still restricted in a large extent to those who have the means of travel or enjoy the support and housing of their parents. Most internship are supported by the state and large corporations. They also are focused on industries rather than on commercial arts or crafts. Art college can prepare those at the end of their teens for a great many things, but once they complete their education, they need to develop the skills that will prepare them for the real world. One way to gain an advantage over other students in the field is to land an art internship which is likely to provide the tools and experiences necessary to develop their talent and optimistically land them with jobs.

Many art galleries hire interns to fill the gaps at little cost. Those seeking a “hands on” experience, can try to attain an internship under an art director, a graphic designer, or even an art auctioneer. An internship will help provide a better idea of where one fits in, what technologies and processes one needs to learn and what specific types of projects one might like to work on as a creative professional. With so many internship programs now available in a wide variety of creative organizations it is possible for applicants to choose the specific internship experience that could propel them into a career in the arts. It’s no secret that internships are one of the best ways to land a steady job offer. Becoming a high-performing intern is a superior way to improve one’s employment prospects, so many students tend to focus on the status and nature of the company to which they are applying as crucial to their internship search.

Apprenticeships, which existed for over two millennia, are another way to enter the arts, but they mostly have been in decline over the past few decades. The intimacy of this kind of learning is no longer respected as it was in previous eras. In the world of industry, apprenticeship has generally become less common. Fortunately apprenticeship is still flourishing in much of the service industry ranging from the culinary domain to such varied professions as hairdressing, massage, and design. Of course, in the arts and crafts such as pottery and sculpting, it remains essential.

I should like to see more art-connected artisans entering the work place and furthering this historic tradition. I deeply appreciate the way potters are taking clay into different spheres. The craft and the art are separate, but the truly fine art ceramicists are becoming recognized for their creative talent. As one curator, Sara Matson, explained: “There is an engagement with materials again, a sense of rejecting the digital and getting back to the visceral, and there’s nothing more visceral than clay.”1

Personally, I admire the way Italy’s celebrated foundries, where many of the artisans who work on making molds, polishing etc, started as apprentices at the age of 14. As these young people develop their skills they tend to enter deeply gratifying lives. The same opportunities arise in the media and publishing, in photography, design, furniture, glass-blowing and even the performing arts. However, in Italy a large portion of apprenticeships demanding individual skills and passions are still restricted to a family setting in smaller social communities such as towns and villages. But for how much longer can this last as the big cities in the north focus on specialized skills and the rest enter menial service jobs? Blacksmiths, rope-makers, saddlers, tanners, weavers and wheelwrights have all but disappeared. On the other hand, artisanal bakers, beer-makers and cheese-makers are gaining popularity.

Apprenticeships are now generally focused on helping those who are at the beginning or crossroads of their careers to earn while they learn. They gain occupational skills as they contribute to and participate in the production process. Often they combine work-based learning and classroom instruction over a two- to four-year period leading to steady employments as well as recognized and valued credentials. Unlike the part time jobs frequently held by high school and college students, apprenticeship improves such employability skills as teamwork, communication and responsibility. Mentoring components, which I accentuated in my second blog three years ago, serve to increase the motivation of the young apprentices whose training primarily revolves around supervised work. Such apprenticeship gives “graduates” pride as well a sense of occupational identity so important to a minority.

Developing the necessary support system for apprenticeship programs demands action from various levels of financial support at local, state, and national levels. I find the ways apprenticeships vary from country to country fascinating. In the United States the federal subsidies to encourage apprenticeship programs are far lower than those of other countries. US apprentices make up only a tenth of the comparable work forces in apprenticeship of Canada, the UK, Australia, Germany and Switzerland. Shamefully, the total annual US government funding for apprenticeship is less than $400 per participant. This compares to the much higher annual national spending for students attending two-year public colleges which is around $12,000 per participant. This low contribution to apprenticeship can partially be attributed to a lack of public and political support. However, it must be noted that only a minority of firms actually go on to hire apprentices in the US. The “academic only” college focus of policymakers in Washington deprives many young people of access to alternative pathways towards rewarding careers. Apprenticeship could narrow the post-secondary school achievement gaps in both race and gender. Providing participants with wages while they learn has proven to be particularly beneficial. Mentors and supervisors of those in apprenticeships provide the close monitoring and feedback which ultimately help a focus on good performance both in the classroom and while at work.

Prof Robert Lerman, who has been an expert on apprenticeship programs in the US, has pointed out that interest was increasing in Washington because of the recent successes of Britain and Switzerland which have been copied by training groups in South Carolina, Colorado and Wisconsin. (Before the arrival of Donald Trump, that is.) Prof Lerman declared that: “A robust apprenticeship system is especially attractive because of its potential to reduce youth unemployment, improve the transition from school to career, upgrade skills, raise wages of young adults, strengthen a young worker’s identity, increase US productivity, achieve positive returns for employers and workers, and use limited federal resources more effectively.”2 In the various American state programs, the course work of the apprentices is usually equivalent to one year of community college. If they complete their training they receive a valuable credential attesting to their mastery of a skill or skills required in their field.

The experience of apprenticeships in the United Kingdom contrasts dramatically with that of the United States. More than 800,000 apprentices now make up close to 3 percent of the national work force. With public spending of close to $2.5 billion per year, apprenticeship has moved into the social mainstream. National branding, marketing and PR by private training organizations, firm-based initiatives as well as Further Education Colleges have been remarkably successful: apprenticeship positions rose from about 150,000 in 2007 to close to a million a decade later. The result is that over half the young population chooses not to follow an academic path. Being career-focused, almost a third of these English teenagers know what they want to do in the future. Perhaps that is why there are now over 1,500 different apprenticeships being offered by 170 national industries. Starting this April, all UK employers with a payroll of £3 million are required to pay into the Apprenticeship Levy which was set up by the government to fund apprenticeship training including new digital training vouchers.

I truly admire The National Skills Academy for the Creative and Cultural, a charity which focuses on apprenticeships with the support of the Arts Council of the UK. In cooperation with the Skills Academy network, a program designed to improve training in the creative and cultural industries has been established. Creative Choices is a resource for anyone wanting to work in a creative career. Job listings are spread by employers across the country and all the jobs, internships, and apprenticeships now must meet the National Minimum Wage requirements.

Creative Choice events give 13- to 16-year-olds in the UK the opportunity to learn about working in music, theater, design and cultural heritage. At Production Days, aspiring backstage crews are given the opportunity to work at some of the biggest music festivals. And in the Technical Masterclasses, bespoke training is provided for young aspiring professionals with some of the leading directors, producers, and theatrical stage managers in the world.

The Backstage Centre has been built, as part of a major regeneration project in London’s Thames Gateway, to provide a training and rehearsal facility to meet the demand of the industry for over 6,500 new jobs in the live music and theater industries this year. This Centre is being used by the international music, film and theater industries as a performance, rehearsal and filming venue. Any profits made through commercial activities directly fund the charitable work to help the future creative workforce. The Center has been part of the program “Building a Creative Nation” which was launched four years ago to ensure that the next generation can continue to access creative careers in what is widely hailed as the world’s foremost national creative sector.

I have been surprised that in Switzerland, whose Helvetian apprenticeship program is much prized and acclaimed, private companies spend around $5 billion a year to ensure that the workforce pipeline is filled with young, passionate, talented people who exude hope and belief in their future. Many of the higher level executives in Switzerland have participated in the program and appreciate its rigors and quality. These executives would not hire those who had not completed the national apprenticeships. The result is that a very high proportion of parents of all socioeconomic backgrounds encourage their children to enroll in apprenticeships. As a consequence, Swiss youth unemployment is below 2.5 percent – as compared to over 12 percent in the US.

Particular importance is attached in the Swiss program to both hope and to personalization in which students are urged to learn not only specific task-based skills, but also how to be self-directed, self-sufficient, planning their time and work effectively. Moreover, 30 percent of graduates of the apprenticeship program are likely during their lifetimes to earn a third more than their equivalent non-graduates. It is important to note here that the Swiss system is not rigid. It enables students to move freely back and forth between the academic path and the vocational. Upon graduation they can continue working in their field then switch to a different one, or pursue advanced professional degrees. All are encouraged to continue their personal and professional development throughout their lives.

“After studying and visiting the Swiss apprenticeship system, I realized that our current system of career and technical education will not sustain the needs of our business and the state of Colorado,” stated John Kinning, the head of RK Mechanical. A group president of the Kaiser Foundation Hospitals, Donna Lynne, added that the Swiss system has “de-stigmatized young people who choose a post-secondary career versus going to college.” She also noted that the program might help to lower school dropout rates, a huge problem in many districts of Colorado. Because young people get to build job skills and get paid while going to school part-time, they are less likely to quit. Only a few other states, such as Georgia and Wisconsin, now provide apprenticeships to youths aged sixteen to nineteen. This offers an alternative to the “academic only” college focus of US policy makers which fails to narrow the achievement gaps in both gender and race.

I do want to point out, however, that the reforms inspired by the Swiss and the German apprenticeship programs generally fail to cover the arts. In the United States art colleges can give students the background and prepare them for many things, but once they have completed that education they need to develop skills that will prepare them for the real world by then landing an art internship. Those looking for such an internship at a particular company can begin their search at Internships.com or Chegg.com where they can find art related opportunities with highly different organizations. Many art galleries exploit young interns to hang their shows and to run errands, however such internships can help neophytes to get a better notion of where they might fit in, what specific kinds of project they might like to work on as creative professionals and what technologies and processes they need to master.

Ultimately, the young hopefuls in the arts everywhere face the same challenge: How can I earn enough to enable me to create the way I want to, the way I need to? They may have learned some of their skills in schools, but they want to let their imaginations produce works to be appreciated for their emotional power or, perhaps, just for their beauty. Wherever they may find themselves — as cartoonist, dancer, illustrator, jeweler, photographer, sculptor, or creator in one of the many genres of the arts, they will want to assert their vision, their drive, their needs, their individual skills and their passions. For them to achieve this support is crucial, irrespective of whether it be from family, friends, art groups, local, state or private funding, apprenticeships or even the increasingly popular internships. I believe the importance of such new social formats has to be promoted and celebrated not only for the younger generation but to sustain the creative futures of all our global societies.

1Curator of the exhibition now running in St Ives, “That Continuous Thing: Artists and the Ceramics Studio, 1920 to Today,” see Tom Morris, “Behind the Veneer” The Financial Times, March 25, 2017.

2Robert Lerman, “Expanding Apprenticeships in the United States,” Brookings, June 19, 2015

WHITHER OUR LIBRARIES?

I am writing about libraries not to belatedly commemorate my mother’s early years as a librarian in Amsterdam, but because I have had a long and wonderful association with libraries all my life. They are like old friends. When I was at university, I found libraries to be romantic places where students like myself would congregate and share interests rather than talk about football or critique the college food. The many floors of accessible stacks of the Widener Library at Harvard opened worlds of knowledge for me and also sparked my imagination The impact was to last a lifetime. I found the library to be a true academy of learning. I was fortunate in the years that followed to have access to New York’s great 42nd Street Library and then the gigantic Library of Congress in Washington DC.

One of the reasons I chose to live in Cambridge, England in the 1970’s was because of its excellent library. If I had to do research for my books and articles a library that was relatively close-by was essential. Nearly five decades later, alas, I almost never go there. The digital onslaught now permits me to speedily fill in any gaps in my now library size collection of books.

It is challenging to consider that less than forty years ago, libraries were still at the center of civilization, being the storehouse of our history and all recorded knowledge. Since then the wonders of the Internet have deprived these libraries not only of their monopoly on stored information but also of their social standing in our communities. Although in most of the English speaking world the libraries are gradually turning into tombs for books, in some countries like South Korea hundreds of new libraries have been built in the past decade. Their perspective obviously differs from our own.

How are we going to replace the human contact libraries provided? Books transformed the lives of many youngsters over the past few centuries, but it now appears adults cannot even find the time to bring the very young ones into a library. The consequence is a damaging decline in their literacy.

Libraries date back some six millennia to stored clay tablets in cuneiform found buried in what used to be Mesopotamia. During the Greco-Roman era, the great library in Alexandria, Egypt became one of the centers of ancient civilization. The opposition of religion to this library came with the fall of Alexandria in 641 when Caliph Omar declared: “Burn the libraries, for all their value is in the Koran.” Almost a thousand years later, Martin Luther wrote “The aggregation of large libraries tends to divert men’s thoughts from the one great book, The Bible, which ought, day and night, to be in everyone’s hand. My project, my hope, in translating the scriptures, was to check the so prevalent production of new works.” It is ironic how both great religions that now see religious attendance flagging are looking at how the libraries are coping with a similar challenge. Public libraries view with envy how currently museum attendance continues to soar.

Some of the great libraries of the world are turning into tourist attractions with almost no room to sit down anywhere. These temples of knowledge are using their architectural beauty to lure in crowds. Among these classic libraries is the St Gallen Abbey which is a world heritage wonder in a Swiss canton named in its honor. The library there has been in operation since the 8th century and some of its rarest books from before 1000 AD are displayed in its resplendent, wood lined main room. More accessible for tourists is The Bibliotheque Mazarine in Paris. It is France’s oldest public library dating from 1643 and is visited for its marble bust-lined reading room from the period of Moliere. London’s world famous British Library has turned into a major museum showing art while its vast book collection is now housed in an entirely new library half a mile to the north. There is ample room for nostalgia in these libraries turned into tourist attractions.

Public Libraries in England have evolved considerably over the past two centuries. The writer E.S. Turner observed, “The higher bourgeoisie were never seen in public libraries, which had, in their eyes, a dispensary or workhouse image; though they were occasionally seen in the reference department where they made known their requirements in firm, resonant tones.”1 Those days of class-division in libraries are now past, but their survival as cultural institutions is under threat. Over the last five years about a quarter of the nation’s librarians, some 8000 of them, have lost their jobs.

Alan Bennett believes that the closure of library branches in the UK verges on “child abuse” and fellow author Neil Gaiman said that “silencing the voices of the past” is damaging our future. Over last year alone over 200,000 children who left primary school in the UK were unable to read to the expected level. Part of this failure is due to the lack of time they are exposed to the printed word. Books to them belong to the past. Another author, Cathy Cassidy, who successfully fought to save some of Liverpool’s libraries, said that the falling attendance figures reflected “cuts in staffing, opening hours and show the damage that closing local libraries has caused. Does Britain really want to add the loss of libraries to an already shocking decimation of services?”2 While Library campaigner, Desmond Clarke, added that “The real concern must be the marked decline over several years in library usage and borrowing.”

The greatest fall in library usage among adults in recent years has been in the 16-24 year old age group. Figures showed that in 2005 half of this age group used their library while ten years later that figure had fallen to a mere 25%. The most common reason for using a library less is that they had “less free time.” Just over ten per cent of adults said they were now reading eBooks instead of borrowing them from a library.

Nick Poole, an information specialist in the UK, maintains that “As a nation we have a choice. We can either accept our place at the bottom of the OECD rankings for literacy… or we invest in the skills our children will need in a digital world. We can’t afford to speak the language of life chances while failing to invest in and develop the library and information services that make them a reality.”

Many critics insist that with the closure of pubs, the decline in church attendance, and the diminishing use of public libraries, a new role should be given to the latter: they should be turned into a hub of every community. They should encourage plays, exhibitions and a variety of classes. One commentator in the Guardian wrote: “My local library in Market Drayton, it is always buzzing with children’s reading and singing groups, talks with writers, drop-in sessions for people researching their family histories, and even people borrowing books! But, guess what? this facility, so much of peoples lives, is under threat because Shropshire county council funding cuts.”3 The value of libraries, books, learning and forward-thinking are all being challenged by the continuing cuts in public services.

In the United States trends in visiting public libraries have steadied even with the budget cuts at both the state and municipal levels which are forcing reduced hours and smaller staffs. A Pew Research Center survey in April 2016 found that Americans continued to express mostly positive opinions about the state and services of their local public libraries. For example three quarters said that their libraries provided them with the necessary resources. There was also a growing sense that these libraries helped them to decide what information they could trust. 37% felt that these public institutions helped them “a lot” in this respect. Personally, I wonder whether the Trump supporters, who apparently don’t give a damn about the facts, were in this category.

A large number of Americans hold high expectations for the services their local libraries should offer.4 For example, they can teach people digital skills, or help them how to explore and use creative technologies such as 3D printers. More than a quarter of all adults are using a library for Internet access. Many libraries now offer new recreational and cultural opportunities such as e-readers, laptops, scientific equipment and the loan of musical instruments. The librarians justify this because they believe they should respond to the needs of their local community, They do not regard this as a ploy to stay relevant. Indeed, free access to the Internet and computers is now almost as important to library visitors as borrowing books.5 However, when it comes to stacks of books, about a quarter queried thought these should be moved to make more room for technical equipment and community activities and about a third rejected such moves. The New York Public Library is adopting “the bookstore model” offering more comfortable seats and table space and providing easy access to a broad range of both the classics and bestsellers.

School libraries face protracted challenges: As schools continue to seek ways to reduce costs, such as cutting the number of librarians and consolidating different services, their survival is uncertain. The new generation of millennials who enter college are already using the Internet more than their library. Surfing the web is far easier than plowing through a library’s catalogue. In terms of time, energy and immediate results, the college library is likely to become less frequented.6

With billions of materials circulated every year in the United States, many of these are stored in over 17,000 American libraries, neither the uncertainties facing them nor their transformations will affect their historical importance. Budget cuts to public libraries in the 21st century seem inevitable as do the growth of alternative sources of information and the rise of new digital technologies. There is increasing awareness among Americans and Europeans that the future of public libraries must focus on improving the quality of life itself for the readers in their communities.

Ultimately, what of the unpredictable future? What we will leave behind as a civilization are our libraries regardless of all the plausible measures or standards of value. Perhaps such saved “treasures” will have to be studied to be understood, much as the cuneiform of ancient Assyria was deciphered by modern experts. Somehow I doubt that the vast arrays of trillions of air conditioned bits of stored digital information will be of use to any species or robots a few thousand years from now. If the content of any surviving paper holdings are still legible after untold fires, earthquakes, storms, or wars they might offer valuable revelations to the curious digital decipherers of tomorrow.


1E S Turner, An ABC of Nostalgia, (1984) p.141
2Alison Flood, The Guardian, December 10, 2014
3Graham Russell, in a letter to the Guardian December 26, 2016
4John B. Horrigan, in a report on Libraries to the Pew Research Center September 9, 2016
5Leslie Kaufman, Survey on Libraries, The New York Times, January 22, 2013
6Pascal Lupien and Randy Oldham, “Meeting the Needs of Student Webb Users in Academic Libraries” (2012)

#affectsourspirits

My relative isolation from the digital world recently became painfully evident while looking at “PETRIe” an offbeat cultural site on the Internet which deals with various social and cultural domains ranging from fashion to protests. What struck me was a short essay by PETRIe’s feature writer, Elena Stanciu, on “Hashtag Protest.” I had come across both the symbol and the word, but I had never viewed the hashtag as an important developmental aspect of the new media. I was bowled over by her text which I now take the liberty of introducing you to hashtags with a couple of her dense paragraphs:

Digital platforms feed into the structural fragmentation and individualisation of societies today, paradoxically enhancing connectivity and mirroring the spatiality of protest: the public square is now the platform, and groups of activists are now digital enclaves, linked by tracking algorithms. An artefact of this digital culture of protest is the hashtag, which becomes a social movement instrument, ensuring a successful deployment of tangible realities of protest across connective platforms.
As part of last year´s protests against racial injustice and police brutality in the US, the hashtag played a central role in claiming portions of digital space for specific causes, and operating a mirroring of the physical demonstrations, as stand-ins for instances of social injustice, and valid calls for policy change. The epitome of this, #blacklivesmatter transformed the role of the activist digital handle, by pushing a critical re-framing of discourse around the tragedy of extrajudicial violence against black people. By being both inclusive and descriptive of the content it “tags,” the hashtag operates a process of negotiating cultural realities, beyond the mere dissemination and immediate conversion of events. With every reposting, #blacklivesmatter negates the implied “black lives do not matter,” thus attempting to exclude racism as a viable component of social reality.

In this new architecture of symbolic significance, the hashtag would appear to deliver order to the different forms of organized dissent we are currently experiencing. Stanciu goes on to assert that “the hashtag describes, sums up, re-plays, while it simultaneously produces and reproduces new meanings.” Apparently the hashtag now plays a significant part in enhancing the flow of the narrative of events taking place such as the recent women’s global marches on January 21st. She views the hashtag as “bringing order in what would otherwise be indistinguishable clutter.” In doing so Stanciu believes the hashtag is “launching a dialogue between message and medium, content and channel, existing realities and imagined realities.” She quotes two ‘theorists’ in this field, if one can thus describe the experts who, reflecting on hashtags, embrace a logic that “transforms collective action into connective action.”1

Much of this analysis seems forced, artificial and somewhat pretentious to me, but then I am not a #twitterthriller. I will not try to guess where this new format is headed, but the way hashtags have swept the world in just a decade is truly astonishing.

The widespread discursivity of the hashtag apparently extends beyond both time and space. It has become a cultural phenomenon of the new millennium with writers like Stanciu viewing it as “the raw material to be used in the forging of a new order of space, action, and life.” I find such a conclusion rather incredible, but then I come at this as an outsider who finds it hard to understand the power of such perceptions, riddled as they are by confusion, and leaves me scratching my head. I am not alone.

When Melania Trump, shortly after entering the White House, began sharing her hashtag #Powerofthefirstlady confusion reigned as to what it meant. One reader thought it sounded like an advertising tagline for an antiperspirant. Another thought it could be what a teenage girl in an anime cartoon might shout to transform into an adult. What seems evident is that interpreting hashtags could soon be classified as having a professional status. It is now recognized that the # can convey a full range of emotions from sarcasm to humor.

The hash symbol or [called the pound sign in the USA] has grown in meaning since Chris Messina first used it while camping in California in August 2007 for groups, as in #barcamp.2 It was then appropriated by Twitter as a way to categorize messages and rapidly became the principal site for advancing its popularity. An etiquette swiftly arose to prevent the misuse of hashtags: Twitter warned that three hashtags were an “absolute maximum” in any 140 letter conversation and that exceeding that number could cause an account to be suspended. Moreover, a hashtag that is not picked up by another user will be regarded as a failure by the media’s experts. However, hashtgaggery, or the academic or scholarly study of such phenomena, is still in its infancy.

I shall try not to nurture this fledgling art form in this blog, but its spread is phenomenal. Among its highest promoters #realTrumpIsKing. The New York Times closed an amusing entry on the hashtag: “We just have to venture forth and find it, exploit it and perfect it. #Letathousandhashtagsbloom.”3

I have not yet learned how to appreciate the literary pretensions of the hashtag. The wordplay of its “trending topics” which tend to be event driven by punch phrasing which would seem to be searching crowd-sourced setups such as: #christmascheer, #orgasmicclutter, and #robotjobs — all of which could generate a massive response on Twitter. Some hashtags have gained fame in different ways:

  • #jesuischarlie in English #iamcharlie) expressed global solidarity with those who were assassinated in the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris.
  • #OccupyWallStreet became the hashtag of the protesters not only in New York but around the world.
  • The “Tonight Show Hashtags” became among the most tweeted on Twitter which promoted this television program on NBC in the US. It is to be noted here that the television formatted hashtags are used to identify a series being broadcast as well as to measure the immediate response from the viewers to the topical hashtags issued by the presenters. Hashtag “bugs” on the home video screens also are being used in television commercials to promote branded products as well as to gauge the topical reactions of their audiences.
  • Hashtags are also used on social networks like Instagram where users can post a picture and then tag it with a subject. However Instagram can block or censor hashtags which could be linked to illegal activities such as drug use.
  • Ultimately the spoken hashtag can work as a joke, or express complex sarcasm, for example to comment on Donald Trump’s aside to a British reporter at his over-lengthy press conference: #theBBCanotherbeauty.

Perhaps one of these days @, the “at” sign, will enjoy similar popularity as the #- although currently it is mostly restricted to names, addresses and connections. Frankly, as a writer, the dash “–” has always exerted a greater attraction for me. It seems to possess more meanings, embraces a stronger sense of space and time, as well as inspiring a strange metaphysical continuity. Yet another popular social media may arise someday soon – how shall I put it ? –  with dash!


1W.Lance Bennet and Prof. Alexandra Segerberg, The Oxford Handbook of Social Movements, (2015)

2Wikipedia gives a brief history of the hashtag

3Julia Turner, “In Praise of the Hashtag,” The New York Times, November 2, 2012 (Magazine section)

Challenges in the Art Market

The struggle in the art world between auction houses and gallery dealers has been quietly raging over the past three decades. The prime focus of the auctioneers has been to maximize profits while the galleries have tried promoting and protecting their artists to create an appreciation in value.

The art buyers buyers have been in the middle but the balance has shifted because the collectors making the largest purchases are no longer visiting the dealers but are circulating around the world at some two dozen fine art fairs stretching from New York to Hong Kong. This is causing an increasing struggle for the dealers because the auctions are excluded from the fairs. For many dealers in the world’s mega-cities, who are already facing increasingly expensive rents, it has meant additional costs for space at the exclusive fairs, plus, travel, shipping, insurance, staff and accommodation. Many of the established but gradually exhausted dealers feel compelled to attend three or more of these fairs in a world already consumed by uncertainty.

I must come clean on this immediately: four members of my family have been artists and they are currently represented by dealers in six countries. So I write about this with experience going back to my youth in the Paris of Picasso and Matisse. It is not only that art is increasingly being called into question by the power of money, by the new computer-driven trends of what is “fashionable,” by the reduction of space given to art by the printed media and the corresponding dearth of capable art critics,* but now also by the struggles between gallery dealers, the auction houses and the art fairs. It is on this  aspect  of art as a form of investment in a more insecure financial planet that I shall try to focus.

In our era, money, profit , celebrity, globalization and speed have overwhelmed  how art is valued and consequently how it is promoted and bought. No ideology nor notion, like that of the “avant-garde” affect either dealers or auctioneers. What matters is money, although videos, Instagram, and the digital media, as well as the prestige of museum shows, all affect the market. The sense that high prices suggest quality while lower prices hint at a lack, has grown over the past century. The result is that artists struggle to get higher prices through their dealers, or eventually through the “updraft” of auction sales, as well as through exposure in the media. However, “The random, narcissistic, and viciousness of internet culture,” as described by Holland Cotter in the New York Times, takes its toll.1

Contemporary artists prefer to use independent dealers who will not only make beneficial decisions about their output , but who will look after them and their reputation. Running their own “shops” dealers are not dominated by corporate interests such as auction houses are. This gives the artists greater protection, stability and “longevity,” or continuity, which the auction houses cannot provide. True, some patronizing, big-time dealers, such as Larry Gagosian, may sell paintings which have not yet been created by one of their leading artists to collectors who are over-anxious to buy the newest of creations. How this could affect the artist may not even be considered! Jeff Koons, one of the highest paid of contemporary artists, says: “I love the gallery, the arena or representation. It’s a commercial world, and morality is based generally around economics, and that’s taking place in the art gallery.”2

There are still a number of well-informed and cultured art dealers who have devoted their lives to furthering paintings, sculptures, and water-colors of particular artists and periods. Such dealers tend to follow their instincts instead  of the fashion-driven market.  A little over a hundred years ago, the famous Parisian dealer,  Paul Durand-Ruel, created values for paintings few wanted and he managed to change the taste and economics of the Victorian-age art market. When no one was able to sell such impressionists  as Edouard Manet, Claude Monet and Camille Pissarro, Durand-Ruel was successful in making a business from them.

“What would have become of us if Kahnweiller had not had a business sense?” asked Picasso of the German-Jewish dealer who single-handedly saved the Cubists from starvation. The art expert Bernard Berenson, who became the grand intermediary between historical Italian works of art and the great British dealer, Lord Joseph  Duveen, was to remark that “I soon observed that I ranked with fortune-tellers,  chiromancists, astrologers, and not even with the self-deluded of these, but rather with the deliberate charlatans.” Berenson, who made millions certifying paintings by 15th to 18th century  Italian masters, expected maximum returns from sales he had facilitated for Duveen, but actually took no responsibility for making the sales.

Today those who buy and sell art as a business no longer like to have  themselves described as “dealers.”  They have been transformed into “gallerists” or “curators.” The latter gives credibility to their status. Curators are associated in  peoples’ minds with experts who have academic  or museum training and have developed scholarly concerns with quality and historical origins like Berenson did.3

In the psychological warfare of the market, artists also have been promoted as “ground breakers” doing “cutting-edge work,” which may be described as being “radical” or “seminal.” Their product is no longer “new” or “innovative.” The artists no longer enjoy careers, but have become “masters” working on their latest “iconic” image. Galleries employ public relations firms who create “name recognition” for the artist. Indeed, celebrate status has become vital in today’s global art market. The artists are also being forced to promote their own status as the role of critical reviews has shrunk due to the lack of coverage in the press.

Artists today are being defined by their capacity to convert feelings, experience and thoughts into a tabloid of our increasingly exposed world. Although most artists of the past were once considered “contemporary,” our current “Contemporary market” has a vitality that is now absent from the market for Old Masters and Modern Art. In part, it is the relevance to immediacy that explains the current success of the Contemporary in the global art market.

Since the year 2000, the Contemporary global art market has multiplied in value by close to 14 times. The number of art buyers generally has risen spectacularly from around 500,000 in the 1950’s to around 70 million today. The average age of these art enthusiasts also steadily decreased, as the number of those in their thirties and forties has risen markedly and 95% of the participants are now connected to sales via their mobiles. According to Metcalfe’s Law “the market’s potential on the internet is proportional to the square of the number of its connected buyers, collectors, dealers and curators.”4

There is no regulated code of conduct in the globalized art market. For the auction houses as well as most galleries, commercial values rule supreme. Sales are driven by desire, greed,  prestige, and competition.  The works of the leading contemporary artists become blue chip investments while those of the younger creators who receive lower ratings must face the inevitable market adjustments as their art is viewed as a financial investment. A successsful French artist, Thierry Ehrmann, contends that “Contemporary art will always be … constantly criticized for its record auction prices, its difficulty of interpretation and its inherently subversive nature.”

As far as the auction houses are concerned the market place warfare is about money and not about “the new” nor about artistic innovation. Amy Cappellazzo of Sotheby’s explains that the management is trying to transform their image from being an auction house into that of an “art business service.” There is a recognition that to do so, as auctioneers they must try to buy or takeover a number of  galleries and in that way insert their presence into the flourishing art fairs which have become the largest transactional arena for art.

The big fairs, like those in Maastricht, Basel and New York, all are in competition with Christie’s, Phillips, and Sotheby’s. The fairs bring in rich collectors, the museum curators, dealers, critics — all of whom enjoy the art world social atmosphere with only the rare presence of actual artists.  As the New York Times headlined it: “As prominent artists age, the art world hopes to cash in.” The frantic gossip at the fairs, the networking, and exhibitionism all add to the excitement of these gatherings. A wild, single sale can set the market rolling. In part that is why the market is so notoriously vulnerable to manipulation. A ring of a few promoters can bid up the price of a youthful but dubious painter. This was certainly the case of Jean-Michel Basquiat, who after his early tragic death from drugs, was promoted by a small group of top dealers led buy Bruno Bischofberger of Zurich. They pledged to keep the price of Basquiat’s works at auctions rising and over the past thirty years they have been spectacularly successful: The price has risen from the $5,000 level to the multi-million dollar range.

Neither dealers nor the auction houses have any connection to aesthetic principles. They leave that to the burgeoning world of museums. Whatever standards still exist are now in the hands of these representative institutions. Each year about 700 new museums are opening up around the world. More  have been built in this short new millennium than in the previous 200 years.** As each of these new institutions  search for museum-quality creations, they underpin the art market sales of the dealers, the auction houses, and the fairs.

As Philip Hook concludes in his latest book, Rogues’ Gallery, “The history of art dealing is the story of many varieties of human folly and duplicity, interspersed with ingenuity, inspiration and occasional acts of heroism.”


1Holland Cotter, “Artists reflecting their era,” The New York Times, January 31, 2017.
2quoted by Jackie Wullschlager, “Lasting Impressions,” The Financial Times, February 21, 2015 (Arts Section, p.11)
3Philip Hook, Rogues’ Gallery, (2017)
4 First formulated in this form by George Gilder in 1993, and attributed to Robert Metcalfe .
5The Economist, February 4, 2017, p.82

*The painful lack of truly incisive art critics such as former prominents Clement Greenberg, Hilton Kramer, Herbert Read, Harold Rosenberg, and David Sylvester is manifest in both the US and the UK.

**The supremacy of money in our time has been characterized by one artist, James Stephen George Boggs, who specialized in creating new bank notes. He would take a picture of himself and place an engraving of it on a hundred dollar bill where the bank name might be “Federal Reserve Not.”  When merchants wouldn’t accept his art, he would point out the beauty of the engraving. As his biographer, Lawrence Weschler noted,  “he was just short of being a con-man –but no more so than anyone else in the art world.”  Although Boggs died in January, the Economist’s obituary noted that his art remains on the walls of galleries and museums all over America and Europe.

EPILOGUE — THE NOVEMBER 8TH CALAMITY

Trump’s victory hit me like a blow to the head, totally disrupting  my thoughts, feelings, and reactions: There was no way I  could continue to write blogs focused on our positive prospects for tomorrow after the unmitigated catastrophe of the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States.

Some months later, I still cannot see anything which will make life more meaningful emerging under Trump. This is a turning point for the US, but personally, from my individual perspective, it was and remains a disaster, like having been in a serious car crash.

I still cannot accept that such a large part of the American electorate failed to recognize Trump as a vain, politically inexperienced, deceptive, limited, insecure, lacking in empathy and pathologically unsuited con-man.

Trump had been exposed as being unfit to hold office by the entirety of the American press. (I described him as a 21st Century Satan in one of my blogs a few months ago.)  The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, The Wall Street Journal and the editorial pages of all the leading newspapers across the country steadily warned against him to no avail. No point for me now to continue the loud chorus of printed dismay with  further denunciations in my blog.

Beyond their frustrated expectations of a better life, what could have persuaded so many American voters to endorse such an exceedingly unsuitable candidate? Were they blind? Out of their minds? Physically, on my first viewing years ago, I had immediately found his face revolting. Many of the people I know cannot stand the sight of him on their TV sets and yet the flood of truly vile items released about Trump and by him, has failed to arouse doubts in his admirers. They seemed to be saying at every chance: “He’s real. He’s just like us” and then they  repeat “He’ll Make America Great Agin.”(sic) Such chants speedily downgrade into shouting their stored hatreds and anger. Their disgusting behavior, reminded me of the way Germans had expressed their venom three generations ago, and had the unwelcome effect of hyper-activating my bile.

As a refugee from Nazi occupied France in 1941, I entered America as a youth who desired rapid assimilation: I immediately treasured the optimistic and positive spirit of my classmates in New York.  Intuitively I felt that the political attitudes of Americans offered a rational, generous and hopeful prospect for mankind. When I went to Harvard, purportedly surrounded by “the brightest and the best”, I came to take for granted the exchange of thoughts, the examination of given assumptions, (such as understanding, insight and acceptance), as representing a naturally intelligent way of life. This educational preparation received a few shocks during a stretch in the US Army as a “Private, third class.”  Basic training is focused on following orders, not on discussing Plato or Jefferson. However, I did come to appreciate the social equality of my fellow recruits.

My belief in the fundamental American values was strengthened in the years which followed as a writer and researcher for Congressional-Quarterly/Editorial Research in Washington, DC. I enjoyed asking questions at JFK’s White House press conferences. Such experience furthered my engagement in the search for truth, in factual reporting, and in expanding the understanding of my readers. I developed a belief, however misguided as it may have been, in the common-sense of the American people. At times, as in the elections of Richard Nixon and later in that of  George W. Bush, I began to have my doubts. These were electrified by the shocking antics of Donald Trump.

Was my entire outlook on life and on the premises by which I had embraced the American way of life erroneous or worthless? Have knowledge, rationality, intelligence and memory all become irrelevant in this new and most unwelcome era?

The long-term prospects are not good for a nation which is now led by a POTUS who has never held any position in service of the nation, who has skillfully avoided taxes, has no understanding of the necessity of compromise in the democratic process, is unable to accept criticism or to listen to the voice of others and ultimately appears unable to recognize the difference between truth and fiction.

All too many Americans seem to have succumbed to the misguiding power of celebrity, to the even greater power of money, and to the digital propaganda of Twitter. Millions of Americans have obviously become unreceptive to examining lies and falsehood, at the same time that they were rejecting expertise, debate, intelligence and experience. Serious analysis and criticism are no longer to be regarded as welcome or even essential. As a number of writers on The New York Times, from David Brooks on the right to Paul Krugman on the left, have noted: hypocrisy now flourishes in America. The evangelical believers and  conservative Republicans who swore by their religious tenets and balanced budgets, simply abandoned their fundamental beliefs for the sake of political power.

The new “Age of the Deal,” leaves me reeling. Where to turn? What to do? Should I give up my American citizenship? There is no way I can align my writings or outlook to counter-act the unending flow of brainless Tweets. What has happened to conscience, to values, to empathy and to cultural traditions in this misbegotten administration?

I felt and continue to feel that the response of the Congressional Democrats has been unacceptably feeble. It is without true fire in the belly. The exception of the heroic John Lewis, who stood up bravely to contest the validity of the election, was not matched by his Party. I regarded the inauguration not as a patriotic event but as an occasion to mourn the passing of much of the democratic dream of a better future. Trumpism seems to be heralding a period of denial in which the environmental threat to our planet is likely to accelerate.

I cannot see the point of joining voices to the powerful bandwagon against Trump.  I feel there is little place now for a blog which worked towards a positive exploration of our future possibilities. I shall try to continue to explore the more positive aspects and values of the world around us at a time when the stream of executive orders from the White House are spreading anxiety and gloom. I trust that correspondents like Roger Cohen will continue their exposure of the contradictions and rantings of a pathologically deranged Head of State.

I recognize that the best I can do in this chaotic period is to alter my focus: Instead of continuing to suggest social and economic alternatives, I shall explore cultural aspects of society much as I did in Paris decades ago for Newsweek. I hope that on occasion this will distract and uplift your spirits as much as they may mine.

108. Exit Corporate Capitalism

The fragility of our economic foundations has become a universal concern. Not only are these still nerve rattling after-shocks from the last crisis in 2008, but every day’s news warns us that there is the risk of a serious economic implosion around the corner. The truth is that our global economic system cannot long endure debts of $200 trillion — or three times the gross global product when the interest rates and inflation are both close to zero and QE (Quantitative Easing/printing money) is pumping billions into economies whose currencies continue to be devalued. As Stephen King, the HSBC economist, dramatically cautioned: “The world economy is a Titanic without lifeboats.”

I consistently argued in my book, Dollars or Democracy1, that we have to face up to the fact that after two centuries of undisputed advance, corporate capitalism has had its innings. Yes, it had great achievements: Corporate capitalism took most of humanity out of an agricultural existence into an industrial one and then into our own technological era. However, at no stage was corporate capitalism concerned with human well being. It was focused on the interest money could earn and the profits that could be made through goods and services. It never had an answer to nagging unemployment nor the entry of robots. Indeed, it was never responsible for the stewardship of our planet nor the equitable distribution of clean air, water and food. All those problems were left to the political sphere.

In many ways corporate capitalism sowed the seeds of its own predicament. It fostered ever-faster growth and changes which have had revolutionary consequences manifest in the populist upheaval in politics which we are currently experiencing. In a system which promoted naked self-interest, one of the major human problems which arose was that many world’s peoples adopted much of the ethos of corporate capitalism as an integral part of their perspective. Helped by the technological wonders of the Internet, we developed ever-mounting expectations. The popular focus turned to celebrity, wealth and the self. The highest “value” was no longer human nor divine but monetary. In this process humanity also became hooked on speed: fast travel, fast transactions, fast cars, ever-faster communications as well as mobility (which included upward mobility.)

The electorates, whose hopes had been advanced by the promotions of an elite, began to feel deeply alienated from an economic system that produces unacceptable inequalities. They started to recognize that terms like “growth” and “free trade” might just be the deceitful expressions of wishful thinking on the part of the politicians and the media. However, the populace have yet to recognize that in the 21st century the dollar has become the golden calf that much of humanity worships. Amen!

How much longer can the voters accept such an unbalanced economic system where less than one hundredth of one percent owns more than half of the entire global population, where robotics are putting ever increasing millions out of work, and where global giants are free to produce such high levels of pollution on this planet that the survival of most living species is now threatened?

Yes. The time has come to restructure an economy which feeds on the mathematically unsustainable, namely, Growth. Without it, corporate capitalism would have a short life span. And even the statistic dependent “economists,” whom few members of humanity now trust, admit that the levels of growth of the past 50 years cannot continue.

At the basis of an economic reconstruction stands the globalized corporations whose principal concern is profit for their shareholders and ever-higher pay for their executives. Corruption is rife in the biggest firms as evidenced by VW’s diesel emission scandal and the collapse of Enron. Moreover, corporations have had minimal tax demands put on them by nation states and have almost no legal responsibilities to the populations. When not in collusion with other corporations, competition for their product forces them towards innovation and changes which customers may initially welcome but whose overall long-term impact is unknown and may be damaging.2 The impact of corporate capitalism on the workings of the mind and on the environment we live in has been corrosive.

The reckless “short-termism” of corporate managements has corroded those very same virtues that capitalism originally was based upon: trust, honesty, craftsmanship, family values and cooperation.

Considering what an emotional creature Homo sapiens is, perhaps my desire for a degree of order in the world with a system which is rational may be unrealistic. All too often the “values” that society has established are not determined by the hard, cold facts and as a consequence our economic constructs are irrational, transient and often chaotic, Symbolically, words like “policy”, “program”, “plans” when uttered by politicians arouse immediate public cynicism.

I am fully aware that corporations are and will continue to be firmly opposed to any change in their select and privileged status. The environmental pollution they produce may be challenged and corrected by political forces, but their social responsibility will remain close to nil. Corporations have accumulated power by such tactics as emasculating the labor unions, and avoiding retribution for non-payment of national taxes by establishing opaque offshore tribunals. So what is to be done? My own response is that the coordinated decisions of governments must legally and gradually make it necessary for corporations to be transformed into cooperatives. The power must shift from the shareholders and investors to those who are the actual workers and their self-selected leaders. Yes, this could lower both effectiveness and competition. Yes, it would slow down the globalization of the economy. Yes, it would also diminish social change and innovation. And it would absolutely diminish the ever increasing inequalities: Please note that in the co-operative world the ratio of top pay to the lowest is around 12 to 1.

How could such revolutionary transition be achieved? I believe the first step could be to start repealing the 150 years of anti-cooperative legislation now on the books. The second would be to give powerful tax incentives to corporations to shift their legal structures away from the shareholders and in favor of the society at large. The third could be to pass restrictive legislation to end all the favoritism which has been shown to corporations in large measure through their lobbying. The final step would be to place vastly increased taxes on those remaining corporations which refused to comply.  In all probability it would take more than a decade to effect such a major shift – especially on organizations now perceived as “too big to fail,” where breaking these up into much smaller units would be challenging.

These basic changes can only come about when faced with such a serious economic meltdown as we are likely to experience in the highly unstable future ahead of us. I do not see this as an apocalyptic economic prediction. However, the corporations at the center of the capitalist system will also become the focus of popular discontent. Even now less than a quarter of the American electorate has confidence in corporate business — or in Wall Street, for that matter. Large corporations are resented for the way they have behaved towards the blue-collar workers. As Robert Reich has pointed out: “The corporate and financial elite has been able to influence the rules by which the economy run.3 Which means that the unacceptable compensation packages of the top executives of big companies are now 300 times greater than that of their average employees.

Corporate executives have been shifting risks on to their workers for the past 30 years. They have reduced payrolls, used part-time and contract workers, steadily introduced automation and outsourced from abroad. This has prevented wages of their work force from rising hand in hand with productivity gains which have gone towards higher corporate profits. Since the recession eight years ago, corporate profits have markedly increased as a sector of the US economy while the wages of their work force have declined. My contention is that corporations are no longer fit for purpose.

What all nations must do is to build a more cooperative superstructure which is not prone to the periodic economic swings of capitalism. Cooperatives would take fewer risks and would be far more conscious of the need for consumer protection. Their normal function would entail a general reduction in competition. (Which is anathema to capitalists.) But a more cooperatively run economy would result in a less anxious, less ostentatious but far more equal and stable society for all.

I have pointed out in past essays that cooperatives, such as Mondragon in Spain or John Lewis in the UK, are far more concerned with long-term planning than today’s corporations. They tend to create and keep more artisanal jobs. They are governed with greater openness and less secrecy. Foremost among all of these is that the workers enjoy greater individual empowerment and security. I believe this is a formula for future generations who are far more conscious of the need to end the frightening pollution which corporations have produced over the past two centuries. The time is ripe for drastic change. In the long term, Homo sapiens can do a lot better than being manipulated by the global corporate powers promoting ever greater inequalities.


1Yorick Blumenfeld, Dollars or Democracy, (2006). This book promoted an alternative called ”The Incentive Economy.”

2There is a feeling amongst the older generations that they have less and less free time, that the demands of the Internet and their mobiles actually increases their anxieties and isolation. There is also mounting concern about its effects on the younger generations.

3Robert Reich, Comment, The Observer, November 8, 2015, p.34