A hockey player takes a bathroom break. Photo: Getty
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Squeamishness costs lives: Why the world needs better loos

Somehow I don’t think I’ll get many takers for my next Faeces Are A Feminist Issue rally.

If you want to know a country, look at its loos. I’ve just returned from two weeks in Japan, and in between enthusing about its effortlessly superior trains, food and socks, my greatest level of wonder is still reserved for its toilets.

First, they are everywhere. If in London you are never more than six feet from a rat, then in Japan – even in an ancient shrine, or a lonely wooded mountain – you are never more than 12 feet from a ladies’. When we climbed 1,755ft up Mount Misen on the holy island of Miyajima, off the coast of Hiroshima, there were at least three signs regretfully warning us that there were, due to renovation, no loos at the top. We would have to make do with some tucked behind a temple 100 yards down the path.

Second, they are spotless. Normally, public loos operate on a version of James Q Wilson and George L Kelling’s famous “broken windows” theory – where vandalism is held to encourage antisocial behaviour and criminality by subtly normalising it. Britain’s bogs are a bit grubby when you enter them, which many people take as an excuse to leave them in a state closer to “utterly horrific”. In Japan, however, the average cubicle is considerably cleaner than my kitchen, and bountifully provided with paper which has mysteriously manged to stay in the holder, rather than trail itself like sodden streamers through the puddled floor. You are even trusted with proper rolls of the stuff, rather than having to risk your fingers in a battle of wills with a viciously serrated plucker that yields one sheet at a time.

Finally, Japan’s johns are – famously – hi-tech. Given the country’s continuing aversion to central heating, they often feature seat-warmers, and the Toto Washlets – over 30 million sold and present in two-thirds of homes – also come with a control panel offering you a range of bidet spray strengths, accompanied by baffling graphical representations of buttocks looking like sideways 3s. In ladies’ loos, you also get a button that plays “realistic flushing sounds” to mask any embarrassing noises. The only problem is that the flushing noise is obviously tinny and prerecorded, so you might as well sound an “Alert! I’m passing solids!” klaxon in your cubicle. Essentially, you’ve replaced one embarrassing sound for another.

Now, by this point, I feel as though I’ve marked myself out as some kind of creepy coprophile, but that’s just our western aversion to having any kind of sensible discussion of bathroom matters. In Rose George’s astonishing, compelling book on sanitation (a phrase that’s probably never been written before) The Big Necessity, she records Toto’s attempts to sell the Washlet internationally. Although they had managed to convince the Japanese to ditch their traditional squat toilets for western-style thrones within a couple of decades, Toto’s persuasive skills deserted them when it came to getting Europe and America interested in their up upgraded versions. Why? Because, as the sociologist Harvey Molotch found, in America, “the bidet has never risen above being seen as unavoidably French and therefore louche”. Their new prospective customers were simply not prepared to entertain the possibility of switching paper for water, even though the latter is demonstrably cleaner and less wasteful, because it seemed “foreign”.

That Japan has such a thing as a famous toilet manufacturer at all is pretty telling. I’ll bet the majority of Britons would never dream of comparison shopping through dozens of technical specs to find the perfect purchase. (“Nozzle at 43 degrees, you say? I’ll take it!”)

But isn’t it odd that of the two places that we think of as private – the bedroom and the bathroom –what happens in the first is now exhaustively chronicled across the vast frozen steppes of the internet, while the second remains stubbornly unmentioned outside academic journals and the pages of Viz? No sexual act is too baroque to be filmed in eye-watering high-definition, but after one crack at having someone talk about poo on television, the nation suffered a collective fit of the vapours and packed Gillian McKeith and her dodgy doctorate back into obscurity.

None of this would matter, of course, if our squeamishness didn’t cost lives. Rose George’s book rightly notes that the “waterborne” diseases that claim so many lives in the developing world are really faeces-borne, and yet a charity like WaterAid is well-advised not to change its name to the Diarrhoea Suppression Society. Every day, 200,000 tonnes of human waste deposited in fields and by roads and train tracks in India, by people who are too poor or overworked or Untouchable to get to a toilet. “Open defecation damages women most, because modesty requires them to do it under cover of darkness, leaving them vulnerable to sexual assault, snakes, disease and infection,” writes George, yet somehow I don’t think I’ll get many takers for my next Faeces Are A Feminist Issue rally. (Perhaps we can all burn those little blue cistern blocks in solidarity? We could call it SlopWalk.)

Loos are really, really important. Forget civilisation being two meals from anarchy; if all our privies broke tomorrow, there’d be rioting before breakfast and a hell of a stink by lunchtime. But we can’t repress the snigger that springs to our lips, even in serious medical or policy discussions. In Britain, for example, pensioners’ rights groups periodically try to get people interested in the steady closure of public WCs over the last decade, which have led thousands of elderly people to worry about leaving the house in case they’re caught short (called the “bladder leash”). Meanwhile, models and actresses are happy to pose winsomely in pink T-shirts advertising the existence of breast cancer but there’s no “celebrity face” of bowel cancer, even though it’s the second most common cause of cancer death in the UK. And no one’s making ironic designer clutches shaped like colostomy bags. We’d rather die of shame.

 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

Jeremy Corbyn. Photo: Getty
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Lexit: the EU is a neoliberal project, so let's do something different when we leave it

Brexit affords the British left a historic opportunity for a decisive break with EU market liberalism.

The Brexit vote to leave the European Union has many parents, but "Lexit" – the argument for exiting the EU from the left – remains an orphan. A third of Labour voters backed Leave, but they did so without any significant leadership from the Labour Party. Left-of-centre votes proved decisive in determining the outcome of a referendum that was otherwise framed, shaped, and presented almost exclusively by the right. A proper left discussion of the issues has been, if not entirely absent, then decidedly marginal – part of a more general malaise when it comes to developing left alternatives that has begun to be corrected only recently, under Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell.

Ceding Brexit to the right was very nearly the most serious strategic mistake by the British left since the ‘70s. Under successive leaders Labour became so incorporated into the ideology of Europeanism as to preclude any clear-eyed critical analysis of the actually existing EU as a regulatory and trade regime pursuing deep economic integration. The same political journey that carried Labour into its technocratic embrace of the EU also resulted in the abandonment of any form of distinctive economics separate from the orthodoxies of market liberalism.

It’s been astounding to witness so many left-wingers, in meltdown over Brexit, resort to parroting liberal economics. Thus we hear that factor mobility isn’t about labour arbitrage, that public services aren’t under pressure, that we must prioritise foreign direct investment and trade. It’s little wonder Labour became so detached from its base. Such claims do not match the lived experience of ordinary people in regions of the country devastated by deindustrialisation and disinvestment.

Nor should concerns about wage stagnation and bargaining power be met with finger-wagging accusations of racism, as if the manner in which capitalism pits workers against each other hasn’t long been understood. Instead, we should be offering real solutions – including a willingness to rethink capital mobility and trade. This places us in direct conflict with the constitutionalised neoliberalism of the EU.

Only the political savvy of the leadership has enabled Labour to recover from its disastrous positioning post-referendum. Incredibly, what seemed an unbeatable electoral bloc around Theresa May has been deftly prized apart in the course of an extraordinary General Election campaign. To consolidate the political project they have initiated, Corbyn and McDonnell must now follow through with a truly radical economic programme. The place to look for inspiration is precisely the range of instruments and policy options discouraged or outright forbidden by the EU.

A neoliberal project

The fact that right-wing arguments for Leave predominated during the referendum says far more about today’s left than it does about the European Union. There has been a great deal of myth-making concerning the latter –much of it funded, directly or indirectly, by the EU itself.

From its inception, the EU has been a top-down project driven by political and administrative elites, "a protected sphere", in the judgment of the late Peter Mair, "in which policy-making can evade the constraints imposed by representative democracy". To complain about the EU’s "democratic deficit" is to have misunderstood its purpose. The main thrust of European economic policy has been to extend and deepen the market through liberalisation, privatisation, and flexiblisation, subordinating employment and social protection to goals of low inflation, debt reduction, and increased competitiveness.

Prospects for Keynesian reflationary policies, or even for pan-European economic planning – never great – soon gave way to more Hayekian conceptions. Hayek’s original insight, in The Economic Conditions of Interstate Federalism, was that free movement of capital, goods, and labour – a "single market" – among a federation of nations would severely and necessarily restrict the economic policy space available to individual members. Pro-European socialists, whose aim had been to acquire new supranational options for the regulation of capital, found themselves surrendering the tools they already possessed at home. The national road to socialism, or even to social democracy, was closed.

The direction of travel has been singular and unrelenting. To take one example, workers’ rights – a supposed EU strength – are steadily being eroded, as can be seen in landmark judgments by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in the Viking and Laval cases, among others. In both instances, workers attempting to strike in protest at plans to replace workers from one EU country with lower-wage workers from another, were told their right to strike could not infringe upon the "four freedoms" – free movement of capital, labour, goods, and services – established by the treaties.

More broadly, on trade, financial regulation, state aid, government purchasing, public service delivery, and more, any attempt to create a different kind of economy from inside the EU has largely been forestalled by competition policy or single market regulation.

A new political economy

Given that the UK will soon be escaping the EU, what opportunities might this afford? Three policy directions immediately stand out: public ownership, industrial strategy, and procurement. In each case, EU regulation previously stood in the way of promising left strategies. In each case, the political and economic returns from bold departures from neoliberal orthodoxy after Brexit could be substantial.

While not banned outright by EU law, public ownership is severely discouraged and disadvantaged by it. ECJ interpretation of Article 106 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) has steadily eroded public ownership options. "The ECJ", argues law professor Danny Nicol, "appears to have constructed a one-way street in favour of private-sector provision: nationalised services are prima facie suspect and must be analysed for their necessity". Sure enough, the EU has been a significant driver of privatisation, functioning like a ratchet. It’s much easier for a member state to pursue the liberalisation of sectors than to secure their (re)nationalisation. Article 59 (TFEU) specifically allows the European Council and Parliament to liberalise services. Since the ‘80s, there have been single market programmes in energy, transport, postal services, telecommunications, education, and health.

Britain has long been an extreme outlier on privatisation, responsible for 40 per cent of the total assets privatised across the OECD between 1980 and 1996. Today, however, increasing inequality, poverty, environmental degradation and the general sense of an impoverished public sphere are leading to growing calls for renewed public ownership (albeit in new, more democratic forms). Soon to be free of EU constraints, it’s time to explore an expanded and fundamentally reimagined UK public sector.

Next, Britain’s industrial production has been virtually flat since the late 1990s, with a yawning trade deficit in industrial goods. Any serious industrial strategy to address the structural weaknesses of UK manufacturing will rely on "state aid" – the nurturing of a next generation of companies through grants, interest and tax relief, guarantees, government holdings, and the provision of goods and services on a preferential basis.

Article 107 TFEU allows for state aid only if it is compatible with the internal market and does not distort competition, laying out the specific circumstances in which it could be lawful. Whether or not state aid meets these criteria is at the sole discretion of the Commission – and courts in member states are obligated to enforce the commission’s decisions. The Commission has adopted an approach that considers, among other things, the existence of market failure, the effectiveness of other options, and the impact on the market and competition, thereby allowing state aid only in exceptional circumstances.

For many parts of the UK, the challenges of industrial decline remain starkly present – entire communities are thrown on the scrap heap, with all the associated capital and carbon costs and wasted lives. It’s high time the left returned to the possibilities inherent in a proactive industrial strategy. A true community-sustaining industrial strategy would consist of the deliberate direction of capital to sectors, localities, and regions, so as to balance out market trends and prevent communities from falling into decay, while also ensuring the investment in research and development necessary to maintain a highly productive economy. Policy, in this vision, would function to re-deploy infrastructure, production facilities, and workers left unemployed because of a shutdown or increased automation.

In some cases, this might mean assistance to workers or localities to buy up facilities and keep them running under worker or community ownership. In other cases it might involve re-training workers for new skills and re-fitting facilities. A regional approach might help launch new enterprises that would eventually be spun off as worker or local community-owned firms, supporting the development of strong and vibrant network economies, perhaps on the basis of a Green New Deal. All of this will be possible post-Brexit, under a Corbyn government.

Lastly, there is procurement. Under EU law, explicitly linking public procurement to local entities or social needs is difficult. The ECJ has ruled that, even if there is no specific legislation, procurement activity must "comply with the fundamental rules of the Treaty, in particular the principle of non-discrimination on grounds of nationality". This means that all procurement contracts must be open to all bidders across the EU, and public authorities must advertise contracts widely in other EU countries. In 2004, the European Parliament and Council issued two directives establishing the criteria governing such contracts: "lowest price only" and "most economically advantageous tender".

Unleashed from EU constraints, there are major opportunities for targeting large-scale public procurement to rebuild and transform communities, cities, and regions. The vision behind the celebrated Preston Model of community wealth building – inspired by the work of our own organisation, The Democracy Collaborative, in Cleveland, Ohio – leverages public procurement and the stabilising power of place-based anchor institutions (governments, hospitals, universities) to support rooted, participatory, democratic local economies built around multipliers. In this way, public funds can be made to do "double duty"; anchoring jobs and building community wealth, reversing long-term economic decline. This suggests the viability of a very different economic approach and potential for a winning political coalition, building support for a new socialist economics from the ground up.

With the prospect of a Corbyn government now tantalisingly close, it’s imperative that Labour reconciles its policy objectives in the Brexit negotiations with its plans for a radical economic transformation and redistribution of power and wealth. Only by pursuing strategies capable of re-establishing broad control over the national economy can Labour hope to manage the coming period of pain and dislocation following Brexit. Based on new institutions and approaches and the centrality of ownership and control, democracy, and participation, we should be busy assembling the tools and strategies that will allow departure from the EU to open up new political-economic horizons in Britain and bring about the profound transformation the country so desperately wants and needs.

Joe Guinan is executive director of the Next System Project at The Democracy Collaborative. Thomas M. Hanna is research director at The Democracy Collaborative.

This is an extract from a longer essay which appears in the inaugural edition of the IPPR Progressive Review.