Category: socialism

12 links on Bob Crow, and how to get the look

1: Houses have got stupid expensive. You may have noticed

Here’s a great chart from James Plunkett of the Resolution Foundation, making the point that it will take you your life to save for a deposit. Note that the curve takes off like a homesick angel in the mid-90s, when prices start back up again, but also, when wages…didn’t, much.

2: What if we counted them in wages, not prices?

If you want to measure prices a few years ago in today’s money, you usually scale up or down by the inflation rate in the meantime. This assumes that wages keep up with inflation. A big part of the problem is that although general inflation hasn’t been very bad, wages suck, so housing has got much more expensive in terms of hours of work. And, y’know, the CPI and RPI-X inflation measures don’t count housing costs. Because reasons.

Fortunately someone else did the sum. Shelter.

Shelter analysed house prices and earnings across England for the period between 1997 and 2012 and found that while the average price of a home had increased more than threefold, from £75,762 to £253,816, average wages had gone up by much less, from £16,500 to £25,932.

Had earnings risen at the same rate as house prices, the average salary would have been £55,296, or £29,000 more than it was.

Or to put it another way, you’ve sucked up a £29k pay cut in terms of house. NICE decade, indeed.

3: And who did this to us? The rich.

3: Meet the one guy who knew what the hell was going on

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Here’s the late Bob Crow, RMT general secretary, wearing the shit out of a Fred Perry. We’ll get to that later.

4: RMT members just…didn’t have to go through with that

It’s like he had some sort of “plan” or “strategy”. Let’s call it a plategy? Or a splan?

5: One of the ways he did this was by dressing *sharp*

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Note the panels of different cloths, leather, and tweed on the hat. Also, the jacket, and the knows-just-where-the-camera-is projection. Here’s the whole outfit:

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6: I mean it.

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Contrast with the backdrop. And another polo. The message: Look where I am. I have every right to be here.

7: I really mean it.

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Again, the combination of the backdrop – the books – with Crow and what was obviously a favourite. Look where I am; I have every right to be here.

8: No, I really mean it

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Prince of Wales check.

9: He’s not taking RT seriously…

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Is he now. Same jacket, deployed less formally.

10. A more haute touch

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Kitsuné does a very similar jacket to this one.

11. Why Boris Johnson fails

What we’ve seen in the last 10 items is a story about successful political resistance articulated through the visual language of being a serious Millwall fan. It’s a cliché that the genuinely posh and the working class understand each other in a way the squeaky-bum exam passers never will. Although Boris Johnson managed to be in this photo:

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he never even tried to play a theme that has resonated in Britain since the times when Winston Churchill stood on a double-ticket with a Socialist candidate in Rochdale. Clown.

12: Bob Crow scared all the right people

Yes, you, clown, the person who takes the tube every day but can’t get on a bus without delaying everyone around you, as RMT industrial action amply demonstrated. Yes, you, Johnson. Yes, you, Tony. And indeed you, Gordon – Bob Crow eventually won the Tube PFI war, although it took years.

Of course, he had advantages, having his foot on London’s neck. But everyone thought that was true of Arthur Scargill.

A bit more Ralph Miliband blogging

I did some Ralph Miliband blogging a couple of weeks ago. Here’s some more, from my back-cover notes.

The chapter on “The Politics of Survival” is quite possibly more use as a playbook for the opposition than anything else and I even suspect that US and French rightwingers might have done so. Delay everything, get and stay hypermobilised, don’t worry too much about trying to win or being consistent. Get up in their faces and take advantage of any leeway the police give you. The 2000 fuel blockaders are a notable example too.

A really important point is constructing institutions resistant to reversal. If you imagine the future society as a democracy, you’ve got to assume that you won’t always win the elections. Policy planning has to look at creating institutions that can’t be easily rolled back and that take on a life of their own.

In the light of the first point, it’s especially important to worry about things like the European Central Bank, the IMF, and such because they tend to come into play in crises, they have a lot of power, and there aren’t many obvious ways to influence or act on them. RM was quite a left-eurosceptic.

We can probably pause here to look at a case study – Francois Hollande’s government in France, endlessly fighting a salon de thé minority movement of political Catholics, pinned economically by the requirements of the ECB. A big point is that you better serve the people with the people’s currency early.

On a broad question of strategy, RM argues that it’s critical to construct an economic majority, a political majority defined in economic terms as wage earners. There’s an important difference between a numerical majority and a political majority, a point he is good on. A political majority is defined by its unity, by its degree of mobilisation, and by its ability to project its status as a majority.

I’ve seen RM quotes that are very sharp about notions of one nation, or we’re all in this together, etc, but I’ve not read the books they live in yet. A really important point that struck me out of this one is that for RM, the distinction is quite a subtle one.

Defining an economic majority is absolutely critical for any socialist or social democratic party. As a Marxist, RM despised appeals to nationalism or anything like “hardworking families”, but he certainly agrees with the need to come up with some way of expressing an economic majority as a political majority. That given, you’ve got to talk about work and do so in some way that lets people who aren’t convinced feel addressed.

We don’t really have a recognisable language/aesthetic/sound for the people EM needs to convince yet. Nobody has started a club called the Call Centre, and anyway you can’t dance on raised-floor carpet tiles. (Contact Centre has a nice Pina Bausch touch, though.) Neither is there a good vocabulary of hate – they’re too normal, and most of the hate sounds snobbish. Approaching them through the unions is slow and anyway the official WorkSMART page for “information technology” tells you they just don’t know.

So, perhaps going after the privatised think-of-a-number utilities and the landlords and maybe even the RBS small business collections team makes a lot more sense than you think, even looking through Ralph Miliband’s zombie eyes.

A little Ralph Miliband blogging

I’ve recently started reading Ralph Miliband’s Socialism in a Sceptical Age. Partly because someone on twitter wants to quote Ralph every time Ed says something, here are a couple of points so far.

RM felt that the power of Big Media was akin to the power to raise a private army, and he says this with reference to feudalism. Feudalism couldn’t end while the state relied on the barons for mobilisation, and while they controlled mobilisation, they would make sure it didn’t. He may mean that private power over media is to the capitalism of the 1990s (when he was writing) as private power over mobilisation was to feudalism.

RM argues that it’s primarily about power. He doesn’t really take a view about planning vs markets, or if he does I’ve not reached it yet. Whether economic life is dominated by organisations or markets or something else is a secondary point. What matters are the terms of trade between the actors in it. He was very well aware of the criticisms of planned economies and also of Attlee/Nehru nationalised industries. The rigged market is as much an instrument of violence as Gosplan.

Different forms of capitalism are as important as different forms of socialism. It’s still capitalism, but one form may very well be preferable to another.

That said, the difference between a social reformer and a socialist is that one of them wants a society that is egalitarian, democratic, and in which much more of economic life is socialised, which isn’t the same thing as nationalised. The horizon for this may be very long, and in some ways socialism is a way of seeing.

Something else. It’s interesting to run into references to people I otherwise only know as blogs howling at each other about Iraq, like the late Norman Geras, as if they were great intellectual eminences. For example, I made a fool of myself on Crooked Timber not so long ago by demanding to know if there was any reason to care about anything Michael Walzer had ever said. I stand by that one.

Rolling back the frontiers of privatisation

The Ed has got everyone’s attention by promising to freeze consumer energy prices. It’s one of those moments, as with hackgate and Syria, when he succeeds in making the prime minister look irrelevant and bypassed. Having whined a bit, at least some of the energy companies moved to accept the policy voluntarily.

The most interesting point here isn’t the consumer price regulation, though. It’s the wholesale requirement. At the moment, you’re allowed to run a power station pouring electricity into the national grid (or a gas field or import terminal pouring gas into the gas network), and then sell electricity (or gas) from the grid as if it came directly from your plant.

This has a couple of special features. First of all, it means that there is a structural disadvantage for anyone who wants to sell electricity without owning the generating plant, and therefore, a restriction on how much competition can constrain the profit margin. Keeping it in-house keeps the wholesale market for electricity tight.

Secondly, it means that the major energy companies are in a position to choose whether they take profits in the retail operation or in the wholesale operation, because they control the pricing between the two. This could be useful if you want to avoid paying tax.

And thirdly, it does violence to the physical reality of the grid. In providing power at the light switch, Npower (or whoever) are supported by all the other power companies – the grid is physically a single machine. However, they get to set their prices as if there were six independent wires to your house. This suggests it’s in their interests to underinvest and free-ride, and therefore that someone needs to regulate them in order to keep the lights on.

If the system really worked, it would be possible for the customer to switch between providers immediately and with only trivial costs. It is a hell of a long way from this – I can’t think of any occasion on which I changed provider that wasn’t hugely painful and didn’t involve someone wanting a large one-off bill.

Anyway, if it did work, we would expect that prices, and more specifically, profit margins would come down until the retail price reflected the wholesale cost of electricity plus a bit of admin, a minimal profit over and above risk free interest rates, and the industry’s requirements for reinvestment. The very fact anyone thinks they need pricing power in order to reinvest is evidence that it’s not really a market.

So, what does he propose to do about it? Well, he suggests that the generators would be required to offer their output wholesale to any willing buyer. This matches the reality of electricity and gas being poured into the grid. It might well bring down wholesale prices, which would be useful, and it would make it much easier to compete in the retail market.But who would want to compete in the retail market if the prices are regulated and a harder line is taken on marketing and restrictive practices? It sounds like a retail energy provider might be a rather boring business.

This is, I think, the kicker. It becomes the kind of thing a local council might do, or some sort of nonprofit entity.

I actually think this might work, precisely because it didn’t work in telecoms – even though BT Openreach is required to provide access to the wires and ducts on equal terms in principle, in practice, it’s a legendary pain in the arse and surprisingly expensive, and it interacts in complicated ways with the hardly-regulated Wholesale division. When Germany did the same thing a couple of years before us, they coined the phrase “strategic incompetence” to describe how Deutsche Telekom found ways to fail to deliver infrastructure access. I doubt there’s any amount of regulation that can really fix a situation where your biggest and most important supplier is a monopolist and also your biggest competitor.

But in energy, we’re far beyond structural separation – the distribution network is completely separate from the suppliers.

Of course, you could say something similar about the railways. For some time, the train operating companies have been hollowed out and increasingly subject to instructions from DfT(Rail). If, for example, the government was to lean on them harder on fares, we might see more of them revert. The Labour Party has said it’s “not going to spend money we don’t have” buying out the TOCs – but that doesn’t rule out just letting them expire.

Simple Plan: response from the cutting edge of the online Left!

So I pushed the simple plan on various people.

Here’s a scorecard.

LabourList: Henry Root-esque NO REPLY.

Liberal Conspiracy: Initially, NO REPLY. Badgered, Sunny Hundal said it was in his queue to read but it was so long. Politics is hard, let’s go shopping.

Dave Hill at the Guardian London blog: Hasn’t read it.

Will Straw’s Left Foot Forward: NO REPLY. Not surprising given some of the things I’ve called his father, really.

Divers housing/architecture/design lefties: Eeeeuw. BTL properties are ugly. [badgering] Well, needs must when the devil drives…

Thanks, comrades. (All that time spent stumping for the Lib Dems is looking a shitty investment right now, innit?)

Look, it’s not like I’m suggesting minting a trillion dollar platinum coin to fix the US economy or something. Using money that is going to be spent anyway to buy out busted operators and prevent the Great Housing Disaster of 2013 is actually something London Labour councils have implemented within living memory, almost within my lifetime.

TYR Rewind: slip inside this house and fuel the fire

Birdy! For it is he, back out of the woodwork to tell us that there might be a surge in homelessness, up or rather down to the depths of the 80s. Well, that’s grim, and only surprising in that the Tories took just two-and-a-half years to get back to mass homelessness.

Unlike Birdy I promise not to take off to LA with this project, as it is entirely free software and indeed in the public domain. Under conservative assumptions, the annual flow of Local Housing Allowance into rents for the 133,000 London households targeted by the Tories is around £2.3bn, even at the Tory-imposed 30th percentile rate. The rate at which local authorities can borrow from the Government over 10 years is currently 2.8%. This is probably above market, as investors are desperate for anything that pays a nonzero interest rate with any security at all, but it’s a safe assumption.

The present value of this stream of money, at that rate over 10 years, is £21.5bn. Put it another way – the LHA stream for the next 10 years, just for the people affected, at the rate the Tories have imposed, would be enough to pay down a £21.5bn loan.

Now, the Greater London Authority – i.e. Boris Johnson – has a further £2bn housing fund it is doing nothing with.

Depending on how desperate you think landlords will be to sell in the light of the coming slashing of LHA, we can use this to buy between 75,000 and 133,000 properties and incorporate them into the council housing stock, while keeping a billion as a maintenance sinking fund. The council housing departments can manage them. So could a housing association, or whatever, but I prefer the simpler solution.

It would even be possible for the London Labour councils to go ahead without waiting for the Tories, but it would be better to bring them along via the London Councils structure, which is currently Labour controlled.

The structure I envisage would be a company controlled by the participating councils. It would bid for the GLA money. It would raise the rest in a succession of covered bond issues. The participating councils would sign a management contract with it over their share of the property. At the end of the 10 years, the property might simply revert to the shareholders, that is, the councils, and the rents charged might revert to the social rates.

I see this plan preventing the coming housing disaster. I see it seeing off the bankruptcy of an unknown number of landlords, and the banks who love them. I see it using no more money than the government has already committed. I see it vastly increasing the council stock over time. I see it kicking the Tory initiative of moving 400,000 or so non-Tories out of the capital right back at them. I see it creating £20bn worth of rock solid securities for a market that is desperate for them.

The plan is very simple. It may seem radical. That’s because it is both. I contend that it is no sillier, though, than the very respectable Tory Sir George Young’s 1990s doctrine of letting housing benefit take the strain.

‘Housing benefit will underpin market rents – we have made that absolutely clear,’ he said. ‘If people cannot afford to pay that market rent, housing benefit will take the strain.’

This plan simply hoovered up cash from the productive forces of the economy (that’s us) and sprayed it on landlords. My plan hoovers up rather less cash, and sprays it on bankers (I think I see the problem!), or possibly on savers. There is no particular reason why the bonds could not be sold to the public, although that would be more complicated and slower at a moment when speed is important. The worst case scenario is April 2013, the best case is October 2013. I trust Rentergirl more than Polly Toynbee, but anyway, the bomb is going to go off between 6 and 9 months from now.

But the nice thing about doing it this way is that it eventually stops, while the Young plan just kept pouring your money on landlords, and actually paid over the odds to do so. So, let’s buy the houses, quick.

If you’re a conservative concerned about deficit reduction, this is cheaper and depending on the structure it might take borrowing off the headline metrics. If you’re Labour, it is socialism in action and a direct riposte to neo-Shirley Porterism. If you’re a Liberal, it’s local democracy and citizen activism doing stuff off their own hook. If you hate the banks, surely you hate landlords, and anyway we might be able to raise some of the money in the retail market. If you hate special investment vehicles of residential mortgage backed securities, well, so do I, but it looks like I reinvented one.

I have no financial or other direct interest in this plan. I would even offer it to Francis Maude.

read this book, if you’ve not read better books

David Harvey’s Brief History of Neoliberalism is a pretty decent survey, if you’re a slightly naive People and Planet-ish student just dipping a toe into the idea that perhaps, maybe, something is wrong with society. But then, I suspect that this was precisely the audience he had in mind.

That sounds sarcastic, because it is. There is a very good chapter on the rise of organised lobbying in the 1970s, specifically the emergence of a corporate lobby that had a common political direction and ideology rather than just being a ragbag of interest groups. That’s worth having.

On the other hand, Harvey argues that the financialisation of the economy in the 1980s meant that the “flow of tribute into the United States” hugely increased. He does this with a chart showing the flow of interest, rents, and dividends into and out of the US (I think this is the gloss on the flow of funds data in the paper he is quoting). But the chart contradicts the text – although both data series rise dramatically in the 1980s, that is beside the point, as the “tribute” seems to be the net balance of the two, the surplus of returns from US investments in the wider world over returns on the wider world’s investment in the US. (What US economists used to call “dark matter” – defensive, much?)

Eyeballing the chart, it struck me that this actually seemed to fall in the 80s, although the total of both went way up, but what the argument really needed was a line on the chart showing the net series explicitly. And there is a chart like that, much further on in the book, in the conclusions, where Harvey is arguing that the flow of “tribute” is approaching zero or going negative. Looking at that one, the gap between the profitability of US investments abroad and that of everyone else’s investments in the US was actually narrowing in the 80s, although the volume of investments churning between the two parties was going up hugely. Then, in the 90s, the gap opened dramatically, before shrinking close to zero in the early 2000s.

This is important; Harvey’s account is about imperialism, but the chart (when he stops monkeying with it) fits a different story, one about finance capitalism. Rather than getting more effective, whether you think that means it was a more vicious form of feudal extraction on behalf of the empire or whether you think it means it was a more efficient means of allocating investments, it just got bigger, churning more money in and out of the US and taking its transaction fees in the process.

Also, I’m not sure if it makes any sense to talk about the ratio of tribute collected to…largesse? is that the word? paid out. The point about tribute, or largesse, is precisely that it’s unrequited, an act of pseudo-religious and pseudo-familial duty on one hand, an act of gracious whim on the other. If there is anything that cannot be reduced to a mere market transaction without destroying it, tribute is it, as much as love. (I mean, if you could buy kingship like so many pounds of potatoes, you could buy it from anybody, and then where would we be?) The idea of a return on invested capital calculation with regard to tribute is a category mistake.

Other things I disagreed with – I don’t think Harvey’s take on China is particularly interesting or useful. Even in 2007, it was already pretty clear that Chinese workers were not passive and were not cases for development aid, but could probably teach the rest of us a lesson about mass-group incidents. Macro-economically, he doesn’t really discuss the dollar-RMB rate and Chinese agency in pursuing a strategy of export-led industrialisation.

He apparently still believed in 2007 that the development of Western electronics and information/communications technology was stunted by the military-industrial complex and that the Japanese 5th Generation Computer Systems project was going to catch up and overtake, etc. (It didn’t, but it did cause LISP.) This is an interesting point, as David Graeber seems to believe it as well, and as far as I know, it is traceable to one specific essay written in the very early 1980s, which has apparently been rattling about US Marxist circles ever since. I know this because I’ve read it, but I can’t find the damn thing at the moment.

I disagree with his gloss of neoconservatism. Basically, he argues that neoconservatism is John Redwood-style Toryism – using nationalism (in Redwood’s case and in his words, Euroscepticism) as a source of morality and mobilisation in the value-free neoliberal desert. This implies that the neocons care about the liberal element in neoliberalism. I dispute this; Dick Cheney, famously, was not a great advocate of sound finance, and neocons have never been especially interested in free trade, civil liberties, or limited government. I would argue that it is a specifically anti-liberal political project, and one that is quite willing to get its big government on in the service of its foreign policy and its wider notions of national greatness, unity, etc.

And I’ve already had at the moral economy of hyperlocalism here. Also, there is a really astonishingly creepy take on hating NGOs in which he accuses them of only wanting to abolish child prostitution in order to create jobs in other NGOs. (Yes. Really.)

So you might think there’s nothing in there I agree with.

But there’s plenty. There’s a good discussion of the way the post-Bretton Woods financial architecture keeps having huge crises, and the way that each crisis seems to end up with an enormous government bailout and a gaggle of structural-adjustment programmes. This is of course Harvey’s original Big Idea.

In fact, there’s enough to build a better book. There could be more, much more on the lobbying stuff. Another book I finally got around to reading recently was Naomi Oreskes’ Merchants of Doubt, about the tobacco industry and its pet non-scientist scientists, and I really want a book that basically applies Merchants to Harvey’s first chapter. I rather suspect that quite a bit of tobacco money went into economics. A good title would be The War Against You. In general, A History could have more on individuals. If the ideas were the disease, the people were the carriers. And, y’know, the system has a face and a name, and all that.

But Harvey’s Marxism is a source of weakness here; he spends a lot of time justifying the very idea of writing the history of an idea, on the doctrine that causality runs only from the material base to the ideological superstructure. Similarly, he spends a lot of time bashing “identity politics” and then carefully providing fan-service to each identity group he could think of at the ends of his sentences, and of course it was pretty bad for the disabled and women (although, as I keep mansplaining, they should stop whining because it’ll be delivered after the revolution)…see what I mean?

And, oddly, there’s less than you might think on wages and on inequality, although I don’t think some of the key econometric papers were out yet when he was writing A History.

So, it’s adequate, but no more. And I’d really like The War Against You.

The politics of call centres, part two: sources of failure

So, why did we get here? Back in the mists of time, in the US Bell System, there used to be something called a Business Office, by contrast to a Central Office (i.e. what we call a BT Local Exchange in the UK), whose features and functions were set down in numerous Bell System Practice documents. Basically, it was a site where the phone company took calls from the public, either for its own account or on behalf of a third party. Its practices were defined by Bell System standardisation, and its industrial relations were defined by the agreement between AT&T and the unions, which specified the pay and conditions for the various trades and workplace types inside the monster telco. If something was a Business Office according to the book, the union agreement covering those offices would apply.

In the Reaganite 80s, after the Bell System was broken up, someone realised that it would be possible to get rid of the union rules if they could re-define the site as something else. Not only could they change the rules, but they could move the site physically to a right-to-work state or even outside the USA. This is, it turns out, the origin of the phrase “call centre”.

In the UK, of course, call centres proliferated in parallel with utility privatisation and financial deregulation. A major element in the business case for privatisation was getting rid of all those electricity showrooms and BT local offices and centralising customer service functions into `all centres. At the same time, of course, privatisation created the demand for customer service in that it was suddenly possible to change provider and therefore to generate a shit-load of admin. Banks were keen to get rid of their branches and to serve the hugely expanding credit card market. At another level, IT helpdesks made their appearance.

On the other hand, hard though it is to imagine it now, there was a broader vision of technology that expected it all to be provided centrally – in the cloud, if you will – down phone lines controlled by your favourite telco, or by the French Government, or perhaps Rupert Murdoch. This is one of the futures that didn’t happen, of course, because PCs and the web happened instead, but you can bet I spent a lot of time listening to people as late as the mid-2000s still talking about multimedia services (and there are those who argue this is what stiffed Symbian). But we do get a sneak-preview of the digital future that Serious People wanted us to have, every time we have to ring the call centre. In many ways, call centres are the Anti-Web.

In Britain, starting in the 1990s, they were also part of the package of urban regeneration in the North. Along with your iconic eurobox apartments and AutoCAD-shaped arts centre, yup, you could expect to find a couple of gigantic decorated sheds full of striplighting and the precariat. Hey, he’s like a stocky, Yorkshire Owen Hatherley. After all, it was fairly widely accepted that even if you pressed the button marked Arts and the money rolled in, there was a limit to the supply of yuppies and there had to be some jobs in there as well.

You would be amazed at the degree of boosterism certain Yorkshire councils developed on this score, although you didn’t need top futurist Popcorn Whatsname to work out that booming submarine cable capacity would pretty quickly make offshoring an option. Still, if Bradford didn’t make half-arsed attempts to jump on every bandwagon going, leaving it cluttered with vaguely Sicilian failed boondoggles, it wouldn’t be Bradford.

Anyway, I think I’ve made a case that this is an institution whose history has been pathological right from the start. It embodies a fantasy of managing a service industry in the way the US automakers were doing at the same time – and failing, catastrophically.

The politics of call centres, part one

What is it that makes call centres so uniquely awful as social institutions? This is something I’ve often touched on at Telco 2.0, and also something that’s been unusually salient in my life recently – I moved house, and therefore had to interact with getting on for a dozen of the things, several repeatedly. (Vodafone and Thames Water were the best, npower and Virgin Media the worst.) But this isn’t just going to be a consumer whine. In an economy that is over 70% services, the combination of service design, technology, and social relations that makes these things so awful is something we need to understand.

For example, why does E.ON (the electricity company, a branch of the German utility Rhein-Westfälische Elektrizitätswerke) want you to tell their IVR what class you are before they do anything else? This may sound paranoid, but when I called them, the first question I had to answer was whether I owned my home or was a tenant. What on earth did they want to know that for?

Call centres provide a horrible experience to the user. They are famously awful workplaces. And they are also hideously inefficient – some sites experience levels of failure demand, that is to say calls generated due to a prior failure to serve, over 50% of the total inbound calls. Manufacturing industry has long recognised that rework is the greatest enemy of productivity, taking up disproportionate amounts of time and resources and inevitably never quite fixing the problems.

So why are they so awful? Well, I’ll get to that in the next post. Before we can answer that, we need to think about how they are so awful. I’ve made a list of anti-patterns – common or standard practices that embody error – that make me angry.

Our first anti-pattern is queueing. Call centres essentially all work on the basis of oversubscription and queueing. On the assumption that some percentage of calls will go away, they save on staff by queueing calls. This is not the only way to deal with peaks in demand, though – for example, rather than holding calls, there is no good technical reason why you couldn’t instead have a call-back architecture, scheduling a call back sometime in the future.

Waiting on hold is interesting because it represents an imposition on the user – because telephony is a hot medium in McLuhan’s terminology, your attention is demanded while you sit pointlessly in the queue. In essence, you’re providing unpaid labour. Worse, companies are always tempted to impose on you while you wait – playing music on hold (does anybody actually like this?), or worse, nagging you about using the web site. We will see later on that this is especially pointless and stupid.

And the existence of the queue is important in the social relations of the workplace. If there are people queueing, it is obviously essential to get to them as soon as possible, which means there is a permanent pressure to speed up the line. Many centres use the queue as an operational KPI. It is also quality-destroying, in that both workers and managers’ attention is always focused on the next call and how to get off the current call in order to get after the queue.

A related issue is polling. That is to say, repeatedly checking on something, rather than being informed pro-actively when it changes. This is of course implicit in the queueing model. It represents a waste of time for everyone involved.

Repetition is one of the most annoying of the anti-patterns, and it is caused by statelessness. It is always assumed that this interaction has never happened before, will never happen again, and is purely atomised. They don’t know what happened in the last call, or even earlier in the call if it has been transferred. As a result, you have to provide your mother’s maiden name and your account number, again, and they have to retype it, again. The decontextualised nature of interaction with a call centre is one of the worst things about it.

Pretty much every phone system these days uses SIP internally, so there is no excuse for not setting a header with a unique identifier that could be used to look up data in all the systems involved, and indeed given out as a ticket number to the user in case they need to call again, or – why not – used to share the record of the call.

That point leads us to another very important one. Assymetric legibility characterises call centres, and it’s dreadful. Within, management tries to maintain a panopticon glare at the staff. Without, the user faces an unmapped territory, in which the paths are deliberately obscure, and the details the centre holds on you are kept secret. Call centres know a lot about you, but won’t say; their managers endlessly spy on the galley slaves; you’re not allowed to know how the system works.

So no wonder we get failure demand, in which people keep coming back because it was so awful last time. A few companies get this, and use first-call resolution (the percentage of cases that are closed first time) as a KPI rather than call rates, but you’d be surprised. Obviously, first-call resolution has a whole string of social implications – it requires re-skilling of the workforce and devolution of authority to them. No wonder it’s rare.

Now, while we were in the queue, the robot voice kept telling us to bugger off and try the Web site. But this is futile. Inappropriate automation and human/machine confusion bedevil call centres. If you could solve your problem by filling in a web form, you probably would have done. The fact you’re in the queue is evidence that your request is complicated, that something has gone wrong, or generally that human intervention is required.

However, exactly this flexibility and devolution of authority is what call centres try to design out of their processes and impose on their employees. The product is not valued, therefore it is awful. The job is not valued by the employer, and therefore, it is awful. And, I would add, it is not valued by society at large and therefore, nobody cares.

So, there’s the how. Now for the why.

post-IKEA and indeed post-furniture

Quiggin is discussing why some things are neo- and others are post-. How do we deal with the current revival of high modernism (see Owen Hatherley’s blog and indeed his career, the proliferating Mid-Century Modern groups on Flickr, the wave of preservation campaigns for mid-20th century landmarks)? It’s obviously silly to call it post-modernism and in any case it’s explicitly opposed to it. I’ve heard post-postmodernism but that’s more of an admission that it hasn’t got a proper name yet than a solution.

Neo-modernism? I can’t help but feel there’s some stylistic problem with calling something both new and modern in the same word. I guess you could call it the New New, like the science fiction world’s New Weird, but that would get irritating quickly. But the vaguely pejorative sense of neo- might work. Modernism was always half in love and sometimes quite a bit more with either fascism or communism. To say nothing of the times it was involved in a bizarre love triangle with both of them, or its repeated flings with developmental dictatorship, urban corruption, Gaullism, liberal technocracy, and really anyone with the keys to the planning office, when the other two weren’t in town. Then, architecture is the slut of the arts, almost as much as journalism, and always has been. It can be no other way; somebody has to build something and that takes serious amounts of money. (So what’s the journos’ excuse?)

I would guess that a camp revival of it would enjoy the trains-running-on-time/white concrete rostrum aspect even more. Of course the revivers would furiously deny this, and indeed that there was anything camp or revivalist about it, thus inadvertently confirming it. In fact, I suspect they’d prefer just to insist that it is continuous with earlier modernism and that it’s just modernism, dammit. At this point I see the nightmarish academic plural lunging from the flank and sidestep.

Or perhaps it should get a -punk suffix. As it goes with nostalgia for the great compression and the era of giving us the fucking money, I would suggest we call it something like reasonablepunk. (After all, punk itself began very near to the historic peak of economic egalitarianism in the UK.) Because social democracy is basically reasonable. It’s the other side who want the moon on a stick. This reminds me a bit of Hasek’s Party of Measured Progress within the Limits of the Law, but then again that’s too long. Perhaps it was snappier in Czech.

There’s obviously a resonance with what Paul Mason calls “gut Labour” here. It’s worth remembering that although Tony Blair talked a good game, in practice he was just as horrified as Prince Charles at the suggestion that he might have an aesthetic hidden away somewhere on his person, so I would argue that this is unequivocally a good thing. We’ve already got gut Labour wanktanks so we may as well have an aesthetic. (Although, who’s going to feed the bugger?)

Elsewhere, I read this weekend that IKEA is going to adjust its product line for the UK to be more “British”. This turns out to be a question of function. The Swedish designers have apparently been struggling to grasp the problems involved with fitting their products between the chimney breast, the bay window, and the landlord’s washing machine sticking out of its chipboard kennel by 10-14 cm depending on which end you measure. As a result, one of the new products is a wardrobe that’s only 35 cm deep. I am looking forward to their next lineup, which will include a table whose legs can be removed quickly to beat your relatives senseless over the last tin of catfood, a bookcase that doubles as a coffin, and a range of products designed to be easily converted into firewood.