Friday, April 29, 2011

Review: Lectures at the College de France, 1975-76: Society Must Be Defended

Lectures at the College de France, 1975-76: Society Must Be DefendedLectures at the College de France, 1975-76: Society Must Be Defended by Michel Foucault

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Foucault is always hard to get into, but once you eventually get a grip of the assumptions and definitions he comes in with, the ideas he presents and the stories he describes are mindblowing. I borrowed this from the local library and read it over a couple of months - but have now ordered my own copy.

There is a loose agenda in this series of lectures, but it's not always very precisely defined, coherent, or entirely thoroughly backed up. But what Foucault does well - as in Discipline and Punish - is use history to shed light on certain movements today. Perhaps this is how history should have been taught at school.

In these lectures, Foucault addresses the link between war and politics - is either an extension of the other, but through different means? In asking the question, he delves into the history of power struggles in France, England and Europe over the last 800 years or so, and traces the use of stories and knowledge through this time to show how the balance of power has changed.

In short, a fascinating read - and one that asks many more questions than it does provide answers, especially as the lectures are now 35 years old, and working out how they apply to modern politics and technology is a challenge in itself. I wanted my own copy to delve into these questions more, as I'd probably rack up dozens of fines if I had to keep getting this out of the library.

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Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Barclays. Muppets.

Wow. Just wow.

I've been with Barclays for over 10 years. I set up a student account with them when I went to University. I took out a loan with them to buy a motorbike. I have a savings account with them. And yet. And yet. And yet, it is difficult to put into words just how large a bunch of muppets they can be.

Difficult, but not impossible.

On New Year's Day, I received an automated phone call from their fraud department - a number of payments had been taken out using my card details, in both London and Manchester (not Brighton), and had been flagged up as suspicious. Fair enough, I thought. I confirmed they weren't me. I canceled the card and got a new one. Game on. OK, I couldn't access my account online without a card so couldn't check the transactions, but small price to pay, huh?

It should be as simple as that, shouldn't it? Barclays worked out they were fraudulent transactions, hurray. Continue.

And yet. Everything they've done since then has been incredulous to the extreme. It has me questioning how they manage to survive, but the only conclusion I can come to is that their greed outweighs perfectly their incompetence when it comes to these matters.

Rewind. I phoned the fraud department and ran through the transactions in question. Yup, all fraudulent. But transactions don't just get blocked, no - companies obviously need to be paid, so instead I would need to check if the transactions came out of my account, and then claim back from the fraud department if so.

To do this, I was told, I had to go into my branch and get a statement - then I could mark up which transactions, if any, were the frauds. Great. One lunchtime I went in, stood in a queue for a while, and then finally asked for my statement. Only to be told that there wasn't much point - the transactions have an expiry date by which the company has to claim, so I might as well wait for that to come to pass before checking. Hmm, might have been useful to have known that before.

So I waited 3 days, then went back in and stood in the same queue. I got the statement. Nothing on it, hurrah - no fraudulent transactions. Had the transactions actually been blocked at this point? I wasn't really sure, but it kind of looked like it, based on what I'd been told.

A few days on, and I get some post. (Or rather, my parents get the post despite me asking Barclays to send it to my own address.) It's a list of the transactions, and a form asking me to mark them up as Genuine or Fraudulent, along with information on my card - could it have been copied, had it been out of my sight, etc etc. If I don't send it back within 10 days, then they'll assume all the transactions are genuine. Fine, I send it back.

I don't hear anything back. No confirmation that the letter got there.

A few days later, guess what. The transactions have been debited from my account. They did go through after all. But no-one told me this. No feedback. I checked my account for a completely different reason. Getting a little annoyed by this point. Not at the actual criminals, mind, but at the company I thought were looking after my money. Chortle.

Ringing up Barclays fraud department who I've dealt with so far, I'm told I have to actually talk to the Debit Card department now. Really? OK, transfer me. I speak to the guy there. Turns out they have no idea what the transactions are - they have to look up my account and ask me which ones we're talking about. Didn't I already go through this with the fraud department? Twice?

The guy in the line is fairly good. He can cancel the transactions, but I need to fill in a form confirming that they're fraudulent, so they can investigate the matter further. Didn't I already do that for the fraud department? Apparently they're on a different planet or something, I need to fill a new one in.

There's some success here - the transactions are re-credited to my account about 48 hours later (not the 24 I was originally told). Yes! Maybe Barclays do care about me after all?

A few days later I get the form (to my own address this time - another win!). It's basically the same as the first, but different. Type written. Underscores for form fields. There are some antiquated-looking questions: "Have you used your card for any transactions via the Internet?" - with half a line for details. I'm a geek that likes eBay. About half my transactions are on-line these days.

There's also the whole spiel about returning the form within 10 days again. I don't really want to get it lost in the post, but the guy on the phone informed me (after I asked) that I could go into my branch to fax it. Sounds good.

My branch is busy when I go in. I make an appointment for the next day.

The next day, I go through the weird little form with a member of staff, who seems very helpful. I can just answer "No" to the Internet question apparently (I guess the questions is from before Paypal, Amazon or iTunes were invented.) He faxes it off and gives me a copy. I ask to make a complaint about the process so far, but the complaint form requires a category, and "general systemic incompetence" isn't among them. We select a random option and add that to the list of complaints. Yes, I complained about the complaint form.

I've lost track of time by this point. I have a 4 month old child. New Year's Day seems like a lifetime ago. I start asking around to find out what other banks people are using.

A few more days later, I get a letter saying I'd be receiving a phone call - apparently something in this has been transferred to a more complex investigation in the fraud department. But I know how the game works now - I ring them up immediately rather than waiting for the call. But they're ahead of me! The phone rings and rings, then changes tone, and I'm diverted into a siding - maybe it's the debit card department again? Who knows?

Explaining the situation, the lady tells me she could transfer me to the correct place, but as I've only just got the letter, they wouldn't have any more details. Fine, I say, transfer me. Oh my, it turns out the person I talk to next can give me more details - one of the transactions in question has been questioned, but I should hear back from them soon.

Then there's a wait. I have my money. It costs me to ring up and find out more. It costs me time, it costs me phone call money. And it costs me Saintly patience. It costs me good will. It costs me any hope of wanting to bank with Barclays ever agsin, or wanting anyone else to for that matter. I consider writing a blog post about it all but it makes my brain hurt.

I don't hear anything for a few weeks, and then yesterday, a phone call comes at 8.30am. Someone's investigating my case, and would like to know if there was any way someone else could have got my card - the same questions that were on the previous 2 forms I already sent back. No, no and no. I still have the canceled card in my wallet if you want to see it. I suggest someone got my details and put it on a blank card with their own signature. The guy agrees, and tells me he'll ring back in a couple of hours.

Do I hear back? Yeah, right. No. The next thing I know, I've logged into my account to check a statement - and the transactions have come back out again. All of them. I'm almost 400 quid down again. I'm getting a mortgage, FFS. I do not need this right now.

So now it's up to me again, to ring up these muppets and not just work out where my money's gone. I also need to work out who to ring, who to talk to, why my money's gone back out agsin, and what to do next. I suspect it involves another form. I suspect it involves printing and faxing something. I'm even starting to suspect I won't get my money back at all. Or that it'll at least costs as much in phone calls.

It'd be funny if it wasn't so painstaking unnecessary. It'd be funny if Barclays acknowledged they could improve. As it is, every moment of imbecility is met with stoic ignorance - it's part of the process, but not part enough to be something I can be formally told about. Disjointed government is nothing compared to this hellhole.

If you're with Barclays, I suggest - emphatically - getting the hell away from them. Before they take everything away from you.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

How not to make a difference

Laurie Penny's BoingBoing article has pushed me to blog because it says so much of what I don't want to think but can't help thinking - can't help coming back to.

The process of "violent" demonstration is something I've been tussling with since at least 2004. It has its seeds before that - probably back in February 2003 when I took to the streets against the Iraq war.

That was my first large-scale protest. It is likely my last. It became rapidly clear - on the arch, watching the news, listening to speeches - that public opinion was no longer a factor. It was obvious that the march might as well just have been a party, or a funeral, or a bank holiday.

It had its purpose, but the purpose wasn't to protest. Ultimately, its purpose was to keep people off the streets, by conceding the streets to the public - for one, single day. After that it was back to business as usual. Politics rambled on. Shops sold stuff. I felt like I'd done something, even if it had had no effect.

Fast forward, though, and it turns out that this bothered me more than I thought. I am political, but I am not a politician. I listen to MPs, but only to see if they've come to any sense. Their arguments bore me - the rhetoric is transparent and the logic is wrong. Anyone with a moment to think things through knows this. But it rumbles on. It is a game. A show. These are not decisions.

Watching the protests against cuts on the news last week, I still had no idea what to think. Passivity is so easily ignored. Violence is so easily fixed. Even with all the headlines, business still continues as normal. The damage shown on TV was nothing compared to some streets in town after a Saturday night.

So what, then?

In the years since the anti-Iraq war protest, I've managed to realise a few things, I guess:

1. Violence is no longer a cause for influencing decisions - media and politicians portray it as such because it gives them a reason to argue against doing something. But modern violence is not terrorism - it is merely an outlet. It is delinquency, it is anarchy - because chaos is all we have left on our side.

Everyone is angry, and the anger has reached a level that video games can no longer contain. But we have no political outlet for that anger - I have marched, I have written letters, I have ranted on blogs. But the rules rule me out. I am defeated by standard replies which barely respond to my points. FFS, there isn't a decent space for debate, let alone decision-making.

The only way to participate meaningfully, for me, then, is to start by tearing the rules down. This looks like chaos, but only in the same way that you have to unpack everything before moving.

2. Violence is not an answer - in Tai Chi, the first thing you learn is not to use force to oppose force. The stronger side will win, and the stronger side is probably not you.

Violence is a last resort, but we are not near this resort in this country, not yet. Convincing people takes both passion and logic. Destruction is pure passion, and is therefore so easily outmaneuvred.

If you are truly passionate about something you will sacrifice yourself, not others. (By this benchmark, I am political, but perhaps not passionate.)

The most moving, memorable protests in the world use non-violence. It is easy to use violence against violence - the riot police work on the principle of subtle incitement, followed by over-reaction. They simply wait for the right excuse, the moment of ignition.

Non-violence doesn't let this happen. It is meek, but through this meekness, it is powerful. Gandhi's Satyagraha principles expound this amazingly. Protest is no longer about "us vs them". It becomes "us and them". Unfortunately there are many, many reasons why this is becoming increasingly difficult here.

3. Politics is not total - indeed, politics is undergoing something of a soul-search. MPs have power, yes. But do they have influence? As network politics increasingly takes hold, and people do organise and decide things for themselves, what is the role of the centre? Is it to organise and guide? Or is it to step in when things go societally wrong - a kind of hyper-market-failure role? Is the centre doomed to becoming an inherently police state, simply because all other functions are done more effectively elsewhere?

There are no answers to this yet. But the questions are answers in themselves. People are routing around political parties and representative democracy. Companies have more cultural power. The Internet has more informational power. Wikileaks Cablegate showed us not only that secrecy was a sham, but that the secrets themselves were boring as mainstream news.

We live in an exciting age. People are starting to realise the potential of the networks they've always had - but which are being revealed through formalisation and RSS feeds. Nobody really knows quite what to do with this yet, because we've forgotten that we have even the questions we need to ask. We have got so used to relying on central politics that we no longer remember what we need.

But change is coming. It requires effort, ideas, implementation, and safeguarding. Change is not easy, which is why focusing energy is of utmost importance. Avoid useless endeavours and distractions. Make the change happen.

If you've read all the way this far - thanks. I'm sure there are more points. But I have a small baby and a job. I could rant all day on this, but I wouldn't get anything else done. It's nice to reach this point. I feel slightly less helpless, and it feels like ultimately, the original question itself has changed.

That is - perhaps we don't need to ask what the best way of getting our voice heard is. Our voices are actually heard all the time, but when we're going forwards, not fighting going backwards. When we're doing something we truly believe in, not just marching against what we think is wrong.

I guess it'll take a long time yet, but isn't that just the way of the world?