Monday, January 31, 2011

Random thoughts

Comparisons have been made between the protests in the Arab world and the collapse of communism in 1989. I don't think it is an exact parallel, but in one sense they do have things in common. In 1989 the relaxation of its grip by a hegemonic power, itself in its own death throes, allowed the contradictions inherent in Stalinism to destroy the whole rotting edifice. It strikes me that, similarly, we are now witnessing the end of the post-colonial state.

There is a central contradiction in the notion of post-colonialism, the idea that national liberation is nothing more than a process of replacing foreign oppressors with new tyrants drawn from your own people. Some liberation that is.

Allied to this was the idea that development could be achieved through a centralised authoritarian state that restricted the liberties of its citizens, suppressed human rights, engaged in all the classic brutalities of the police state, but promised the benefits of modernisation in return. Instead, over time, the model presented a beautiful opportunity for the new elites to loot their own countries, whilst playing games with geo-political power politics to secure external backing.

In the wake of the debt crisis of the 1980's, predominantly caused by the actions of the old corrupt elites, countries experienced changes of government and were exhorted to 'liberalise' their economies. Neo-liberal orthodoxy was brought to bear through a process know as structural adjustment. It was assumed that this would usher in a new era for these nations, an opportunity to join in the global market, to become free and prosperous. This was always wishful thinking. In many cases exploitation intensified, political transgressions were brushed under the carpet and the tendency towards increased polarisation in unregulated corporate capitalism proved to be a godsend to new plutocratic elites who revelled in the opportunity to build free-market kleptocracies.

The current protests appear to be predominantly a challenge to oppressive political structures, but the demonstrators are also talking about inequality, youth unemployment, grinding poverty and declining wages at a time of rising food prices. So we are not only seeing the contradictions in post-colonialism at work, but also those inherent in neo-liberal political economy. This more than a crisis of governance and the establishment of democracy has to be a precursor to deeper social and economic change.

An economic shadow hangs over the whole process. Unless we can build new models of political economy the revolutions may fail and open up the path for other movements. In the short term though I am optimistic. The destruction of these nasty tyrannies is welcome and the political systems that replace them may well be democratic, robust and open up opportunities for economic change. As the post-colonial state crumbles the new economic orthodoxy could begin to go with it. And if we are witnessing a global phenomenon rather than merely a regional one, the crucial question is about which country is next. Do you think that in a few years those hagiographic editorials about China might need revisiting?

Friday, January 28, 2011

It's Friday, let's er ...

Proponents of localism in Britain need to take note, in Malawi the controversial Local Courts Bill will make farting in public a criminal offence.

Once again it is time to celebrate liberal values and universal human rights in opposition to petty tyranny. As in 1789 the French were in the vanguard.

Chapeau tip Kev

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Guardian

Comment is Free

Betrayal by the West
These stooge saboteurs have acted as tools of western imperialism

Adolph Hitler
The Guardian, 21 July 1944

Now thanks to the Guardian we know the truth. The latest leaks show that the illegal war launched by the war criminal Neville Chamberlain did not simply aim at the defence of Poland but at regime change, here in Germany!

As if that were not enough it has now emerged that the assassination plot that mercifully failed yesterday took place after covert contacts with sinister forces in the Western alliance. As early as 1938 secret talks took place between the German military elite and the arch-imperialist, oppressor of India the so-called Lord Halifax about the overthrow of the legitimately elected(ish) Government of the Democratic Third Reich.

After all, who elected Stauffenberg? Who did he and his fellow plotters represent? The only mandate given them was the one emanating from the US-led world order that has always conspired against our people and sided with our oppressors.

You couldn't make it up if you tried. Pass the piano wire Alice.


A Cademic
University of Penge

Indeed, Aldoph nails these warmongers. Here's to your brave resistance against the imperialists.

B Onkers

Objectively it is clear that genocide is a perfectly reasonable response to the problems of the German State. After all, who would not want to systematically murder six million people if their country had been forced to sign the Treaty of Versailles twenty years previously?


Overstated? Not by that much.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Dr Dolittle

As far as British politics is concerned the Observer's Diary of a Civil Servant series is one of the most illuminating columns around. A few weeks ago it highlighted concern about David Cameron's "hands-off approach":
When the prime minister taunted Ed Miliband at PMQs about when he would start doing his job, an awkward question was whispered across Westminster. What exactly does the prime minister do?
Despite being amused by the accusation, Cameron's indolence doesn't bother me. It's his politics that I worry about. This week's column took the opposite tack:
Governments are like sharks. They need to keep moving or they die. For many decades governments have formed a consensus view that strenuous activity, and the appearance of strenuous activity, is the best way to show that you are working hard governing the country. The civil service must balance the farcical tension between real work and the appearance of work.
This sounds familiar. One of my complaints about some managers in the various places that I have worked in the past is not that they were lazy, it is that they worked phenomenally hard - doing the wrong thing. I suppose it's one way they can justify their escalating salaries; ferocious activity when we all wish that they hadn't bothered.

The best managers let you get on with what you have to do and intervene or offer support when something goes wrong or when you need it. The worst constantly re-organise, invent new systems or keep adding extra bureaucratic tasks that continuously pile up, making your job more arduous than it ever should be. And when we have governments vigorously doing the wrong thing in the shortest possible time, without space for reflection, simply to prove that they are active, we get the worst of all worlds.

I once worked with someone whose pet saying was that if you want something done well you need to ask a lazy person. He reckoned they will always find the quickest and easiest route so that their leisure isn't interrupted for too long. Workaholics create useless toil, for themselves as well as others. It is pathological behaviour, though in our macho managerial world it is seen as virtuous. I could go on, but now I fancy a little nap.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

A herald of spring

Standing on the terraces at the Salford v Swinton friendly on a freezing Friday night, I heard the first shout this year of "gerr'm onside ref!" Yes, the Rugby League season is about to begin.

Swinton will be playing at the Willows this year, sharing with the old enemy for just one season. Then everyone is hoping that they will be back in a new ground in the Borough of Swinton and Pendlebury. If that does not happen the future of a grand old club must be in doubt after twenty years of peripatetic exile since selling Station Road for housing.

For some more pictures of Swinton and the old ground in better days see here.

It was a credible performance from the team against Super League opposition and maybe this is the starting point for a renaissance. But in the meantime could there be a better way of spending a bitterly cold evening ... er ... yes, I suppose there could be a few ... rather a lot in fact. Never mind. I enjoyed it.

In agreement

From here:
If readers enjoy attacks on liberal hypocrisy, then they should not enjoy them too much. The worst that I can say about the prevailing liberal view that Israel is a perfect source of evil is that it mirrors the settled view of the friends of Israel who see it as a perfect victim and blot out all thought for the Palestinian in the process. It should be possible to combine the ideas that Israel has a right to exist, that the Palestinian demand for a state is a just one and that the liberal enemies of religious and secular tyranny in the Arab world need our help.
Spot on.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Thanks for the memories

There is an interesting article in the New York Review of Books by Gordon S Wood discussing a study of the flimsy grasp of American history exhibited by the Tea Party movement. What drew me to the article was his general theme that there is always "a tension between critical history and popular memory, between what historians write and what society chooses to remember". He calls for us to value the emotional resonances of memory in addition to the academic study of history. It was that notion that got me thinking of the politicisation of memory and, in particular, its role in the recent history of the Labour Party.

Some years ago a friend who worked in a charity shop gave me an old copy of a long out of print history of the Labour Party by Francis Williams, Fifty Years March, first published in 1950. It had obviously been the proud possession of a party member as it had a picture of Harold Wilson, snipped out from a newspaper, sellotaped to the fly leaf. A few years later, in a second-hand bookshop in North Yorkshire, I came across another of his books, this time on trade union history, Magnificent Journey. The names say it all. This is not academic history. The books are proud celebrations of the inevitability of the glorious rise of working class political movements to their rightful prominence. They are an embodiment of the sentiment satirised within the Labour Party by the mocking acronym THIGMOO - this great movement of ours. They are the triumph of memory over history, but as Wood points out, this is not necessarily a bad thing.

Such popular sentiment, at least within the party, became contested by the rise of New Labour. The very idea of novelty implies a rejection of the past in favour of a new modernity. Torn between two competing descriptions of Labour's historical image, they eventually abandoned the idea of Labour as a successful party that needed modernising in favour of the acceptance of the Jenkins thesis, that the division of the left caused by the formation of the Labour Party was a disaster, opening the way for the dominance of the Conservatives. Much was made of the description of the twentieth century as the conservative century.

Thus the Labour Party's very existence was cast in the role of an historic mistake, a rather curious position to be taken by its leadership. The Attlee government could be mythologised to an extent, it was long enough ago not to trouble too many memories, but the rest was seen as a long sequence of failure. Hence, New Labour had arrived to change all that, to be distinct, modern, youthful, successful and, above all, aspirational. The past belonged to 'dinosaurs' who wouldn't change, who could not see how out of touch they were. After the long exclusion from power as a consequence of the split in 1981 (a time when Jenkins was clearly less attached to his thesis) this could seem to make sense. However, it did not answer the question about how this basket case came to be the only credible alternative government to the Tories and was actually ahead in the polls when the New Labour ascendancy began.

New Labour's selling point was that they offered the prospect of electoral victory. They proudly trumpeted the fact that no Labour government had ever won two successive full terms, implying that even when they won power they were swiftly rejected by an electorate that did not like what they saw. Now, due solely to the modernisers, this was going to change; they alone held the secret of success.* And it is here that the academic historian in me begins to bristle.

The weasel word in that claim is "full". This is a slippery concept in a system without fixed term Parliaments. As governments can call elections at any time within a maximum five-year period it is rare for them to serve a full term. But even taking the claim at face value it scarcely holds water. In 1966 Labour actually won a large majority after having been in power since 1964. Ah. Proponents of the thesis of electoral failure would point out that the first period wouldn't count as a full term, though I think that increasing your majority from 4 to 98 by calling an early election might suggest that they were not that unpopular. Then they also gloss over the fact that the 1945 Labour government was actually re-elected in 1950, though with a small majority. Attlee had no need to call an early general election in 1951 and could have served a full term. And even then the reason Labour lost decisively was solely down to the electoral system. Labour polled the biggest share of the vote they have ever had and lost to a Conservative Party that gained more seats with fewer votes and who subsequently went on to harvest the credit for the long post-war boom.

If the electoral results don't fit the thesis of failure, what about the idea of a conservative century. Well, it is true that the Conservative Party governed alone for more than half the 20th Century, but a conservative century? Compare life in 1900 with life in 1999 and what you see is a century of radical reform and of social liberation. Tories both accepted and built on the reforms of the 1906 Liberals and, crucially, the foundations laid by the 1945 Labour Government. There was no challenge to the consensus until the Thatcher years and, taking the century as a whole, the 80's look to be an aberration rather than the norm, despite being so firmly fixed in our political imagination. It would be historically more accurate to describe the century as predominantly social democratic rather than conservative.

Labour played a key role in establishing a social democratic political economy both in the war-time coalition and in sole power between 1945-51. However, the 1964-70 and 1974-79 Labour administrations, especially with Roy Jenkins (he gets around a bit) as Home Secretary, were to augment this by overseeing the liberal reforms that started to unravel authoritarian state moralising - the legalisation of homosexuality, legal abortion, ending the death penalty, relaxing divorce laws etc., as well as expanding educational opportunities through new universities, including the Open University, and stimulating a growth in adult education.

Labour could therefore be seen as the party that represented a combination of a social democratic political economy, the expansion of the social state and a commitment to civil liberties, to egalitarianism, tolerance and diversity - marking a partial withdrawal of the state from regulating and punishing what it saw as aberrant human behaviour. I suppose that this legacy might prove to be a bit bothersome to a grouping that wanted the Labour Party to embrace neo-liberal economics and some aspects of social authoritarianism.

Neither the model of a heroic champion nor that of a mistaken failure stand up to serious historical examination. Yet what matters is not what historians say, but the popular memory. And the idea of Labour as a failure, so eagerly promulgated by sections of the party itself, has staying power. It is now being milked to the full by Coalition politicians who repeat the mantra about 'the mess Labour left behind' at every opportunity.

And this points to a big problem. What happens when the faction that claims to know how to be electorally successful actually fails? There are two lines the party can take. The first is to argue, as Blair does, that Labour lost because it ceased being New Labour and so it must renew the faith to win again. The second repudiates New Labour in favour of something different. This is what the current leadership seems to be trying hesitantly to do. I would argue that in order to do so they need to revisit the idea of popular memory and start the task of rehabilitating the Labour Party's past, seeing the party as the historic vehicle for a politics that combines collective economic action with the advancement of individual social liberties. Such a vision offers us the prospect of a party willing to learn from mistakes and change with the times certainly, but also sees it as a political movement that is seeking to rebuild and renew the triumphs of the past, rather than one trying to repudiate self-confessed, semi-fictitious failures. It won't be easy.

*They did. It was called the Conservative Party, which at the time showed an insatiable appetite for self-destruction.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Plus ça change ...

On the 7th of November, Brandreth, Turner, and Ludlam ascended the scaffold. We feel for Brandreth the less, because it seems he killed a man. But recollect who instigated him to the proceedings which led to murder. On the word of a dying man, Brandreth tells us, that "OLIVER brought him to this"—that, "but for OLIVER, he would not have been there." See, too, Ludlam and Turner, with their sons and brothers, and sisters, how they kneel together in a dreadful agony of prayer. Hell is before their eyes, and they shudder and feel sick with fear, lest some unrepented or some wilful sin should seal their doom in everlasting fire. With that dreadful penalty before their eyes—with that tremendous sanction for the truth of all he spoke, Turner exclaimed loudly and distinctly, while the executioner was putting the rope round his neck, "THIS IS ALL OLIVER AND THE GOVERNMENT."
This extract is from one of the most devastating pieces of 19th Century polemical writing, Shelley's 'An Address to the People on The Death of the Princess Charlotte' (1817), contrasting the public hysteria surrounding the death of the Princess with the execution of the Pentrich Rebels.

Oliver was a government spy and agent provocateur who lured the people of Pentrich, Derbyshire and a smaller group in Holmfirth, Yorkshire into staging a futile and hopeless rising. Oliver's involvement led to the acquittal of those from Holmfirth, but the punishment of the Pentrich Rebels, convicted of High Treason, was savage.

And now, in gentler times, the same tactic of infiltration and provocation has been seen again, though in truth it, and the mindset that produces it, had never gone away.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Healthy pleasures

One of the most solemn moments in the evolution of the principle of authority was at the promulgation of the Decalogue. The voice of the angel commands the people, prostrate at the foot of Sinai:

Thou shalt adore the Eternal it said, and nothing but the Eternal;
Thou shalt swear by him only;
Thou shalt observe his feasts, and thou shalt pay his tithes;
Thou shalt honour thy father and mother;
Thou shalt not kill;
Thou shalt not steal;
Thou shalt not commit fornication;
Thou shalt not commit forgery;
Thou shalt not covet nor calumniate;
For the Eternal commands thus, and it is the Eternal who has made thee what thou art. Only the Eternal is sovereign, wise and worthy. The Eternal punishes and rewards; the Eternal can make thee happy or unhappy.

All legislators have adopted this style: all, in speaking to man, use the words of a sovereign. Hebrew commands in the future tense, Latin in the imperative, Greek in the infinitive. The moderns do the same thing. The tribunal of M Dupin is as infallible and terrible as that of Moses. Whatever may be the law, from whatever lips it maybe proclaimed, it is sacred; even when pronounced by that fateful trumpet, which with us is the voice of the majority.

Thou shalt not assemble,
Thou shalt not print,
Thou shalt not read,
Thou shalt respect thy representatives and functionaries whom the fortune of the ballot or the good pleasure of the State has given thee,
Thou shalt obey the laws which their wisdom has given thee,
Thou shalt pay thy taxes faithfully,

And thou shalt love the Government, thy lord and thy god, with all thy heart, with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, because the Government knows better than thou what thou art, what thou art worth, and what is good for thee; and it has the power to chastise those who disobey its commandments, as well as to recompense to the fourth generation those who are agreeable to it.

When Pierre-Joseph Proudhon wrote this in his 'General Idea of the Revolution in the Nineteenth Century' in 1851 he had yet to encounter the health lobby. The problem for the workers of his day was eating at all. Now, with the abundance available to affluent people in the developed world, the old formula needs reviving.

Thou shalt not eat fatty foods,
Thou shalt not drink (apart from a single glass of red wine - an antioxidant you know darlings),
Thou shalt cut down on salt,
Thou shalt not smoke (anywhere),
Thou shalt drink hot water and overpriced herbal infusions rather than pollute your body with caffeine,
Thou shalt count calories and units,
Thou shalt worry about your cholesterol levels constantly,
And thou shalt love bran, muesli, and other tasteless crud with all thy heart and all thy soul for they maketh the bowels perform with satisfying regularity and yea even frequency.

And those who disobey these commandments shall be visited with plagues of obesity, epidemics of diabetes and the vengeance of high blood pressure. And lo! the NHS will be bankrupt and it will all be your fault.

And so I was pleased to read this piece that asks us to, "Imagine a world in which public policy declared that pleasure is the principal means to health". What a nice thought. The author, Richard Klein, is inviting us to rediscover Epicurus and assert a new Epicurean philosophy.

I particularly liked this:
For many people, a life without the oil of drink becomes too much to bear. A little wine eases the vague and subcutaneous unease that stress puts on our muscles; a martini induces a moment of forgetfulness when the anxieties and fears of the day recede. In pursuit of happiness, Americans are insistently encouraged to consume vast quantities of anti-anxiety drugs and antidepressants, but booze is never publicly celebrated. Rarely do we hear about the charms and benefits of alcohol, or the sociability it has promoted from the dawn of time, or the pleasure and consolation it has infused into the lives of billions over the course of human history.
I will drink to that.

In part this is a reflection of long standing struggle between the moralists and the hedonists. A peculiar feature of our social history is the spreading throughout the nineteenth century of notions of respectability to growing sections of what had been a boisterous working class. Much of this was imbibed by a section of the left who posited future utopias that would lead to the remaking of people as earnest, thoughtful, sober ascetics. I like to celebrate the eclectic bunch of libertarian leftists, radical liberals and others who saw this as social control by a stifling middle class rather than social improvement.

None of this is to deny that there are very real issues of both private and public health; alcoholism is no joke neither are the effects of carcinogens such as tobacco, all is not a fabrication by the moral puritans. Yet this is recognised by an Epicurean approach that is about understanding the body and its pleasures, thereby limiting self-harm and exercising restraint. But there is something hidden by this obsessive concern with diet, which Klein does not address, the great global public health issue of our times is not fibre but poverty. Poverty kills, poverty stunts physical and intellectual development, poverty is the real health crisis. And so an emphasis on pleasure as a principle of health must mean pleasure for all, not the conspicuous consumption of the good things in life by a few.

In the British context it is often said that the Labour Party owed more to Methodism than Marx. In this sense, at least, this is a pity. As Klein points out, Marx wrote his doctoral thesis on Epicurus.

Friday, January 07, 2011

The people's breakfast

A Labour MP reveals her breakfast of choice.
I'm pretty routine about breakfast. I get up at about 6.30 and have hot water to which I add fresh ginger and a slice of lemon – very good for the immune system. Then I go down to the gym. I usually eat at 7.45am. I have porridge – I'll ring the changes – maple syrup, nuts.
Not a bacon butty after a skinful down the working men's club then?

Bet I live longer than her.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Top of the pops

Bob from Brockley has tagged me and it would be churlish not to respond, especially as I can't think of anything else to write about on a wet afternoon the day before I return to the UK. So here are my top ten books from 2010.

I was lucky to read two great, and I mean great, novels last year. Both are translations and have been rendered into beautifully poetic English by their respective translators. These are the first two of my choices.

1. Hans Fallada's Alone in Berlin is wonderful. I commented on it here and George Szirtes gave it a fine review here.

2. Vasily Grossman's Everything Flows is astonishing. It tackles the same theme as Fallada, the persistence of humanity in the face of unimaginable cruelty. It also deals with complicity in tyranny and is strangely redemptive. Here the similarities end. The book was unfinished at Grossman's death and, as a novel, it is incomplete with a limited narrative and undeveloped characters. As a result each chapter stands less as part of a narrative but as an intense prose poem. The book begins as a scream of rage and anguish at the brutalities of the Stalin era and then falls into a meditation on Russian history, Bolshevism, guilt and innocence, and a continuing faith in human freedom.
...there is no higher happiness than to leave the camp, even blind and legless, to creep out of the camp on one's stomach and die - even only ten yards from that accursed barbed wire.
And this is his theme; "There is no end in the world for the sake of which it is permissible to sacrifice human freedom". Crushing freedom means destroying humanity itself.

3. As if that historical and political intensity was not enough I was gripped by Nicholas Gage's Eleni, an investigation into the execution of his mother in the Greek Civil War. This dramatic personal history was conceived as an act of catharsis and of justice and it is also a superb piece of social history of village life and death in the mountains of Northern Greece.

4. And the theme continues with Sandy Tolan's The Lemon Tree, an account of a curious Israeli/Palestinian friendship mediated through the family home of both. One family lost the house in the expulsions of 1948, the other gained it after leaving Bulgaria, having narrowly avoided the Holocaust.

Phew! Time for something different.

5. Bluebird by Vesna Maric is light, slight and a delight. It is a memoir of a Bosnian refugee. I liked it because she ended up in Hull. And, as all of us do who find ourselves there, loved the place.

6. Why do so many of these lists not contain poetry? I am lucky that through blogging I got to know George Szirtes. His poetry is personal, complex, and is haunted by the shadows of the Europe of the 20th century. I bought his collection, The Burning of the Books, in 2009, but read it in 2010. Brilliant.

7. The reason why I put off reading the poetry is that it refers to a classic novel that I had not read. I have now. Elias Cannetti's Auto Da Fe is a darkly comic picture of almost autistic non-communication.

8. George is also a translator and through him I discovered the work of Sandor Marai. Esther's Inheritance is a dazzling novella that subverts the genre of the lost lover.

9. Now to more prosaic matters. Andrew Rawnsley's The End of the Party is an entertaining narrative of the final two terms of the New Labour Government. It is court politics, doesn't really engage in important issues of policy or political economy, but it is fun.

10. Finally, what can I say about this? By far the worst written book I have read for many years; verbose and cliché-ridden, full of startlingly inappropriate metaphors, surprising judgements and frequent lapses into purple prose. Tony Blair's A Journey is a book in urgent need of an editor and a ghost writer. But if it had been better written would it have the same gruesome fascination? It can occasionally be disarming and charming, sometimes incisive (such as the chapter on Northern Ireland) and often very strange. An absolute turkey - best consumed at Christmas and it seems to last for ever.

As for tagging others? No, not now but join in if you like.

Monday, January 03, 2011

To everything there is a season

There comes a time in any conflict when the causes that propel people into combat lose their meaning, when ideological certainties become so much hot air, clung to solely by fanatics. The same too happens to oppressive regimes when the constant demands for slavish approval from their citizenry collapse in a spasm of collective disgust. War weariness is too negative a term, it implies resignation, instead there is an overwhelming desire for the dignity of ordinariness, compelling acts of courage against the abnormality of lives lived in servitude or subject to arbitrary violence.

Each moment is an opportunity, a crack opening up in what had seemed to be an irresolvable situation. We saw it in Burma and Iran and now, with this declaration from Gaza (on Facebook of all places) we can get a tiny glimpse of the constituency for peace and a settlement of the Israel/Palestine conflict. It isn't much and may turn out to be of little or no significance, but it is there.

When these moments occur you need imaginative political leadership, rather than politicians who are cautious and complacent in their certainties, or, even worse, harbour a complicity with the fanatics, born out of of fear and a certain sneaking sympathy. And, of course, the recent peace talks failed. Yet again.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Never underestimate ...

...the extent of human ingenuity and determination that can be expended to do something ridiculous.

Hat tip Doc D

Happy New Year

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