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This is no conspiracy, Glenn Beck: Laurie Penny on Uncut

The UK and US Uncut movements are a genuinely popular, if gentle, insurrection. So why are their members being branded "extremists"?

The greatest conspiracies happen in plain sight. Today, across the Northern Hemisphere, activists from the grass-roots movement UK Uncut and its newly-formed sister group US Uncut are staging more than 90 protests in local branches of Natwest, Bank of America and the Royal Bank of Scotland, in locations from Hawaii to the English town of Ashby de la Zouch.

The blackboard-happy, shoutyporn shock jock Glenn Beck has denounced this growing movement as a "conspiracy", telling Fox News that "this unrest could spread from Middle East to Europe and eventually America... this would be co-ordinated all around the world."

Welcome as Beck's condemnation is to left-wing protesters, the yammering wingnut happens to be right. This is indeed a global insurrection, albeit a gentle one, running on poster paint, caffeine and cross-continental co-ordination via horizontal networks and it does come with an overtone of threat. I have spent the past week with members of UK Uncut and affiliated movements as they made placards and managed their twitter feeds, responding to messages of solidarity from across the world, from Wisconsin to Tahrir Square.

This morning, preparing for the latest protest and slurping down a hasty mug of tea, I watched one activist adjust her leotard for a heros-and-villains-themed flashmob, accessorised with a cloak bought for a Harry Potter costume party. Her friend, dressed as a tweedy university professor, put on a sinister Death Eater mask. "Look!" he said, "I'm Milton Friedman!" Red Army faction, it ain't; but right-wing pundits like Beck are still wetting themselves.

As I write, from one end of Oxford Street in London where 150 Uncutters are marching in the rain, activists are turning bank branches into temporary homeless shelters, libraries and classrooms. These are all vital public services due to be confiscated as world governments impose austerity programmes on their populations in order to bankroll the recklessness of global financiers. The protesters' message is simple: "The government," in the words of one 42-year-old UK Uncut protester, "should be making the banks pay, not ordinary people."

They make their point with flashmobs, bail-ins, street parties for pensioners and pre-schoolers, reclaiming the private space of banks and tax-avoiding businesses, relentlessly restating the hypocrisy of the financial elites. Courageous, yes; Baader-Meinhof-style conspiracy, no. What is most amusing, having spent time with the principled young people who began it all, is how thoroughly the commentariat is failing to understand what the hell is going on here.

The Uncut movement could be kids playing -- except that they have a scrupulous economic alternative and an informed network that stretches across the globe. They could be Glenn Beck's bug-eyed domestic extremists, except that the protests involve toddlers, grannies and young parents with brightly painted placards. In the UK, the police have responded with the classic pose of state agents on the back foot: panicked, malicious bewilderment. A protester shows me photo evidence on her phone of a previous demonstration, when a young woman was dragged away by the police for putting leaflets under a door. "They used CS spray, and three people ended up in hospital," she tells me.

Despite the cries of extremism, the Uncut movement is grounded on the same principles of fairness and accountability that politicians have mouthed for decades at the ballot box. Commentators and cabinet ministers nonetheless seem to be shocked by the notion that their electorates can, in fact, count.

Take the UK, for example, where the Royal Bank of Scotland was bailed out with £45bn of public money -- over half the government's £81bn austerity package -- and yet continues to award itself astronomical bonuses. Ordinary people who dare to stand against this manifest injustice are now "extremists". Students who post leaflets about tax avoidance through shop doors are "extremists". What kind of world are we living in, where wanting local libraries and schools to stay open is now "extremism", worthy of police crackdowns? What kind of society is this, if it is "extremist" for people to want to lead decent lives?

Conspiracy-touting like Beck's often looks like plain old scaremongering. In fact, those who toss out conspiracy theories often do so to distract themselves from larger, scarier, less manipulable outrages happening in plain sight. It is easy to rant at anyone who will listen about how the Pentagon bombed the twin towers; it's harder fully to conceptualise that Nato has bombed ten types of bloody hell out of the Gulf for a decade on the slightest of pretexts. Similarly, it is convenient for Beck and other wet-lipped neocon hate-peddlers to claim that the free world is under attack from a network of rabid communist conspirators; it is far less convenient for them to consider the notion that a real people's movement might be on the rise.

The notion that ordinary workers, students, pensioners and parents might finally have found the tools and the impetus to call out the lies of the powerful and demand accountability is deeply uncomfortable for reactionaries everywhere. That notion, the notion of a networked, principled people's resistance, is far more frightening to neoliberal governments than any terrorist cell.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.