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Reclaiming the Economy
Owen Logan

“This is the way the world is today. It may not be what people always want to hear but it is the truth. The best thing government can do is not to offer a false prospectus to people that we can prevent these changes.”
Tony Blair’ s words in April 2004 on the occasion of the ‘world’s fifth-largest insurance group’, Aviva’s, decision to ‘offshore’ 2,300 jobs.

“…instead of the unelected dealers gambling with our welfare on the stock exchange, it would be more democratic if the Government gambled with the economy. So the Budget would be full of announcements such as, “After due consideration, and in line with our insistence on fiscal competence the car industry has been put on greyhound number four in the 6.38 tonight at Wimbledon Stadium.”
Mark Steel, The Independent, 23rd January 2008

In Reclaiming the Economy, Alternatives to Market Fundamentalism in Scotland and beyond, (2007) Phil Taylor and the late Peter Bain bring their chapter to a close with the above quote from Tony Blair. Politicians imply that the erosion of economic sovereignty to international financial institutions, multinational corporations and stock markets is an unstoppable phenomenon. Consequently hi-end tax cuts, privatisation and the constant threat of capital flight appear more natural than climate change. This is all the more believable when the fortresses of capitalist transaction remain perfectly in tact after stock market crashes like the one in January. No matter how naïve sounding it should be recalled more often, and with greater seriousness, that no citizen anywhere was ever asked to vote for the appropriation of economic governance by financial markets unleashing a speculative boom that dwarfs real goods and services, nor was a manifesto commitment ever devised to couple the world to the strategic expansion of US debt.
At the end of January, Gordon Brown announced the concern of European leaders with “a transparency deficit”. This was articulated by such a highly selective body (UK Prime Minister, Gordon Brown; German Chancellor, Angela Merkel; Italian Prime Minister, Romano Prodi; and French President, Nicolas Sarkozy) that many people in the world will argue these representatives showed their interest, not in transparency, but more simply in guarding concentrations of consumer spending now threatened by the excesses of casino capitalism. The market’s abstraction of power, which has the effect of smothering needs with frivolous wants, leaves anyone interested in real transparency or in the co-determination of the economy with the difficult question of where to begin? Reclaiming the Economy was initiated by a series of discussions outlining practical anti-capitalist economic policies. In keeping with the thinking of John Holloway (the Marxian political philosopher) cited in the book’s introduction, its authors believe that alternative visions should be debated and forged from the histories of particular places, not handed down as ‘tablets of stone.’ In such a plural approach the conception of state obviously varies between contributors. For some, the politics of the state (or multi-state economic blocks) is almost invisible whilst for others the role of the state within an Anglo-American alliance comes through from critiques of the civil service and the public sector. Arguably, all possible human alternatives to market fundamentalism will inevitably be shaped, however unconsciously, by our historical experience, particularly by participation in the British Empire project and the ideological twilight of social democracy in the UK, now turned into a domestic attack on the human politics of production. Really these factors cannot be underestimated if one is to genuinely proceed from our ‘particular experiences in time and space.’
With energy policy torn between environmental limits and market-led growth, the mainstream political treatment of climate change is of course extremely relevant to the theme of this book edited by Andy Cumbers and Geoff Whittam. Cumbers’ chapter on ‘Economic Democracy and Public Ownership’ is directed towards a sustainable energy policy and implicitly revisits the discussions of writers like Carole Pateman in the 1970s who recognised that nationalised industry would not thrive in the absence of grass roots economic democracy.1 Recognising that the window of opportunity for a nationalised oil industry in the North Sea has passed, Cumbers makes a persuasive social and environmental case for decentralisation under a national energy agency. ‘Climate Change and the Bioregional Economy’ by the Green economist Molly Scott Cato emphasises a more “Robinson Crusoe approach” which some people may see merely returning us to a classic problem of liberal thought. But before ushering in environmental imperatives, perhaps the chapter by Taylor and Bain examining a crisis for trade unionism in the current neoliberal order makes a good introduction to the terrain of this book. If so, it is because Green thinking is strong on what should happen but by envisaging various forms of opting-out environmentalists tend to be vague about how radical social change comes about.
In looking at call centre work, where jobs are notoriously easy to shift from one place to the next according to the viscitudes of the global labour market, Taylor and Bain are hardly bright-eyed optimists of proletarian social agency, although, importantly, they identify the limits of corporate hypermobility. In doing so they also point to room for internationalist inspired manoeuvre on the part of workers and give examples of trade union successes in the UK as well as the development of UNITES in India, a union representing call centre workers. Their argument is that modest successes which articulate solidarity between workers in different countries can influence the pattern of future organisation. Essentially, the scale of the internationalist task in unions needs to be broken down into practical goals made possible by internationalist thinking. At the centre of this argument could be a greater emphasis on the importance of understanding broader frustrations of life beyond the workplace – a level of comprehension which is hampered by the bureaucratic protectionism that makes so many trade unions unprepared for this century. Bain and Taylor mention how interviews helped UNITES articulate members’ complaints and, arguably, a renewed interest in the impact of working conditions needs to be matched by an unsentimental examination of the upwards redistribution of economic power. Companies may be ‘vulnerable’ to the charge of driving a race to the bottom in rights and pay but the evidence suggests that they don’t care, and indeed, why should they? Inevitably this calls for unions to re-organise or identify precisely focused tactics, or both.
In a journal article, published in Defragmenting: Towards a critical understanding of the new global division of labour, Norene Pupo gives a detailed view of the same sector.2 The now almost customary mode of opening governance to business has seen cities in Canada and the US offering a “highly acclaimed” call answering service which is said to improve government accessibility and accountability. According to Bell Canada, its new 311 information service “can transform the way cities deliver services, and change the way cities communicate and connect with their citizens.” This last statement is true. 311 is not intended to replace the 911 emergency line, instead having been designed for burning questions rather than burning buildings. However, call centre workers respond using a database of scripted answers in an assembly line approach to communication. Calls are timed to ensure workers deal with different queries within a set number of seconds and maintain a quota of calls. ‘Downtime’ between calls varies regionally. Some workers are allowed up to 15 seconds while others only get 3-5 seconds between calls in six hour shifts.
The pressure of this emotionally gruelling regime means that employees worry about going to the toilet or looking away from the screen. From grievances to annoyances and basic information the 311 franchise signals the underlying ideology of governance that goes along with “plundering the public sector”. According to the more benign vocabulary of the Financial Times this is now an explosive area of economic activity in the UK.3 Nevertheless, what is equally pertinent about the 311 line is the way it belongs to a de-skilled and atomised universe in which commodity values come to life. The psychological dimensions of this may threaten the progressive role of the public sector as much as the material implications of contracting out or straightforward cutbacks.
The complex nature of things raises the issue of how economics is defined by its gurus today. For all those (including this reviewer) who prefer to discuss public service in both its poetic and prosaic possibilities, this is what Robert McMaster’s chapter on commodification in health care addresses. He tackles the commodification of health care where “money has been accepted as a proper conception of value […] reducing all human relations essentially to those of exchange …”. McMaster would no doubt argue that monetary exchange values must be separated from reciprocity in which the notions of “duty, obligations, dignity and power” that he mentions are the basis for co-operation and accountability. Without reciprocity those high sounding words can also be turned to the cause of producing “healthy figures” that mask a deeply unhealthy reality. Reclaiming the Economy exposes the dark side of public accounting methods that merely serve private interests. This is particularly evident in Chik Collins’ chapter, writing on the Scottish Executive’s assault on the community agenda which he spotted being tied up with the Royal Bank of Scotland’s interventions4, Christine Cooper and Phil Taylor’s on autocratic and senseless prison privatisation, and Sarah Glynn’s writing on the cynicism behind the stock transfer of council housing. Here we see the stealthy withdrawal of public ownership and control under the doublespeak banner of ‘community ownership.’ Glynn calls the warm and fuzzy language of community “New-Labour-Speak”, but what comes through in all the cases are the basic contradictions of meaning, intention and real functions that underpin much of what Reclaiming the Economy may deal with too implicitly; namely cryptic economics.
In their introduction, Cumbers and Whittam remark that “economic syllabuses increasingly exclude some of the great heterodox thinkers such as Keynes, Schumpeter, Polanyi and Marx […] Who would have thought thirty years ago that it would be possible to graduate from an economics degree without having come into contact with Keynes’ General Theory?” But thanks to the knowledge economy daily succeeding in turning education into training, the impoverishment of economic philosophy is the norm in universities. The Harvard guru Jeffrey Sachs, who brands his method ‘Clinical Economics’, does a great deal to burn back the discursive ground which Gerry Mooney and Gill Scott in their ‘Tackling Poverty and Disadvantage’ ably defend.5 They argue that poverty must be understood as the structural outcome of exploitation, not an abstract malady that demands the sort of fixes envisaged by someone like Sachs, who describes himself entering like the doctor called in the middle of the night to tend to a sick child running a high fever of hyperinflation. What Sachs is really describing is his dealings among power elites. The contrast with Mooney and Scott’s approach could not be sharper. If mass exodus or radical transformation are anything to go by, countries like Poland and Bolivia are hardly satisfied with Sachs’ therapy. Bolivia’s government responded with a sharp leftward turn, while women stuck in Poland’s impoverished zones and pushed to the edges of existence say that “ours is like a voice in the desert”. Predictably the Sachs publicity machine is profoundly deaf. Seemingly unaware of the pratfalls, Bono Vox hypes-up Sachs telling us that the economist’s voice is “louder than any electric guitar, heavier than heavy metal”.6

Wrestling with Gurus
In referring back to Adam Smith, the new breed of economist is unwilling to address the analytical gaps in The Wealth of Nations although the work is likely to be cited as part of the genealogy belonging to any mainstream economist wishing to forecast reality. Smith himself was open about the possibility of self-delusion, although he washed over the problem of separating facts from values with an insistence on ‘general rules’, leaving a key issue lingering on to become the preoccupation of German philosophy. This led to the work of Marx for whom, of course, economics was no clinical system and was all about the misrecognition of labour which, as the Chartists declared, was the source of all wealth. With manufacturing exiled from UK plc today, the Marxian struggle around the social origins of wealth appears to have been won hands down by the managerial class who we are now told with unrelenting pomposity are the wealth creators. As radical market analysts show this is no mere ideological achievement. It reflects (though fails to describe) the subversive processes in which money is autonomously created from nothing.6
In his chapter ‘Towards an Alternative Economic Development Strategy for Scotland’, Danny Mackinnon shows how the Scottish Executive adopted the knowledge-economy rationale; expressed in its ideological documents like Smart Successful Scotland. Mackinnon links this to the ‘guru-led’ approach to development now typifying mainstream economic discourse in the United States. It’s worth returning to Sachs for a moment who, if nothing else, exemplifies the syndrome. Things went so badly wrong in his plans for Bolivia that the hitherto divided politics of miners and peasants overlapped and the Movement for Socialism was created. But its coming to power with Evo Morales is more than evidence for the law of unintended consequences and reveals the economic planner’s characteristic blindness to social meanings and ways of life, which are equally problematic factors in economic designs for full blown consumerist societies. Moving from relative security provided by social democratic welfarism into a precarious and increasingly indebted way of life is sustainable only for as long as the dispersal of risk away from capital and from the centres of speculation is left uncontested. Despite all the recent talk of carnage in the markets, and front page pictures of distraught traders, any real distress in their ranks will be redistributed downwards.
Writing on closures of brewing and industrial research companies in the north east of England, Andy Pike says that the prospects for workplace resistance and social agency are conditioned by specific histories. He goes on to argue that in bringing up any concept of socially useful production it is crucial to address underlying functions of capital. In quoting from Robin Blackburn’s Banking on Death, or Investing in Life (2002).7 Pike’s chapter is suggestive of the way the socialisation of ailing companies through public investment or in cooperative buy-out schemes can signify the off-loading of risk in a corporate-dominated market. Forms of de-commodification or socialisation come into play, “since only this can ‘neutralise’ the free floating electric charge of capital by tying to the ‘earth’ of mutual or public property, which can no longer be bought or sold”. Yet unless they are cash-based, public or mutual ownership interventions still need to “generate a return for their capitalist lenders.” The case of Northern Rock, where Gordon Brown’s government is currently doing everything to avoid nationalisation, seems to be the worst of all worlds. Each tax payer is to be lumbered with around £2000 worth of unwanted capitalist risk, said to be the largest bail-out of a private company ever.8
Taking up Pike’s arguments, it might be argued that the poverty of the political imagination is the most disabling factor in the contemporary nation state which cannot conceive of any avowedly anti-capitalist or pro-worker enterprise amounting to meaningful economic activity. When such projects based on social production surface in post-shock economies such as Argentina, there have been concerted attempts to co-opt and denude them of an anti-managerial organisational praxis in which the seeds of a wider cooperative economy lie. In a country like the UK, the scale of not-for-profit activity is often underestimated but its meaning and functions are at best ambiguous and the ethos of the sector is hardly pro-worker. At worst, the voluntary sector erodes labour organisation as charitable trusts, functioning as tax breaks for local government, take on services from the public sector where trade unionism is still a significant force.
In the context of a civic branding effort, ‘Creative Plymouth’, a recent meeting organised by the Plymouth Arts Centre and the Committee for Radical Diplomacy, brought out the extent to which local authorities are seen to be engineering the development of apparently self-organised groups. The criticism of this endeavour to nurture new organisations is that they are less directly accountable and through them the work of the public sector is potentially voluntarised. Nevertheless, employment in the voluntary sector has risen by more than a quarter in the past decade with government and local authorities becoming purchasers rather than providers of public services which are increasingly pitted against each other in the process.9 The Scottish Trade Union Congress is now trying to define a common ground with the voluntary sector but it remains to be seen what effective political weapons can be shared. Perhaps it is a hopeful sign that a campaigning residents’ association in Plymouth reflects critically on its own successes by measuring them against the un-paid work they are effectively performing for the public sector. This is hardly surprising when the demigods and gurus of consultancy and public relations are seen to be squandering public sector resources.
Of course, the self-inflicted paradox for bureaucracy caught in this nexus is that their desire to demonstrate public participation and social coherency can never be met. A healthy democracy depends on citizens having meaningful economic powers as producers, not only as consumers. Such a balance is essentially a liberal idea, held to by old fashioned sorts like Lord Beaumont of Whitley who moved to the Green Party and who is cited by Molly Scott Cato in her chapter on the bioregional economy. Not for the first time in history, liberal ideals have become incompatible with liberal ‘free-trade’ economics. One response is an idealistic localism that fails to confront the underlying issues of reciprocity, or indeed transparency, in a global market which cannot be expected to disappear, and be replaced by Cato’s notion of medieval immobility. Worryingly, an implicitly apocalyptic rationale is crossed with what looks like another lifestyle plan for the British middle classes. George Monbiot’s The Age of Consent (2003) remains more far sighted in tackling the contradictions of global governance and international trade by also calling the international monetary system to account.10 Monbiot proposed an adaptation of Keynes’ untried demurrage (negative interest) system which would tie the reproduction of capital to ecological and genuinely sustainable growth. This key idea got submerged in Monbiot’s rather too grandiose vision for a world parliament, but to whatever side of such arguments you may tend, it is clear that the disempowerment of all productive forces, and the exploitation of all life, is now undermining democratic systems in different countries.
If bureaucracy is in an unenviable position it is partly because it is increasingly tooled-up to cover over political hollowness with the appearance of consensus. Is it any wonder that the public sector is more and more consumed by its own marketing? When one considers how governance at all levels is taking on greater representational authority on the back of very weak mandates we should be worried. The technocratic mood of boredom with qualitative democracy pervades many areas of civil society and any dissenting form of organisation can be easily purged by fiscal starvation. The still unfolding story of Creative Scotland, envisaged as a more efficient commissariat of culture, has so far been an exercise in political deference and intellectual cowardice dressed up as a (costly) consultation process. Its terms of reference stumbled from an antiquated and undiscussed notion of culture to the economically instrumental notion of creativity that now pervades the whole affair. Creative Scotland may well turn out to be a prime example of impatience with reasoned democratic debate, just when as a society that is what we need the most!
More optimistically, what might be discerned from a complex situation in which any segregated discussion of the economic, the political or the cultural is destined to go round in circles, is a certain depth of interest in working for a better politics of the public sector. This has occurred in Norway where non-linear trade union organisation brought about the Popular Movement for Public Services. Twenty-nine national organisations from unions to charities came together representing more than one million members, not too far short of a quarter of Norway’s population. The campaign succeeded in strengthening a democratic mandate for the public sector and reversed neoliberal policies of competitive tendering and privatisation. But as Norwegian campaigner Asbjorn Whal described in the UK trade union journal Solidarity, it was important not just to defend the achievements of the public sector in Norway but also to admit to its weaknesses and fight for improvement. According to Bjorn, this was a socially radicalising process moving Norway’s government to the left. In Reclaiming the Economy no doubt Andy Pike is right about social agency being “conditioned” by different histories. The multi-faceted history of Scandinavian militancy counts in the case of Norway, but it might be argued more strongly that if participation and democratic organisation are genuinely upheld then politics, if not spontaneous, still remains the unpredictable factor in the midst of economic reductionism.

Corporate Games
The virtue of Reclaiming the Economy, no doubt making it implausible to conformist minds, is that the book’s perspective cannot be separated from citizenship. It is also true that its critical grasp of the state varies greatly between contributors. Nevertheless, different levels of qualitative citizenship underpin the policy agenda: from writers such as Cumbers or Cato, who project substantial rather than token shifts towards renewable energy; Geoff Whittam and Mike Danson, who argue for progressive local taxation based on the ability to pay, seeing this as one of the few real openings under devolution; or Roberta Sonnino and Kevin Morgan’s work on local ‘green procurement’ for school meals. Pioneered in East Ayrshire, the engagement of schools there with local production in an area of multiple deprivation shows the crucial and progressive role of the public sector in relation to market development. If Jamie Oliver was tough on crap school meals, East Ayrshire looks tougher on their causes! This is an important move which should be widely replicated as Sonnino and Morgan argue.
Against the deservedly optimistic tone of the Ayrshire case study, Prem Sikka’s chapter reveals the delinquency of corporations disabling the capacities of the public sector and it working against a free market. Among the many examples of corporate parasitism which Sikka gives are the five companies charged with conspiracy to defraud the NHS to the tune of £150 million. Sikka argues that “taming the corporations” requires the diffusion of corporate governance and much greater transparency. Citizens, not just share holders, he argues should have greater powers to question and challenge big businesses which have been shaping laws unto themselves for decades. Consider the 1973 US supreme court judgement that did away with equalities in political communication when it found that “money is speech”. Sikka argues that the corporate books must be opened to public scrutiny and evidence of tax-dodging should rule companies out of public contracts. The TUC estimates that £25 billion annually is currently lost to the public purse through tax dodging.11 Nevertheless, the corrupting aspects of corporate power are a fashionable target. The state’s immersion in the logic of capital accumulation may ultimately be more problematic. Considering the way government was outmanoeuvred by the flight offshore of Totesport Casino, the internet arm of government-owned bookmaker the Tote, and the way the Inland Revenue disposed of public assets to a private company based in a tax haven, mirroring local authorities’ uses of charitable trusts, Gordon Brown really should be questioned when he says he’s in line with people who want to “play by the rules”.12 Is he talking about the rules of institutionally organised capital flight? The UK’s capacity for economic self-deception makes us look rather like a chip off a US block when the state itself is fascinated by parasitical ‘ingenuity’ in the market.

Terror and crypto-economics
Its proponents claim that the financial markets are too complex to understand and regulate as they once were by central banks and governments. With democracy held in contempt this can be announced with utter impunity from places like the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, rather than admitted as the most serious sort of political problem. In The Future of Democracy (1998), subtitled A Defence of the Rules of the Game, Norberto Bobbio suggested that once power is invisible or beyond comprehension and at the same time the state has ever greater capacities of knowledge over citizens, a quasi-occult dynamic of terror comes into play.13 When it comes to economics undoubtedly there is a comic side to this, easily brought out by people like Mark Steel who see in the domain of hi-finance the surreal character of capitalism. Although driven by speculation and usury (which leads to the auto-genesis of money) Marxists often suggest that reforming or ‘tinkering’ with financial systems of transaction is unlikely to address the dialectic of exchange (money) and production (commodities). But some will argue that the conflict between money capitalists and industrial capitalists needs to be taken into greater account and point to the unfinished nature of Marx’s engagement with money. In a useful review article of Anitra Nelson’s Marx’s Concept of Money (1999) Phillip Anthony O’Hara defends the development of Marxist thought in this respect while accepting that Marx himself utilised a commodity theory of money “when a fuller understanding of money and credit was in order”.14
There are several reasons to take this problem more seriously. As a micro level mechanism of social control, credit drives a consumerist economy based on superficial wants rather than deeper needs. Recall Margaret Thatcher’s ideal home-owning populace, brought into being in the midst of an epidemic of homelessness; or in the US now, the human uprooting of subprime mortgages. Yet if the terrors of debt still support the logic of speculation, normative individualism and further conformity to commodification, they can also bring about insurrection. Athenian direct democracy emerged from precisely such a moment of resistance against usury when the dispersal of risk from lenders was leading to self-enslavement of debtors. Needless to say, not all insurrectionary tendencies against debt have been as culturally fruitful as Solon’s essentially political reforms from BC 594. The tragedy of Make Poverty History was the way it segregated and stage managed contemporary issues of debt and democratic accountability. And without grasping the latent dynamic of conflict between finance and industry the real economic universe of capitalism is invisible although it casts shadows in everyday life and politics that are easily misinterpreted. The idea that the invasion of Iraq was just about getting oil rather than a collateralisation of the flammable US economy is an example.15 Even more problematically, corporatist reaction is increasingly dressed up as democracy and requests for new networks and information circuits as transparency. To allow government to secretly rescue future ‘Northern Wrecks’, Alistair Darling, the Chancellor, wants to deploy ‘The Cobra System’ designed for emergencies and terrorist attacks. No wonder we live in era of rampantly one-dimensional conspiracy theories.
Any move towards economic democracy demands redrawing the role of the state and also rethinking money in terms of reciprocity. At the grass roots there are many attempts to do this through community currencies, but without a proper state supported framework these currencies are easier to earn than spend, tending to suffer from problems of initial over-accumulation. And when they have been in real demand they are too easy to forge. Monbiot was right to attend first to institutional and structural questions at a global level because without major reforms of international governance, progressive social change is unlikely to be sustainable at the local level. Reclaiming the Economy has come about through avowedly bottom up discussions hosted by the STUC in Glasgow. The book’s authors look forward to the continuation of this process which should situate Scotland more in the ‘beyond’. Because that is where the post industrial state, immersed in the logic of finance capital, is already placed.

Reclaiming the Economy, Alternatives to Market Fundamentalism in Scotland and beyond,Edited by Andy Cumbers and Geoff Whittam, Scottish Left Review Press (2007) £9.99

1. See for example Participation and Democratic Theory, by Carole Pateman, Cambridge University Press (1975)
2. ‘Behind the Screens’ by Norene Pupo, Defragmenting: Towards a critical understanding of the new global division of labour, Volume 1, Number 2, Summer 2007, edited by Ursula Huws, published by Analytica / Merlin Press.
3. ‘Private sector role in public services explodes’ by Nicholas Timmins, Financial Times, published, Dec 05 2007
4. The Scottish Executive is open for business” : The New Regeneration Statement, The Royal Bank of Scotland & the Community Voices Network, by Chik Collins, Variant, issue 26, Summer 2006
5. The End of Poverty, by Jeffrey Sachs, foreword by Bono, Penguin Books (2005)
6. See for example ‘The Road to Hyperinflation, Fed helpless in its own crisis’, Asia Times Online by Henry C K Liu
7. Banking on Death, or Investing in Life, by Robin Blackburn, Verso (2002)
8. See ‘Cityphilia’, by John Lanchester, London Review of Books, January 3 2008, and ‘Revenue sell-off to tax haven firm’, by Stefan Armbruster, BBC News Online, September 23 2002,
9. ‘Voluntary sector employment rises 26%’, by Andrew Taylor, Employment Correspondent, site, published: Oct 30, 2007
10. The Age of Consent, A Manifesto for a New World Order, by George Monbiot, Harper Collins (2004)
11. ‘Tax dodges cost state £25bn a year, says TUC’, by Phillip Inman, The Guardian, February 1 2008,
12. ‘Tote’s online casino finds tax haven, Government-owned site switches to Alderney, Move allows it to advertise but avoid UK regulation’, by Simon Bowers, The Guardian, Thursday December 27 2007
13. The Future of Democracy, A Defence of the Rules of the Game, by Norberto Bobbio, Polity Press (1987)
14. Money and Credit in Marx’s Political Economy and Contemporary Capitalism, by Phillip Anthony O’Hara
15. ‘Afflicted Powers’, review article by Owen Logan, Variant, issue 24 Winter 2005