Monday, October 31, 2011

The ostrich dies for nothing

In 1806 Pfhul had been one of those responsible for the plan of campaign that culminated in Jena and Austerstadt; but in the outcome of that war he did not see the slightest evidence of the fallibility of his theory. On, the contrary, to his mind the disaster was entirely due to the deviations that were made from his theory ... Pfhul was one of those theoreticians who are so fond of their theory that they lose sight of the object of that theory - its application in practice. His passion for theory made him hate all practical considerations, and he would not hear of them. He even rejoiced in failure, for failures resulting from departures in practice from abstract theory only proved to him the accuracy of his theory.
Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace.
And so to the Eurozone. Will Hutton writes:
... last Wednesday was a watershed moment – when the euro's future looked more certain and the Europeans began to reshape their continent, in particular the financial and political architecture in which their economies will function. They are leaving the 19th-century nation state behind and creating something new. It is a political construct that operates as a self-help club so that each member is stronger and has more freedom of action than it would outside, but for which membership is going to require tough and well-policed terms.
Tough and well-policed eh? I rather think that Hutton's enthusiasm gets the better of him, mistaking centralisation of power for federal integration. The view from much of Greece is of an economic dictat that will impose endless austerity. Maybe this is overstated and the debt write down certainly gives some breathing space. But what this deal does not seem to do is to reform the structural problems of monetary union and redistribute trade imbalances (as Yanis Varoufakis argues here). Instead it still suggests that the cause of the crisis lies in the moral failures of the peripheral states, requiring the constant supervision of the enlightened technocrats at the centre, whatever their previous record.

Even that would be acceptable if it were not for one thing. The theory - austerity and orthodoxy. Faced with the incontrovertible evidence of failure, they are insisting on implementing their plan with a renewed intensity, even as the social fabric of the indebted nations tears apart. A sustained recovery in Europe requires more than wishful thinking that this time the plan must surely work, especially if properly enforced. The elite economic consensus is running on to the rocks of reality. Will they change course?

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Mystic Plump

I feel that I can now go public with the amazing prediction given to me by my spirit guide who has been chatting to the late Eddie Waring. England will not win the Four Nations Rugby League competition. I hope I am wrong, but ...

The first round of matches was this weekend and I was at both. Australia comfortably beat New Zealand in a frighteningly tough match at Warrington on Friday. The game was not much of a spectacle. Australia's tactics were dour, grinding out their win without ever displaying the skills that they have in abundance. The most depressing aspect was the use of the latest fad down under, wrestling your opponent in the tackle and on the ground to slow the play-the-ball. This is, obviously, against both the laws and the spirit of the game and negates the speed and skill of backs, rewarding power and strength instead. Disappointingly, it was tolerated throughout by the English referee who let the game slow down to a brutal crawl. Even so, Australia looked awesomely strong and will only get better.

On Saturday, England played the far weaker Welsh side and won comfortably without convincing. The latest move to try and beat the Australians by picking Australians for the English side doesn't seem to have made much difference, even with addition of a scrum half who had previously played internationally for the New Zealand Maoris, but has now convinced the International Board that he is a West Yorkshire Maori. The big test will be Wembley next week, though I won't be going.

The public has supported the games well, both were sell-outs. A full Warrington usually rocks with noise, but it was eerily quiet as the fans were nearly all neutrals. Leigh had their reward for building a smart new stadium, which will also host Swinton's matches next season until our new ground is finally built. They haven't got the traffic management sorted out for big attendances though. I managed to get in to the ground seconds after kick off after taking ninety minutes to travel the ten miles from my home. The Rugby League is hoping for a respectable turn out at Wembley too for a double header and even if England lose they can still make the final by beating New Zealand at Hull. It would be great to get that far, but winning the trophy? If that happens I will eat my ouija board.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Good is better than good

What would you expect if you went to see a play written by someone who died early of pneumonia, probably as a result of his habit of writing naked in a polystyrene lined garden shed? I hoped for something special and that's what I saw on Monday night. It was the Manchester Royal Exchange Theatre's fine production of C P Taylor's Good.

The play is thirty years old now, but is still fresh, entertaining too, even if it is about such uncompromising material as the Holocaust. On the surface, the device of rewriting Faust, with a literature professor as the main protagonist, and then charting his slow entrapment by the Nazis from opportunism to complicity could be banal. But not when it is written as a tragicomedy. Nor when it is also an examination of friendship, neuroses and a unique psychosis where, instead of hearing voices, the professor is haunted by snatches of popular tunes.

Of course that is just a device for telling the story. The real theme is the human complexity of what we call inhumanity. It is about how the good become evil whilst still remaining good, at least in their own minds, sustaining their self-image through sophistries. The central theme of the play is that there is an objective reality, one that is tangible, observable and knowable. Experience is not a fiction or a dream, let alone a discourse. The phenomenon that it explores is that when faced with clear and unambiguous evil, good people set out to deceive themselves.

The process starts with incomprehension; 'It isn't as bad as all that, they don't really mean it, it is only for show'. It is painfully hard for any sane human being to immediately grasp the nature of evil. But then, as reality becomes ever more unavoidable, people hide from the truth and with each twist and turn of the path leading to horror, evasion requires greater sophistication, convoluted argument and dense clouds of verbiage. More chillingly, self-deception can lead to complicity, drawing people in ever more deeply through both self-interest and moral cowardice until that instant when the real cannot be dodged and the truth becomes utterly, unavoidably clear. This is the moment of damnation.

At the heart of the play is a lecture delivered by the professor that is Taylor's statement of purpose, except that it is a negative image, a reversal of all he is writing about. It is a soliloquy on the need to remove 'Jewish humanism' from literature, to break with the idea of the novel as an exploration of individual experience, to replace it with a glorification of the collective – to subjugate a person's life to the margins, to render a person meaningless. Taylor is the 'Jewish humanist' par excellence, his drama explores and explains through the lives of ordinary people caught up in a demonic regime.

And he is so apposite about the sophistries, the apologetics and the evasions – how we drown in the stuff! Elaborately written shit. Elegant exhortations to murder – historical necessity, race survival, the will of god, eliminate this or that group of persons and we will have the perfect world. There is no objective truth, everything is relative. It wasn't my fault, they didn't suffer, there was no alternative, I was only obeying orders. And, above all, - it was all their fault, they brought it on themselves. And some of the most noisome ordure emanates from the phalanxes of tame academics, writing in impenetrable prose posing as profundity, making barbarity seem reasonable. How many graves have been filled by this stuff?

Good is a memorable play, a fine piece of drama, but when I got home there was a final piece of irony. I glanced at the programme where there was an interview with the director ending with a discussion of the play's contemporary relevance. She is quoted as saying,
"Someone once said that GOOD is a play about moral compromise in a political fog, which I think is a reasonably good description of the series of actions following 9/11 that led us to go to war in Iraq. And the fostering of a largely irrational fear targeted at lazily identified ethnic groups in the wake of that event goes to the heart of what the play is about." 
Actually, I think that is a lousy description of the play. It isn't about moral compromise, it is about the abandonment of morality, and the fog is not "political", it is one invented to conceal an only too clear political reality. But it is the rest that struck me. The sentiment is manifest; Muslims are the new Jews. Except they aren't.

The "War on Terror" is not an attack on all Muslims because they are brown-skinned or because of an abstract hatred derived from some seriously weird racist pathology. It isn't an attack on Muslims at all. Instead it is aimed at a particular theocratic political movement that sees mass murder as a religious duty, is violently misogynistic, calls for the execution of homosexuals, has embraced every genocidal anti-Semitic trope that the Nazis adopted (except, for obvious reasons, the myth of the Aryan race) and now denies the Holocaust, despite showing some apparent relish at the though of killing Jews.

I have no doubt she is a good person. I have seen concrete evidence that she is a damn fine theatrical director. It is just that she too has taken the Guardianista route of apologia, averting her eyes to the reality of evil – to the horrors of the decapitations, the stonings, the public hangings and of the suicide bombs – to the hatred and dehumanisation of Jews – just what Taylor was writing about. Yes indeed, the play is more than relevant to today.

Good is brilliant. Go and see it.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

No shit Sherlock

Robert Peston has come up with the least surprising opening paragraph of the year.
The current European Union and International Monetary Fund plan to revive the Greek economy and its finances has failed.
Well I never. Who would have thought it?

As the Financial Times writes that the write down on Greek debt may need to be as high as 60%, Peston quotes from a report by international lenders:
The situation in Greece has taken a turn for the worse, with the economy increasingly adjusting through recession and related wage-price channels, rather than through structural reform-driven increases in productivity.
 Thankfully, Peston provides a translation:
Greece's austerity programme is succeeding in impoverishing Greek people with little in the way of discernible benefits to the Greek private sector and the capacity of Greece to start earning its way in the world.
 Or as Larry Elliott puts it:
The insistence that the remedy for a depression caused by austerity is yet more austerity explains why people are taking to the streets. In Athens, if not in Brussels, Frankfurt or Berlin, they understand that this is the economics of the madhouse.

Friday, October 21, 2011


It is one of my catchphrases. Since my early retirement I keep telling people in a quavering voice, "I'm a pensioner, y' know". Being a pensioner isn't quite the same as sinking back into senility, gazing at a blank TV screen. It can be rather active; somewhat more active and less lucrative if you are a Greek pensioner. There was more disturbing violence in Athens yesterday as the crisis drags on, with Eurozone leaders paralysed through disagreement, whilst the anger on the streets at yet more austerity measures continues and the increasing anxieties about the seriousness of the situation spread throughout governments and financial institutions alike. Martin Wolf makes the most pertinent point in the Financial Times:
What, after all, is the incentive for the Greeks to reform their government and economy if the benefits accrue to creditors indefinitely? Next to none.
Fools who lent money, without asking questions, deserve to share in the pain. They should not expect Greeks to rescue them from their folly, after the fact. 
Meanwhile, Keep Talking Greece agonises over the violence and some irritating comments submitted on her site. Her conclusion:
What do you do if you have no income? You go and demonstrate, you raise your voice against the laws and parliament bills that delete you from the list of living human beings. Or you sit at home and count your cups in the board, deeply depressed. Or you fight with your wife and beat your children. Or if you live in a social state, you sit on your couch and enjoy social benefits. Until the time the doctors declare you’re officially dead. Physically. Then metaphorically, you’ve been  dead for many years, because you never left your couch, raised your voice and fought for your rights.
In the meantime, as a result of my less arduous retirement activity of combining a rather a large amount of part-time teaching at the moment with some research, I stumbled across this wonderful post from Andrew Whitehead about the old political anthem, The Land Song. You should take the time to listen to the unique recording from 1910 embedded on both his site and in the piece he wrote for History Workshop Online.
Hark the sound is spreading from the East and from the West,
Why should we work hard and let the landlords take the best?
Make them pay their taxes on the land just like the rest,
The land was meant for the people.
There is something touching about these old political songs. Is it simply the poignancy of their naivety, the enormous faith they have in the marvels to be worked by their chosen reform? I am not sure, I think that there is more than that. Popular song, and particularly marching tunes, are the accompaniment to action. They are the demotic art form of people shaping their own lives and destinies. The optimism is palpable.

The Land Song became a Liberal Party anthem, but it's provenance is earlier and lies in 19th Century Radical Liberalism, specifically in the Single Tax campaign of Henry George, part of the radical milieu of the time that brought together socialists, liberals, individualists and anarchists amongst others. It was an enormously creative period and I never lose my fascination with the intellectual ferment of the era. (I have posted before on radical liberalism here and here.)

I suppose it is the refrain that reminds me most of Greece today:
Why should we be beggars with the ballot in our hand?
Why indeed? And this points to the fact that the Euro crisis is not just a financial crisis, but one of democracy. One where the vote seems to be powerless against the institutional might of the Troika*. I despair that political leaders seem oblivious to this danger as the indecision persists. And so the demonstrations and strikes continue, not only as a reminder of deep discontents caused by the crisis, but also of an expression of something more, life itself. To be active not passive. To not stand by. To be human.

Here is Paul Berman writing about Occupy Wall Street:
Yes, yes, at Occupy Wall Street the madmen, the madwomen, the Groaners and the neo-Muggletonians will eventually have their day, and the movement will be ruined ... So the movement will stumble and fall, and a lot of young people will feel a little embittered and distraught.
Yet he continues:
That day will come. But not yet! Meanwhile there are realities to proclaim and feelings to vent. Occupy Wall Street and its sleeping-bag neo-hippies and its costumed street thespians and the touchingly hand-written placards and generally the display of eccentricity and impudence have focused America’s attention for a fleeting moment on economic wrongs and inequalities. How wonderful!
Wonderful indeed. And the thread that joins the Georgists to Greece is one of optimism, the assertion of popular pride and the profound hope that something better will emerge from the ruins of today.
The army now is marching on, the battle to begin,
The standard now is raised on high to face the battle din,
We’ll never cease from fighting ‘til victory we win,
And the land is free for the people.
*The European Commission (EC), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the European Central Bank (ECB)
Hat tip to Dan for the Whitehead link.


Once of Steve Job's worst ideas.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011


When I worked in adult education in Manchester, over twenty years ago now, we had a number of students with mental health problems. Occasionally they were difficult people, but mostly they were delightful. One, who became a member of our pub quiz team, used to write letters to politicians and anyone in authority, all of which could be tactfully described as odd. I learnt to judge a politician by the replies that were sent. Most were of the standard 'thank you now go away' variety. Yet there were many more that were kind, supportive and simply nice. Only once did a single prominent politician take a letter seriously and sent a reply that was almost indistinguishable from the original.

I often think of that and of the time taken out of a busy life to simply be kind. It is a corrective to our overly cynical view of politicians. What they could never know is how much it meant to my student to be treated with respect and dignified with a proper reply. He was always proud and delighted. Whatever political differences I may have with them, I will always think back to those letters and recognise the decency that remains.

This was brought to mind by this lovely story, now all over the internet, about Christopher Hitchens, an eight-year-old aspiring freethinker and her request for recommended reading. It is more commonplace to be nice to a child, especially such a precociously intelligent one, than to an adult with mental health issues, but how much easier it would be for a celebrity to be either patronising or dismissive. Now, assailed by Christians because of her new found celebrity, she has found her own voice:
I've read the Bible and frankly it's ALL scary!!! You have to learn that sometimes kids need to boost their intellectual capability and look beyond God! 
In all, I take heart that the cause of freethought is alive and well in Texas and I have learnt something else, that one of the authors I admire can be added to my roll call of politicians as someone prepared to take the time to be kind. It is a special type of decency.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Simply grand

Manchester has an unjust (well, partially anyway) reputation for rain. Yesterday it lived up to its stereotype as a solid, persistent drizzle seeped down from dismal skies. The worst weather for running rugby and on the day of Rugby League's Grand Final at Old Trafford as well. Still, I was there with 69,000 others in a noisy crowd of families and drunks (and occasionally drunk families) for the annual occasion that decides the Super League champions.

It looked like it would be a close game, the top two teams had been knocked out at the semi-final stage, so third played fifth. And it was fifth placed Leeds who won it by playing exciting rugby in wet conditions, blitzing the more conservative St Helens in the last ten minutes of a high quality encounter.

I had mixed feelings about the result, a win for Leeds is never popular in these parts. Also, this was St Helens' fifth consecutive Grand Final defeat, a painful record for some fine players and for the fans an ordeal of dashed hopes. However, there were big pluses. The match was won by scintillating attack as well as awesome defence, something that used to be a Saints trademark. Most of all, it was won by a British coach. Australian coaches have raised the standard of the game over the years, but now there is a tendency not even to look at good British coaches and instead to farm out jobs to untried Australian assistant coaches on the grounds of their nationality alone. Occasionally the decision comes up trumps with the likes of Tony Smith or Ian Millward, but often it produces an identikit unimaginative approach of power and defence at the expense of the flair that was typical of the British game. So for the game to be decided by two moments of sublime skill and speed by a 5' 5" British scrum half, Rob Burrow, made the day for me. All the tries are here - enjoy.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

What a mess

Larry Elliot finds the only possible explanation for the Euro crisis in Lewis Carroll.
The climax of Alice in Wonderland is the courtroom scene in which the issue is "Who stole the tarts?" In the case of the eurozone, the easy answer is that it is Greece, which failed to play by the rules, borrowing too much and cooking the books so that the rest of the members of the single currency club were ignorant of the dire state of the Hellenic public finances. In fact, the real culprit is Germany, which has failed to appreciate that for monetary union to work, the big creditor nations have a responsibility to help the debtor nations by expanding domestic demand. The German political class appears to believe both that every country in the euro area can be as competitive as Germany and that Germany, in those circumstances, will continue to run a massive trade surplus. That's a logical absurdity the Reverend Dodgson would certainly have appreciated.
In the meantime, faced with the need for action, finance ministers have, once again, decided to dither.

What of the people caught up in this? Well, never underestimate their resourcefulness or their sense of justice. But for every positive action there are also the consequences of despair. Then again, where does the welfare of people fit into the world view of the technocrats trying to fix the economy of Wonderland?

More through the looking glass here.