The Point
Last updated: 11 December 2017.

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Kissing The Machine: the robot dividend and the death of want

 

Adrian Cruden looks at AI, UBI and the possibilities of permanent revolution or counter revolution the new technological age might offer us.

“Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”

When Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote these words in “The Manifesto of the Communist Party” in 1848, Europe was in the grip of multiple revolutions and their channelling of Shakespeare’s prose on impermanence was apt indeed.

In the previous half-century, three key technological advances – Arkwright’s spinning machine, Watt’s steam engine and Cartwright’s power loom – had made real the Industrial Revolution, itself the offspring of revolutions in thought and learning stretching back over three centuries from the birth of the Renaissance to the enlightenment of the Age of Reason. Powerful new mechanised productive forces swept aside the remnants of the feudal age, with liberalism tearing down the privileges of the old nobility and the hierarchy of entitlement and obligation that had governed society for over a millennium and longer.

As Marx and Engels observed, global transportation opened up whole new industries with the potential to create a world of abundance. Raw materials could be transformed into hitherto unimagined goods and services in undreamt of quantities. All that was solid was indeed melted – not into air, but recast into new forms with ever new uses and benefits to their owners.

Yet the liberal world was not one of benefit to all – for the system that forged this change was one of capitalist exploitation and accumulation. While feudal lords had fixed the lives of their serfs to an unchanging existence of mostly agrarian toil, this had its limits and compensations – feast days most weeks, commonly held land and the protection of their overlord. As that system was swept away, a largely rural Continent was swept by Acts of Enclosure, alienating previously commonly held land and resources to new private owners. Tens of millions were forced off the land to be delivered into the gaping jaws of urban factories and poorhouses, which consumed human labour with less regard than that afforded the iron pigment dripping from the hellish blast furnaces tended by these disposable workers.

It was then against this backdrop that the Manifesto was written as the social and economic dislocation of the early 19th century spilled onto the streets in scores of European cities in the form of revolutionary violence. While these uprisings ultimately failed, the vision of constant change summoned up by its authors was to become ever more prescient as liberal capitalism continued its march far beyond Europe’s heartlands to grip the globe in its all-encompassing embrace.

Technological change was both the enabler and the product of this new system – as the ecosocialist Murray Bookchin observed in his “Towards a Liberatory Technology” (1965), the eight decades after the Manifesto saw humanity go through two further major transitions. First was what he called the Paleotechnic Age of coal and steel in the 1850s and 1860s, and then from the 1890s, the Neotechnic Age of electricity, synthetic chemicals and the internal combustion engine. Yet as Bookchin also observed, in spite of the exponential enhancement of power granted by mechanisation, “Ironically, both ages of technology seemed to enhance the importance of toil in society.”

Prior to industrialisation, tools such as spades and axes were used to augment and enhance human effort, while manufacturing was in the hands of craft workers, who rendered raw materials into finished products usually from start to finish – leather hides to hand-made shoes; clay into wheeled crockery, and so on. Industrialisation changed this irreversibly – while the sheer scale of 19th and early 20th machinery required large numbers of operatives, in a sharp reversal of roles, humans increasingly augmented the effort of the machines. Capitalist management specialists like F.D. Taylor developed and applied theories where the human element meshed with the technological into the so-called “Man-Machine”, where processes were broken down as near as possible to single, repetitive, often physically demanding tasks. Any need for the complex and individual knowledge of the craft-workers of old was removed, deskilling and alienating the worker from the eventual product of their labour.

 

Marx had foreseen the liberatory potential of new technology, but he also knew that in the mid-19th century it was not yet at a stage that could free humanity from the need to work – hence his acceptance of the necessity of a bourgeois stage of economic transformation. Even without the inequity of the accumulation of surplus wealth by the ruling class, industry could not yet provide abundance, whatever the economic system. While the combination of the importance and the exploitation of labour put the newly emergent working classes at the heart of revolutionary thinking, socialism itself continued to emphasise the nobility of hard work.

Reflecting this, Lenin was heavily influenced by Taylorism and had a portrait of the Taylorite founder of US production-line mass manufacturing, Henry Ford, in his Kremlin office. Even under Soviet socialism, with Russia’s proclaimed need for massive modernisation, humans were ultimately resources to be minimised in terms of cost and subordinated to process. In the Stalinist USSR, the shock brigades of Stakhanovite workers (so named after a miner who allegedly dug 14 times the average amount of coal produced by his colleagues) were perhaps the apogee of this.

Fritz Lang’s 1929 dystopian film Metropolis stunningly evokes the Man-Machine in a scene where rows of human workers perform repetitive, isolated tasks, swinging levers to and fro in their individual compartments, stacked on top of each other, machines themselves in all but flesh and name, more cogs in the service of an industrial megalith. Perhaps more gently satirical, but equal damning, was Chaplin’s Modern Times. In this, following the implementation an automated feeding machine for workers intended to eliminate wasteful lunchbreaks and keep ahead of their competitors, Chaplin’s employers force factory operatives to keep up with an ever-faster production line, with perhaps predictable, but nevertheless telling, slapstick results.

Fast-forward seven decades and technology’s relentless development has reached an entirely new epoch.

While Lang and Chaplin satirised the contemporary theme of humans enslaved by machines, strikingly, the very first use of the word “Robot”, derived from an Old Slavonic word for “slave”, was in the 1920 Czech play by Karel Capek, R.U.R. – Rossums’ Universal Robots – which foresaw intelligent, autonomous androids – the robots - not enslaving humans, but replacing them altogether. And as time and technology have progressed, R.U.R. seems somewhat less fantastical than it did back in post-Habsburg Prague – or even in 1938 when it was the first ever sci fi TV programme broadcast by the BBC.

 

The human factor has diminished, not only in physical effort but in mental processing too. Almost by stealth, unnoticed by many and incomprehensible to most, this is now the defining issue of our time, greater even than the danger of climate change because, in the end, it may be either our deliverer from disaster or the harbinger of our end.

The development of computers and the rise of Artificial Intelligence (A.I.) has transformed our world. First in the 1920s and 1930s as automated calculating machines capable of processing data much faster than humans and then, with huge investment by all the belligerent powers during the Second World War, used for a range of purposes including by Alan Turing as a decoding machine at Bletchley Park, drove the dynamic rapidly forward. As Martin Ford chronicles in “The Rise of the Robots”, its capacity now doubles every eighteen months or so – for example, there is many more times computing power now available used a Smartphone than in the Apollo Moon landings. The invention of the silicon chip and subsequent miniaturisation, ever faster processing and increasing automation has led to more and more functions requiring little or no human input at all.

From domestic appliances through the omnipresent internet to automated factories and semi-autonomous military machines, automation has made possible whole aspects of life that even two decades ago would have seemed fantastical. Seemingly light years on from the giant mainframes of the 1940s and 1950s, smaller and more powerful computers have become everyday items. Real robots, including a growing number in ever more human-like android form, have emerged in virtually every arena of society. And there is little sign of this slowing down.

The consequences have been and will be profound, far beyond the immediate purpose of any piece of technology itself. As the majority of this is being driven by profit-seeking companies, albeit often subsidised in one way or another by public funds, the appeal of employing automated tech rather than people is obvious - robots, living up to the origin of their name, don’t take holidays, fall sick, demand pay rises, join unions, go on strike, take breaks or need sleep. Yet there is precious little public debate and even less control over the new world that is being shaped by the R&D wing of post-(Henry) Fordist capitalism.

Previous waves of new machinery have of course destroyed old industries and created new ones. While this often led to resistance from established owners and workforces, ultimately it provided sufficient benefit to be at least tolerated and often embraced by the societies it served. What Keynes referred to as “a temporary phase of maladjustment” ultimately gave way to new forms of previously unimagined work and in time to higher living standards for workers as well as owners.

So, some have argued, fears of the current wave of change leaving hundreds of millions, if not billions, of human workers surplus to requirements could be misplaced. While Oxford academics Carl Frey and Michael Osborne have infamously predicted artificial intelligence will replace 47% of current jobs by 2030 (a prediction for the US economy – their UK figure stands at around 30%), US Professor of Economics Robert Gordon argues it will be a somewhat more conservative 15%.

He is joined in this caution by Marxist academic David Harvey, who points to the exponential growth in the global labour force in the last few decades as a counter to those proclaiming the end of human work. While western countries like the UK and USA do show symptoms of the beginning of a shift to a low job, hi-tech economy, their recent “jobless recoveries” can equally be attributed to the outsourcing of jobs to new low wage labour markets first in post-Soviet eastern Europe and then in South and East Asia. Harvey has pointed to this though as a one-off process, unable to be repeated on our finitely sized planet.

However, others such as Martin Ford claim that, this time, the new tech revolution is different in a number of ways. In the past, changes in industrial processes often occurred over many years, even generations, and still required human input to function. Now, however, the pace is infinitely faster and the impact deeper and far more destructive than with past tech-shocks. There is far less time to understand and accommodate change and disruption is so great that the entire economic system itself seems increasingly unstable and inherently unable to correct itself.

The destruction of whole labour forces at a macro-economic level could sound the death-knell of the very consumer markets that capitalism requires to survive and thrive. Yet, at the micro-economic level which predominates in our economic system, the self-interest of individual companies in maximising competitive advantage over their rivals means that the drive to replace the labour of human hands and brains with the micro-processing units and silicon chips of robots will continue apace.

Apocryphally, this change can be most strikingly observed in High Streets everywhere – supermarkets led the way with the euphemistically named “fast-lanes” where customers scan and pack their own purchases, interrupted only by the barking tones of the A.I. warning about unexpected items in the bagging area and harsh metallic alarms demanding that the sole human employee on duty should guess the age of the person trying to scan porn DVDs alongside their cornflakes. Many other retailers have followed suit in whole or in part – McDonald’s are rapidly replacing human order-taking with a forest of large consoles in each of their outlets and some fully automated servers are already being trialled. Whilst humans will not entirely disappear from the retail experience for many years yet, our numbers are set to drop dramatically.

The migration of much consumer shopping online has further hastened this dehumanisation of labour. In Amazon warehouses robots perform ever more of the distribution sequencing required to get your exotic brand of toothpaste from the shelf to a box to a delivery drone. Even in the City of London, algorithms have replaced human traders to undertake the scandal that is “split-second trading”.

In the midst of this sits the military-industrial complex, now as in the days of Empire, driving and funding much of the research that is creating ever-more ingenious and terrifyingly powerful possibilities. The military application of A.I. has seen the rise of remote-piloted drone technology to the point that the USAF and the RAF are training more drone operators than pilots. Military robots akin to props out of bad science fiction movies are already a reality and the next major phase is to move towards truly independent, autonomous weaponry, guided and limited by nothing but the algorithms of its software. As human soldiers become redundant, the risk of conflict is likely to grow both in frequency and ferocity, with untold “collateral” impact.

Robert Gordon and others may try to downplay it, but the human factor in the workplace is in long-term decline. According to the number-crunching analysis of Frey and Osborne, a host of roles from credit analysts, cooks and estate agents to crane operators, taxi drivers and baggage porters will disappear, while others such as solicitors will find software replacing large numbers of their profession.

Some human roles will be relatively immune – work requiring significant precision and manual dexterity, such as plumbing or gas engineering, will not be possible to replace using the level of robotic technology likely to be available in the next two decades. Similarly, while A.I. programmes like Deep Blue may be increasingly good at winning chess championships, even cutting-edge android robots like Asimo remain somewhat less adept at clearing and cleaning the spectators’ area after the match is over - so people with mops and dusters are likely to remain in demand. Likewise, “cognitive roles” requiring a high level of human interaction and understanding, such as psychologists, surgeons, engineers and fashion designers should be safer – so, perhaps sadly, will PR execs. For now.

Yet while there is much debate over both the pace of these changes and their foreseeable limits, nearly all commentators agree on though is that any future tech-driven capitalist society will be divided between an ever-smaller elite of owners and specialists on one hand and literally billions of dispossessed “surplus” humans on the other. Rampant inequality, far worse than even today, will become the norm as a world of abundance is skewed between utter excess for the few and deepening scarcity for the many.

Martin Ford’s research shows in some detail how this is already happening – the share of surplus value paid to workers is falling rapidly as automation bites, even in newly prosperous economies such as China. In the UK, the percentage of national wealth distributed via employees’ wages has fallen by nearly a fifth since the 1970s in spite of GDP more than doubling in real terms and corporations raking in record returns. Under present conditions, this will simply get worse. Traditional professions and training routes via university courses and apprenticeships will be meaningless to individuals’ search for employment and there will be little time to adapt or invent significant new areas of work likely to generate well-paid work.

In this new paradigm, the nightmare scenarios proliferate: will the rich elite exist effectively in their own supra-economy, operating apart from the rest of society, not unlike a virtual representation of the off-world gated community of capitalists in the film Elysium? Or, with their markets gone, will capitalists turn increasingly to the co-option of state power to keep them afloat, perhaps finally shedding even the slightest pretence of our current pseudo-democratic forms?

Though a good number of the rich are reportedly buying up post-apocalyptic bolt-holes for themselves, the second option seems for now the most likely and is probably the most appealing for most capitalists. Under this, the State steps in to save not capitalism, as it will be dead in even its most badly reanimated form, but rather the capitalists themselves.

Neoliberalism has excelled in the seizure of public power and resources to the benefit of private companies and shareholders in the name of a non-existent free market. Its final, climactic purpose as the suicidal capitalist system passes into history, will be to cement the power of the final gang of owners of the world into a new plutocratic royalty for the Third Millennium. And with yet more irony, the leading advocates of one of the key economic measures to achieve this rescue of the damned elite see themselves as radical challengers to the very system that is set to incorporate their Big Idea.

That idea is known by many names – unconditional basic income, citizens’ income, universal credit among them – and has a diverse range of proponents. Broadly, the concept is that, in a society where high-producing technology means there is not enough human work to create big enough consumer markets to keep the economy functioning, the State intervenes to make a regular payment to its citizens which they can then use to purchase the essentials of life and, just maybe, a little bit more. In this way, the economy keeps turning with some minimum level of demand propping up the balance sheets of the big corporations.

There have been various experiments with UBI including in Canada, the Netherlands and Sweden, and Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has recently announced UBI pilots will take place in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Fife and North Ayrshire. Some of the oil states, like contemporary Iran, provide a form of basic payment as a “dividend” to the countries’ citizens from their natural resources, while South Africa makes a healthcare payment (predominantly, but not exclusively, to women), examined in James Fergusson’s Give A Man A Fish, which is intended to ensure the well-being of the poorest.

In the UK, as well as the SNP’s recent interest, the Greens have championed what they call Citizens’ Income, although they have done so in the teeth of vicious opposition from the media and from Establishment politicians who derided it as at best utopian and at worst a charter for the feckless. Given the psychological conditioning of the public to believe that money must be earned via ideally full-time work, the derision of the Greens as hopelessly idealistic struck a powerful chord with many voters. But times change and the Green Party’s trail-blazing had led more recently to Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell considering it as an option for a Corbynite social democracy.

 

Capitalists have been relatively slow to advocate what, by the finest of Protestant work ethics would be derided as the sin of free money. Yet some are gradually concluding that it would be an effective means of saving capitalism from its inherently self-destructive genetic code. Ford himself recommends it as the basis for a new economy, though he argues that any basic income payment should not be unconditional but dependent on recipients undertaking some sort of currently unpaid community work, allegedly to avoid creation of a dependence culture.

By contrast, the left-wing argument for it as a dividend for sharing out the common wealth (the “robot dividend”, perhaps) is superficially appealing and even just. Much would of course depend on the level of payment, whether or not it was truly unconditional and how it interplayed with the rest of the economy. While ecosocialists argue it should not negate measures such as living wage legislation, other allegedly progressive proponents claim that a sufficiently high level UBI would remove the need for any wage protection as people could simply refuse badly paid work – a rather unworldly view of how the labour market works, especially in a world with huge surpluses of workers.

And this is the problem - by itself, UBI is just a tool and like any tool can be used to very different ends. Alone it does nothing to challenge the inherent inequality of capitalist society. It does nothing to rein in consumerist desire to pillage our planet of its diminishing resources. It does nothing to wrest control or ownership of the economy from the hands of a tiny elite – indeed, potentially it does quite the opposite, providing a basic level of demand in an automated economy, thwarting social change and locking citizens ever more into a system that kindly doles out their “income”. It does mark the end of capitalism as we have known it – nothing more will melt into air and the nostrums of private ownership and bourgeois hierarchy will be frozen like corpses in a morgue; and if we persist with a zombified market system, the morgue will be where we will stay.

And in that ossified condition, right-wing “libertarian” economist and author of “Average Is Over” Tyler Cowen salivates that, “This is not a world where everyone is going to feel comfortable…The world will look much more unfair and much less equal; and indeed it will be.” While the rich control untold wealth generated by automation, such human work as remains will be in serving their whims: “Making high earners feel better in just about every part of their lives will be a major source of job growth in the future.”

So here comes the challenge for socialists: do we back UBI as anything more than an important but transitional arrangement to protect people from the worst ravages of the transformation of our economy? As long as a monetary system continues, a Citizens’ Income would be a useful method for ensuring a fair distribution of wealth, but this would be a very different use to the idea of using it to keep a market system ticking over in the absence of sufficient paid employment. So do we focus instead on how to embrace and harness the powerful changes underway to deliver a society where material abundance allows us to eventually do away with markets and much, if for now not all, labour?

For Cowen’s dystopian world is not the inevitable outcome of automation and improved A.I. While acknowledging some inequality is driven by technological changes, Robert Gordon stresses that this is because of a choice: previous post-war technological advance led to greater equality and a much larger share of GDP going to employees. But since the days of Reaganomics and Thatcherism, “The nature of innovation…has created a sort of winner-takes-all society. Part of the difference today is political.”

Back in 1965, Bookchin posited:

“The question is whether a future society will be organised around technology or whether technology is now sufficiently malleable so that it can be organised around society.”

He was writing in the days of giant mainframes and transistors – even something now as antiquated as dialup networks using telephone cables would have seemed a revolutionary fantasy to all but the most visionary. Where we are now, exponentially on from Bookchin and several epochs from the steam and iron contemporary to Marx and Engels, the needs of all can finally be met – but only if we revolutionise the whole pattern of ownership and crucially of distribution of goods and services. 

Bookchin’s own thinking was a synthesis of ecology, anarchism and socialism. His advocacy of small-scale communities and communal ownership has become increasingly feasible thanks to the decentralisation and specialisation permitted via ever more flexible software programmes and technologies such as 3D printing. As we urgently need to move to more localised economies in the face of resource depletion and climate change, his ecosocialism has become all the more urgent and essential too. In this, UBI will have a positive, transitional role to play, but it should not be a long-term objective – because that should be nothing any less audacious than removing markets from all but the smallest scale economic activity, eventually removing the very need for money at all.

Imagine a confederation of self-governing canton-like communities, using largely automated technology to manufacture goods from local resources and then distributing them according to need. Imagine a world where these communities are largely self-sufficient but where the internet, renewable energy and low cost, emission-free (driverless) public transport facilitates the exchange of items of cultural interest or significance. Imagine a world where, rather than firing and impoverishing half of us, technology has created a five-day weekend. Imagine a world where people are free to explore their creativity and enjoy leisure without guilt or capitalist concepts of being “time poor” or “debt-ridden”. Psychologically, freed of the burden of want and the desire for acquisition, society would seek out new ways to find human fulfilment, a society that unleashes what Bookchin argued is the “basic sense of decency, sympathy and mutual aid (which) lies at the core of human behaviour.”

These are all potential liberatory and egalitarian scenarios for the future of our species and our world. But we won’t find our way to them under capitalism or its pending Pluto-Corp PLC upgrade. For in this time of transition, or age of disruption, one thing is for certain – capitalism has served its historical purpose. Its relentless drive to put profit over people and planet has entered a stage of such excess that it renders the system dysfunctional and for some decades already only the deployment of the coercive powers of the very State have shored up its beleaguered hold on society.

And all this comes before we face the full, deep impact of the changes that are coming ever faster on the horizon – changes which are just the first of many which will mark this century far more profoundly and irreversibly than any that have come before in the Anthropocene Era. For, far beyond anything anticipated by Ford, Frey or Karl Marx, the nexus of genetic engineering and cybernetic biotechnology threatens to transform the very core of what we consider to be human.

Yuval Harari, author of “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind”, warned in a 2015 New Statesman essay that “They (the tech-elite) dream not only about remaking society and the economy, but also about overcoming old age, defeating death, engineering superhumans, creating the Internet of Things and merging human beings into the Internet of Things to form some kind of cosmic consciousness.”

Google has set up a Life Sciences investment company charged with a mission “to solve death”, while PayPal founder Peter Thiel is investing a chunk of his $2.2 billion fortune in research to upgrade humans and fight mortality. Much may be fantasy, but just as the potential of material utopia finally really does cleave into view, so too does the prospect of the rebirth of eugenics and its appalling consequences.

Harari berates the managerialism of contemporary mainstream politics, with myopic leaders rarely lifting their eyes from the four or five years ahead and, by default, ceding the great visions of tomorrow to the plutocratic geeks quartered in Silicon Valley. “The most important decisions in the history of life might be taken by a tiny group of engineers and business people, while politicians are busy arguing about immigration quotas and the euro.

We need visionary politics more than ever. We need a politics that transcends hustling for cyclical elections to powerless legislatures that are bogged down between bureaucratic paralysis and the bullying of the Establishment. No more gradualism or liberalism or even social democracy. We no longer have the time. Now, more than ever, we face the stark but very real choice espoused nearly a century ago by Rosa Luxemburg: that of socialism or barbarism.

The socialism of a society where the great bounty of commonly-owned technology is equitably and sustainably shared among the inhabitants of our planet. A society where work is much reduced, replaced by leisure and learning, and where clean energy, an economy of the Commons and social justice keep Homo Sapiens safe, in some balance with the natural world and ready to finally fulfil all that we can be.

Or, alternatively, the barbarism of a pseudo-capitalist dystopia where the elite shore up their decaying economics by employing the very tech that could free us all to instead bind us with ever more virtual chains, weighing us down with suspicion and surveillance as our world is racked by resource depletion and climate change. A world where the genetically modified, trans-human inheritors of capitalism will soon enough build that Internet of Things, a veritable Skynet, in the profane name of public wellbeing and national security. And somewhere, arguing that if they don’t do it, a competitor will instead, someone will build a Terminator.

And it won’t have an OFF switch.

 

“In a future revolution, the most pressing task of technology will be to produce a surfeit of goods with a minimum of toil. The immediate purpose of this task will be to open the social arena permanently to the revolutionary people, to keep the revolution in permanence. Thus far, every social revolution has foundered because the peal of the tocsin could not be heard over the din of the workshop. Dreams of freedom and plenty were polluted by the mundane, workday responsibility of producing the means of survival…. The most critical function of modern technology must be to keep the doors of the revolution open forever!”

Murray Bookchin, “Towards A Liberatory Technology”

 

 

Bibliography

Towards A Liberatory Technology”, within “Post-Scarcity Anarchism” by Murray Bookchin, AK Press, Edinburgh, 2004. Also available as free download at:  https://libcom.org/files/Post-Scarcity%20Anarchism%20-%20Murray%20Bookchin.pdf

The Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of Mass Unemployment” by Martin Ford, Basic Books, New York, 2015

 “Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism” by David Harvey, Profile Books, London, 2014

Inventing the Future: Post-Capitalism and a World Without Work” by Nick Srnicek & Alex Williams, Verso, London, 2015

Articles

Who owns the future?” article by Yuval Harari, “New Statesman” magazine, 12-18 June 2015

You’re Next” article by John McDermott, “Prospect” magazine, April 2014

Immigrants from the Future” Special Report, The Economist, 29 March 2014

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