I’ve been watching the Flemish drama Cordon – three episodes in, seven to go – which tells the story of a pandemic arriving in Antwerp. Since one of the things that public health officials sometimes say is that we’ve been lucky so far with our pandemics, and it’s not if but when a significant killer hits us, it’s interesting to watch a fictional version of that scenario playing out.
These are just some quick impressions.
The illness itself is well-judged. Yes, it’s highly contagious, but only if you’re close enough for contact or exchange of a fluid (a sneeze, for example, can be fatal). So the rules from the public health authorities are to stay two arms-lengths apart and not to touch each other. It’s striking how socially awkward not touching is: no comforting, no shaking hands.
The cordon of the title is an exclusion zone in the city centre. It stretches around NIIDA, the medical research institute where the first patients were taken to, and the adjacent streets. It’s built from shipping containers, which has a level of irony, since the Afghan man who may be Patient Zero arrived in the city smuggled in a shipping container.
There is constant tension between the city authorities, the police, the doctor/scientists and the journalists. This is exacerbated by social media. The Mayor is asking the scientists to “give her something” so she can keep the media onside; the doctors are telling her that they can’t be certain (they also believe that the virus is mutating quickly); the journalists, of course, believe the authorities and police are holding things back from them.
One of the points of tension in the newsroom is about public responsibility as against freedom of information. The editor has had a telling off from the Mayor about not inflaming fears; the journalist thinks that people have right to know. When the journalist gets a video blog from a dying woman inside the cordon, the editor refuses him permission to use it – so he publishes it anyway, through an anonymous blog. But even the editor can’t help himself. “What we need for your blog is a top ten of epidemics through the ages.”
Business starts to break down, even outside of the cordon. It’s only a fragment of information in the story, but a kind of informal exclusion zone opens up outside the cordon, as businesses close their offices and tell people to work from home.
It doesn’t take long for food supplies to start to break down. Those inside the cordon are starting to ration food after 72 hours, and the authorities have to organise a food drop through the “sluices,” as the gates in and out of the cordon are called. By that stage there’s already some looting going on. Before the food drop, two of the research scientists are fantasising about food:
“I’d really love some chocolate.”
“Me, I’d love some spaghetti.”
Some of the toughest pressures are on the command and control structures. When the food drop goes wrong, and one of the police officers is touched by people trying to escape the cordon, the police commander leading the team sends him into the cordon – to the disgust of the other officers. Video of the incident surfaces, of course, and the commander has to explain himself to the media (“You were following the rules,” he’s told to say.) It’s a defensible position, but he doesn’t want to talk to them. Even after three days fatigue is affecting judgment.
The technologies of control are surprisingly old-fashioned. Apart from the shipping containers, there are guns and water cannon, as well as megaphones and loudspeakers attached to vehicles.
Despite everything people try to maintain rituals. In the research institute they’re having to burn the bodies of the dead, because the morgue is getting over-crowded. The instruction is to try to keep some of the ashes so they can be given to relatives afterwards.
Other people have visited this territory before, of course, including the movie business. Belgium isn’t a big television market, so the production budget for Cordon is smaller than for, say, 28 Days Later. This has the effect of making the aesthetic more realistic. It feels more as if it would or could happen like this.
It is a scenario of course, but does it feel like a reasonable one? So far, three episodes in, it feels like it is. And I suspect that things will get worse before they get better.
The BBC trailer is here:
In my previous post on Guy Standing’s recent talk on the precariat at Goldsmith’s College, I rehearsed his argument about the economic and political changes that created the precariat, the characteristics of precarious life, and the composition of the precariat. With all of that laid out, he went back again to Karl Polanyi, or at least to his interpretation of Polanyi. He deduces three principles from The Great Transformation that seem relevant to where we are now.
- Every new forward march has to built on the insecurities of an emerging class, and there must be new forms of action. There must be a struggle for recognition (cf Syriza, Podemos) – which needs to be a process of subjective recognition. He argued that Podemos is leading the polls in Spain because it is a precariat party. In Milan, different but similar, the *sciopero social* or “social strike.”
- The second struggle is a struggle for representation in the state.
- The third struggle is a struggle for redistribution. A lot of redistribution is needed: a redistribution of security; a redistribution of the control of time (the precarisat has none); the redistribution of access to quality space (in the face of the shrinking of the commons); the redistribution of access to education (as against standardised training for the labour market; redistribution of financial knowledge and advice; and a redistribution of financial capital (see the discussion of Basic Income below).
There’s a moment in this interview with Paul Krugman about Thomas Piketty’s book Capital In The 21st Century where Bill Moyers asks Krugman this question:
Moyers: Do you agree with [Piketty] that we’re drifting towards oligarchy?
And Krugman gives him this reply:
Krugman: Oh yes. There’s no question of that.
And watching it I realised that the next political phase of the campaign started by Occupy is now starting to emerge.
A few years ago I wrote a set of scenarios – with Joe Ballantyne and Andy Sumner – on the prospects for the world economy to the early 2020s. In one of the scenarios we saw the “West” regenerate itself by a combination of public investment and by bringing home its high value manufacturing. After I’d drafted this post, David Cameron popped up at Davos to promote the idea of “re-shoring”, even if he seems less keen on the notion of public investment. And according to a recent report in The Conversation by some Birmingham University researchers, there are signs that re-shoring is starting to happen, that British businesses are bringing it back home.
A spot of social history. I was doing a little light research on the folk singer Wizz Jones after seeing him live, and came across this news report from the BBC’s Tonight programme from 1960. It’s about the steps being taken by the Cornish resort town Newquay to exclude a small group of beatniks from the town – making sure they couldn’t get work in the town or buy refreshments. What’s striking about this clip is the clothes and the hair: the unwanted Beats wouldn’t look out of place in any European or north American city now, 50 years later, whereas the clothes of everyone else place them firmly in the 50s and 60s.
It made me wonder what people are wearing now that won’t have dated in half a century.
For students of British journalism there’s also the sight of the reporter Alan Whicker, mostly remembered now as a parody of himself, forensically getting the leader of the Council to admit that the ban that he had organised had no grounds other than prejudice.
In The Future of Futures, which I blogged about a few weeks ago, the architect and futurist Cindy Frewen has an essay called ‘The Temporary City’, which opens up the idea that as the global population starts to shrink, so our cities will start to shrink as well. Globally, this may not happen until the 2040s or 2050s, although others see it as happening sooner (Jorgen Randers, in 2052, projects it to the 2030s). But whatever the global picture some countries and some cities will experience depopulation and de-urbanisation sooner, as the case of Detroit shows us.
I liked the essay because it takes a familiar futures idea – the apparent inevitability of urbanisation – and points a bright light at it, challenging our assumptions. And we know from our recent history that de-urbanisation can be ugly; there is a quality in some of the pictures of Detroit’s abandoned public buildings which is reminiscent of the about-to-be abandoned Precinct 13 police station in John Carpenter’s film. Similarly, when New York shrank in the 1970s, the city’s collapsing tax base brought it close to bankruptcy.
London, too, shrank in the ’60s and ’70s, perhaps with more positive results; the empty housing in the city centre areas attracted activists and innovators to the city, I don’t want to stretch the point too far, but it as least arguable that London’s eminence now as a cultural hub is at least partly due to the wave of young people who found their way into the city through that cheap housing (see, for example, Joe Boyd’s account of the creation of the Notting Hill Carnival in White Bicycles.
I find that I’ve written a lot over the last couple of years about ownership – and by extension, about land and property. Not enough, it turns out, as I read the news this week that the activists who had occupied an education and environment centre in the Forest of Dean, to try to prevent Gloucestershire Council from selling it off, have been evicted. Legally, of course, it is the Council’s to sell. The argument of this post is that it shouldn’t be.
Here’s my starting proposition: (a) public bodies should not be allowed to sell off capital assets.
(b) we need a new class of property – a stewardship category – which enables property to be held in the public good in perpetuity.
I have been trying, fairly unsuccessfully, to write a long post on the politics of Occupy. This isn’t that post, but it seemed that the clearance this week of Occupy LSX, after four months outside St Paul’s, needed some sort of note. This shortish post is about Occupy as a form of public innovation.
The recent transfer of the ownership of Liverpool Football Club from two unsuccessful American millionaires to another group of Americans tells us something about the state of English professional football, but led me to more interesting questions about how and why societies should impose limits on ownership. This goes far beyond football, and the answer seems to be when the value generated by the organisation is primarily social; this value should not be open to private appropriation. It seems increasingly clear that ownership is going to become one of the contested issues of the coming decade. In this post I am going to try to take some case studies to tease this out.
The technology industry has grown up in an age of cheap and abundant energy, and that has shaped, deeply and fundamentally, the way it sees the world, what it chooses to make, and how it designs what it does. You have to think only of the short lifespan of the devices, the fact that they are discarded, not upgraded, when technology moves on; or the emerging service designs based on the world of the cloud; and always on, on demand access. But the age of cheap and abundant energy is coming to a close. It is about to become scarcer and more expensive. How does the technology energy need to respond?