Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

Donald Trump is the president of the United States of America. This is a difficult fact to comprehend. How did this come about ? What changes have occurred in American society that lead to this ? This book as been touted as having some of the answers to this; how large groups of voters came to feel alienated from regular society and shifted to voting for Donald Trump. In the hope for answers, and some possible clarity, I thought I’d give this book a try.

First things first, this book does not answer this question. The answer to the question on the lips of people across the globe is not to be found in this autobiography. I fear that decades from now we will still be debating and analysing the changes that occurred , across the globe, and trying to formulate answers as to how right-wing, rather than left-leaning, populism captured the public spirit.However, despite this I’d still think that you should read this book as it does give a valuable insight into cultural changes that have occurred in the last few generations in America and which are important in the populist revival. The political analysis is slight, and debatable, but the social commentary is very valuable.

This is an autobiography written by a relatively young man. His story is interesting as he has overcome considerable adversity to improve his lot, to ensure that his troubled upbringing didn’t determine his future. It is a life that has shown the promise of social mobility and how it is possible to break from the grip of poverty. As such, it is a very emotional story with pages of great sadness when we consider his tempestuous and troubled early days, but great warmth when we discover that he does manage to overcome these.

It is a little like ‘Angela’s Ashes’ with prescription drug abuse taking the place of alcoholism and Appalacia taking the stead of Ireland. Perhaps the most striking thing about the story is how universal it is. This is the story of disadvantaged working class people. Although set firmly in Hillbilly territory I could read it as the story of the Scottish working class, the marginalised black working class, or any of the other groups who now form the inhabitants of “fly-over country“. The ex-heavy industry workers in the North East of England, those who have deserted Labour and voted Brexit, will see echos of their actions in the actions of the American ex-steel workers leaving the Democrats and voting for Trump.

J.D. Vance perhaps thinks that these changes are too universal. He doesn’t recognise that he is rather unusual in that he has managed to break free from this system. He tends, at times, to sound as if he is saying “if I did it, so can you” and not to recognise that he is a rather unusual individual who has managed to do what most of us do not.

But his description of life at the bottom is very telling and helpful. Poverty is still with us. Relative material poverty is possibly inescapable but this continues to bedevil our society. However, this is the type of poverty easiest to deal with it is simply a redistribution of wealth that is required. But there is a worse form of poverty, which is harder to treat, and this is cultural and moral poverty. This is the type of poverty which keeps the inequality and worsens it.

This is the poverty of ambition and expectation when people think there is nothing better to be had. It is the poverty of labour when people do not have work to give their lives meaning. The importance of work can not be overestimated, it is not chance that the name of the socialist party in the UK is “the Labour Party” as it is labour which gives us meaningfulness in our lives. Even if welfare states met our every material need, if we do not have work we can’t develop relationships, develop a feeling of status in society, and a sense of pride. In the 70’s we campaigned on the left for “The Right to Work” this is much more important than any handout, however organised.

The poverty of family and community is also factor. The family has always been a bulwark against the excesses of capitalism and our refuge. We now find support for the family as an uncomfortable idea feeling it is antiquated and old fashioned moralizing. However, before we jettison the family it might behove us to think what is going to replace the support it clearly gave.

Working class communities used to be a bedrock of support for those at the bottom of the heap.They organised burial societies, cooperatives, unions, savings societies, education groups and a myriad of other societies to offer mutual support. These will never be adequately replaced by a centralises state offering. This may replace the bread but it won’t replace the love or the dignity.

Bread and circuses‘ were used to keep the lower orders in their place in the past and in an increasingly unequal society this strategy is again coming to the fore. We are offered drugs, alcohol and pornography to keep our senses satiated and our desires low. If we are sedated, doped or post-coital we will be less likely to think our lives could, or should, be better. It is no surprise that the major dystopian novels of the last century warned us of a future when easy sex and easy drugs kept a population docile and cowed with the minimum of force.

This book does reveal what is happening to our culture and is a useful ‘view from the bottom’ about this. While it may not explain Trump, the advice to try and regain some of our working class ideals; the love of family, the sense of community and togetherness, the dignity of labour, and the importance of mutuality, might allow the left to rediscover it roots and help prevent the coming of a second Trump.

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

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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Cof a llithr, lluniau a geidw

Cof a llithr, lluniau a geidw

Mae ‘na llawer o sefyllfaoedd pan mae hi’n addas i gwyno – am y tywydd, sut dy dîm wedi chwarae, am y cynlluniau llywodraeth, achos dy wraig mynnu edrych ar “Strictly”, llawer o resymau. Ond mae yna  un adeg  pan nid yn addas yn cwyno, sef ar ôl dderbyn anrheg. Does ‘na ddim ots os ti’n derbyn sanau tartan,  tei porffor ,neu CD Richard Clayderman – jyst gwenu a dywedwch “diolch”. Mae’n groes i’r drefn i gwyno.

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Felly, roedd hi’n drist pan y llyfrgellydd ysgol hwn  (Liz Phipps Soeiro) wedi gwrthod anrheg gan Melania Trump (Nifer o lyfrau Dr Seuss). Mi wnaeth Liz yn weld cyfle am dipyn bach o “virtue signalling” ac yn sgwennu llythyr sbengllyd i Melania i ddweud “Ni fyddwn ni’n cymryd eich llyfrau” oherwydd  “Dr Seuss yn ystrydebol ac yn hiliol”.

Roedd Liz yn anghwrtais a di-foes. Mi ddylai hi wedi derbyn y llyfrau ar gyfer ei disgyblion – dyna ei swydd. Hefyd, ddylai hi ddim defnyddio ei swydd hi  i wneud datganiadau gwleidyddol. Pe bai’n eisiau ymosod Donald Trump dylai  hi ddim ymosod Melania. (Mae Melania wedi priodi’r hen groesan, mae ganddi ddigon o drafferth beth bynnag!) Ond, uwchlaw bob peth roedd hi’n dwp iawn.

Meddalodd hi “Dr Seuss ydy hen ffasiynol a dylanwad drwg i blant”. Ond, roedd hi’n dweud celwyddau. Yn anffodus, roedd hi wedi anghofioam hen llun yn ei albwm.  Mewn ychydig awr ar ôl wneud ei chyhoeddiad wnaeth rhywun ffeindio a chyhoeddi llun ohoni hi – yn y llun roedd Liz gwisgwyd fel y ‘Cat in the Hat. Roedd hi wedi trefnu a chymryd rhan parti pen-blwydd (gyda brecwast Wyau gwyrdd a ham) i ddathlu’r bywyd Dr Seuss. Roedd hyn parti i ddathlu’r cymorth bod Dr Seuss wedi rhoi’r plant a’u haddysg, trwy annog plant i ddarllen. Yn amlwg wnaeth hi ddim wedi credu Dr Seuss roedd dylanwad niweidiol dim ond ychydig of flynyddoed cyn.

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Roedd Liz wedi dechrau’r diwrnod fel arwr ond daeth i ben y diwrnod fel twmffat.  Cofiwch a byddwch yn ofalus, yr rhyngrwyd byth yn anghofio.

Did you see this about Donald ?

Did you see this about Donald ?

I am sure many others, like me, have found their timelines on facebook and twitter awash with jokes at the expense of Donald Trump. Joke about his character, his hair, his colour, his spelling ability and so on. Some are funny but most are simply attempts at humiliation. The audience for these jokes is obviously other like-minded  people and they serve as a way to share unhappiness with the present situation and to rail against this.

It reminded me of when I was a junior doctor and would share black humour with my comrades. We made jokes about dreadful things, and in dreadful taste, in an effort to show to ourselves and each other that we shared and appreciation of the predicament. It fostered camaraderie and developed support at a particularly stressful time in our career. We knew this and found it useful. However, we never mistook it for a strategy to improve things. It was a coping strategy not a mechanism for change. Increasing experience and knowledge, union activism, and political change were the things which improved things (partially), not our black jokes.

I can therefore understand why some people make jokes about Trump. It helps them cope and to identify themselves to other fellow ‘sufferers’ so they may develop a sense of community and lessen any feelings of isolation. But is it wise in the world of politics, and, more importantly, could it be counter-productive ?

Though many wish to go back to the thirties to look for historical similarities which might help us understand Trump this is unnecessary. We barely need to go back 10 years and can look at the story of Silvio Berlusconi, the infamous Prime Minister of Italy, who despite many obvious failings also has the distinction of being the longest serving Prime Minister of Italy as well as the most controversial.

In an article in the  New York Times Luigi Zingales considered how this pompous, brash, and at times corrupt man could remain in power for so long. One reason seems to have been the failure of the opposition to him to take him seriously, and the tendency of the opposition to focus on his personality rather than on politics. As with Trump, there was no shortage of attempts to bring down Berlusconi with humour and ridicule. Unfortunately, while this made the opposition feel good about their ability to create stinging puns, and confirmed their prowess in the cartoon, it did nothing to unsettle him and may have strengthened his position.

Mr. Berlusconi was able to govern Italy for as long as he did mostly thanks to the incompetence of his opposition. It was so rabidly obsessed with his personality that any substantive political debate disappeared; it focused only on personal attacks, the effect of which was to increase Mr. Berlusconi’s popularity. His secret was an ability to set off a Pavlovian reaction among his leftist opponents, which engendered instantaneous sympathy in most moderate voters. Mr. Trump is no different.

 

And ..

The Italian experience provides a blueprint for how to defeat Mr. Trump. Only two men in Italy have won an electoral competition against Mr. Berlusconi: Romano Prodi and the current prime minister, Matteo Renzi (albeit only in a 2014 European election). Both of them treated Mr. Berlusconi as an ordinary opponent. They focused on the issues, not on his character.

We need to debate the issues and politics with Donald Trump. We need to show what needs to be done and warn against what should not be done. We should not allow ourselves the distraction of the option of an easy joke or a zippy one-liner. We must ignore what he looks like, must ignore his bluster and style and focus on what he says and does. It is easy to debate the wrongs of protectionism in the economy, the wrongs of religious prejudice, the wrongs of nationalism and the wrongs of cronyism. If we do this we will possibly avoid the danger of just talking amongst ourselves and might, hopefully, win round others to our views so that four years do not become eight.

Standing up to Trump (via Spiked)

Standing up to Trump (via Spiked)

The Daily Prompt today was “resist”  and initially I was going to give this one a miss. However, the worry that many people have about the changes in America under President Trump is causing much discussion on issues of resistance.  However, much of this initial resistance seemed very unfocussed and, at times, even anti-democratic. It almost seemed that people wanted to oppose the democratic result itself – a wail against the result – rather then looking at specific political points that need to be addressed and, trust me, there is no shortage of these issues.

Spiked, the online magazine has been a valuable source of good critical political debate and I thought that this article by them gave a good summary of where some of this activity could be directed. There are clear good initial pointers to action. There are also some good general points about the political changes.

In particular, we need to be very careful about the direction of “anti-politics”, as the article reveals, this can be very dangerous :-

Trump … “Your pose as the anti-politician, the man who hates the political class, is getting wearisome. It has crossed the line from criticism of he establishment, which is good, into a trashing of politics itself, of the very business of people getting together and talking and voting in order to make things happen. When will your anti-politics shift into a conviction that you alone should decide how things should be run? That’s the logical conclusion to anti-politics, whether it takes the form of demagoguery (you) or technocracy (Hillary).”

Spiked also makes a direct call to Trump :-

“In short, Trump, do not interfere with individual autonomy, freedom of speech or reproductive choice; do not promote the politics of fear; do not keep fighting the disastrous ‘war on terror’; and do not expand the power of the state over people’s lives. Respect freedom and choice and trade and growth: true, good liberal ideals.”

Given, that I fear, it is likely he will reject this advice, the other pointers to practical  ways to resist him will prove invaluable.

 

via Daily Prompt: Resist

Looking at the balance sheet after Trump’s Victory

Looking at the balance sheet after Trump’s Victory

There was an excellent article on  Bleeding Heart Libertarians site discussing some attitudes to the recent election of Donald Trump. I would encourage anyone of a libertarian  bent to read this as it is both well written and important. It concerns the fact that many libertarians seem to be offering some support to Donald Trumps election, though largely on the basis that his victory was the lesser of two evils, and that on balance he may do more good than harm.

But when one looks at the ‘on balance’ argument it falls down quite quickly as the benefits he may bring are minor and the disadvantages are often very major :-

A small tax cut, or freezing the minimum wage are, in my view, an order of magnitude less morally important than authorizing torture, suggesting Muslim registries, closing the border to refugees, ignoring the Constitution and the rule of law, revving up the US war machine, trying to muzzle the media, building a wall, undoing decades of peace and prosperity-enhancing global trade, threatening to send troops to Chicago, and so forth.

Also there is an apparent moral problem with how these gains and losses are distributed which we can not avoid :-

Notice that almost everything on the “plus” side of the ledger are policies that primarily affect Americans. School choice, ending the ACA, deregulation at the FDA or Labor, and even tax cuts are policies that pretty much exclusively affect Americans. On the other side, torture, trade, immigration, refugees, and war are things that have major effects on citizens in the rest of the world. Dammit, libertarians, they count too. The liberal vision has always been a global, cosmopolitian one, and there are no grounds for saying the interests of Americans trump (as it were) those of the rest of the globe.

Part of this problem may arise from the fact that, for many libertarians, their dislike of the left is greater than the importance they apply to their liberal principles. But joy, or schadenfreude, at Clinton’s loss should not blind us to the nature of the man who won.

Too many libertarians hate the left more than they love liberty. One response I’ve heard to my pushing back on their take on Trump is that “well Obama/Clinton was/would have been worse!” No, actually he wasn’t and I don’t think she would have been. Yes, they might have expanded the regulatory state, but there would be no revival of torture, no wall, no registry, no trade war, no attempt to muzzle the media, etc.. Trump is a tin-pot dictator wannabe (and startingtobe), without an ounce of knowledge or respect for constitutional limits on government, who threatens the foundational institutions of the liberal order. Obama was not.

 

via Liberalism in the Balance – Bleeding Heart Libertarians

The New Left Priesthood

The New Left Priesthood

I watched BBC Question Time last night despite it having an extremely lack lustre cast. I knew before it started no heather was going to be set on fire. I was not wrong.

Twice during the show issues of censorship and control were discussed. Firstly, concerning the petition to ban Donald Trump from entry to the UK and secondly to ban Tyson Fury from the BBC Sports Personality of the Year competition. It was generally agreed that Trump was an “odious idiot” and his and Tyson’s antediluvian views were held in contempt by both the panel and the audience. There were, as might be expected, no dissenting voices.

However, when it came to plans of action Caroline Flint stood on her own. She was for banning, blocking and censoring. Alone on the panel, but with some support from the noisy Corbynistas in the audience,  she took the illiberal and authoritarian line. To be fair, she did get a little help from Vincent Cable towards the end but in general she was the sole voice demanding limits on who can say what and where they can say it. This illiberal strand of the left is now very well established. Labours’ last government threatened many areas of personal freedoms and nearly got as far as introducing ID cards for the population to carry.

The socialists have always had a tendency to authoritarianism and this risk has long been recognised. In 1872 there was a serious split in the International Working Men’s Association over the differences between the anarchists (lead by Mikhail Bakunin) who worried the authoritarian state was a real danger and the Marxists who viewed the state as a useful tool to bring forward socialism. However, this trait seems a more prevalent problem over recent decades.

I think it relates to the loss of principle and focus of the left. No longer do they argue for a planned economy knowing that this has been found wanting. No longer do they promote internationalism as globalization has done more in this regard than they could. No longer do they promote the rights of men rather preferring to  look at subgroups of chosen victims for whom they can campaign. At the same time as they have no principles that can promote they also have no ability to demand attention as a solution to the world’s production problems; capitalism has done better than they could have ever thought in tackling the scourges of poverty and disease. Indeed even war seems to have become less frequent and damaging with the progress of capitalism. What have the left left ?

Like priests of old the left needs to claim an authority to rule without any empirical evidence. Unable to call on God to stamp authority on their moral code they have developed their own. Based on the philosophy of victimhood and the heresies of hate crime they are now the secular priesthood policing our words and thoughts.  Like the priesthood of old the rules are slightly changed periodically to keep the public on its toes, even the most god-fearing can become sinners in error – ask Benedict Cumberbatch about it !

They keep their authority and power by claiming greater moral probity  than us. They tell us that  they are necessary to keep us on the path free from sin. We are, in their eyes children, unable to work out right from wrong and we must be kept safe from bad ideas lest they corrupt us. In their eyes we are unable to distinguish between the hard truth and a sugar coated lie. They fear that without them we could become heretics and that they are saving us from ourselves. We do not need them, or any of their ilk, and the sooner we realize this the better.

inquisition