Thursday, April 09, 2015

Satire is dead

I emerged from the fog of a bad cold in an unseasonally chilly Greece and, now recovered, picked up the Guardian. Or was it the The Daily Mash? Has the Guardian become a self parody?

First up was a strange rant about how the cause of jihadi radicalism in Britain is apparently, er, David Cameron. Oh. Well, he "got away with bombing Libya (with barely a thought for the poor Libyans ...)" - other than responding to the Libyans' increasingly desperate requests to bomb Libya of course, or, to be more precise, bomb the Libyan army that was busy killing them. But since then he has encouraged jihadis by calling "for the overthrow of the secular Syrian government" and "to demonise it out of all proportion" (with 200,000 dead, overflowing torture chambers and around nine million displaced I want to know what would be proportionate in the demonisation stakes). But he had a clinching argument. He insisted that we "remember, this is the same President Assad who was having tea with the Queen in 2006." Of course, I had forgotten. How could I be so silly?

So was this pro-Assad propaganda a Seumas Milne column or by someone from the SWP or the Stop the War Coalition? No, it wasn't a stopper, it was a former British ambassador. I think that the diplomatic service may need to look at their recruitment policies.

So, with a mounting sense of despair I turned to the next article. It was by Naomi Wolf. Please tell me, why does anybody publish Naomi Wolf? Anyway, it started off as a robust defence of free speech, even if her history was embarrassingly wrong. According to her, "Before 1857 it was quite difficult to get arrested for speech in England." Tell that to John Wilkes (1763), Francis Burdett (1820) or Richard Carlile (1819), to mention only the most prominent cases, and it would be helpful to know that the offence of seditious libel had been part of the common law since 1606. Never mind, the main thrust of the argument might have been superficial, but it is a fair point that government restrictions on speech usually fail to suppress ideas. Except that she too is writing about jhadi radicalism and suffers from the standard liberal under-estimation of an ideology that exhorts people to murder strangers and obliterate free speech with violence.

Wolf doesn't bother to get to grips with harm principle, that free speech can be restricted where it can cause harm to others (like 'let's nip off to Iraq, crucify people, throw gays off buildings and rape a few slaves'), nor does she really engage with the fact that most policy makers feel that any response to jihadism has to be multi-layered, combining a range of different measures. Instead, she offers the Mrs Merton solution - "Now, let's have a heated debate..."
If you look at what actually worked in history, you would not be arresting people for “Muslim extremist” thought or antisemitic cartoons, however unpleasant: you would be holding well-covered, widely translated public debates between moderate Muslim critics of extremism and extremist voices, or between Muslim extremist religious advocates and western rabbis or secularists – and tweeting, Facebooking, televising, and commenting on the debate in real time.
 Is this for real? Are you sure it is a serious newspaper? 

I put it down and stared out of the window as a brightly coloured woodpecker flitted between trees before settling on the apple tree and tapped at the bark, its bright red head moving rapidly in a cold breeze. It beat reading the Guardian hands down.

Thursday, March 19, 2015


New Labour loved to lecture us on the theme of "no rights without responsibility". How about taking some responsible positions themselves? How about not pandering to ignorance? How about challenging popular prejudice? How about a modicum of intelligence rather than engaging in a race to see who can be nastiest to the poor in search of votes, regardless of facts? Any chance? No. Forget it.

Rosie Fletcher says it all perfectly.
“We are not the party of people on benefits. We don’t want to be seen, and we’re not, the party to represent those who are out of work.” Well, it’s cheering to hear that Labour are so doing so well that they feel able to turn my vote away. That is confidence indeed.
What Rachel Reeves fails to understand is that there is no difference between working people and not-working people. We aren’t some grotesque, Orc-like other, bred by Morgoth to take your wages from you.
There is no them and us. They are us. We are they. Working people have just managed to avoid the very bad day, or set of bad days, that took someone out of work.
 ...I understand why it’s comforting to keep us separate. It’s not that claiming benefits is bad. The situation that necessitates claiming benefits is bad. I did everything I was meant to do to be self-sufficient. I went to university, I earned less money than my work deserved in the hope of the next, better job. And still, I am here, receiving little brown envelopes from the DWP that even with a university education, I still don’t always understand. You can get ill. You can be made redundant. You are working today. You may not be working tomorrow.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Crime watch

Essential reading.
The coroner said that when David Clapson died he had no food in his stomach. Clapson’s benefits had been stopped as a result of missing one meeting at the jobcentre. He was diabetic, and without the £71.70 a week from his jobseeker’s allowance he couldn’t afford to eat or put credit on his electricity card to keep the fridge where he kept his insulin working. Three weeks later Clapson died from diabetic ketoacidosis, caused by a severe lack of insulin. A pile of CVs was found next to his body.
"Ending the something for nothing culture", eh? I would prefer "ending the crass policy making based on a stupid sound bite conceived in complete ignorance of the lives of the poor culture."

Fat chance.

Monday, March 09, 2015

Women's suffrage

George "not everybody needs to be asked prior to each insertion" Galloway may be going for the female vote in a slightly curious way (Hello Ladies!), but he might have his work cut out. This is his Labour opponent, Naz Shah.
My selection isn’t about me, it’s about the recognition of inequality in society. It’s an understanding that we still have many changes to make ...

It’s been 6 days since I was selected, an amazing 6 days by anybody’s standards. I have been on a learning curve second to none. I’ve always campaigned against violence against women and have a deep understanding of the role of ‘power and control’, but even I have been taken aback by the ‘power dynamics’ of politics. ... The smear campaign that has started has been some of the most vicious and disgusting I have seen. But it does not scare me, will not change me, and it in fact fuels my passion for change more.

Even in a short space of just 6 days this tells me clearly that unfortunately 22 years later it is still a woman’s character that is attacked. Why is it that men’s characters are not questioned in this city when they stand for elections? For me personally every attack is a further indictment of why I must stand and challenge the status quo, it gives me more strength and resilience to ensure I win the trust and belief of the people in Bradford West and then this election to bring change in my community...

I don’t want for any child to miss out on a good education. Having experienced poverty first hand I understand how it impacts. I was the first ‘compulsory redundancy’ in NHS Bradford & Airedale in 2009 following the cuts/austerity measures. The fact that I am where I am illustrates how even against the odds we can create a better future for the next generation.
And you have to read her dramatic family back story.

This is going to get interesting.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

From the wasteland

As tumbleweed blows through the ruins of adult education, with even the vestiges that still cling to life being eroded by harsh financial winds, it still has its advocates. Peter Scott is one, but his piece on university funding reads like a lament.
The winners have been young, full-time (and more privileged) students who want, or are able, to attend large-campus universities in big cities. The losers have been older, less privileged and, especially, part-time students who want, or need, to study locally.

The figures tell it all. The number of full-time students has increased despite the trebling of fees – maybe because no one has to pay them; they just have to pay higher taxes later. But part-time numbers have collapsed.
The situation bears all the hallmarks of a government that didn't consider the social purposes of education as they created an artificial market that was almost guaranteed to produce a cartel rather than thriving competition. Modern higher education is like wandering through one of those vast Tesco hypermarkets. The shelves are packed, but the produce is much the same and most looks unappetising. Now compare that to my two favourite food markets, Bury in Lancashire and Argalasti in Pelion. They may be smaller, but the variety is amazing. Local, traditional and seasonal products crowd small stands as the sellers shout at you as you wander round. The quality is great and the prices low. I always buy too much. Adult education was the one thing that gave universities and colleges something distinctive, innovative, local and cheap. But now, its gone. As Scott says,
Most colleges that took over adult education institutes struggle to fit them into their corporate strategies, except perhaps as short course units. Universities with once famous extramural departments take the same line.
It is very tempting to say, "we told you so", because we did. We warned over and over again that this is precisely what would happen if we didn't have discrete adult education provision. The university may be a supermarket, but it needed its market hall tacked on to it as well. Try and add its produce as product lines on the aisles and they would be swamped.

It is a classic failure. The government attempted to manufacture a market, but ignored the major determinant of demand - status. They worked on the idea that universities would compete for students on price and quality, not status. The government introduced variable fees and then found that they were applied as if they were invariable - at the top rate. This was completely rational. Demand exceeded supply and institutions wanted to maximise their earnings. But there was something else. Students were encouraged to view higher education as a way of buying a competitive advantage in the jobs market. In the era of mass education, that advantage comes through status as much as achievement. Universities reasoned that lower fees would indicate a lower status that would put them at a competitive disadvantage. The result was that there was no competition on price, individual institutions charged the same price throughout the sector and hoovering up as many high fee students as possible. All the Aldis pretended to be Waitroses.

Part-time and adult education, which was supposed to have been supported through variable fees, disappeared as everyone focused on maximising income. Part-time and adult students had to pay fees and when they rose to be pro-rata with full-time courses, demand collapsed. But this didn't matter to institutions because of their ability to pull in subsidised full-fee students from elsewhere. Social purpose played no role in their calculations, neither did the idea of long-term investment in their local communities to ensure a continuing supply of customers. Scott nails it:
The result is a mass system that is also monolithic, although riven by snobbish hierarchies. The so-called market is making it more monolithic.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Half full or half empty

The deal was done. Syriza and the EU 'institutions' found a compromise. It is a big compromise on Syriza's behalf, but a bank run made a weak bargaining position even weaker. The old left were quick to shout betrayal and more thoughtful doubts have been expressed by Costas Lapavitsas and, in the UK, by Paul Mason, who sees the possibility of Greece leaving the Euro in a managed exit further down the line.

Making this type of criticism is far easier than managing the reality of tough negotiations with the risk of dramatic consequences if they fail and, for the time being anyway, Syriza's negotiating position is being supported by a majority of Greeks. So, here are three pieces by sympathetic economists in support of the deal.

First, Duncan Weldon stresses the importance of buying time - in defence of 'kicking the can down the road'. And he makes an interesting point, which supports his line that Greek debt can be managed:
Greece’s government debt stands at around 175% of GDP. That is, there is no disputing it, very high indeed. But concentrating on the level of debt is not necessarily the most meaningful way to think about it ...
In many ways, when considering the case of Greece, the most economically meaningful number isn’t the level of debt to GDP, but the cost of servicing that debt measured against GDP i.e. how much of the Greek national income is being swallowed up in servicing debt? That is a better measure of the burden of debt than simply looking at the headline numbers. The results of this analysis are somewhat surprising. In 2014, government debt servicing costs in Greece were just 2.6% of GDP. That’s considerably lower than Portugal (5.0%) or Italy (4.7%) and not that much higher than Germany (1.9%).
Measured as share of tax revenues, Greek government interest payments are now lower than when Greece joined the Euro.
He concludes:
The costs to Greece of the past five years have been enormous, neither Greece nor the creditors have covered themselves in policy making glory. Faced with an ill designed currency union the costs of the shock that hit between 2008 and 2010 was always going to have been high. Imposing extreme austerity on an economy hit by a lack of demand exacerbated that crisis. But a policy of ‘I wouldn’t start from here’ isn’t a real policy. ‘Kicking the can down the road’ was probably a lot better than the alternatives.
James Galbraith, who has previously written on the crisis with Varoufakis, takes on critics and cynics with both barrels in a trenchant defence of the deal. It is worth reading in full. He points out:
To understand the issues actually at stake between Greece and Europe, you have to dig a little into the infamous “Memorandum of Understanding” signed by the previous Greek governments. A first point: not everything in that paper is unreasonable. Much merely reflects EU laws and regulations. Provisions relating to tax administration, tax evasion, corruption, and modernization of public administration are, broadly, good policy and supported by SYRIZA. So it was not difficult for the new Greek government to state adherence to “seventy percent” of the memorandum.
The remaining “thirty percent” fell mainly into three areas: fiscal targets, fire-sale privatizations and labor-law changes. The fiscal target of a 4.5 percent “primary surplus” was a dog as everyone would admit in private. The new government does not oppose privatizations per se; it opposes those that set up price-gouging private monopolies and it opposes fire sales that fail to bring in much money. Labor law reform is a more basic disagreement – but the position of the Greek government is in line with ILO standards, and that of the “programme” was not. These matters will now be discussed. The fiscal target is now history, and the Greeks agreed to refrain from “unilateral” measures only for the four-month period during which they will be seeking agreement.
His conclusion is that the Greek elections could mark a sea-change in political economy:
Alexis Tsipras stated it correctly. Greece won a battle – perhaps a skirmish – and the war continues. But the political sea-change that SYRIZA’s victory has sparked goes on. From a psychological standpoint, Greece has already changed; there is a spirit and dignity in Athens that was not there six months ago. Soon enough, new fronts will open in Spain, then perhaps Ireland, and later Portugal, all of which have elections coming. It is not likely that the government in Greece will collapse, or yield, in the talks ahead, and over time the scope of maneuver gained in this first skirmish will become more clear. In a year the political landscape of Europe may be quite different from what it appears to be today.
Sony Kapoor is less ebullient, but highlights the concessions that Syriza did achieve and sees the value of working with 'the institutions':
Greece has the best chance it has had in years to make a clean break with the past. It may not be on the terms its people wished for, but on a number of matters the moderating influence of the “institutions” will actually make for better policy than what Syriza had in its manifesto. 
The reforms Syriza puts forward, particularly for the longer term will be judged on merit, not on their conformity with German diktat. The triple criteria of “fiscal sustainability”, “financial stability” and “economic growth” make sense and one hopes that the technocrats at the IMF, the European Commission and the OECD do a better job of applying these. If Syriza governs competently it will no doubt also win significant concessions on debt relief and the size of the primary surplus it will be required to maintain. Together, this could easily amount to more than 10% of GDP of fiscal space over its term to be used for much needed investment and humanitarian relief. It will also have a significant positive impact on growth. Whether the reforms look good for Syriza or not, they should be good for Greece and that is all that really matters.
I like his conclusion, it demolishes the facile analogies that were drawn between Greece and Weimar Germany.
It has been remarkable that defying history and developments elsewhere in Europe, the Greek people have, after enduring a great depression, elected a party that is pro-European, pro-Euro and pro-migration. This contrasts sharply with the rise of the anti-European anti-migrant far right in France, the Netherlands and elsewhere
That alone is worth celebrating

Saturday, February 21, 2015

On totalitarianism

This article by Graeme Wood has been shared widely. It isn't surprising that it has been. It is a clear explanation of the theology of Islamic State. It is long, but is worth reading in full. It is also a critique of the way that journalists and writers have understood Islamism as being something other than religious. That it really is Islamic should be obvious. Equally obvious is that it is unrepresentative of what Islam has become in the modern world. There is a trap here that the article comes close to falling into. It may rubbish the claim that Islamic State is somehow un-Islamic, quoting Bernard Haykel that such views are "embarrassed and politically correct, with a cotton-candy view of their own religion," but it doesn't say explicitly that ISIS' fundamentalist views are atypical of the faith as a whole and the piece seems to me to come too close to an essentialist view of Islam as violent and oppressive.

It may be a cliché to say that Islam is a religion of peace, but it is certainly true for many of its adherents, some of whom are willing to take action to prove it. Time is a great editor and modernity has discretely removed much of the psychotically bonkers bits from the sacred texts of all religions, rendering them, in the words of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, mostly harmless (the qualifier is very necessary). ISIS reject modernity to produce something that is unexpurgated and wholly harmful. Most Muslims are horrified, not least because they are becoming targets of hatred from all sides and picking up the blame for something that they had long rejected. However, Islamism's air of authenticity, its politicisation of piety and its spirit of religious revivalism are an important part of its appeal, especially to a generation looking for radical alternatives. I am anything but an expert, but it seems to me to be a challenge to the liberalisation of Islam and, on a secular level, a grab for power.

Religious movements are difficult for secular minds to understand, myself included. And so we have mentally secularised Islamism in two main ways. The first is by suggesting that it is responsive. Apologists portray it as a retort to western imperialism, liberals that it expresses a hatred and even envy of enlightenment values. The former is contemptible, the latter is true though superficial. The second way is by describing it as an interaction between religious traditions and European political movements. The term Islamofascism is one way of rendering it comprehensible to a secular mind, as is Paul Berman's discussion of the history of death cults in Terror and Liberalism. There is much more sense in this. Just as interaction with liberal societies has been a stimulus for reform, it wouldn't be surprising if authoritarian and irrational western ideas have also influenced Islamic political movements. Yet, I am not comfortable with either as a complete explanation and Wood's article rejects them in terms of understanding ISIS. So, what if this form of jihadi radicalism has nothing to do with the west? How then do we understand it? Well, we can simply take it on its own terms and assume that they mean what they say. That is common sense, even if it leaves us baffled, but we can also use totalitarian theory.

Totalitarianism is one of those many terms that are thrown about as accusations without paying much attention to what they actually mean. It has been applied so widely as to render it meaningless and it has been used to conflate very different regimes as being essentially the same. I think we need to be much more precise. Seen as a form of government, Friedrich and Brzezinski's definition of totalitarianism as a six point syndrome (a single ideology; a single mass party; the use of terror; a monopoly of force; a monopoly of the means of communication; central control of the economy) has been the basis of most post-1945 discussion. Though useful, I find it limited. It is firmly secular and historically specific. It tells us nothing about the nature of different totalitarianisms. I don't think totalitarianism is solely a form of government, instead I would argue that it is an intellectual pathology and that the key to understanding it is ideology.

Totalitarianism has emerged on both the right and the left and I want to suggest that these ideologies can be categorised into four ideal types: secular, theocratic, modernist and traditionalist. They can either be inspired by science - or more usually pseudoscience - or by religious revelation. They can look forward to a new world remade or backwards to an idealised version of the past. These categories aren't enough though. I would add three additional defining features, which, when all are present together, make for a totalitarian ideology.

The first is eschatology. This is a belief that there is a final, absolute destiny for humanity. It is a much stronger concept than utopianism. There is plenty of utopian thought that is crazy and potentially dangerous, but utopianism is mainly speculative rather than prescriptive. It can be dreaming about a better world that may just be possible. And without the dreamers, would we ever progress? I doubt it. No, totalitarians are not sentimental dreamers, they know where we are heading and brook no compromise or deviation. They are ruthless because they are dictated to by destiny.

Secondly, totalitarian ideologies assert the importance of human agency to bring about radical change. They do not think that all people have to do is sit back and wait for some historical process to work itself out or for an act of divine intervention. People are obliged to take action, to struggle and sacrifice, otherwise humanity will remain sunk in the squalor of mediocrity. It is demanding and heroic. As such, totalitarianism is revolutionary.

And lastly, a totalitarian ideology is clear that this final goal, this state of human perfection, can only be realised through the elimination of certain categories of unworthy or corrupting people. Terror is not just an instrumental tactic for holding on to power, it fulfils our destiny. Totalitarianism is inherently genocidal.

Islamic State fits these definitions. It is a theocratic and traditionalist totalitarian movement seeking to return to the purity of 7th century Islam. It calls the faithful to action and martyrdom and condemns to death those who do not answer the call. It wishes to purify the earth through the slaughter of unbelievers. It isn't secular in any way. It isn't fascist. It is millenarian, an ecstatic religious uprising of the type that has occurred and reoccurred throughout history. And if we want to understand it, perhaps we could do worse than to dust off our copies of Norman Cohn. Countering it is another matter altogether.

Friday, February 20, 2015


The fashion started with politicians parading their football supporting credentials so that they looked like ordinary human beings, it spread into the grounds with the 'prawn sandwich brigade' of corporate hospitality guests, it was reinforced by rocketing ticket prices as clubs became the playthings of international billionaires and now we have reached the ultimate in gentrification - posh football hooligans.

One of the Chelsea fans behaving in a racist way has been identified as
... part of a small but “vocal” Ukip crowd during their time at Millfield private school more than a year-and-a-half ago.
Millfield charges fees of £30,000 a year. 

Now what was all that guff about the white working class again?

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Payback time

The Eurozone crisis has focused on sovereign debt, the debt owed by states. But there is another debt crisis, private debt. Much of the expansion of consumption before the banking crisis was down to credit rather than earnings. Low pay has spawned the exploitative pay-day loan industry - respectable loan sharks. And then the pressure mounts, credit dries up and people have to repay rather than spend. At the bottom end of the income scale, they stop spending on essentials. Economic crisis and social crisis walk hand in hand.

So, how about this as an experiment for boosting demand through poverty alleviation?
From February 2, around 60,000 of Croatia’s poorest citizens are having their debts wiped under the country’s “Fresh Start” scheme. This figure carries greater significance when placed into context of Croatia’s population of around 4.4 million. Having endured six years of recession, and with growth forecasts remaining stubbornly low, around 317,000 Croatians have found their bank accounts frozen due to debt, stifling economic demand. 
Those with a debt under the equivalent of around £3,300, with a weekly income under £91 and with no investments or savings have now found themselves with a clean slate.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Deal or no deal

Both sides need a deal, but is there going to be one? We will know by Friday, because that is the deadline to stop the process that will lead to a Greek default. Negotiators seem to be going about it in rather an odd way. Mind you, the Greek finance ministry is led by a tie-less economist who quotes Kant.
One may think that this retreat from game theory is motivated by some radical-left agenda. Not so. The major influence here is Immanuel Kant, the German philosopher who taught us that the rational and the free escape the empire of expediency by doing what is right.
How do we know that our modest policy agenda, which constitutes our red line, is right in Kant’s terms? We know by looking into the eyes of the hungry in the streets of our cities or contemplating our stressed middle class, or considering the interests of hard-working people in every European village and city within our monetary union. After all, Europe will only regain its soul when it regains the people’s trust by putting their interests center-stage.
Meanwhile, the apparently German-led insistence that the Syriza government has to abide by the agreement made by the previous government would, in effect, nullify the result of the Greek election, which was fought on precisely this issue. It is a basic principle of Parliamentary democracy that a Parliament cannot bind its successors, otherwise there can be no change and democracy becomes meaningless. Negotiators have to face that reality.

Austerity has produced a primary budget surplus in Greece. It has also produced an increase in sovereign and private debt, social crisis, capital flight, a brain drain, mass unemployment, the rise of fascism and a 30% contraction in GDP. Every economic forecast coming from the 'Troika' of lenders has been completely wrong, every target missed. And now the Eurozone as a whole is slipping into recession and deflation. Is this a success? 

Syriza's negotiating position on economics is modest. They wish to run a smaller primary budget surplus (not a deficit), restructure debt and tie repayments to growth, mitigate the social crisis, whilst dealing with serious problems of elite corruption and tax evasion. The principle is simple - they aim to restore growth by boosting demand at the bottom though poverty alleviation and at the same time attack corruption at the top. It's not a bad basis for a democratic left reform agenda. But modest proposals sometimes have immodest aims. This policy undermines the elite economic consensus and the basis of decades of economic policy making. It won't be easily conceded.

There is something else as well. If it works and the debt crisis is eased, the fundamental issue will still remain - the flawed construction of monetary union. Here, Greece isn't the problem. It is Germany, with its excessive savings and trade surplus. This is beautifully explained in this neat animation from the Financial Times. All currency unions allow for transfers from wealthy to poorer areas and the collective sharing of risk, except EMU. In other words, the next crisis is built into the Euro. Even with a deal, it will not be time to relax.