Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

I have, over a period of nearly half a century, read this book three times. Interestingly it has made a very different impression on me on each occasion.

I first read the book in my late teens. This book was one of the important texts of the day and every young man and woman had read it. One would have risked being seen as uncultured if one hadn’t read this book. I knew that it was an acclaimed dystopian vision of the future and an important warning of the dangers of totalitarianism by one of the century’s greatest thinkers. However, I have to be honest and say that much of this was lost upon me. At the time I was in the revolutionary socialist phase of my development and thus found the warnings about the dangers from an over powerful state rather fanciful. Though I did see the risks associated with increasing consumerism I couldn’t really see the risks of increasing technological advancement. As a child of the 60s the Harold Wilson’s “white heat of technology” speech was still ringing in my ears. But essentially the major problem was that I was an adolescent male. The idea that a future could be full of easy sex and free recreational drugs didn’t really scare me. At some level I think I might have thought it a utopia rather than a dystopia.

A few decades passed until I read the book again. Now I was a middle-aged man with a mortgage, children and many responsibilities. I re-read this book and discovered what all the fuss was about. This was a book that really frightened me. As a parent of children, I could see the dangers that he foresaw. The risks of the loss of liberty, the debasement of relationships and art, the dangers in shallow and glib answers to deep and difficult problems were all things I now knew first hand. He was warning us of an exploitative, consumerist society where little matters other than consumption and the fulfilment of appetites. As a ‘baby boomer’ I had witnessed these changes first hand and worried, if the changes continued unabated, what the future my children might inherit.

Recently, again after an internal of some decades, I read the book again (It had been chosen by my book club).If my first reading had led to disbelief, and the second to anxiety, the third reading led to depression. Now with enough years under my belt I was able to see that the book was not just a dystopian novel but Huxley has been shown to be eerily prescient and the book is, with hindsight, rather prophetic. The decoupling of sex from reproduction and relationships now seems almost complete in our days of contraception and tinder. The predicted use of psychotropics to cure us of our angst and unhappiness is now well established. His warning that there would an assault on the idea of the family (as it suits neither capitalism nor communism) seems to be starting in earnest. Many aspects of family life (the education of children, the care of the elderly, for example) and now the responsibility of the state and when the family is discussed it is often seen as a problem – the place where unspeakable evils happen to children or where parents fill their childrens’ heads with antiquated cultural views. Huxley feared that we would not be able to play without the use of gadgets we have to buy and anyone who has watched the changes to play in children and adults can see that this is a growing problem. He feared art would become debased, and films (or rather the “feelies”) would descend to simple tales of excitement, ” .. plays, where there’s nothing but helicopters flying about, and you feel the people kissing’; anyone who has seen Die Hard 5 or The Fast and The Furious 9 know that this has already happened. Some of his wildest predictions have some echoes to recent changes:-

‘Why do the smoke-stacks have those things like balconies round them?’ enquired Lenina. ‘Phosphorus recovery,’ exclaimed Henry telegraphically. ‘On their way up the chimney the gases go through four separate treatments. P2O5 used to go right out of circulation every time they cremated someone. Now they recover over ninety-eight per cent of it. More than a kilo and a half per adult corpse. Which makes the best part of four hundred tons of phosphorus every year from England alone.’ Henry spoke with a happy pride, rejoicing wholeheartedly in the achievement, as though it had been his own. ‘Fine to think we can go on being socially useful even after we’re dead. Making plants grow.‘ Brave New World (p. 31). Random House. Kindle Edition.

We now presume consent for organ donation, our dead bodies are not a gift to others but presumed property of the state – just as the motto of the Brave New World proclaims – “Everybody belongs to everyone else“.

If there is a problem with the novel it is that it tries to cover too much ground and there are many, many themes. There are trenchant discussions on the role of suffering in life, the place of religion in society and whether truth and happiness can ever be compatible. It does rather lead the penultimate chapter to be less part of the novel and more a philosophical essay. However, these are minor flaws in what is an excellent novel. If you have not read it you really should. If you have already read it then it may be worthwhile reading it again if, like me, you were a callow youth first time around.

The 3 ‘R’s

The important triad that we need to consider, if we are to have any hope of tackling the problem we face with climate change and degradation of our environment, is the triad of:-

  • Reduce
  • Reuse
  • Recycle

Unfortunately, it is the most important of these that we tend to forget and ignore. The most important is “reduce“; indeed, the instruction to reuse and recycle are just other methods to avoid using new things and thus simple practical ways to reduce our consumption. If we recycle something, or use if for a different purpose, it saves us from buying or creating something new, it reduces our consumption. The key part of the triad remains reduce and it is the aspect which, unfortunately, the one to which we pay less attention. I can understand this, as it can quite easy to enjoy the other two instructions. There is indeed pleasure to be had from finding a new use for something you thought past its days. Recycling and reuse can save us money and certainly help us have a feeling of smugness, that we have done our bit, without any real cost to ourselves. In contrast “reducing” consumption has little fun associated with it, and any smugness is probably obliterated by a feeling of missing out on what other are having.

We are, in fact, exhorted to do the exact opposite of reducing our consumption. Although we all know that, if we want to reverse the damage we are doing to our environment, we must start to consume less and more wisely. But every day adverts tell us our lives are not complete without this, or that, product or service. Every day we are informed we will be happier if we just have something else; a new car, a foreign holiday, this year’s fashion in clothing or music. Increasingly advertisers try to urge us to become better people buy buying their products, suggesting that people who buy car X are obviously those who go against the herd, thinking individuals who understand the social and environmental threats we must tackle. The “greenwashing” that we see in the luxury market is particularly galling when we are urged to buy something new, because it is more efficient or green, while the much better option would be to not buy something and make our car, or washing machine, or fridge, or whatever, last that bit longer. The calculations to work out the better environmental option in these situations can be quite difficult to work out but it is generally safe to presume that not consuming something is the greenest option open to you.

At the social level this situation gets even worse. The mantra enthrals that all politicians is that “growth is good”. We are told that economic growth is the best marker for the health of our societies. It is suggested that if growth slackens then our future is grim, only ever increasing production and consumption can save us. While it is true that the spectacular growth we have seen has lifted most of the world’s population out of poverty but the problem is no longer inadequacy of wealth (there is more than enough for all) the problems are waste and faulty distribution. The wealth we have is not fairly spread and the creating of this wealth is at the expense of our future safety. It might be much better to be aiming, in the developed world, for what Adam Smith described as “stationarity” or the “steady-state economy” described by the ecological economist Herman Daly. Those of us living in the post-scarcity economies of the developed world need to try and find ways to alter our living and let us reflect on our problems.

This problem was brought home to me this week, on Tuesday to be precise. This week included Shrove Tuesday but most of our press and media were keen to remind me it was Pancake Day. It is clear that this is another ritual or celebration which is going through a metamorphosis to become more useful for our current times. Shrove Tuesday is so called because of the word shrive which means to absolve. This day marked the end of the period before lent. A day to use up, and so not waste, the foodstuff that would no be eaten during the fast to come. (Mardi Gras has the same origin, its meaning being Fat Tuesday). It was time to start reflecting on our failures and begin the period of Lent during which we would be expected to give up some of the pleasures of life and, instead, pay attention to our failings.

This aspect of the celebration does not fit with a modern consumer culture. A ritual that encourages reduced consumption and thoughtful introspection really doesn’t fit with our current world view. The last thing a consumer society wishes is for consumers to doubt or reduce their consumption. So as Breugel (See Picture) anticipated we have converted it into another excuse to consume, to carouse, to eat and drink to excess. Just as Easter has become the celebration of eating chocolate, Christmas the celebration of general excess, the remnants of Lent have become the celebration of eating sweet carbohydrate treats. They all join the new celebrations of consumption such as Black Friday and Amazon Prime Day.

At a time when the last thing in the world we need is encouragement to consume more it is sad to see a tradition promoting moderation and self-reflection dying. If anything we need to try and revive Lent and to encourage people that we need to think about our consumption and behaviour. We may think that we no longer need to think on our sins nor repent as we are modern and above such primitive things. However, greed, gluttony, lust and envy are factors that drive our overconsumption and promote the unequal distribution of our wealth and we need to think about these. If we do not, and we continue as we are, then the inequalities we see will worsen and we will fail to stop the global warming which we clearly know is starting to threaten our future as a species. At a time when our behaviour is such that it threatens our very survival it might be a wise time to salvage a period of reflection and repentance, and the exhortation from Ash Wednesday would seem a very good place to start :-

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return

National Populism. The revolt against liberal democracy.

National Populism. The revolt against liberal democracy.

This book, by Roger Eatwell and51PPqhzUq0L._SX305_BO1,204,203,200_ Mathew Goodwin, deserves to be widely read. It is a sober and informed look at the growth of national populist movements  which have occurred all over the globe. It does primary focus on Europe and America and particularly on the surprises, to many, of Donald Trump’s election and the result of the UK’s Brexit referendum. However, its reach is much broader than this and it tracks the growth of this movement much further back, over two centuries, and considers its growth in very many countries.

Roger Eatwell is professor of Politics at Bath University and an acknowledged expert on fascism and the development of right wing politics. Mathew Goodwin (His PhD student) is similarly a Professor of Politics, at the University of Kent, and also a specialist on right-wing politics and Euroscepticism. The book they have produced is well researched and obviously the product of men with academic rigour. The ideas discussed and considered with good historical detail and opinions are not ventured without significant and adequate hard evidence.

This may sound as if the book is going to be data heavy, full of facts and figures, and in many respects this is true. However, in part this is why it is readable. Much of the data given is there to challenge the reader’s presumptions and to make them rethink what they think they know about national populist movements; whether it is Americans stunned by Trump, British people shocked by Brexit or the French worried about the Gilets Jaunes. The authors show that there are very many, largely well-meaning, myths held about these movement and present the data to show why these are wrong.

The myth that these movements are simply angry responses to the economic upheaval that followed the crash in 2008 is belied by their existence and growth well before that event. The myth, or possibly fond hope, that this is a movement of angry old white mean is not supported by the data on the demographics. The hope, likewise, that simply waiting for the more liberal young to grow and displace the more conservative elderly is not supported by the evidence. (There is data in the book to suggest that the degree of difference between the young and elderly in viewpoint is largely accounted for by a rightward shift in people’s outlook as they age. Rather than there being two different cohorts of people). Myths that these movements are simply fascist or racist trends are likely shown not to be in accordance with the known facts.

If we are to understand this movement it is important to know when we are wrong. We will not be able to preserve liberal democracy if we misdiagnose the threats that face it and, as a consequence, apply the wrong remedies. These are the types of failures we have seen happen in recent referenda. For example, in the Brexit referendum a belief that all this resentment stemmed simply from economic damage lead to a campaign primarily warning people they would be worse off (By £4000 a family) if they voted to leave. This was an error, cultural and political factors were far more important in the anger that was being felt, and had people listened they would have known this. There was even polling showing that people who supported Brexit would do so even if they were certain that there would be a negative economic impact to them personally. This lesson hasn’t been learnt and, still today, many of those petitioning for change of direction think that if they just point out economic hazards minds will change – there is little evidence that this strategy has proven any more successful second-time around.

The biggest myth that the book challenges  is that this movement is a temporary disruption and, as things get better (or through things worsening people see the light), shortly the status quo ante will be returned. The myth that this is an aberration and soon we will be back to ‘business as usual‘ is the most dangerous myth the book lays bare. Our political parties are no longer aligned with our populations political beliefs,  and thus the apparatus we have for running our democracies is out of step with the wishes of large swathes of public opinion. There is an increasing loss of connection between the electorate and the politicians, and it is likely populists from either the right or the left that will try and bridge this gap, and we should be surprised when we find that this continues to happen. The negative consequences of globalisation, and there ae many, have given a new fire to the ideas of nationhood and the importance of the nation state.

This book helps the reader understand this important strand of political thought and helps them correct some of the errors they may hold. It is a very valuable read in our continuing volatile political climate.

5star

A growing rift.

We still have a long way to go but we are making some progress in dealing with the poor representation of some groups in government. Although the number of women and those of minority ethnic groups has increased they are still not properly represented in our governing class. Thankfully we are aware of this and are starting to address this. However, there is an area where we are making no progress and, if anything, seem to be going backwards. It is an important area, as it is possibly part of the reason that underpins much of the disengagement and distrust people have with our political class.

The last two generations have witnessed the growth of a professional political class. Our politicians may be a closer mix, in terms of gender and race, to ourselves, but are further away in terms of class and wealth. Over the years our representatives have become less and less like us, when one considers their background, and much more like each other. We may have seen some inadequate improvement in gender and race diversity, we have seen a worsening in terms of social class.

When the Labour Government took power in 1945 and started major works which set up the modern British welfare state half of the member of the cabinet had previously held blue collar jobs. In our most recent cabinets not one member has held such a job. All the parliamentarians have been white collar workers and, more than this, previously worked in law, politics, education or journalism. They are drawn from a very small and apparently select pool of the population.

It is not just in the UK that this trend has occurred. At the time of John F Kennedy 71% of senators held university degrees, by the time of Barack Obama took office the figure was 99%. In France and Germany it is a similar tale. Not only are our ‘rulers. far away from us in terms of their occupations but increasingly also in terms of incomes and wealth. In 2014 all those elected to Congress were in the top 1% of America’s income distribution. It is sobering to think that the median net worth of a senator in 2018 is $3,200,000.

The concerns of the top 1% of the income group and those working in the realms of law, politics,  or journalism are not likely to be reflective of those working in blue collar manual jobs, or the poor without jobs at all. I think this is the reason that our politicians are seen as distant and non-representative; because they are distant and non-representative. They do not live in our communities, nor come from them, they do not share the lives and experience of the majority of us. If this trend continues, and there is little evidence to suggest it won’t, then increasingly populist politicians will be able to tap into this gulf. A rift is developing between the public and those who rule them. This rift could prove a powerful fault line for those who wished to gather and use the growing alienation and anger which exists. Allowing politics to become a specialist pursuit of the wealthy, educated elite could prove to be a very dangerous mistake. We need to push for more involvement of the demos, the crowd, the common people, in our democracy if we are to ensure it stays safe and healthy.

 

You made your bed .. ..

You made your bed .. ..

When the story of Shamima Begum first broke, I am sorry to say that, my first thoughts were much like the majority of people; having seen the depravity of the action of the Islamic State, I was angry and horrified that she might return back to Britain. My first thoughts were, “you made your bed, now lie in it“. However, as I have thought further I realise I was in error and now am in the very unusual position of agreeing both with Jeremy Corbyn and Jacob Rees Mogg (And it can not be often that those two find themselves on the same side of an argument!). Further, I know I am going to lose a lot of peoples’ sympathy in saying this, however, it is clearly right that she is brought home and investigated and tried here.

I think Javid Sajid, the home secretary, has made a mistake in attempting to revoke her U.K. citizenship. I imagine he felt the same revulsion as I did and saw this as a quick measure to appease the mounting hostility he could sense rising from the British public. In his situation this may have looked like a godsent opportunity – he could appear strong, he could appeal across both sides of the political divide, and he could demonstrate that he, as a Muslim, was eager to protect British values and society. There would be few people trying to take the side of a “bride of ISIS”. This must have seemed the obvious thing to do. Indeed, I myself, thought similarly.

Then my doubts started. This was not particularly about her age though this did give me some concern. She was an adolescent when she left to join and was married to an IS fighter and pregnant before she was of legal age. There is some argument that she was, at that time, too young to be held responsible for her actions. Some would argue that, in some ways, she herself was abused when she arrived there. I do not know what responsibility should be apportioned to her but, in fact, this is not really the point. At the moment we do not know what she did. We do not know if she undertook unspeakable butchery and crimes, or whether she spent her years childbearing and childrearing. What she did is important. It is not reasonable to say all those on the losing side of a war are equally culpable. Hitler and the Nazis were responsible for unimaginable atrocities and barbarism. Would we say that after World War II every German had to be equally punished for their country’s actions ? No. After the Khymer Rouge’s reign of horror and terror do we hold all Cambodians equally responsible? No. We would not say “just shoot him he’s a German / Cambodian” ; we would want to find out who participated in what, who initiated this or that, who ordered what, and who did what ? Only knowing this do we know who to punish.

To make an example of someone, no matter how tempting this is, is a major breach of our Western values. We hold that everyone is equal in front of the law and that you are only punished for that which you are responsible. If we make this girl the scapegoat for IS we break this tradition and become closer to the barbarians we have been fighting. We fought them because they punished people simply for being members of a particular  group. They killed or punished people just for being a Christian, or a homosexual, not for any criminal acts. There  would be no sense that we had won a war if the price of winning was that we started to behave like those we fought.

We need to know what she did. Paradoxically the more she is culpable for the more we need to bring her back here.  If she did nothing then her youth may have been a mitigating factor and her treacherous actions may be limited. If this is the case then her punishment also should be limited. However, if she was complicit then she requires to be punished and this will not happen in a Syrian refugee camp. If she did little or nothing and we leave her there what will be her future? Will her third child die of malnutrition, will she ? Should we worry ? If we worry about the radicalization of our youth then we should.  If we bent the rules to make an example of her then, were she to come to harm, she will act as a symbol to any who question our society. They could argue that, for all our highfalutin statements, we are unjust and biased against people of the Islamic faith. We would be writing the script to create a martyr and to create new fanatics for the future.

If she is guilty of heinous acts then we should wish her back. If you doubt this try this thought experiment. Say a young woman had exploded and bomb in a shopping centre in Cardiff killing a number women and children. Now we find she has fled Britain and is hiding in Syria using the cover of a refugee camp. What would you want to happen ? Should we just say “good riddance, we are well shot of her” ? Or should we be striving to get her back here to face justice ? I think that when we consider this the prime motivator is to ensure justice is done. So if there is any hint that she has committed crimes we need to get her back to ensure justice for her victims. We seek the extradition of criminals all the time. It would be easier not to, it would be easier just to let them escape justice, and we could sit happy that another ‘bad lot’ was someone else’s problem now. But we don’t because we value justice. It is one of the things that makes us who we are and our culture what it is.

At this point we don’t know if she was a stupid adolescent duped into being an accomplice to horrible  events or whether she is an active agent of evil responsible for some of the barbarism which, we know, took place. It is important we find out and we are not going to be able to do this by shirking our responsibility. If we say we are too afraid to bring her back, lest she creates terror here, then we are saying that we have lost the battle. We are saying that our comfort and safety is more important to us than our moral beliefs and our system of justice. Sometimes difficult and unpleasant decisions have to be made, and we will only win this battle to protect our enlightenment ideas if we actually show how important they are to us.  We must hold to our beliefs in fairness and justice no matter how unpleasant the foe, no matter the temptation to gain the satisfaction of revenge, and no matter what the terror they threaten us with. If we stoop to their level we will have lost.

 

The Favourite – not mine

The Favourite continues to do well in the awards,the-favourite-poster gathering praise where it is shown, and seems likely to do well on Oscars night. It has garnered praise in most film reviews and on-line the critics are, almost to a man, bowed over by its greatness. Only PostTrak seems a little discordant, with its more cautious rating, but then this rating is given by audiences rather than critics and this may be the reason. Unfortunately, I too have to be much more reserved in my praise for the film, as overall I found it more of a miss than a hit.

I have been looking forward to this film as I have enjoyed the earlier work of the director (especially Dogtooth) and I knew that he was a capable and inventive movie maker. Indeed the visual production of the film is excellent and does warrant any awards in this area. There is clever scene composition and good use of the fisheye lens which does add to the pictorial elegance of the film. The music was effective  and used well in driving emotional tension and it to was possibly worthy of awards. The acting was fairly good and in no way let the film down but I don’t share the view that it was exceptional. It would have been difficult for the actors to shine as the characters and script were so poor. Characters were essentially caricatures and their dialogues were very poor and peppered with anachronisms. The three female leads are excellent actors but they did not display their metal in this film.

Unfortunately all of the excellent work above (the direction, the music, the settings and the actors) was then largely undone for me. This film presented a view of an important period of history as a combination period drama and ribald romp. As is almost de rigueur today, the power struggles were described as simply the outgrowth of personal and identity politics; the consequences of the machinations of the lusts of three powerful women. This might have worked if the period drama had been historically more accurate but it really omitted most that was important in this period. Preferring the scandal of a hint of homosexuality to any consideration of the true turmoil of the time.

Queen Anne’s reign was an important time. It followed the Glorious Revolution with the conflict that split Britain along religious Catholic/Protestant  lines. It was the time when England’s relations with Europe were changing , especially with the Dutch and the French. Indeed Anne was married to Prince George of Denmark in an attempt to create a Danish-English alliance to try and contain the maritime power of the Dutch.  Indeed the whole scene at home was changing with the Union of the Crowns and the creation of a single sovereign state of Great Britain; Anne was Queen of Scotland, England and Ireland at the start of her reign but by the end she was the first Queen of Great Britain and Ireland at her death. Her reign also saw the development of the two-party political system, with Whigs and Tories, in Britain. Queen Anne took an active interest, and played an active role, in politics and did receive considerable criticism as a consequence. None of this really appears in the film. The viewer could leave the cinema ignorant of all of this and with the impression that Anne was a silly, demanding lady lead by her girlfriends.

There are precious few times when women have played important and pivotal roles in British history that we know about. This era was one of them. Queen Anne, The Duchess of Marlborough and Baroness Masham were key players in defining aspects of British history. These women were significant agents in the religious and political power struggles that define much of British Society today. They did this as intelligent thinking individuals who knew the basis to these religious and political differences and clearly took principled stances in these battles. To portray them as scheming harpies belittles their success. It is reminiscent of the misogynistic criticism Queen Anne experienced during her lifetime. She was often derided as a weak woman, not of the stuff to rule and govern. It is terrible that today when, as usual, we try and rewrite history as we would have liked it to have been, rather than as it was, we end up belittling the very women who did manage to overcome the oppression of the age and take charge. This meant the film, despite it technical merits, left me with a bad taste in my mouth. I was left with the feeling that I had just watched a titillating tale of sex and swearing, wrapped up in good production values to give the illusion of class and worth, which told us nothing of the individuals then, nor anything about ourselves now. This lack of content made it difficult to end the film which comes to an unsatisfactory abrupt stop with the superimposition of some inappropriate rabbits (If you see the film you will understand).2-stars-out-of-5

 

The SDP : a new home ?

The SDP : a new home ?

British Politics has become increasingly tribal. Both of the main parties now  have been dragged by their extreme wings away from the centre-ground and towards increasingly exaggerated positions. Both seem to have drifted away from their core purpose and now appear to pander to powerful sects as their leaders try and remain in control. The Conservative leader, Theresa May,  is constantly harried by the European Reform Group whilst the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is kept in position by the Momentum group. Neither leader commands the respect of the majority of their party and only survive by compromising vision and honesty for pragmatic coalitions which allow them to remain in power.

We were in a similar position in the 1980’s when Labour had its troubles with the hard left Militant Tendency and the Conservatives were being dragged further rightwards by the strength of the Monday Club. There was considerable unhappiness and it looked as if the large parties might split asunder into different parties.  In 1981, four senior  labour MP’s  (David Owen, Bill Rogers, Shirley Winters, and Roy Jenkins ; the Gang of Four) did break away and set up the Council for Social Democracy by issuing the Limehouse Declaration. This subsequently established the Social Democratic Party (SDP) in the UK which had considerable initial success. 28 Labour and 1 Conservative MP joined the party and over the first few years  it had growing electoral success. In 1983 it took 25% of the national vote. However, this was not sustained and by 1987 the party merged with the Liberal Party to become the Liberal Democrats in 1987.

I have some personal experience of these events as I was one of the Labour Party election organisers who helped in the 1987 general election. I worked with the team to make sure that Roy Jenkins lost his Glasgow, Hillhead seat to the Labour Candidate George Galloway. In those days I saw the SDP as turncoats and traitors who were splitting the left vote and was quite convinced that my mission was to get a true socialist goverment into power. How life has changed ! But why am I thinking about the SDP in 2019 ?

It seems the SDP never went away. I was listening to a podcast, by the Anglican priest Giles Fraser, and learnt that the SDP continued and recently issued a renewed declaration. In his podcast he wondered if the SDP would provide a home for many people who, like him, find themselves politically homeless. I read the declaration and had to agree with him; there was nothing objectionable and much with which to agree.

They recognise the failures of our current two major parties :-

The Conservative party has conserved very little and instead, has put everything up for sale. Labour has abandoned the nation’s working men and women.

and recognise that if we are to preserve democracy it is important to keep it local :-

We consider the nation-state to be the upper limit of democracy. Along with the family, we regard it as indispensable to the solidarity of our society and concern for our fellow citizens. We regard supranationalism as a neoliberal ideology aimed at neutering domestic politics and placing the most important issues beyond the reach of ordinary voters.

Socially and personally they  avoid the excesses of libertarianism whilst keeping true to socially liberal beliefs. They are aware that there has been increasing intolerance in our society and a tendency to fragment our communities  by the pernicious use of identity politics. They stress the importance of mutuality, rather than law, to bind communities together and this is an important aspect of politics which is rarely discussed by the main parties :-

We believe ‘fraternity vs division’ to be a key watershed question in all Western societies. Fraternity must prevail.

We regard kindness and mutuality as a political rather than a legal achievement which relies on free consent rather than legal obligation. Excessive individualism – of both the social and economic variety – has regrettably led some citizens to believe they don’t share a common fate with their neighbours. They do.

On the economic front they recognise the dangers of rampant neoliberalism, and the adverse effects of globalisation,  but appear also to recognise that there needs to be boundaries to the state’s intervention in a social market economy. They see the public and private sectors as complimentary and see a natural boundary between them :-

The correct frontier between the public and private sector is determinable. Natural monopolies – the utilities requiring universal delivery to citizens – should be returned to public ownership and operation or be subjected to significantly more effective regulation.

There are interesting and positive bits on the family, the welfare state, culture and mutuality. On reading it I felt that there was really little to which any reasonable person could take objection. So is this the start of a change ? Or will this be like the 1980’s again ? Can a party which tries to push for a middle-road out of our present chaos ever gain enough traction to get moving ? I would like to think so and will watch their progress closely, although I am aware that in these acrimonious times they are going to have an uphill battle to make any headway. If they do, I will find myself, 30 years later, in the unusual position of being on the exact other side of a political divide. Perhaps my team will win again.

 

Worldwide Confusion

Worldwide Confusion

Humpty Dumpty, in ‘Through the Looking Glass” said, in a rather scornful voice “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less‘. I fear that many of us follow his advice and use words in ways that can be rather idiosyncratic. As individuals this may be only a minor problem and our friends and acquaintances  get to know our foibles and may even adopt them. However, sometimes this use of language can be quite deliberate and designed to confuse or obfuscate. I think this latter misuse of the language is occurring with the words ‘globalism‘ and ‘internationalism‘.

Internationalism has a long history and it is a word close to the hearts of those who are on the left of the political spectrum. Indeed “L’Internationale‘, written by the anarchist Eugene Pottier,  is the anthem or hymn of the communist, socialist and anarchist movements. This song took its name from the first congress of the International Workingmen’s Association in 1864 called the First International. In this sense internationalism meant cooperative actions between national groups; a recognition that there could be common aims and mutual advantage when groups worked across national boundaries. In essence, it is a recognition that there are many things which we hold in common because we are human which cross national boundaries (in this case the class struggle). To be an internationalist was to promote working across these boundaries for the common good.

Globalisation, on the other hand, is a word with a shorter history, possibly dating back to 1991, and is a word more closely related to those on the right of the political spectrum. This word relates to the application of power, influence or money on a world-wide basis, operating above and outwith national boundaries. This is the world of corporations which have a global presence but no national home. Globalisation started with the deregulation of banks and financial institutions. This freed them from National regulations which allowed them to amass great wealth and power unfettered by Governments’ wishes. These global corporations have been able to develop impact all over the globe but now have nowhere that they can be held accountable.

It is the misuse of the two terms that causes so many problems. The left and progressive wings of politics have fallen for the idea that globalisation is akin to internationalism and has taken this view to its heart. This is attested to in slogans such as “no borders” and “no human is illegal”. These are on the surface benign and welcome statements. But if we look deeper, it is clear that these are slogans which support globalisation which requires  free-movement of capital and labour and finds borders irksome at best. Karl Marx, himself, was well aware that free movement of labour was a useful way in which workers’ power and workers’ wages could be kept in check and wrote about this in relation to the migration of workers between Ireland and mainland Britain.

There is another aspect in which globalisation can pose a threat which internationalism avoids and this is in the area of welfare provision. Most developed countries have some form of welfare state. This can vary widely in the extent and depth of its provision but all of them rest on a similar principle. This principle is of a community grouping together to look after one and other;  to ensure in times of illness, or hardship, we are able to care for our fellow citizens. These are like clubs, we all pay in so that should misfortune arise we may benefit. But like clubs there needs to be a definition of membership, we need to feel that we are contributing to support our fellows. This is where nations prove useful. In a nation we all pay in our dues (personal taxes or corporate taxes) and can use the services when needed.  At a national level, even if there is no kinship, we can feel some relationship to our fellow citizens and feel a link between our inputs into the system and those who are benefitting from it.

Steffan Mau of the University of Bremen, in 2007,  suggested :-

“the nation state became one of the most important organizational entities for social solidarity…because it provided the fundamentals of a political identity and social morals, which legitimately guaranteed the establishment of social security and transfer systems”

This is a major problem for those on the left of the political spectrum. If we want welfare states then we need to promote the nation as a unit of manageable size to allow people to care for each other. Nationalism, in this sense, has little to do with any perceived superiority of one nation over another. It is simple a way to break the economy down into manageable chunks. This ensures that there is a link between the payers and the benefactors of welfare provision. Without this link it is unlikely that welfare systems can flourish. This is an areas where, as E.F. Schmacher might have said “Small is Beautiful

Finally, if those on the left, wish to control the influence of global corporations, then they need nation states. Global corporations have capital and investments across the globe which move, as required, to maximise their returns and to minimise their exposure to risk. This means they can avoid, to a large extent, paying taxes and contributing to welfare schemes. They can also avoid listening to national governments’ concerns and decline to follow any legislation their citizenry might enact. International companies will operate in a number of countries but have a base where they hold their assets and investments. They have a national base where they can be taxed and regulated and thus they can, in part, be held to account and obliged to pay their dues.

If we want to limit the increasing centralisation of power and the wealth then we need to oppose globalisation and promote internationalism. The borders of the nation will provide the shelter so that  we can work cooperatively for own commonweal, and, across these borders, we will work cooperatively  for the commonwealth of nations to tackle problems that face us all. In the future our nation states may be found to be too large and we may feel that we need smaller, more human sized, communities (like the canton, the commune or kibbutz) but, for now, they will act as our starting point to wrestle back power from a global elite.

The Impossible Deal

The Impossible Deal

British politics appears to have reached a new nadir and an insurmountable impasse. Recent votes in Westminster have firstly successfully opposed the government’s plans and secondly failed to oppose the government. We are left with the situation that the government remains in power but its plans have been rejected.

Much of this arises from the problems of two-party tribal politics which rather than address a problem itself but instead  promotes a party’s programme. This is compounded by the present leaders of the two  parties. Both leaders have parties seriously split on the issue of Brexit. The Tories have a leader, who is at heart a remainer, trying to manage a programme of leave to please the staunch ‘leavers’ in her party. Labour has a leader, who at heart is a leaver, trying to offer a programme that will please the remainers who largely control his party. The Liberals, the only party who have a party, programme and leader backing remain, are so inconsequential in British politics at present that the only debate in town is between the two major parties with their discordant leaders.

No-one has a plan to get out of this impasse. There is nothing which can suit all the needs of the two political parties. Neither party is single-minded in its desire to either support the decision of the referendum to leave the European Union or to propose something else.  The only thing uniting them is that both of them are terrified of a ‘no deal’ scenario. This despite Theresa May recognising (one of the few things she grasped correctly) that “no deal is better than a bad deal“. All our parliamentarians, of any hue, are unable to countenance ‘no deal’ scenario, even though it may be unavoidable and may also be preferred.

A deal, or a ‘managed’ withdrawal, may well be the best way to proceed. However, sometimes it is not. Think of a “managed economy”, these never function as efficiently as free market economies. In complex situations allowing individual actors to work out the best way to proceed, and chop and change as necessary, is better than an agreed centrally-‘managed’ plan. Centrally managed agriculture lead to famines. Centrally managed healthcare in Europe provides poorer healthcare than the mixed market healthcare alternatives. Situations can be managed when all the data is known but in complex situations there are many things which can not be known in advance. Rather than a committee of bureaucrats trying to plan fishing, healthcare, automotive industries, IT services, financial services, mining, agriculture, food processing,  forestry, electrical engineering standards, inter-university cooperation, medical devices, medication and aircraft standard, and so on and so on. It would be better to allow all the agents involved to work this out for themselves. It will probably prove quicker and will, almost certainly, find better solutions. Even is there is a managed deal,  we  will still need to see individuals and organisations modifying and adapting  it to make it work, as the likelihood of a centrally decided plan fitting all eventualities is negligible.

But, even if you want a managed separation and a deal, then there is still a need to consider a “no deal” scenario. In every negotiation the two agents have their bottom lines, the point at which they think the available deals are not worth having, and the points at which they need to walk away from the negotiations. Imagine the scenario of going into a car showroom and announcing “Right I want a car. I am going to buy it here and I want it today. I don’t care how difficult it is but I warn you now that I am not leaving here without having bought a car. I will not consider the idea of you not selling at least one car to  me. Right what have you got ?” How likely is it that you will obtain a great deal ? You will be relying on the benevolence of  car salesmen, not a wise move. Every negotiator has a line in the sand, the line at which they decide to go for the no deal option, not to consider this is extremely foolhardy.

No deal will be followed by disruption and change, but so will any deal.  At present the EU, and UK leaders,  wish to minimise the disruption to global capital and large corporations and to cause as little disruption to governing organisations which manage many governmental agencies. Unfortunately they are forgetting that the reason people voted for Brexit, and the reason many European people are also upset, was because of the power of global capital, large corporations and remote undemocratic government. They wanted to weaken the powers of corporations and force them to pay national taxes and listen to local governments. They wanted to stop changes in culture which central governments held valuable for the needs of capital. They opposed the ability of capital to bus in cheap labour to undercut local workers; something bad both for the local workers and the home economies of the migrant workers.

Companies may complain that without a deal they fear their profits will be hurt. Populations may reply  “That is tough but that is precisely why we voted as we did. We are fed up with your greed“. Governmental bodies may worry that without a deal their authority may be diminished, but that was the point. No deal allows a blank slate and the opportunity of all to create the future arrangements they want. I recall every election, when I was a youth, the warnings of dire economic calamity if the nation even considered voting for labour. It is no different now to then, those in power and those with the wealth, will try everything to keep it including trying to scare us into accepting a good deal for them and a bad deal for us.

There are many problems with capitalism at present. Crony capitalism is now gathering the increased wealth, that only a market economy can create, into increasingly few pockets. Institutions like the EU are the mechanisms to promote this and they, and the crony capitalists, need to be weakened. This will not be without pain. But if it is done well then hopefully most of the pain will be felt by the rich and powerful who can best deal with it, and may even be thought to deserve it. An unmanaged Brexit may well be the best way to do this.

The Wizard Trump

It is sometimes odd how we stumble into knowledge of matters. I was listening to a podcast which was discussing President Trumps’ potential legacy when the contributors began to make reference to “The Wizard of Oz”. They argued that many of the aspect of populist politics in today’s America echoed those of a hundred years ago and the satire about the Wizard of Oz could equally be applied to Donald Trump. I had not been aware of the political analysis of L. Frank Baum’s book “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and it was fascinating to hear these.

When the book was written American politics and economy were in turmoil. There had been major changes in monetary standards and the Fourth Coinage Act had devalued silver. There were major financial difficulties and one of the movements aiming to address these was a move for bimetallism – money backed by both gold and silver. This was taken up in 1896 by the William Jennings Bryan , leader of the Democratic Party, as well as some populist groups and Republicans from silver mining areas (“Silver Republicans“). Bryan won the leadership by his ‘Cross of Gold convention speech where he stated “The gold standard has slain tens of thousands.” and urged the convention “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” It was felt that gold helped the rich get richer while ‘free silver’ would create cheaper money with a wider base and provide help for the poorer sectors of society.

It was against this backdrop that “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” was written.  It may be no coincidence that gold and silver are measured in ounces which are abbreviated to “Oz.” Similarly a “yellow brick road” to the “emerald city” might well signify the power of the gold standard (yellow) to lead wealth to the wealthy (green signifying fraudulent greenback money). In the book, but not the film, the way to sort problems, and get out of trouble and back home, is by the “silver slippers” – the film used the more photogenic ruby red instead. It is quite easy to imagine Dorothy as the common man assisted by a ‘cowardly lion’ (William Jennings Bryan) on their way to find solutions for the Scarecrow (farmers and agricultural workers) and the Tin-man (Steel and other industry workers). Certainly when Baum wrote a stage version of the book in 1902 he made many political references, mainly as jokes against the current luminaries.

At the end of their trek they meet the wizard who is revealed to be a pompous humbug who uses all sorts of tricks to hide his nature from the people. He actually has no ideas and no power and admits to Dorothy that “I am a very bad wizard. And, thinking of Trump, this seems to be where we came in.

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