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Thursday, October 20, 2005

More great corporate swindles

More fun and games at the expense of the public by big business...

Public buildings and private finance? That's a formula for tomorrow's slums
Larry Elliott,The Guardian, Monday August 29, 2005

That's it for another year. The annual summer ritual is over, following last week's publication of the GCSE results. Are the pupils getting smarter or the papers getting simpler? Who knows? But even if the exams have not been dumbed down, the buildings in which they were sat certainly have been.
So here's a multiple-choice question for you. Is this the fault of (a) local education authorities, (b) the government or (c) the private finance initiative?

You get no marks if you answered (a), two if you answered (b) and a full five marks if you answered (c).The government spin on PFI is that it has harnessed private sector money and expertise to clear the backlog of work in the public sector without skimping on quality.
This is poppycock. At best, the schools, hospitals and prisons being built are depressingly mediocre - bog standard, to coin a phrase. At worst, they are the slums of tomorrow. There are people in government who know this and are worried about it.

At root, however, there is a tension between the pile 'em high and build 'em quick mentality that lies behind the PFI and Labour's historic commitment to quality design in the public sector that goes back to the days of municipal socialism and beyond. As William Morris once said: "Commerce has become of very great importance and art of very little."

Defenders of the PFI approach say it is a question of priorities. Quite rightly, they argue that there was an enormous backlog of work in 1997 after 25 years of neglect of the public realm and it was vital to get children out of portable classrooms and to prevent cancer patients being trundled for miles around the corridors of Victorian hospitals.

That's only part of the story, however. The PFI was a wheeze dreamed up by the Treasury for Kenneth Clarke when the Tories had run out of money in the early 1990s and were looking for a live-now-pay-later way of financing public infrastructure. But by the time Labour came to power in 1997, the PFI was clearly not working and could have been painlessly killed off.

Labour - perhaps to show it could now rub shoulders with the big wheels of finance - decided to breathe new life into the PFI and made it a flagship policy. What had been little more than financial sleight of hand under the Tories became an article of faith under Labour.

From the start, though, PFI proved controversial, particularly with the party faithful. Indeed, the PFI would probably be right up there with Iraq on the list of reasons why Labour's natural supporters are fed up with the government. As Peter Robinson of the Institute for Public Policy Research showed as long ago as 2000, there was never any fiscal rationale for the PFI. Gordon Brown could have borrowed the money in the traditional manner without breaking his financial rules, which explicitly allow the government to borrow for infrastructure projects.

It's true to say that most of the attention since 1997 has been on whether PFI projects really cost less - they don't - and whether they are good value for money - they're often not. Less attention, though, has been focused on the quality of what's being built, and that's a shame, because if the buildings are not as good as those that would have been built in the traditional fashion, that's a false economy.

Again, the government would probably say that it has few complaints from teachers and doctors about their new PFI buildings, but that's hardly surprising. The quality of design and the likely longevity of a building come some way down the list of priorities if you've been working in a draughty 100-year-old hospital where the roof leaks. An independent report prepared for the Building Research Establishment in 2002 said the design of PFI schools compared unfavourably with those procured in the traditional manner, adding that there was a "sparsity of finishes" and a "utilitarian aesthetic". Writing in the latest edition of Soundings, Ken Worpole, a writer on urban design, said the government had succeeded in transferring risk for projects to the private sector but only at the expense of "asset-stripping and de-skilling local authorities in their historic role as architects, planners and publicly accountable asset-holders. At the same time, PFI projects tend to produce bland design and build formulaic architecture that pays little or no attention to local circumstances or conditions."

It's easy to see why this should be. Traditionally built schools and hospitals start from a simple premise: what will be best for the pupils and patients. In PFI schools, design is only one part of the mix. Consortiums have to be careful that the designs are not so bad that their reputation suffers (the Jarvis syndrome), but they invariably go for the no-frills, low maintenance, economies of scale approach.

Paradoxically, there is more innovation and risk-taking in publicly procured projects than under the PFI; the bankers and the lawyers have a tick-box mentality. They will meet all the targets set for them but they are not in the slightest bit interested in trying anything original. Originality means risk, and risk can be expensive.

The picture is not universally bleak. Some local authorities have maintained their own design teams and have been able to eschew the PFI route. Hampshire county council, for instance, is seen by architects as a beacon of excellence for its in-house designed schools, and there are other authorities which have retained enough expertise to see when a PFI consortium is cutting corners. But this tends to be the exception rather than the rule. All that's left in Britain is the husk of a once proud municipal tradition that spanned left and right, and included millionaire philanthropists as well as town hall socialists. When it came to the public realm, there was agreement that beautiful buildings were not just desirable in themselves but contributed in a fundamental way to the creation of the good society.

The past 30 years have seen that tradition virtually disappear. Local government has been stripped of its powers and the values of the market have come to dominate the public sector. But behind all the talk of efficiency and delivery, we have witnessed the ascendancy of the philistines. It's not too late to act, and there are some encouraging signs that thought is being given to the issue of quality in public sector buildings.

In education, for instance, the government has announced a £2bn programme, Building Schools for the Future, that makes the right sort of noises. According to the No 10 website, the scheme will mean that within 15 years every child will be educated in a 21st century environment. The idea is that schools will be "rebuilt, remodelled or upgraded to provide flexible, inclusive, attractive learning environments that teachers want to teach in and pupils want to learn in. Schools will have high-quality facilities and integrated IT to help deliver personalised learning tailored to the needs, interests and aptitudes of every child". So is what the prime minister is calling "the greatest school renewal programme in British history" too good to be true?

According to architects it is, because of the fundamental incompatibility between the vision of Building Schools for the Future and the harsh reality of life under the PFI. The government sees no such incompatibility. It says a new body, Partnerships for Schools, will develop "innovative and effective models to streamline procurement" and create long-term public-private partnerships to deliver the government's vision.

If that sounds like PFI by any other name, that's because it is. "Partnerships for Schools will work with LEAs, helping them to select a private sector partner to form Local Education Partnerships that will bring together the best private sector expertise to construct, maintain and operate the new facilities, supporting headteachers in creating new schools and allowing teachers to focus on what they do best."

All this brings a hollow laugh from those with hands-on experience of life under PFI. There is currently much talk about the possibility of Labour urgently needing to find a way of reinventing itself in office after seeing its majority sliced in the election. But so far, that's all it has been: talk.

If the government is really ready to change course, there would be no better place to start than with a radical rethink of the PFI. Britain is an immeasurably wealthier country than it was when loving attention was paid to the detail of schools, health centres and public housing of the 1930s. The government is forever boasting about how the UK is now the fourth biggest economy in the world, so there is no obvious reason why we can no longer afford what was deemed essential for the public realm then.

Ministers argue that initiatives such as BSF are vital if Britain is to develop a workforce with the right skills and knowledge to meet the challenge of globalisation. They have backed that analysis with serious amounts of cash. The difficulty is that the PFI will frustrate, rather than help bring about, the government's lofty aims. If the architects were working for the schools rather than the money men, there would be a real chance of success. But that means breaking the habits of a lifetime and removing the financial and ideological shackles binding local government.

Accountants: a threat to democracy. The tax avoidance industry has a veto on what services the government can provide
Prem Sikka,The Guardian, Monday September 5, 2005

The tax avoidance industry is on a collision course with civil society. Elected governments take months and years to develop tax laws, but in pursuit of private profits accountancy firms can undermine them within hours of a chancellor's budget speech.
An accountancy firm partner was bold enough to state recently: "No matter what legislation is in place, the accountants and lawyers will find a way around it. Rules are rules, but rules are meant to be broken." Evidently, what ordinary people regard as antisocial and corrupt is a matter of pride in accountancy firms.

With the aid of accountancy firms, numerous corporate transactions are manufactured for the purpose of avoiding taxes. KPMG has admitted selling "unlawful" tax avoidance schemes that effectively deprived US public funds of billions of dollars. The firm has been fined nearly $500m as a result. Several of its ex-partners face the prospect of criminal prosecutions. Other big US accountancy firms, Ernst & Young, PricewaterhouseCoopers and Deloitte also face financial penalties and threats of prosecution.

The same firms also peddle a range of avoidance schemes in the UK, which are estimated to cost the state £100bn each year in possible tax revenues.

KPMG developed a VAT avoidance scheme for a company operating 127 amusement arcades in the UK. The company employed 600 staff, but under KPMG's scheme a complex corporate structure was created to show that it was controlled from the Channel Islands, and claim that, despite trading here, the business was not really established in the UK.

Such an arrangement enabled the company to claim a deduction for the VAT on its UK purchases but not pay the VAT collected on its sales to UK Customs and Excise authorities. The scheme increased the firm's earnings by about £4.2m - about the amount needed to provide 2,500 NHS hip replacements.

The ensuing court hearing learned that, in common with its US practices, KPMG cold-called the amusement arcade operator to sell the scheme. The firm produced a 16-page booklet that listed 83 detailed steps necessary to make it work. The firm suspected that Customs might regard the scheme as "unacceptable tax avoidance", but nevertheless sold it. Following a UK court defeat, KPMG and its client took the case to the European court of justice. A preliminary decision by the EU advocate-general has declared the scheme to be "unacceptable".

With advice from Ernst & Young, directors of a major phone company paid themselves in gold bars and fine wines to avoid paying UK income tax and national insurance contributions (NICs). No sooner had the government plugged this loophole than the firm devised another scheme, which enabled its clients to pay directors salaries and bonuses through an elaborate offshore "employee benefit trust" and avoid UK income tax and NICs. The scheme is estimated to have been copied by 500 companies to avoid paying an estimated £1.5bn in taxes and NICs. The House of Lords has now ruled that the scheme was unlawful.

In another Ernst & Young-inspired scheme, high-street retailers such as Debenhams issue credit-card receipts with small print claiming that there is a 2.5% handling fee, even though the price charged to customers paying in cash or through credit card is identical. The rub is that the retailers charge customers VAT at the rate of 17.5% on the whole price but only want to pass over VAT on 97.5% to the authorities. They claimed that 2.5% is not liable to VAT because, under EU law, banking charges are exempt. The scheme, copied by over 70 major retailers, has been declared unlawful by the court of appeal.

The UK government levies puny fines on the tax avoidance industry. Accountancy firms face a fine of £5,000 for failing to register their avoidance schemes with the Inland Revenue. This amounts to just 30 seconds of income for some of the big accountancy firms.

The government continues to award lucrative public contracts to the big accountancy firms. Their partners advise government departments on legislative design and enforcement. There has as yet been no public investigation into the tax avoidance industry.

Major casualties of the tax avoidance industry are ordinary people, who are forced to pay higher taxes while corporations and the rich avoid theirs. Individuals on the minimum wage have to pay income taxes, but some 65,000 rich individuals living in the UK are estimated to have paid little or no income tax. The top fifth of earners pay a smaller proportion of their income in tax than the bottom fifth. Corporate tax payments now account for just 2.5% of national income, the smallest share ever.

Unless stopped, the tax avoidance industry will destroy nation states and the very idea of democracy. Without adequate tax revenues no government can deliver its legislative programme, provide public goods or redistribute wealth.

We can be persuaded to vote for governments that promise to invest public revenues in education, healthcare or public transport. But the tax avoidance industry exercises the final veto by shrinking the tax base and eroding tax revenues.

Prem Sikka is professor of accounting at the University of Essex:

More on the opium of the masses

The last thing we need here is people to be split further along racial and religious lines, and most people understand that, as the poll below suggests.

Two thirds oppose state aided faith schools Matthew Taylor, education correspondent, The Guardian, Tuesday August 23, 2005

Faith schools, a central plank of the government's education reforms designed to increase parental choice, are opposed by almost two thirds of the public.
A Guardian/ICM poll published today shows that most respondents are against ministers' plans to increase the number of religious schools amid growing anxiety about their impact on social cohesion.

The survey reveals that following last month's terror attacks, the majority of the public are uneasy about the proposals, with 64% agreeing that "the government should not be funding faith schools of any kind".

The government is due to publish proposals in the autumn which will make it easier for independent schools, including Islamic, Christian and Jewish institutions, to opt into the state sector, accessing millions of pounds in funding.

The Department for Education and Skills has already given the Association of Muslim Schools £100,000 to make the transition smoother for more of the 120 independent Islamic schools.

Yesterday Barry Sheerman, chairman of the Commons education select committee, warned that religious schools posed a threat to the cohesion of multicultural communities.

"Do we want a ghettoised education system?" asked Mr Sheerman. "Schools play a crucial role in integrating different communities and the growth of faith schools poses a real threat to this. These things need to be thought through very carefully before they are implemented."

There are currently around 7,000 faith schools in England, 600 secondary and 6,400 primary. The vast majority [6,955] are Christian, with 36 Jewish, five Muslim and two Sikh schools.

At the moment the schools must meet stringent criteria including teaching the national curriculum and have buildings "which are fit for purpose" before they are accepted into the state system, but this process is being reviewed.

Once in the system the schools receive capital funding and their day-to-day running costs are met.

Earlier this year the chief inspector of schools, David Bell, criticised Islamic schools, saying they posed a challenge to the coherence of British society. In a speech to the Hansard society, Mr Bell said that "traditional Islamic education does not entirely fit pupils for their lives as Muslims in modern Britain".

But last night the Association of Muslim Schools said faith schools "turned out rounded citizens, more tolerant of others and less likely to succumb to criminality or extremism."

Muhammad Mukadam, chairman of the association and head of the latest Islamic secondary school to be given government backing, said: "We give our young people confidence in who they are and an understanding of Islam's teaching of tolerance and respect which prepares them for a positive and fulfilling roll in society. I have letters from further education colleges and universities commenting on how well our students mix and interact with other people and that comes from security."

Dr Mukadam, head teacher of the Leicester Islamic Academy which is moving to a new building when it reopens as a state school 2007, said none of the British Muslims convicted following the riots in Bradford and Oldham in 2001 or any of those linked to the London bombings had been to Islamic secondary schools. "Often Muslim children in mixed secondary schools feel isolated and confused about who they are. This can cause disaffection and lead them into criminality, and the lack of a true understanding of Islam can ultimately make them more susceptible to the teachings of fundamentalists."

The Guardian/ICM poll found that a quarter of respondents felt faith schools were an important part of the education system and that if Christian and Jewish schools had state backing, the government should also fund Muslim schools. Eight per cent said that Christian and Jewish schools should be funded but not Muslim schools.

Keith Porteous Wood, director of the National Secular Society, said the two thirds opposed to government funding for faith schools reflected the public's unease about the growing influence of religious organisations in education.

ICM interviewed a random sample of 1,006 adults aged 18+ by telephone between August 12 and 14. Interviews were conducted across the country and the results have been weighted to the profile of all adults. ICM is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules.

I get a feeling Nick Cohen wants the case of Maryam Namazie as a good pretext as any to justify a US-led invasion of Iran. However, as I've said before, on the domestic front, he talks a lot a sense about the threat of religion to the general easy going tolerance which, for all its faults, makes England a half-decent place to live.

One woman's war: Maryam Namazie personifies the gulf between liberal apologists and those who really want equality
Nick Cohen,The Observer, Sunday October 16, 2005

A week ago, at a reception in one of London's dowdier hotels, Maryam Namazie received a cheque and a certificate stating that she was Secularist of the Year 2005. The audience from the National Secular Society cheered, but no one else noticed.

At first glance, the wider indifference wasn't surprising. Everyone is presenting everyone else with prizes these days - even journalists get them. If coverage was given to all award winners, there would be no space left in the papers for news. On top of that, secularism is still an eccentric cause. Despite the privileges of the established churches, this is one of the most irreligious countries on Earth. The bishops have power but no influence, and the notion that you need a tough-minded movement to combat religious influence still feels quaint.

Like republicanism, secularism is an ideal which can enthuse the few while leaving the many cold.

The rise of the Christian right in the United States and the Islamic right everywhere, of faith schools and religious censorship is breaking down complacency. The 7 July bombings should have blown it to pieces. But the Ealing comedy caricature of a kind vicar, who may be a bit silly but remains intrinsically decent, is still most people's picture of the religious in England, not least because there is truth in it. (It's a different matter in Northern Ireland and on the west coast of Scotland, for obvious reasons.)

For all that, Maryam Namazie's obscurity remains baffling. She ought to be a liberal poster girl. Her life has been that of a feminist militant who fights the oppression of women wherever she finds it. She was born in Tehran, but had to flee with her family when the Iranian revolution brought the mullahs to power. After graduating in America, she went to work with the poor in the Sudan. When the Islamists seized control, she established an underground human rights network. Her cover was blown and she had to run once again. She's been a full-time campaigner for the rights of the Iranian diaspora, helping refugees across the world and banging on to anyone who will listen about the vileness of its treatment of women.

When an Iranian judge hanged a 16-year-old girl for having sex outside marriage - I mean literally hanged her; he put the noose round her neck himself - Namazie organised global protests. Her best rhetorical weapon is her description of the obsessiveness of theocracy. The law in Iran not only allows women to be stoned, she says, but it specifies the size of the stones to be used; they mustn't be too small in case it takes too long to kill her and the mob gets bored; but mustn't be too big either, in case she is dispatched immediately and the mob is denied the sado-sexual pleasure of seeing her suffer.

She's media-friendly and literate, not least because she runs the London-based International TV English whose programmes have a large following in the Middle East. Yet one of the most important feminists from the developing world has never been on Woman's Hour. I searched our huge cuttings database and could find only one mention of her in the national press over the past 10 years. Right-thinking, left-leaning people have backed away from Maryam Namazie because she is just as willing to tackle their tolerance of oppression as the oppressors themselves.

It was the decision of broad-minded politicians in Ottawa to allow Sharia courts in Canada which did it for her. They said if they were not established, the Muslim minority would be marginalised and to say otherwise was racism pure and simple.

After years of hearing this postmodern twaddle, Namazie flipped. Why was it, she asked, that supposed liberals always give 'precedence to cultural and religious norms, however reactionary, over the human being and her rights'? Why was it that they always pretended that other cultures were sealed boxes without conflicts of their own and took 'the most reactionary segment of that community' as representative of the belief and culture of the whole.

In a ringing passage, which should be pinned to the noticeboards of every cultural studies faculty and Whitehall ministry, she declared that the problem with cultural relativism was that it endorsed the racism of low expectations.

'It promotes tolerance and respect for so-called minority opinions and beliefs, rather than respect for human beings. Human beings are worthy of the highest respect, but not all opinions and beliefs are worthy of respect and tolerance. There are some who believe in fascism, white supremacy, the inferiority of women. Must they be respected?'

Richard J Evans, professor of modern history at Cambridge, pointed out in Defence of History that if you take the relativist position to its conclusion and believe there's no such thing as truth and all cultures are equally valid, you have no weapons to fight the Holocaust denier or Ku Klux Klansmen.

Namazie is on the right side of the great intellectual struggle of our time between incompatible versions of liberalism. One follows the fine and necessary principle of tolerance, but ends up having to tolerate the oppression of women, say, or gays in foreign cultures while opposing misogyny and homophobia in its own. (Or 'liberalism for the liberals and cannibalism for the cannibals!' as philosopher Martin Hollis elegantly described the hypocrisy of the manoeuvre.) The alternative is to support universal human rights and believe that if the oppression of women is wrong, it is wrong everywhere.

The gulf between the two is unbridgeable. Although the argument is rarely put as baldly as I made it above, you can see it breaking out everywhere across the liberal-left. Trade union leaders stormed out of the anti-war movement when they discovered its leadership had nothing to say about the trade unionists who were demanding workers' rights in Iraq and being tortured and murdered by the 'insurgents' for their presumption.

Former supporters of Ken Livingstone reacted first with bewilderment and then steady contempt when he betrayed Arab liberals and embraced the Islamic religious right. The government's plans to ban the incitement of religious hatred have created an opposition which spans left and right and whose members have found they have more in common with each other than with people on 'their side'.

As Namazie knows, the dispute can't stay in the background for much longer. There's an almighty smash-up coming and not before time.

KM is back!

Although I think Lenin, Trotsky & Stalin have a lot to answer for (Bolshevism has put back the cause of socialism in England & elsewhere a good century) I am an anti-anti-Marxist. Most people who criticise him have never read a word of the great man apart from a few quotes. Francis Wheen's biog of Hampstead Cemetry's most famous inhabitant is well worth reading, particularly in an age where all that is solid melts into air & religion is the opium of the masses (or enough of them to make the rest of us worry).

Why Marx is man of the moment: He had globalisation sussed 150 years ago
Francis Wheen The Observer Sunday July 17, 2005

A penniless asylum seeker in London was vilified across two pages of the Daily Mail last week. No surprises there, perhaps - except that the villain in question has been dead since 1883. 'Marx the Monster' was the Mail's furious reaction to the news that thousands of Radio 4 listeners had chosen Karl Marx as their favourite thinker. 'His genocidal disciples include Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot - and even Mugabe. So why has Karl Marx just been voted the greatest philosopher ever?'
The puzzlement is understandable. Fifteen years ago, after the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, there appeared to be a general assumption that Marx was now an ex-parrot. He had kicked the bucket, shuffled off his mortal coil and been buried forever under the rubble of the Berlin Wall. No one need think about him - still less read him - ever again.

'What we are witnessing,' Francis Fukuyama proclaimed at the end of the Cold War, 'is not just the ... passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind's ideological evolution.'

But history soon returned with a vengeance. By August 1998, economic meltdown in Russia, currency collapses in Asia and market panic around the world prompted the Financial Times to wonder if we had moved 'from the triumph of global capitalism to its crisis in barely a decade'. The article was headlined 'Das Kapital Revisited'.

Even those who gained most from the system began to question its viability. The billionaire speculator George Soros now warns that the herd instinct of capital-owners such as himself must be controlled before they trample everyone else underfoot. 'Marx and Engels gave a very good analysis of the capitalist system 150 years ago, better in some ways, I must say, than the equilibrium theory of classical economics,' he writes. 'The main reason why their dire predictions did not come true was because of countervailing political interventions in democratic countries. Unfortunately we are once again in danger of drawing the wrong conclusions from the lessons of history. This time the danger comes not from communism but from market fundamentalism.'

In October 1997 the business correspondent of the New Yorker, John Cassidy, reported a conversation with an investment banker. 'The longer I spend on Wall Street, the more convinced I am that Marx was right,' the financier said. 'I am absolutely convinced that Marx's approach is the best way to look at capitalism.' His curiosity aroused, Cassidy read Marx for the first time. He found 'riveting passages about globalisation, inequality, political corruption, monopolisation, technical progress, the decline of high culture, and the enervating nature of modern existence - issues that economists are now confronting anew, sometimes without realising that they are walking in Marx's footsteps'.

Quoting the famous slogan coined by James Carville for Bill Clinton's presidential campaign in 1992 ('It's the economy, stupid'), Cassidy pointed out that 'Marx's own term for this theory was "the materialist conception of history", and it is now so widely accepted that analysts of all political views use it, like Carville, without any attribution.'

Like Molière's bourgeois gentleman who discovered to his amazement that for more than 40 years he had been speaking prose without knowing it, much of the Western bourgeoisie absorbed Marx's ideas without ever noticing. It was a belated reading of Marx in the 1990s that inspired the financial journalist James Buchan to write his brilliant study Frozen Desire: An Inquiry into the Meaning of Money (1997).

'Everybody I know now believes that their attitudes are to an extent a creation of their material circumstances,' he wrote, 'and that changes in the ways things are produced profoundly affect the affairs of humanity even outside the workshop or factory. It is largely through Marx, rather than political economy, that those notions have come down to us.'

Even the Economist journalists John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, eager cheerleaders for turbo-capitalism, acknowledge the debt. 'As a prophet of socialism Marx may be kaput,' they wrote in A Future Perfect: The Challenge and Hidden Promise of Globalisation (2000), 'but as a prophet of the "universal interdependence of nations" as he called globalisation, he can still seem startlingly relevant.' Their greatest fear was that 'the more successful globalisation becomes the more it seems to whip up its own backlash' - or, as Marx himself said, that modern industry produces its own gravediggers.

The bourgeoisie has not died. But nor has Marx: his errors or unfulfilled prophecies about capitalism are eclipsed and transcended by the piercing accuracy with which he revealed the nature of the beast. 'Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones,' he wrote in The Communist Manifesto.

Until quite recently most people in this country seemed to stay in the same job or institution throughout their working lives - but who does so now? As Marx put it: 'All that is solid melts into air.'

In his other great masterpiece, Das Kapital, he showed how all that is truly human becomes congealed into inanimate objects - commodities - which then acquire tremendous power and vigour, tyrannising the people who produce them.

The result of this week's BBC poll suggests that Marx's portrayal of the forces that govern our lives - and of the instability, alienation and exploitation they produce - still resonates, and can still bring the world into focus. Far from being buried under the rubble of the Berlin Wall, he may only now be emerging in his true significance. For all the anguished, uncomprehending howls from the right-wing press, Karl Marx could yet become the most influential thinker of the 21st century.

Moreover, Marx can be used to explain much, if not all, that goes on in the workplace today.

Those mill owners knew a thing or two, Raj Persaud, New Statesman, Monday 17th October 2005

The Marxist view of pay strategy "down t'mill" was that bosses extracted maximum effort from workers by keeping them desperate. Employees, in other words, were paid just enough to keep them from starvation. It didn't make sense to pay them so badly they couldn't get out of bed in the morning, but equally it wasn't smart to pay more than the minimum needed to keep them turning up at the mill gate each day ready to give their all.

A distant Victorian memory, you may think, except that an American economist has come up with a model of modern salaried professions which suggests that the Marxist analysis applies with renewed force in competitive market places such as, to take one example, the City of London. According to Alan Day Haight of Bowling Green State University, Ohio, people in accounting, law, medicine and similar work toil on the verge of depression or burn-out in much the same way as wage workers once lived on the edge of starvation.

Haight points out that promotion-track workers in these professions are motivated largely by hope of advancement to partner or vice-president, or some other senior post. And given that they basically accept hope as a means of payment, they are convenient targets for "surplus extraction".

In a typical office, this argument runs, senior professionals benefit from the long hours put in by junior professionals, and because a little rivalry makes the juniors more diligent, the partners have an incentive to hire more than one candidate for each anticipated promotion. But how much more than one? How much rivalry is enough, from a partner's point of view, to extract maximum surplus effort?

The Haight answer may seem dismally familiar: there is enough rivalry only when the junior professionals are suffering from so much promotion anxiety that they are always on the verge of giving up or burning out.

Haight has modelled the optimum curve for the number of extra hours that can be extracted from young professionals on the basis of their hopes of promotion. Maximising hope, he notes, is the key art of the senior partner; more people must believe they may be promoted than can be promoted.

He therefore concludes that "if staff burn-out did not exist, it would be necessary to invent it". If junior staff have high morale, in other words, you must hire more of them until promotion anxiety is sufficiently severe to extract maximum free labour from juniors. The firm can even afford a few psychological casualties among the staff because of the returns in aggregate effort.

The model reminds us that although the modern owner of the means of production might not exploit workers physically in the manner of the Victorian mill owner, he or she may be exploiting them emotionally. And because emotions are less visible than malnutrition or physical exhaustion, the damage is harder to measure. In other words, the professional workers of the world may be in chains, even if they can't see the chains to throw them off.

Raj Persaud is Gresham Professor for Public Understanding of Psychiatry and consultant psychiatrist at the Maudsley Hospital, London

The Economic Future? Comment 2

See the world before the oil runs out!

The pressure mounts The Guardian Wednesday October 19, 2005

North Sea oil production has 'peaked' and is now declining. The same will happen soon to global supplies. John Vidal and Ian Sample examine the potential consequences of a worldwide shortage of fossil fuels

Six years ago, the British sector of the North Sea was producing more than two million barrels of oil a day. Every barrel sold for just $12 (£7), and the government thought this output could be more or less maintained until at least 2010. The change since then has been dramatic.

The price of a barrel of North Sea crude is now over $60 (£34), and it is thought unlikely to fall; UK production in all offshore fields is 30% down on 1999 and dropping daily; and governments, major oil companies and energy analysts accept that, barring a few spikes, North Sea output will probably fall every year from now until the resource becomes physically too difficult to extract - perhaps in 20 years' time.

In resource terminology, North Sea oil has "peaked", says Chris Skrebowski, who worked in the industry for almost 20 years and who now edits Petroleum Review. At a meeting on oil depletion last week in London, he said that its decline was neither uncommon nor unexpected.

According to Skrebowski's calculations, more than 50 countries - including 10 large producers, such as Britain, Mexico, China, the US, Norway, Indonesia and Oman - are now seeing their oil production levels decline. The little good news, he said, comes from the Sudan, equatorial Africa, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, where production is greatly increasing.

But, says Skrebowski, the world is being hit by a double whammy. Major oil companies and governments have been throwing money at exploration for years but despite far better geological knowledge, are not finding any large new fields and are unable to replenish their reserves. And although the International Energy Authority (IEA) says there is enough conventional oil to sustain 1.8% per annum growth in the world economy for 25 years, demand from countries such as China and India is exploding at more than 10% a year and straining existing refinery capacity. At a rough estimate, 90% of all the world's known reserves are now being exploited.

The combination of demand growth and supply declines, say Skrebowski and other industry analysts, suggests that the world is roughly where North Sea oil was in 1999 - close to its production peak. He compares the situation to someone trying to fill a leaking bucket. However much water is poured in, more runs out of the bottom. In the end, he says, it has to run out.

"Quite simply, we are consuming oil far faster than we can find it," Skrebowski says. "For the next three years, I believe we will scrape by. After that, it gets progressively more difficult." The exact timing of a global peak, and the speed at which supplies then decline, is fiercely debated. Some analysts give it 10 years or more, others suggest that we may have reached that point already. Skrebowski, who sees oil companies struggling to hold production levels now, and knows how hard it is for the oil industry to move, estimates 2008.

The truth is that it is impossible to know until after the event because several years of output need to be compared. But the date may be immaterial. Oil peak is bound to come, after which the only thing that countries can do is to reduce demand. Unless this is handled well, it is bound to put the brake on economic growth and lead to chaos and potentially large-scale depression. So far, there is little evidence that governments are preparing for the level of oil shocks being contemplated.

"Governments are in denial about the scale of what is needed to be done," Skrebowski says. "We are moving in to a new world without maps. We are all likely to be poorer".

Michael Meacher, the former environment minister, warns that the scale of the change required in the world economy is "nothing short of apocalyptical. Our whole civilisation is overwhelmingly dependent on oil.

"Oil will start to run out, but not abruptly. The price, however, will rise rapidly. It is bound to go over $100 (£57) [a barrel], rising much further. The majority of countries do not have oil and will be forced into a tailspin of decline. It is likely that there will be violent disruptions, and mass refugee movements on a scale we have never seen."

Meacher calls for an immediate, if temporary, "bridge" economy that shifts demand from oil to gas, imposes taxes on heavy users, rebates on cars that use little, and carbon budgets for each sector.

"But gas is a risk, too," he says. "It is also declining. The UK is now a net importer of gas and is likely to import 80% of its needs by 2020, mainly from unstable countries."

Beyond that, Meacher would recommend a massive global energy conservation drive and putting more international pressure on the US to use less. "The volume of energy wasted [in the world] is almost unbelievable," he says. "US power stations discard more waste energy than is needed by the whole Japanese economy. Only 15% of energy in a car actually gets to the wheels. A 3% increase in US car efficiency would mean that no oil had to be imported from the Gulf."

While rich countries could buy time as supplies declined, that would not be an option for long, says Richard Douthwaite, a former UK government economist now working on the a study of oil depletion for the Irish government. "Business as usual will just not be possible," he says. "What do you do when a vital commodity becomes scarce? The rich cannot be allowed to take it all. The only option may be for a world rationing system for oil."

Handled correctly, he says, the lower output of oil may be environmentally and socially good. "It gives us a chance to change a lot of things that are clearly going wrong now. The climate crisis and the energy crisis are coming together."

To survive on the other side of a global oil peak, Douthwaite says, economies will have to be drastically restructured. "The real danger is that banks will jack up interest rates to stop inflation. The cost of business will inevitably rise. All prices in the economy will have to change because everything is dependent on oil. Every price in the world will have to change to reflect the carbon content of goods, and the new cost of energy."

Andrew Simms, policy director of the New Economics Foundation, says that the price hikes after an oil peak would be catastrophic for poor countries. The 1974 oil crisis laid the foundation for the Latin American debt crisis, when demand contracted, export prices collapsed, and interest rates went through the roof.

Any oil shortage would, says Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City University, effectively cause the collapse of the whole British supermarket system. The slick operation, which depends on air freight, tens of thousands of lorries, giant distribution points, intensive farming and out of season production, around the world, depends from start to finish on oil. Were prices to rise dramatically, the system would, he says, show its fragility.

What is badly needed to avert a future collapse, he says, is a plan B. "Food today travels further to our shores and further on our roads to reach supermarkets further from our homes than ever before. The result is a finely-honed system that is woefully vulnerable to oil prices.

"The entire system is incredibly fragile. Four companies sell 70% of all the food in Britain and 1,500 shops provide food for half of the country. If you remove oil, frankly, everyone is kebabbed."

But like others, he sees the potential for a much healthier food supply system emerging from a food crisis brought on by oil shortages. One plan B that might emerge in Britain, he believes, is a return to localism that could change the landscape of the country. Whether forced by rising costs or pre-empted by the prospect of them, the centralised food distribution system run by a handful of companies could give way to the microdistribution of produce grown locally and sold locally, driving a resurgence in community shops at the expense of supermarkets.

Cities, he says, would have to adapt. Many, as with London, feed themselves by bringing in produce from around the world instead of living off the surrounding land. "The land around London that once fed the city now goes to stockbrokers' ponies. It's bonkers," says Lang. "The current system is simply unsustainable."

The Economic Future? Comment 1

I originally saw this in "The Ecologist" magazine, which is real end of the world, we're all going to die slash your wrists stuff (a bit like The Independent on a bad day). However, it was also published by Counterpunch on June 3, 2005

Welcome to a Has-Been Country
The US Labor Force: One Foot in the Third World

In May the Bush economy eked out a paltry 73,000 private sector jobs: 20,000 jobs in construction (primarily for Mexican immigrants), 21,000 jobs in wholesale and retail trade, and 32,500 jobs in health care and social assistance. Local government added 5,000 for a grand total of 78,000.

Not a single one of these jobs produces an exportable good or service. With Americans increasingly divorced from the production of the goods and services that they consume, Americans have no way to pay for their consumption except by handing over to foreigners more of their accumulated stock of wealth. The country continues to eat its seed corn.

Only 10 million Americans are classified as "production workers" in the Bureau of Labor Statistics nonfarm payroll tables. Think about that.

The US with a population approaching 300 million has only 10 million production workers. That means Americans are consuming the products of other countries labor.

In the 21st century the US economy has been unable to create jobs in export and import-competitive industries. US job growth is confined to nontradable domestic services.

This movement of the American labor force toward third world occupations in domestic services has dire implications both for US living standards and for America's status as a superpower.

Economists and policymakers are in denial while the US economy implodes in front of their noses. The US-China Commission is making a great effort to bring reality to policymakers by holding a series of hearings to explore the depths of American decline.

The commissioners got an earful at the May 19 hearings in New York at the Council on Foreign Relations. Ralph Gomory explained that America's naïve belief that offshore outsourcing and globalism are working for America is based on a 200 year old trade theory, the premises of which do not reflect the modern world.

Clyde Prestowitz, author of the just published Three Billion New Capitalists: The Great Shift of Wealth and Power to the East, explained that America's prosperity is an illusion. Americans feel prosperous because they are consuming $700 billion annually more than they are producing. Foreigners, principally Asians, are financing US over-consumption, because we are paying them by handing over our markets, our jobs, and our wealth.

My former Business Week colleague, Bill Wolman, explained the consequences for US workers of suddenly facing direct labor market competition from hundreds of millions of Chinese and Indian workers.

Toward the end of the 20th century three developments came together that are rapidly moving high productivity, high value-added jobs that pay well away from the US to Asia: the collapse of world socialism which vastly increased the supply of labor available to US capital; the rise of the high speed Internet; the extraordinary international mobility of US capital and technology.

First world capital is rapidly deserting first world labor in favor of third world labor, which is much cheaper because of its abundance and low cost of living. Formerly, America's high real incomes were protected from cheap foreign labor, because US labor worked with more capital and better technology, which made it more productive. Today, however, US capital and technology move to cheap labor, or cheap labor moves via the Internet to US employment.

The reason economic development in China and some Indian cities is so rapid is because it is fueled by the offshore location of first world corporations.

Prestowitz is correct that the form that globalism has taken is shifting income and wealth from the first world to the third world. The rise of Asia is coming at the expense of the American worker.

Global competition could have developed differently. US capital and technology could have remained at home, protecting US incomes with high productivity. Asia would have had to raise itself up without the inside track of first world offshore producers.

Asia's economic development would have been slow and laborious and would have been characterized by a gradual rise of Asian incomes toward US incomes, not by a jarring loss of American jobs and incomes to Asians.

Instead, US corporations, driven by the short-sighted and ultimately destructive focus on quarterly profits, chose to drive earnings and managerial bonuses by substituting cheap Asian labor for American labor.

American businesses' short-run profit maximization plays directly into the hands of thoughtful Asian governments with long-run strategies. As Prestowitz informed the commissioners, China now has more semiconductor plants than the US. Short-run goals are reducing US corporations to brand names with sales forces marketing foreign made goods and services.

By substituting foreign for American workers, US corporations are destroying their American markets. As American jobs in the higher paying manufacturing and professional services are given to Asians, and as American schoolteachers and nurses lose their occupations to foreigners imported under work visa programs, American purchasing power dries up, especially once all the home equity is spent, credit cards are maxed out and the dollar loses value to the Asian currencies.

The dollar is receiving a short-term respite as a result of the rejection of the European Union by France and Holland. The fate of the Euro, which rose so rapidly in value against the dollar in recent years, is uncertain, thus possibly cutting off one avenue of escape from the over-produced US dollar.

However, nothing is in the works to halt America's decline and to put the economy on a path of true prosperity. In January 2004, I told a televised conference of the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC, that the US would be a third world economy in 20 years. I was projecting the economic outcome of the US labor force being denied first world employment and forced into the low productivity occupations of domestic services.

Considering the vast excess supplies of labor in India and China, Asian wages are unlikely to rapidly approach existing US levels. Therefore, the substitution of Asian for US labor in tradable goods and services is likely to continue.

As US students seek employments immune from outsourcing, engineering enrollments are declining.

The exit of so much manufacturing is destroying the supply chains that make manufacturing possible.

The Asians will not give us back our economy once we have lost it. They will not play the "free trade" game and let their labor force be displaced by cheap American labor.

Offshore outsourcing is dismantling the ladders of America's fabled upward mobility. The US labor force already has one foot in the third world. By 2024 the US will be a has-been country.

Paul Craig Roberts has held a number of academic appointments and has contributed to numerous scholarly publications. He served as Assistant Secretary of the Treasury in the Reagan administration. His graduate economics education was at the University of Virginia, the University of California at Berkeley, and Oxford University. He is coauthor of The Tyranny of Good Intentions.He can be reached at:

Another hero interviewed

For me, England taking back the Ashes from Australia is the sporting equivalent of the Tories losing the 1997 General Election. 18 years of pain avanged. Of course, Tony Blair is no Andrew Flintoff; he can drink more for a start...

Interview: An old-fashioned kind of hero. The Guardian, Saturday October 15, 2005
Andrew Flintoff seems to epitomise old-fashioned virtues of modesty and a sweet nature - coupled with a powerhouse presence on the cricket field. He finds celebrity uncomfortable, he tells Simon Hattenstone - but with the summer he's had, it's unavoidable. Will he emerge intact?

Andrew Flintoff looks as if he's stepped out of a cartoon strip. Everything about him suggests a heightened reality. It's not just his size and bulk - 6ft 5in, 16 and a half stone, broad as a jumbo - there is the supernatural strength with which he hits the ball, the primeval way he celebrates taking a wicket (arms lofted, crotch pushed out, tongue oscillating) and the nickname (Fred, after another cartoon character - Fred Flintstone). And, of course, there's his unfeasible capacity for drink.

In mid-September, England clinched the Ashes and he was named man of the series. Then came the victory celebrations. Again, Flintoff was the star. He just kept going - through the evening, and the night, and the next day's victory parade, until finally, 32 hours into the party, he fell asleep on the coach. Every minute of his binge was gleefully reported:

6.30pm: Victory champagne, and a couple of beers with Steve Harmison, followed by the night at the hotel bar in which he announces, "I'm ugly, I'm overweight, but I'm happy. I'd never make a decent celebrity", and revels in being granted the freedom of his home town, Preston - "It means I can drive a flock of sheep through the town centre, drink for free in no less than 64 pubs and get a lift home with the police when I become inebriated. What more could you want?"

6.30am: Gin and tonic and a vodka and cranberry juice to freshen up

8.30am: Champagne reception at the hotel (Flintoff is the only team member to make it) where former England skipper Mike Gatting asks him if he's eaten - "Yes," he replies, "a cigar!"

8.45am: Ordered by his agent-manager Neil Fairbrother to shower because he stank

9.45am: More beer

10.30am: More champagne, straight from the bottle, on the open-top bus at the victory parade to Trafalgar Square - that's when he tells another former England captain, David Gower, "To be honest with you, David, I'm struggling. I've not been to bed yet and the eyes behind these glasses tell a thousand stories. The emotional journey we have been through - it's just fantastic and we are enjoying it"

1.30pm: At Downing Street, swinging on little Leo's swing, asks for beer when an aide offers sparkling water and soft drinks (by now his eyes are pink and glazed - he later denies that he threw up at the PM's pad)

3pm: At Lords - champagne all round

6pm: Toasting the sponsor, Vodafone, with more champagne before heading off for the victory dinner. At 8pm, captain Michael Vaughan says "My next biggest challenge is to survive another night with Freddie."

If Flintoff is a cartoon hero, he's the old-fashioned kind. Gentleman Fred. Even when ridiculously drunk - and he was ridiculously drunk - there is something of the gentleman about him. Anybody else would have been condemned as reckless and dissolute. Somehow, Flintoff got away with it. There was an innocence about it. Good humoured throughout, he continued to praise the feats of Gilesy and Hoggy and Jonesy rather than big himself up and, like a good family man, he had stayed drinking at the hotel bar through the night, rather than go clubbing. Eventually, Flintoff nodded off on the way back to the hotel after dinner. That was when his team-mate Steve Harmison wrote "Twat" on his forehead and inked his face with a 'tache, goatee and specs. When Flintoff finally staggered off the bus, he'd no idea what had happened to him.

We are due to meet the following day. The newspapers are full of him. Both the Sun and the Mirror have "Off His Fred" as their splash - in the accompanying pictures, he doesn't seem to know what planet he's on. I don't expect him to turn up.

It's mid-September, and the Oval cricket ground in south London feels like a ghost town. Empty, silent. Outside, a neon sign flashes its congratulations to the England team. A member of the groundstaff walks by and nods a smile. The few people in the ground all seem to be grinning to themselves. "Fred's just around the corner having photos taken," says the woman at reception.

Flintoff greets me with a great big Fred of a smile. His face is huge. He is huge. Even bigger than you expect. His eyes are bright and alert and totally unpink. He doesn't even smell of drink. I ask if he's seen the papers.

"It was a bit harsh, wasn't it?" he says sheepishly.

How's he feeling?

"Not too bad, now."

Is he sober yet?

"Oh yeah. I had 12 hours' sleep last night."

He is still amazed by the crowds at Trafalgar Square. He says he was worried that only two or three people would turn up. "Driving through the streets probably exceeded anything I thought could have happened through cricket, to be honest. It was like the rugby world cup!" He says it with awe.

He talks about the great feeling - for the players, the fans, the country - and says he knows that winning the Ashes has had an impact on the national mood, even if he's not quite sure just yet why or how. What has it done for him?

"At the minute, it's given me a hangover ... " He pauses. "But to be honest, I think with the emotion of winning the Ashes, it would be impossible to feel bad at the moment."

Flintoff was always a big lad for whom big things were expected. He was six when he made his first appearance on a cricket field for Dutton Forshaw under-14s. At nine, he played for Lancashire Schools under-11s. The next year he played alongside Phil Neville (then the team's star, now an international footballer) and they lost only one match. By 14, Flintoff was opening the batting for the senior side at St Anne's CC in Lytham and playing for Lancashire under-15s. The dark roof at St Anne's CC is pockmarked with lighter tiles replacing the ones he smashed - a reminder of the myriad sixes he hit in his three years opening the batting.

Now 27, Flintoff has often been portrayed as a rustic with huge forearms and little in the way of cerebral matter. In fact, he passed nine GCSEs, played chess for his county (his brother represented England) and his mother hoped he would go to university. But at 15 he discovered he could make a living from cricket and A-levels seemed pointless, so he left school a year later.

Gary Yates, the Lancashire spin bowler, first came across him when Flintoff was 15 and playing for an under-19 team against the county second 11. "I remember him hitting me for four in my second over, straight back past me, and with force." Flintoff had started off as a fast bowler who could bat a bit. He was even built like a traditional fast bowler - tall, broad and skinny. Neil Fairbrother, who played with him for seven years at Lancashire and is now his agent-manager, remembers a drainpipe of a man. "He was teetotal then. Hadn't touched alcohol in his life." But by the time he was a regular in the Lancashire second team, back problems were impeding his progress. He trundled in at barely middle pace or didn't bowl at all.

Those who knew him as a young man talk about his strength and timing. They also talk about his lack of discipline - on and off the pitch. John Stanworth, who captained Flintoff in the second team and nicknamed him Fred, says, "His decision-making was naive. He'd been used to humbling attacks in schoolboy cricket. The transition from precocious talent to professional cricketer was a big challenge for him. I wasn't sure he'd make it. It took him time to adjust to every new level."

At 17, Flintoff made his debut for Lancashire's first team, and before long he was hailed as the new Ian Botham. But he flattered to deceive, promising much and delivering relatively little. Nevertheless, such a talent was hard to resist for the England selectors. They called the 20-year-old into the team in 1998 - far too early. He invariably disappointed. He would thwack a ball to the boundary or into the crowd and then get himself out. His bowling was workaday. It wasn't so much that he lost his form, it was that he never quite found it.

Flintoff was also beginning to balloon. He had discovered pubs and curries and nights out with the lads. He was becoming more famous for his social stamina and prodigious drinking ability than for his cricket. When Lancashire team-mates came into work looking rough and hungover, the assumption was that they had spent the night being "Freddied".

Last year, when I first met Flintoff, by now trim, fit and England's outstanding player, he described a typical night out in the old days. "It would probably start in the afternoon. About 2pm." And the curry? "I used to love curry. Even if I wasn't going out I'd have curry for tea or something." How much drink would he put away on a classic night out? "I don't know. I don't know. I'd hate to say, to be honest." Flintoff often starts or finishes sentences with "to be honest".

Not surprisingly, cricket supporters started to ridicule the bloated, 19-stone Flintoff (he's now two and a half stone lighter). They called him the Honey Monster. England picked him, dropped him, picked him, and then just left him out. He didn't have to ask why - his form was shocking. He seemed incapable of building an innings. He says he went out to bat expecting to be out within a few balls. For all his big-hitting bluster, there was a vulnerability and, though he might not have recognised it, a self-destructive quality. He was 22 and he looked as if he was about to eat and drink himself into cricketing obscurity.

That was when his true friends came to his rescue. "I was getting 30 or 40 every week, but I just couldn't get past that, and I got a rollocking from Bob Simpson in the office that made me look at myself."

Simpson, the former Australian captain, was Lancashire's coach at the time. What did he say? Flintoff looks embarrassed again, and flushes. "He called me a cunt ... 'Freddie, you're a cunt'. He was talking about the way I was playing, I just sat there and listened. At the end of the season I got hauled in by Neil Fairbrother and Chubby Chandler [Fairbrother works for Chandler's agency, ISM] and they gave me a few home truths. They said I was wasting my talent, that I was lucky to be playing for Lancashire, let alone thinking of England." Did he have a sense that he was throwing it all away? "I must have done. I'm not stupid, but I just needed it coming from someone else."

"He calls it a bollocking, but I'd call it a discussion," Chandler says. "Look, he wasn't going anywhere. It was plain to see his talent was being wasted, and he wasn't enjoying it. I put it to him how hard some of the golfers I work with have to work to get to the top. That's how we reached the conclusion he should go to the Academy. Actually, we made him get on the phone there and then."

Chandler speculates why he was out of sorts. The England dressing room had been an unhappy place, he says. "His shyness didn't help. He's not comfortable with celebrity status. The only place he's comfortable with it is right in the middle of the cricket ground."

It's not that Flintoff was plagued by demons, but his character is more contradictory than he likes to let on. He has a capacity for both extreme discipline (as he has shown recently) and extreme indiscipline. While he often appears to be the life and soul of the party, he is also a private man. His physical presence is misleading - it demands space and attention, but there seems to be an ordinary man trying to break out of the superman carapace and retire to a quiet corner of the pub. Gary Yates thinks that in the past he might have drunk more than he should have because he didn't like the attention he inevitably drew and found it easier to cope after he'd had a few.

It's funny that it was an Australian, Simpson, who brought Flintoff up sharp and helped set him on a new path. I phone Simpson in Australia and thank him for helping us win the Ashes.

"I wouldn't use that word," he says with great certainty. Pause. "I doubt if I called him that," he says less certainly. "I might have called him a lazy B. Look, he was 22 years old, enjoying life, staying up too late, not working hard enough ... That's what annoys me more than anything from a coaching point of view - when people waste talent. The most gifted players are often the hardest to coach, and Freddie was very much in that category. Naturally gifted players are often lazy because they've never had to work hard." He talks about the hours they subsequently spent in the nets working on his forward defensives and square cuts.

Simpson says Flintoff was "pretty cuddly" at that time but he thinks the size thing has been overemphasised.

"He was a huge man, but he was no beast ... he moved beautifully."

He believes that pretty much everybody handled Flintoff poorly in the early days. He makes no attempt to conceal his contempt for the England selectors.

"They were desperate and firing bullets all over the place, and he got more criticism than he should have. Just after they had dropped Freddie and Schofield [fellow Lancashire bowler Chris Schofield], we were at Leicester and one of the selectors was there - he's still a selector, actually - and he didn't speak to them. When you've got charge of people, you have to be honest with them, but he refused to talk to either of them after dropping them."

Simpson thinks that it would have helped Flintoff most in the bad old days if he'd been given responsibility. "In my second year I recommended him as county captain. The committee almost had a fit. They were too shortsighted to see it in Freddie - even then, he was a leader in the dressing room."

What is he like as a man?

"Very gentle. A dog man, like me. He's got two boxers - Fred and Arnold. He's larger than life in the dressing room - just a big kid in some ways." The sort, Simpson says, who'd do anything for a friend.

When I was waiting for Flintoff last year (he is as notorious for his bad time-keeping as he is for losing mobile phones), Fairbrother told me that he had recently received a phone call from a Freddie fan, wanting to thank him.

"He said, 'I was at the Oval on Saturday [the final test against the West Indies] with my wife Karen, and she has MS and is in a wheelchair. At the other end of the ground the lads came out to practise and six or seven of them went over to her. They were all fantastic, had a picture taken with her and a chat.' Then at the end of the game Fred was man of the series and the bloke said, 'We were watching Fred and he was looking for somebody, and then he saw us, and he came running over, and he leaned down to Karen and said, 'Karen, I'd like you to have my man of the series champagne.' The bloke was in tears at the end of the phone telling me, and he said he couldn't believe he could come back eight hours later, having been out on the field all day, and remember her name. I mean that is an awesome story. I told my missus, and she had bloody tears starting in her eyes, too."

When I repeated the story to Flintoff, he made it sound much less heroic.

"Erm, I was just walking round the ground, and had a bottle of champagne, and it was going to get aimlessly sprayed at someone, and I thought, well, you'll probably put it to better use than pouring it on Steve Harmison's head."

That's not true, I said to Flintoff - the man said you went looking for them.

"Well, we saw where they were, and I just ran over and gave it to her," he conceded.

That was the series when he smashed a six straight to his father Colin in the crowd, who failed to catch it - another story the media loved.

"It was freakish how I hit it. I thought he was going to come over the balcony at one point. Some of the lads bumped into him on the way out of the ground and gave him some stick."

The Flintoffs are a close family. Andrew grew up in Preston with his mother Susan, father Colin, a plumber and maintenance man who worked at Aerospace, and elder brother Chris, who taught in Japan for five years, and plays cricket for a local league club. "He holds the league record for the highest score," Flintoff says. "A double hundred."

Colin, who is in his late 50s, still plays occasionally for the local team - they call him up on a Friday night when they're caught short. "He'll talk me through the game and invariably he's taken a one-handed diving catch. Then to drop that catch at the Oval was great!" He calls his dad a "big, shy man" - not unlike himself, then.

It was against the West Indies last year that Flintoff really convinced us he had turned things around, but he'd been rebuilding his career for a good two years by then. After his rollockings from Simpson and Fairbrother in 2001, he set down to work. England manager Duncan Fletcher agreed that he could join the Academy (where England hopefuls are trained in cricket and life skills) in Australia in 2001. In effect, he was pleading with Fletcher for a fresh start. Flintoff says it's as if he has had two different cricketing lives - the disastrous, aborted one and the one he is currently enjoying. "I don't want to be back in those dark times again. So experiencing that makes this all the sweeter."

After the Academy, he was picked for the England squad to tour India in 2001. "I think I scored 25 runs in five tests, but at least I was contributing with the ball. That was some consolation." His back was fine after eight years' trouble, and at last he was bowling like a genuine paceman. He went on with England to New Zealand, where he started to score runs.

Ever since, his batting average has been rising and his bowling average falling (a good sign; it means it costs him fewer runs for every wicket taken). While Ian Botham's brilliant batting averages in his early career (admittedly against moderate opposition, many of the best players having defected to Kerry Packer's lucrative cricket circus) gradually fell over the years, Flintoff's have gradually improved. Even so, he's still making up for his dreadful start. "If I play till I'm 60, I might average 45 with the bat," he says.

All in all, 2004 was a great year for Flintoff. Michael Vaughan suggested he was already the best cricketer in the world. When I put this to Flintoff at the end of the summer of 2004, he belly-laughed and said no way. He suggested Sachin Tendulkar was the best batsman and spinner Muttiah Muralitharan, a colleague at Lancashire, the top bowler. He talked about his cricketing heroes.

"Viv! Viv Richards, for obvious reasons - he went out to bat without a helmet. Took the world on in a cap, didn't he? And obviously Botham, being an all-rounder." Flintoff stressed that he couldn't begin to be bracketed with such players - still had so much to prove.

By the time the series arrived this summer, Flintoff was already being hailed as the saviour - the man who would win the Ashes for England. Then came the first test. England were hammered, Flintoff scored 0 and 3 with the bat.

"Before the Lords test match, I'd built up so much in my head, and I felt the pressure. There was a lot of hype about it, a lot of hype about me not having played in an Ashes test, how big this was to everyone, and I put so much pressure on myself that I forgot to do what I do. I like to be relaxed when I play cricket, but at Lords I wasn't. I was wound up, I was uptight, I wasn't me."

After the match he saw Jamie Edwards, a man who helps him with the psychological aspect of the game.

"He's a Manchester lad, about 5ft 5in, and he played basketball. He works on the mind side. He doesn't call himself a psychologist, but we sit there and think and prepare in the right way. I knew I wasn't in the greatest form, and I thought I've got a way of getting out of that here; I'm going to hit my way into form. It's an innings I've not played for a while." Indeed, the first innings he played in the second test was the kind of innings he had spent years disciplining himself not to play. But it worked - 67 runs in 62 balls set the mood and tempo for England's victory at Edgbaston.

The conclusion to the Edgbaston match provided the great sporting image of the summer. England had just scraped home by two runs - the second closest match in 128 years of test match cricket. Brett Lee (primarily a bowler) had batted for 99 minutes, scored 43 undefeated runs, and been assaulted by a battery of England's finest fast bowlers. Flintoff in particular had treated him as human target practice, smacking him on the elbow and the hand with ferocious deliveries. Lee had been doubled up in agony, but still he kept going. On the cusp of victory, Michael Kasprowitz, the number 11, was caught and Lee had run out of partners. He sank to his knees, battered, bruised and in despair. Flintoff, man of the match with a bagful of wickets and two vicious half-centuries, broke away from the victory huddle, ran over, bent down and put one hand on Lee's arm and the other on his shoulder. At the moment of triumph, his instinct was not to punch the air, but to comfort his defeated rival, his fellow gladiator. Even though it was on television, watched by millions, it seemed private. It said so much about the summer and cricket and, most of all, Flintoff.

It also brought out the best in us. The public loved the optimism, the sheer human goodness, of that moment. Even the hard-nosed press responded, reprinting the picture time and again, and proving that soul can be just as appealing as cellulite and schadenfreude.

The only time Flintoff looked like losing his cool this summer was when Channel 4 commentator Mark Nicholas interrogated him about the form of wicket keeper Geraint Jones and suggested that some in the dressing room had questioned his competence. "Not in our dressing room, they don't," he replied belligerently.

In the end, Flintoff won man of the series, was twice voted man of the match, scored 402 runs and took 24 wickets. No sooner had the Ashes ended than cricket buffs took out their calculators and went to war over whether Botham or Flintoff was England's greatest all-rounder. While Botham took more wickets in his annus mirabilis against Australia in 1981, Frank Keating in this newspaper pointed out that he played one more test, and against weaker opposition, and concluded that ultimately Flintoff's statistics were the more impressive.

Whereas players such as Geoffrey Boycott defined themselves by their averages (famously running out batting partners if it meant saving his own wicket), Flintoff insists that he doesn't care much about them - that often they don't give the true picture, anyway.

"Averages can be misleading - you score runs in the second innings of a dead game or you score runs when you get beat." Much more important is how many times you influence a game, he says.

He'd rather talk about his family and his mates and his favourite things, so we do. Favourite drink: Guinness and black ("I get a bit of stick for the blackcurrant"). Favourite Manchester band: Stone Roses. Favourite Lancashire dish: hotpot. Song he listened to most through the Ashes: Elton John's Rocket Man. Favourite book: Filth, by Irvine Welsh ("For a book to make you laugh out loud, it must be pretty special").

Who is his best mate in the England team? "Harmison," he says instantly. "Yeah, we get on well, me and Harmy. Strange relationship - we just rip the piss out of each other all day, every day, but we like it." What does he rip the piss out of you about? "My weight." What does he call you? "Well, you can imagine what he calls me." No, I say, you'll have to tell me. "Well, it's 'fat' and then some four-letter word."

What does he call Harmison? "Well, I have a go because he's got a couple of teeth missing. We've been mates for the best part of nine years."

Who is his best friend in the Australian team? "I've got a few. I've always wanted to play against Shane [Warne], and having done so it was not a letdown because he's a great cricketer and a great man as well. He sent me a text after I got 100."

Was it a dirty text? "No. Hahahaa! He's just a really good fella. So is Brett Lee. It was a special series between the two best sides in the world slugging it out on the pitch, but probably played in the best spirit ever. Although it was competitive and there was the odd thing said, there was a real respect between the two sides."

I ask about his politics. He says he hasn't got any, not really. What worries him most about the world? "It's getting a bit deep, this, isn't it?" He stops to think and talks about bombs and terrorism and stops again. "I'll tell you what moved me the other week was when you saw those starvations in Niger, those young kids. Having a young child of my own, and seeing the state of those kids on the TV, that really moved me. I almost wanted to say, 'Ah, come and live with us,' sort of thing."

What is he like as a dad? Soft, he says, doting. "I see Holly, and whatever's happened in my day, good or bad, she smiles. She doesn't have a clue what's going on about anything, and I enjoy that. I enjoy spending time with her, just doing the things dads do."

Cricket at international level is an all-year game these days. Barely has the Ashes series finished and England are setting off for Pakistan. Flintoff admits he feels ambivalent about it, especially now that his wife Rachel is pregnant with their second child. Will the family go to Pakistan with him? "No. That will be the hardest thing for me. I've spent a fortnight away from Holly, that's the longest. Eight weeks is going to be tough."

Ask those closest to him what turned him round and they all mention Rachel. As does Flintoff. They met at Edgbaston in 2002 when he was trying to resurrect his career. They exchanged numbers and, as is the way with cricketers, he then texted her for a date. He calls Rachel the Missus and she calls him Andrew. She once called him Freddie, but he made it clear that it didn't feel right - in his private life he is Andrew Flintoff. This seems to be his way of coping with celebrity. Fred is the character, Andrew the husband and father.

Has his new family made him realise that cricket isn't the most important thing in the world?

"I don't think I've ever felt that, though especially not now with Rachel and Holly there, the family. Cricket's something I enjoy doing - failure or losing a game is hard, but not to the point where you've got to take my shoelaces and belt off me, to be honest."

Does he worry about cricket's capacity to destroy domestic life? The examples are legion.

"Of course I do. Of course I worry about it ... The family is more important [than cricket], that's a given. But at the moment I don't know how much longer I'm going to play for. I'm enjoying playing. It's given myself and my family a nice lifestyle."

Ah, the lifestyle. This is where the triumphant England team, and Flintoff especially, have really upped the ante. Overnight they have become celebrities on a par with footballers. And while their pay packets still can't compete with top Premiership players, they are doing very nicely. Not surprisingly, Flintoff stands to gain the most - it has been estimated that he could earn up to £3m in sponsorship deals over the next year. Already, sports commentators are reclaiming cricket as Britain's national sport and suggesting Flintoff is the new Beckham. And the professional worriers are already worrying about him. Will celebrity ruin him? Will he become too big for his boots? Will he become a flash bastard?

He says he can't imagine life changing in terms of family and friends, and that he finds the increased attention embarrassing. "It makes me want to hide. I enjoy it on the cricket field, but there are times when you're just with the family and you get a lot of attention ..." He thinks Rachel, who runs her own company promoting events, copes with it better. "She probably understands it a bit more, but I can get a little bit flustered, to be honest. It's a strange position to be in, when you go into a place and everybody is looking at you." So what does he do? "Sometimes just find a quiet corner, or move on, or go home."

But already there are obvious changes in his life. He has just moved into a £1.5m "gated" property, christened Fredingham Palace by the tabloids, in a posh part of already posh Cheshire. He and Rachel and Holly have already starred in Hello! - Rachel and him cuddled in a giant beanbag, he looking uncomfy, she looking at ease. Doubtless, he will be offered numerous advertising deals (he already promotes Red Bull, Thwaites, Volkswagen, the Sun and Barclays). Just this week there's been talk of a Freddie calendar and a Christmas single. He might be tempted - cash in while the going is good, cricket is a short career - but if Flintoff allows "Fred" to hang from every billboard, he also forgoes privacy.

"If he did take up all the offers and made £3m a year," Chandler says, "I reckon he'd have a divorce on his hands because he wouldn't have time to see his kids growing up. I tell him it's got to be about maintaining a balance, but I'm preaching to the converted. What he has to do now is be very organised. If he wants three days off with his family, he has to tell us so we can put it in his diary."

I ask Flintoff what he'd like to buy with his money. He mentions a bloke down the road who has a helicopter, and I burst out laughing and tell him he's turning into Noel Edmonds. He blushes. "Yeah, Mr Blobby! No, no, I'd never be in a position to get a helicopter, but he's always bragging that everybody's just 40 minutes away. I'm never going to get one. I don't really want stuff. We've probably got everything we need, to be honest."

Aragorn v Bush- no contest!!

I saw this as I'm on the Konformist e-list. Very interesting- worth signing up to, although it does publish some right rubbish (a recent posting accused Noam Chomsky as being an agent of the New World Order. Yeah, right). Without any further ado- an interview with Viggo Mortensen.

Please send as far and wide as possible.

Robert Sterling
Editor, The Konformist

Viggo Mortensen Interview
By Nina Siegal
November 2005 Issue

Sure, he's cute. Well, not cute. Strikingly, jaw-droppingly
gorgeous. But the most intriguing thing about Viggo Mortensen, who
played King Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings trilogy and who
recently won critical acclaim for his leading role in the latest
David Cronenberg release, A History of Violence, is how much he
loves to talk politics.

When I called him in July to interview him for The Progressive, he
had returned from four months' shooting the forthcoming Spanish
historical epic, Alatriste. He sounded exhausted, as though he could
barely hold the phone, but when we started talking about the war in
Iraq, the Bush Administration, and the role of actors and artists in
mainstream political discourse, he didn't feel like sleeping.
Eventually, I had to tell him I was tired.

Two days later, he called back. He wanted to clarify a few things
he'd said and to answer more questions. And he tried me a few times
after that. We spoke one final time in the wake of Katrina. I might
have flattered myself to think one of the best-looking Hollywood
leading men liked the sound of my voice. But that clearly wasn't the
case, since he did most of the talking.

Born in Manhattan on October 20, 1958, to an American mother and a
Danish father, Mortensen spent his childhood in Argentina,
Venezuela, and Denmark. He went to school in Watertown, New York,
just south of the Canadian border. He studied acting at the Warren
Robertson Theatre Workshop in Manhattan in the 1980s and then moved
to Los Angeles. There, he met Excene Cervenka, the lead singer of
the punk band X, and became a familiar face in the Los Angeles punk
scene. The couple had a son, Henry, together in 1988, and
subsequently divorced.

Mortensen made his feature-film debut in 1985 as Alexander Godunov's
Amish brother in Witness. After that, he had a run as a villain in a
series of films, playing a paraplegic ex-con snitch in the 1993 film
Carlito's Way with Al Pacino, and Lucifer in The Prophecy with
Christopher Walken, two years later. In 1997, he played the tough-
talking training instructor to Demi Moore's G.I. Jane, and the
following year he appeared as Gwyneth Paltrow's home-wrecking
paramour in A Perfect Murder.

In recent years, Mortensen has been cast as much more heroic
figures, not only as King Aragorn but also as the lead human in
Hidalgo, the horse story in which a down-on-his-luck postal carrier
rides his mustang in a race across the Arabian Desert.

Most recently, he won acclaim for his portrayal of Tom Stall, an
Indiana diner owner whose life is changed forever after he acts
against two robbers in A History of Violence. The film, an
adaptation of John Wagner and Vince Locke's graphic novel of the
same name, was a critical hit at Cannes. He also plays the lead in
Alatriste, portraying the seventeenth century soldier and missionary
Captain Alatriste, based on the book of the same name by Arturo
Perez Reverte. The film is due out in the spring.

Mortensen is a part-time musician, a published poet, and a
photographer and painter who has had exhibitions at art galleries
such as the Robert Mann Gallery, Track 16 Gallery, Fototeca de Cuba,
and Museet for Fotokunst in Denmark. On top of all that, he founded
the independent publishing house Perceval Press.

Even when he's not jet-lagged, he is soft spoken. He doesn't like to
talk about his personal accomplishments. But get him going on
politics and he's hard to stop. Below is a condensed account of our
many phone conversations.

Question:Why did you decide to go down to Camp Casey and join Cindy

Viggo Mortensen: I went in the first week, when there were only a
few people down there. She was being so maligned and dragged through
the mud. I thought the best thing to do was just to go and listen to
her and make up my own mind. If you're someone who is a public
figure, if you make too much of it, the risk is that you can be seen
as just trying to get attention for yourself. So I intentionally
went down without saying I was coming. No one even saw me getting
out of the car, and before anyone knew it I was just standing in
front of her. I stayed very briefly, and she was nice enough to give
me a little of her time.

Q: What did you talk about?

Mortensen: Well, first of all, I just said, respectfully, I'm sorry
about your son, and I said thank you for some of the things you've
said and for bringing attention to the issue, for keeping this topic
alive. I left there really impressed with her, with her integrity
and sincerity.

I also had a sense of just how threatening someone like this would
be to people who are used to running the show, in terms of
perception and media information—or disinformation. It's like she
pulled an end around just by being herself, a relatively ordinary
woman displaying extraordinary courage and being quite eloquent and
brave, knowing she's being savaged and hearing it and standing up to
it and having her say as an individual and as a woman. The fact that
she was a woman—how could this little woman do that to us?—it just
galled them. I thought, good for you.

Q: What was your reaction to Katrina?

Mortensen: Cindy Sheehan and how badly Katrina was bungled are two
shots to the heart. I hope the beast does fall down soon. What's
more shameful than the criminal negligence that made a bad situation
much, much worse is the arrogant attitude after the fact. The
outright lying—even though we've become accustomed to lying from
this Administration—has broken new ground in the field of
dishonesty. They're so clumsy in their attempts to come off well.
And there is so little heart in what they say. Even the sound of
their voices is so false.

Q: Are you anti-Bush, as the pundits say?

Mortensen: No, I'm not anti-Bush; I'm anti-Bush behavior. In other
words, I'm against cheating, greed, cruelty, racism, imperialism,
religious fundamentalism, treason, and the seemingly limitless
capacity for hypocrisy shown by Bush and his Administration.

Q: What's wrong with pinning it all on Bush?

Mortensen: It's too easy, and it lets a lot of people off the hook.
I think impeachment proceedings need to be started immediately but
not just against him. God forbid we should have Dick Cheney as
President. No. Those two need to go, and many of the others in the
inner circle need to go.

Q: It seems much of the media has responded differently to Katrina
than they did to earlier screw-ups by the Bush Administration. Why
is that?

Mortensen: It's because it's here. You can see it. You can't hide
that. So all of a sudden these mousy, timid, go-along reporters are
finding some spine, and that's nice to see. I hope it lasts. I hope
they don't recede into their self-congratulating, privileged little

Q: Are you hopeful about political change?

Mortensen: I think most Americans will look back on this period
since 1980 as a morally bleak, intellectually fraudulent period of
history. There will be a certain amount of shame, a feeling we were
part of something wrong. People standing outside of this country can
see this because it's very obvious. It's like looking at a spoiled
brat, a kid who's totally out of control, but because the parents
are really rich and because they own the school, you have to put up
with it. America is an empire in decay. But we don't have to lash
out and do damage on the way down. We can reverse some of the damage
we've done. It's possible.

Q: You have been criticized for wearing anti-war T-shirts while
promoting your films, particularly The Lord of the Rings. Did you
have a particular strategy?

Mortensen: I made use of an opportunity. The first time was in the
fall of 2002, when I happened to be on The Charlie Rose Show. I went
there wearing a shirt that I just scribbled with a pen, "No More
Blood for Oil."

Q: But it was also connected to the politics of the movie.

Mortensen: Yes, I was getting tired of journalists presuming
that "obviously" the Fellowship of the Ring is America or the West,
surrounded by poor Oriental Islamic extremists. Tolkien presents a
complex and detailed and interesting set of stories and ideas and
archetypes. The Lord of the Rings was appreciated around the world
because it speaks to a lot of universally understood truths and
myths, not because it justified the right wing of the Republican
Party or some kind of North American Protestant Christian

Q: Following the Charlie Rose appearance, USA Today contributor
Michael Medved took you to task for ruining a popular movie by
politicizing it. "Political preachments, on or off camera, only
interfere with the entertainment value of creative work by major
Hollywood stars," he wrote, in a piece that got a lot of attention.
What did you think?

Mortensen: It was a shoddy piece of journalism. I won't descend to
his level to call him an idiot or anything like that, but it was
obviously something he did to curry favor with his fan base or the
people he would like to impress in religious political circles. He
wanted to be able to say, "Look, I slapped that guy down." The only
reason he took aim at me at all was because the movie I was in had
done very well, so I was a visible person. The establishment media
will often do that; they'll see someone who has visibility and
they'll take them down. The risk is that the person might actually
be listened to. It poses a threat. I'm glad I resisted the
temptation to respond at the time. In the end, it didn't mean that
much to me.

Q: Should the average citizen care what a celebrity thinks about

Mortensen: I don't think special attention should be given to an
actor or a singer or a baseball player or a soccer player more than
anyone else, but they do have an opinion like anyone else. When
people say that entertainers should "know your place," they might as
well say the same thing about plumbers and teachers and cab drivers.
We all should be able to express our views.

Q: Do you think actors are particularly stymied when they try to
speak out?

Mortensen: It's almost a standard tactic, really, to try to minimize
any effort that people in the entertainment business or in any
public occupation make to express themselves. Look, there are people
that grandstand and seem to be publicly politically engaged because
they like the attention, more than because they're genuinely
concerned about the world. But I don't think that's the majority.
The majority of those who take the risk—and it is a risk because
it's much safer to keep your mouth shut and keep making a living—
have something to say. They speak up, or go on a march, or get
involved in the political process because they do care and they are
concerned. I consider myself very fortunate to have a platform. I
don't take it lightly, and I don't abuse it. I don't speak up about
something unless I feel strongly about it and until I've researched
a subject extensively and have an informed decision about it. But I
think if you don't say something it's lying by omission. I
personally think it's immoral. Yeah, it might cost you a few fans,
but you have to say something.

Q: What has it cost you?

Mortensen: I don't know. There might be people out there who
wouldn't hire me because they thought I should keep my mouth shut,
but I'm not aware of that. Even if I saw evidence of that, it
wouldn't really concern me. Bertrand Russell said one of the first
symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that
one's work is terribly important. I take my work seriously, but it's
not the only thing that exists in the world.

Q: You've played a number of roles now—in A History of Violence,
Hidalgo, and The Lord of the Rings—in which you are a type of
cowboy, fighting the forces of evil. A Toronto newspaper dubbed
you "the New John Wayne." What are your feelings about portraying
these types of heroes?

Mortensen: I don't know what the new John Wayne is. I'm not
consciously picking any type of role, even so-called hero roles. And
if some character seems very certain or very courageous, I always
try to find the other side of that. When are they not courageous and
when are they not certain?

Q: When you were asked to play Frank Hopkins, the pony express
carrier in Hidalgo, I read that you were concerned about being cast
as the American cowboy riding through the Arabian Desert. How did
you deal with that?

Mortensen: Yes, at first I had concerns about how the movie would be
made and also how the movie would be promoted. When we were about to
start shooting, it was early 2002 and anyone could see that the Bush
Administration was already gearing up its PR machine to sell the
U.S. public on its war in Iraq. I was very anxious that I was going
to be playing a role as a mythic American cowboy participating in a
race in the Middle East. I met with the director and asked
him, "What do you want to say? Is this just going to be some
American that goes and kicks ass in some heedless way? Or, are you
going to show Wounded Knee? Are you going to show, in some small
way, that someone from the West and someone from the East with
seemingly opposite points of view can come to understand each
other?" He said that's what he was going to do, and he also said a
lot of other things that made me feel the project was worthwhile.
And, in the end, I feel it was.

Q: What attracted you to your role in A History of Violence?

Mortensen: It was very thought provoking. It's very much like a
Western on a lot of levels. Plus, it was fun to work with David
Cronenberg. He's one of the best directors working in the world
today, and he has a lot to say, and he's very clever about the way
he says it.

Q: You have a lot of interests outside acting. You're a
photographer, a poet, a musician, a painter, and a publisher. If,
for some bizarre reason, you had to choose just one medium in which
to express yourself, what would it be?

Mortensen: That's like saying would you rather lose your eyesight,
your hearing, or your ability to speak. I would rather not even
think about it. I pursue the things I do because I'm interested in
them. And I'm grateful for the opportunities I've had, putting one
foot in front of the other.

Nina Siegal is a freelance writer based in Iowa City, where she is
writing her first novel at the Iowa Writers' Workshop.