Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Interesting times

They have their 'Fiscal Compact' now, imposing and enforcing strict budgetary disciplines on the signatories, though Britain and the Czech Republic have stayed out. Mind you, the ratification process has yet to begin and I doubt whether it will be plain sailing as events continue to threaten storms.

The whole Euro crisis has prompted a debate about there being a democratic deficit within the European Union. The usual talking points are around the unelected technocrats leading the Greek and Italian governments and the issue of national sovereignty. But this treaty shows where the main threat to democratic government lies. Democracy is more than a process of swapping the people or parties in power. It is about changing public policy and priorities and, above all, about alternative political economies. The response to the Euro crisis is not just a question of dealing with the technicalities of trade imbalances, sovereign debt and the institutional architecture of monetary union; it is ideological, in the sense that the attempts to resolve the crisis are informed by a particular model of political economy. And a single model is now to be legally embedded as the only one permissible. Where then is the possibility of democratic change?

You hear the cry everywhere, 'they are all the same'. This treaty means that they have to be. A blanket of orthodoxy has been thrown over the continent of Europe and, even if it is smothering the people, international institutions are doing their best to fasten it in place. The trouble with sameness when people are crying out for difference, is that it opens the door to those that really are different, if eerily familiar to anyone who knows about the dark corners of the 20th Century.

And in that way, the real European crisis is not taking place in Greece, Ireland, Spain or Portugal - yet. It is in Hungary. And if you need to be convinced of the ugliness of the events there, watch this video, think back to those earlier, faded photographs of people dressed in black shirts, wearing those same thuggish smiles, and remember what they brought to an earlier Europe, one that was also facing an economic crisis.

Thanks to George for the Hungarian links, keep an eye his blog for more links and updates.

Friday, January 27, 2012


What to make of this?
The German government wants Greece to cede sovereignty over tax and spending decisions to a eurozone “budget commissioner” to secure a second €130bn bail-out, according to a copy of the proposal obtained by the Financial Times. 
In what would amount to an extraordinary extension of European Union control over a member state, the new commissioner would have the power to veto budget decisions taken by the Greek government if they were not in line with targets set by international lenders. The new administrator, appointed by other eurozone finance ministers, would take responsibility for overseeing “all major blocks of expenditure” by the Greek government. 
... Athens would also be forced to adopt a law permanently committing state revenues to debt service “first and foremost”.
What next? Gunboats?

Hat tip Shuggy

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

A loss

The film director Thodoros Angelopoulos has died after being hit by a motor cycle in Athens. Those who haven't come across his languorous, elegiac films on Greek life and history should seek them out. You will be in for a treat.

Monday, January 23, 2012


This is a nice piece by Kenan Malik on the free market in outrage, prompted by the latest threat to Salman Rushdie and his resultant non-appearance at the Jaipur Literature Festival.
The consequence of all this has been the creation not of a less conflicted world, but of one that is more sectarian, fragmented and tribal.  As the novelist Monica Ali has put it, ‘If you set up a marketplace of outrage you have to expect everyone to enter it. Everyone now wants to say, “My feelings are more hurt than yours”.’ The more that policy makers give licence for people to be offended, the more that people will seize the opportunity to feel offended. It leads to the encouragement of interest groups and the growth of sectarian conflict.
The whole article is a fine defence of free speech, but I wonder about he way he handles outrage. It is a weird concept. I blame my age, but these days I am outraged by nearly everything. That doesn't mean I want to shoot the outrageous (oh, hang on a second, sometimes it is a bit too attractive an idea for comfort - never mind I can usually manage to control it by some fantasies when I'm cutting firewood with a chainsaw; marvellous therapy, I recommend it). Actually, what we are talking about here is only religion. I have never quite understood why religion outranks world poverty, genocide, mass starvation and the like in the outrage stakes, but apparently it does. Then this isn't really about feeling hurt and offended, it is about power. The manufacture of outrage is how groups wangle themselves into a position where they can 'represent' their communities, seemingly united into a single identity group against their wills, mobilise others and make a play for power. This is a political tactic. And we are blind to it as we would rather it all just went away.

So this is good.
The avoidance of cultural pain has, therefore, come to be regarded as more important than the abstract right to freedom of expression.  As the British sociologist Tariq Modood has put it, ‘If people are to occupy the same political space without conflict, they mutually have to limit the extent to which they subject each others’ fundamental beliefs to criticism.’ What the anti-Baals of today most fear is starting arguments. What they most want is for the world to go to sleep.
Ah yes, sleep. We do sleep. And while we sleep others act. This is very reminiscent of Orwell at the end of Homage to Catalonia, "... the deep, deep sleep of England, from which I sometimes fear that we shall never wake till we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs". It is all so middle class, so respectable; the stifling politeness of conventional life and the fear of being seen insensitive, racist even. Then there is the nervous embarrassment at the thought of saying something controversial and the submerged fear of violence that leads us to betray those who would rather not be yoked to the heavy burden of outrage.

And who better than the English to succumb - after all, we are always anxious to avoid offence.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Come from the Shadows

There are two things that will strike any reader of Come from the Shadows, Terry Glavin's new book on Afghanistan. The first is his optimism about the future of the country, though only if the Taliban are defeated and the international intervention maintained until they are. The second is his affection and respect for the Afghan people and his desire to give them a voice. Both combine to make this an impressive book, angry, passionate and partisan. And it is wholly convincing.

Terry's main literary device is to show how the conventional wisdom on Afghanistan describes another place, a fictional Absurdistan. As a picture of the real country, it is wrong in almost every respect. Afghanistan is not a mediaeval, ungovernable throwback, it is a modern developing country wrecked by war and only just recovering from an imposed, ultra-violent theocracy. Nor is the Taliban some form of anti-imperialist resistance movement. It is a psychotic organisation, with little internal support, trying to regain power through uninhibited violence with the help of external powers pursuing their own agendas.

To counter the media mood music of quagmires and unwinnable wars, Terry blitzes us with history, including the extraordinary tale of the links between Pashtun chauvinism and Nazi Aryan fantasies, demolishes myths, shows patronising and racist assumptions about Afghanistan's people for what they are and, most important of all, allows Afghans to speak for themselves. And what stories they have to tell.

Looking at what has been achieved since the fall of the Taliban, one gets a glimpse of what is beginning to emerge. This is not simply a political, institutional democracy, certainly compromised by Karzai's corruption though still an achievement, but a democratic society, in which ordinary people are starting to take control of their own lives and reshape their culture, rejecting oppression and embracing freedom.

Yet there is more to it than this.  As I read on, I became more and more convinced that the struggle for a democratic Afghanistan is also our struggle.  The problems are deeper, the violence more extreme, yet the underlying themes Terry explores have something universal about them, something shared. And this is what I want to look at here. I want to highlight the lessons we can take from the book. God knows, we need to know more about Afghanistan, but there is also much that we can learn from it.

My starting point is where we actually have a difference of emphasis. Terry asks serious questions about the ubiquity of the Absurdistan analysis amongst the political left and the damage it has done in Canadian politics. The phenomenon he describes is of an unthinking, reflexive left that sees surrender as 'peace' and wishes to abandon the Afghan people to whatever emerges through a deal with the Taliban. He writes of a left that has the inability to see that in a fight between their own country and fascists, their own side might be in the right for once and of one that is deaf to the urgent appeals of the Afghan people themselves.

There are two broad models of explanation for why this might be so. The first is 'left betrayal', the idea that something went terribly wrong during the post-war period and caused the left to abandon its principles and break with an honourable past. The other sees all the currents of apologism, relativism, anti-Semitism and frank admiration for tyrannies as things that have always existed within the left. From this perspective, Afghanistan is symbolic of a broader intellectual struggle that has always needed to be fought. I come from the longer, historical view (neatly described by Norm Geras here and here). Terry predominantly argues that there was a breach with earlier socialist and social democratic discourses; that the left abandoned class organisation in favour of 'counterculture'.

Terry's exasperation with counterculture is not confined to dippy hippy pacifism, he also includes paranoid leftist 'anti-imperialism', fashionable cynicism and a self-indulgent, narcissistic and, ironically, heavily commercialised and conformist 'alternative society' in his catalogue of despair. Who could demur? Yet reading his book also convinced me of the importance of countercultural action and the need to rescue the term. After all, the social change that it has brought in my lifetime is pretty dramatic and wholly welcome.

Two reasons why we should not casually discard the notion stand out. The first is that counterculture stands in direct opposition to cultural relativism. Relativism is a conservative doctrine. It urges acceptance of other cultures as they are, often asserts that they are unchangeable, eternal and somehow 'authentic' and refuses to pass judgement on even the grossest cultural practice. Counterculture argues that culture can and must change if people are to be free from the tyranny of convention.

Secondly, countercultural action is an explicit recognition that political and economic liberation can still leave sections of a society entrapped in webs of prejudice, enslaved by gender and oppressed due to their sexuality. The right have recognised that culture is a critical battlefield, from Islamism, through the Tea Party to the Fidesz government in Hungary today. The left needs to do so as well and to fight back.

Counterculture may be hip in western democracies, outside them it can be dangerous, involving what Christopher Hitchens has called, "living 'as if'".
Vaclav Havel, then working as a marginal playwright and poet in a society and state that truly merited the title of Absurd, realised that "resistance" in its original insurgent and militant sense was impossible in the central Europe of the day. He therefore proposed living "as if" he were a citizen of a free society, "as if" lying and cowardice were not mandatory patriotic duties … In the late Victorian period, Oscar Wilde - master of the pose but not a mere poseur - decided to live and act "as if" moral hypocrisy were not regnant. In the deep south in the early 1960s, Rosa Parks decided to act "as if" a hardworking black woman could sit down on a bus at the end of the day's labour. In Moscow in the 1970s, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn resolved to write "as if" an individual scholar could investigate the history of his own country and publish his findings.
Now read about the Afghan women whose stories Terry tells. In the days of the Taliban they tried to live 'as if' they were not in a dystopian misogyny and today, after the end of Taliban rule, they are determined to live 'as if' their new freedoms were not fragile and constrained by cultural conservatism. Take a woman like Shamisa Sharifi who ran an underground organisation under the Taliban teaching poor women to read and write. Now her new organisation, Negeen, has combined women's literacy with craft skills, rights education, textile workshops and micro-banking. It is still hard and risky work. It still means living and working 'as if'. Women's education, organisation, political activity and even taking part in sport are examples of the counterculture we should be promoting. After all, as Terry puts it, "in Afghanistan, if you're a girl, to play soccer is a revolutionary act".

Whatever its sources, it has to be said that the alliance of parts of the left with a deeply reactionary totalitarianism is pretty weird, probably the strangest thing since, well, the Nazi-Soviet Pact. Ultimately, I can only see it as a colossal moral failure and an historic misjudgement. The Afghan Hazara Lacanian, Buddah Ahmedy, whom Terry met on his travels, best summed it up:
… it comes from the tragic incapacity at the core of liberalism itself to comprehend what we used to call "evil".
I find this embrace well nigh unforgiveable. But a general acceptance of the Absurdistan myth is more understandable; it is couched in progressive language, uses nice words like 'peace', recoils against what Wilfred Owen called "the pity of war" and is suspicious of American intentions. For those who grew up in the left, it is a position that need not disturb our universe. To reject it means a re-examination of beliefs held for decades. It is a difficult thing to do. I know. I have done it; too slowly and too late. But the purposeful maintenance of the myth is more contemptible. It relies on constant reinforcement by a flow of lazy, selective reporting and dubious opinion pieces, often by people who have access to far better information. And this points to the second universal point that Terry makes; the need to confront prejudice with truth. And the only real way to do this in Afghanistan is to let the Afghan people speak.  Even so, this isn't enough on its own. People also have to listen.

A perfect example of wilful deafness is the story of Code Pink, an American feminist 'peace' organisation that makes the fashionable call for troops out.  They went on a sponsored visit to Afghanistan, met with women activists who universally said that it was essential for women that the troops remain. After this, they returned the USA to write a report calling for the troops to be withdrawn. Why did they bother?

And you have to be discriminating about who you listen to as well. There are plenty of apologists and pessimists out there. Absurdistan has its much-touted champions like Malalai Joya, whom, Terry writes, is remembered in Afghanistan by "human rights activists and women's rights leaders … with a mix of pity and contempt". Terry is unapologetic about choosing sides rather than producing a book that aims to strike a spurious balance. As he writes, "I've written this book as a partisan in the cause of Afghanistan's democrats. That's my bias."  It's also the bias of the left, of liberty, of our common cause.

Terry noticed something else too, 
"… the greater emancipation was occurring with the help of projects that were diffuse, small-scale and nimble … At that level, when Afghan women were running their own show, you could pretty well sit back and watch them change the world before your eyes." 
This will sound familiar to anyone who has ever worked in community development. Rather than indulge in the expensive temptation to impose grandiose schemes, often informed by fashion rather than expertise, development is far more effective if it is shaped and run by the people themselves, those who have been at the sharp end of oppression and poverty. They are the experts. And Terry shows just how well this can work in Afghanistan, giving us moving accounts of community action; organisations such as Aschiana, a children's outreach programme and its associated Children's Development Bank, small-scale agricultural developments such as the Garden Gate project, through to the Afghan women's football team; another blow to the condescension of the cynics.

These examples of people building their own lives and communities through direct action could not have happened if the social space had not been opened for them by the defeat of the Taliban. This leads us to the final lesson of Afghanistan. Freedom cannot be exercised without security. In the developed world we tend to think of this as the need for economic security, in Afghanistan it is something more visceral. It is security from being kidnapped, beheaded, dismembered by a suicide bomb, raped and beaten by religious extremists, mutilated with acid for the crime of seeking an education and all the myriad horrors that can be invented by disturbed minds and malign ideologies. In this case, security can only come from one source; troops.

Reading this book, one is struck by the extraordinary institutionalised sadism of the Taliban, the systematic cruelty of their war and of their targets, women especially but also their attempt to eradicate education. Terry points out that "between May 2007 and February 2008 the Taliban attacked and burnt 98 schools, killing 147 teachers and students". Now the provision and demand for education is booming, yet all that stands between it and its destruction is the military force that is deployed to protect the country from the return of the Taliban.

All the Afghan democrats are united on two points: it will be a disaster if the troops leave and a deal with the Taliban would be a catastrophe for the future of the country:
Maboob Shah – "People who say the foreign soldiers should go away, they do not know what they are saying". Shamsia Sharifi – "We need to have the troops in Afghanistan. If the Taliban come back, the target will be us again." Fawzia Koofi – "There is a lack of proper communication in your country about Afghanistan. They don't see all the progress. For me, the hope is for the younger generation. Young men are voting for women. The society is under a big transformation, and there are people who don't want to see this." Amrullah Saleh – "The human cost in this country [of a deal with the Taliban] will easily be up to two million people killed, at least. It will not be big news for Afghanistan. We are used to tragedies, throughout our history. But the cost for you will be bigger".
Still the noises emanating from both governments and the commentariat say the same thing; there needs to be an exit strategy based not on the defeat of the Taliban, but on their accommodation.

Come from The Shadows begins with the Battle of Marefat High School, a fully co-educational school with an intellectually open curriculum, elected class councils and an independent student parliament. The Taliban hated it and rioters tried to smash it. They were beaten back by students who would not run away. They were not about to relinquish their future to a bunch of marauding bigots.

And there in a single example are both the hopes and fears of a nation. Self-help and education; the need to defend every gain, by force if necessary, as it so often is; direct action to change a misogynist culture; and, above all, the lesson the west needs to learn most, to listen to the people, to hear their voices and to choose to stand with them in an act of principled internationalism.

And this applies not only to Afghanistan. Think of how the poor, for example, are to come from the shadows in any European country, how other than by listening to their voices are they to escape the stigma of the word 'scrounger' or the more respectable condescension bestowed by the concept of 'dependency culture', think of how they too can build their own communities, organise and, when necessary, protest. Yes, Afghanistan is our struggle too.

I am certain that Terry would have loved to have written a celebratory book, one that looked forward to a new country being created by the fall of the Taliban and one that heralded the triumph of an Afghan democracy, forged by some remarkable people. Instead the book is troubled. Courage and hope are offset by anger and anxiety at the prospect of a looming betrayal. Come from the Shadows should be a milestone on the road to the creation of a free Afghan nation, let us hope that it does not stand as its epitaph.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Something rotten

I know little about Hungary and coverage of recent events is hardly flooding the media. But news is seeping through, as is the unmistakable, nauseous stench of fascism. In teaching history I spend much time explaining and analysing what fascism is and where it comes from, but this isn't to know it. It is something that assaults the senses. The mixture of tawdry stupidity, sadism, utterly humourless self-importance and an attitude that despises the intellect and revels in kitsch, is the same wherever it is to be found. All the while it insinuates that this or that group of people are inferior and, despite their sub-humanity, are surely dangerous and must be eradicated. The highest virtue is cruelty and the deepest pleasure is the creation of misery. It stinks and by that you will always know it.

George Szirtes has been posting information on recent events both on his blog and on Facebook. Here are a few links to read, all of which came from him:

The excellent site Hungarian Watch; reports on European action here and here; student protests; an interesting independent blog; three more posts by George.

And finally here, the poet Orbán in translation by George. The concluding lines:
the spirit’s armour is new, but it’s the same old method
as is the outcome
corpses everywhere, orange peel, dogshit, pages of burned books.
Don't turn your back or avert your eyes, you will still smell it.

Thursday, January 12, 2012


I liked this piece on the Euro debt crisis by Aditya Chakrabortty, not least because he argues that the human consequences of austerity "are not merely coincidental to those discussions about how to tackle the debt; they are integral to it."  Whilst it is easy to read all sorts of guff about the 'moral risk' of debt forgiveness, there is far less, other than in the pages of literature where it has been a common theme for centuries, about the immoral consequences of the extraction of repayment from those who no longer have the means to pay.

Chakrabortty has been reading David Graeber's new book and it shows.
Strip away the technicalities and you are left with two ways to think about the debt crisis. One is as a battle between the past and the future ...  the second way to think about any argument over debt [is] as a fight between creditors and borrowers, or the haves and the have-nots. 
He argues that the current austerity programme sacrifices the future of the individual citizens of debtor countries, who bear little responsibility for the crisis, in a vain attempt to repay debts acquired in the past through the actions of previous governments; whilst the creditors use their power to extract as much as possible from the borrowers to avoid facing the consequences of their own poor investment decisions. It is almost as if we have reinvented the old debtors' prisons, on an international scale. The borrowers are punished by endless austerity, whilst the creditors are protected, even rewarded, whatever responsibility they share for the creation of the crisis.

The 1869 Bankruptcy Act abolished imprisonment for debt in Britain and, in effect, allowed for an orderly debt default and debt forgiveness. This is a lesson seemingly lost to the EU as it seeks to bind the recalcitrant nations with perpetual fiscal restraints.

Chakraborrty concludes:
In his recent, brilliant history Debt: the First 5,000 Years, the anthropologist David Graeber calls for a modern-day debt jubilee, a cancellation of all debts, just as they had in Mesopotamia. His suggestion is provocative, but it should be taken seriously. Because the longer we keep protecting the haves over the have-nots and honouring the past while destroying the future, the worse this debt crisis will get.

Greece's new place in Europe

Monday, January 09, 2012


"Mario, you have allowed the Italian budget deficit to rise above 3% of gross domestic product." "Yes, mistress Angela, I deserve to be punished for my lack of fiscal discipline. Please do not spare me."

Larry Elliott on form:
Perhaps a Freud or a Jung could explain what is happening: it certainly defies rational economic analysis.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Another season

And another ground. Swinton's peripatetic existence continues with them now playing at Leigh Sports Village, one of the clutch of modern, multi-use stadia that are springing up to replace the crumbling terraces of grounds that may bring a tear to the eye of nostalgics, but were bloody awful if you needed a pee or to get a decent view of the game. This will be the sixth ground they have played at since the demise of Station Road. Hopefully, there will be just one more move; to the planned new ground of their own in Agecroft.

Today's game was a pre-season friendly against Widnes, newly elevated to Super League. It was the expected defeat to a full-strength higher division team, but really impressive defence was only partly off-set by a rusty attack. The season looks promising. We just need that ground.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Sundry thoughts on return

Delight and the mundane

Here I am back in Manchester, culturally and linguistically at home, but thinking of another place where I am a cultural and linguistic outsider and feel happy.


Of course, Greece is not a happy country right now. People are obsessing about the crisis, stressed and anxious, reacting with a mixture of anger, resignation and hysteria to their sudden impoverishment as the result of an imposed, ideologically driven, political economy. Passing a piece of graffiti on the way back and reading the words, "resist the new Fourth Reich", I couldn't help feeling that the policies of the EU could hardly be better designed to undermine any sense of European identity in a nation that had embraced it so whole-heartedly.


The death of Kim Jong-il gave us a glimpse of something far worse; militarised expressions of ludicrous grief, driven by fear, expressed with a disciplined precision, orchestrated under brooding snow-laden skies that seemed symbolic of this dystopian repression. Greece's undisciplined vibrancy, even in today's economic troubles, is a wonderful reminder of the importance of freedom, especially if it can be found in a benign climate.


As I boarded my connection in Frankfurt a lively group of South Korean students, returning to universities in the UK after the break, were laughing and joking, constantly checking their mobiles and listening to their iPods. Watching them, I couldn't help thinking, 'what sort of life would they be leading now if the North had won the Korean War, if there had not been an American-led UN intervention and if the country had been reunited under Kim Il-sung'?

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Open education

There is a decent piece from Peter Scott here about higher education policy that gets to the nub of the problem with the reforms to university funding.
The interesting thing about policy is not the measures themselves, but the assumptions underlying them. Applying that test, the government's higher education reforms are anything but. They are rooted in a view of a university education common no doubt in prosperous London-land, but profoundly reactionary – as a bourgeois lifestyle choice rather than career-changing improvement, as validation rather than aspiration.
Scott's critique, though, is not a very radical one either. His argument for state funding through general taxation, rather than the hypothecated graduate tax, which the loan and repayment scheme really is, is based on the utility of higher education as an instrument of national prosperity. In making this case, he is also engaging with a limited, and somewhat conservative, model of higher education.

The one strength in the Government's case for the new fees regime for universities is that there is an inequity in asking those who never benefit as individuals to pay, through general taxation, for a middle class perk that would, in turn, give real individual rewards to those who get qualifications. A similar argument has been used about state funding for the arts. Why should the private pleasures of the elite receive public funding? The counter argument usually made centres on the collateral benefits of elite activities, both in culture and economics. For instance, the defence of a publicly funded higher education is that there is a collective economic gain in having an educated workforce. There is obviously some truth in this, but try asking an unemployed person whether they benefit from the fact that the clerk processing their claim has a 2.2 in sociology. I find more than a hint of sophistry here; what exists is of value simply because it exists.

In both cases, the wrong question is being asked. Instead we should be asking why these are elite pursuits in the first place, rather than being open and accessible to everyone. And this leads me to a tediously familiar subject, adult education. Adult education in universities was one way in which the university could be something other than a middle class diploma factory and instead become a resource for the entire community. It was different and, in lots of ways, pointed to another possibility, universities open to all; comprehensive rather than selective institutions. High level research and top class professional training could easily co-exist with an open campus, short courses, community outreach and part-time delivery. And the same applies to the arts. If there was one thing running through the rather earnest mission of the adult education movement from its earliest days, it was the notion that excellence was available to all, that high art could be popular art. The assumption behind current policy is that neither are capable of change from being a permanent elite ghetto.

This is what a genuinely radical reform could look like, moving lifelong learning from the margins to the centre of the university mission, not bringing in another formula based on a complacent acceptance of the status quo, with bureaucratised plans for wider access floating around at the margins. It would mean profound institutional change and, if the university was an open door instead of a gated community, its pleas about funding would have far greater purchase.

Instead, we are witnessing adult education's lingering death and with it goes hopes for something more inspiring for our universities.

Monday, January 02, 2012


A New Year

And at last the sun shone after a grey, wet holiday period. The views from the Lafkos road were slightly hazy and snow could be seen on the mountains in the distance. Clear skies means frosty nights, though the sun is warm even if the air is cool. A sunny 2012 in the offing? Wait and see, but all the best to my select band of readers.