Newsnotes 2011 12

Notes On The News

by Gwydion M Williams

The War Against Work

Goldman, Goths and Vandals [Goldman Sachs]

Election Round-Up [Russia, Spain, Croatia]

Catch-22 and the Good War [World War Two]

China: 1911 And All That

Dead dead Winehouse [Amy Winehouse]

Shakespeare: the Play’s the Thing [Dispute Over Authorship]

Steve Jobs and Apple [Death of Steve Jobs]

Cameron as Conservative and Nihilist [Gay Marriage]


The War Against Work

Each round of the economic crisis is used as an excuse to destroy jobs. And it is also used to harass more people into the labour pool. With millions out of work, they make life hard for the disabled and preventing old people from retiring at the standard age.

It’s a matter of putting money rather than people in command. Life is seen as a burden on money. Relieved of such burdens, money would breed with money and make more money for everyone. That was the original Thatcherite promise.

It had a resonance with a large section of the hippy generation as they grew up, got jobs and found they had opportunities. They had all along seen the state mostly as something that interfered with them: they failed to see that it was also the guarantor of their way of life. Growing up in a world where anyone seriously interested in working could get a job, they failed to see this as an essential human right – something included in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 23, though this gets overlooked.

The hippy generation was initially radical but then became ‘coolheart’, cynical about the world and skeptical of the state’s ability to improve it. Inclined also to see Trade Unions just as a nuisance, something they’d never need. So although Thatcher thought she was restoring pre-hippy values, that aspect of her program was never functional. But boosting unemployment and damaging Trade Unions was feasible. It also appealed to a significant minority of the working class, those who still thought they were living in a patriarchal society in which well-behaved workers would be looked after. And also the ‘Only Fools and Horses’ crowd who thought it was a great opportunity to get ahead.

What’s happened since the 1980s is that the economy has shown about the same growth rate as we had before, but the rich get a bigger slice of the pie. They’ve done this even in the last two or three years of crisis – maybe they are expecting it all to go bust soon. [D]

Reducing the power and prestige of the Trade Unions has removed a vital civilising force from the working class. Religion can’t substitute. Religion is not taken seriously by most Britons. It lacked prestige even before the wave of under-age sex scandals made it look truly worthless.

We also now have the virtual certainty of a ‘double-dip recession’ and a long period of stagnation. Labour in government refused to take on the power of Finance, while the Tories have positively cherished it. But if the Eurozone crisis end with a consolidated Eurozone better protected from speculative finance, that might be the beginning of the end.


Goldman, Goths and Vandals [Goldman Sachs]

Goldman Sachs has been around since the 1860s. It had its reputation damaged after the Wall Street Crash of 1929, but slowly built back. It is maybe the most powerful and influential of the crowd of corporate giants that persuaded governments from the 1980s to remove all of the regulations that had been put in place in the 1930s

Most of the regulations were quietly removed over the last three decades. Goldman Sachs played a role, with ‘rotating door’ careers that went from private to public and advised that people like themselves were geniuses who needed no supervision. But also people consented to be fooled. After a massive crisis that began with ‘fancy finance’, they were easily fed the story that government borrowing was the big problem. That it was urgently necessary to cut state spending, in case the bond markets panicked because of low credit ratings.

And who sets these ratings anyway?

Moody’s and the aptly named ‘Standard and Poor’ reach their assessments without the least outside supervision. They wield huge power in being able to downgrade a country’s credit rating as they see fit. Very conveniently for the financiers, this then seems to put that country in a weakened bargaining position. A bad pronouncement from these unelected credit-rating agencies, and you’re for the dustbin.

Credit ratings are based on how much money outside investors can get out of the economy, which is obviously very different from economic welfare as such. That’s the main issue.

Having said that, it does seem an obvious area for manipulation or social pressure. Who actually owns these bodies? Ownership seems dispersed, but one would expect that most shareholders would be part of the financial community. You’d expect them to make sure that their collective interests were looked after.

Note also that all of the bad investments that were revealed as near-worthless in 2007-8 were given high ratings for years before that, and Madoff (who cheated those closest to him) was a substantial figure in the financial world. If they couldn’t spot an obvious crook and couldn’t spot packaged junk before the market actually collapsed, what can they spot.

They can spot a government not doing its best to look after the financiers. That’s when a new crisis gets generated.


Election Round-Up [Russia, Spain, Croatia]

In Russia, there has been a big swing to the left. Putin’s United Russia party lost votes, but still got nearly half the votes and keeps a majority. The big gainers were the Communists and a social-democratic and pro-Putin party called ‘A Just Russia’. The right-wing ‘Liberal Democrats’ also made gains, but smaller gains, and have fallen from 3rd to 4th party.

Russia’s pro-Western liberals [Yabloko] have once again scored derisory figures, failing to get the one-twentieth of the votes that would give them seats. The remaining two parties – the left-nationalist ‘ Patriots of Russia’ and the pro-middle-class ‘Right Cause’ – are even more feeble, below 1%.

You can find these figures on the BBC if you look hard, but they have given emphasis to the protests by pro-Western liberals who’ve long since lost popular support. If anyone was cheated it was the left.

The western media aren’t asking how the West’s ruling class massively screwed up a unique chance to turn Russia from foe into friend. Why they weren’t smart enough to match what the Keynesian generation managed in much tougher circumstances, winning over Japan, Italy and West Germany. The guilty parties wouldn’t care to be accurately described, and mostly the media respect this. Instead they fling dirt at Putin for having dared ignore the West’s continued “good advice”.

Meantime some appalled Western liberals are asking if it is “Arab Spring, Islamic Winter”? It probably is. The Egyptian elections are being won decisively by the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, who are being re-invented as moderates now it is clear they are the people’s choice. A more hard-line version of Islamist look to be the second party in the new parliament. Morocco saw the local Islamists advance and form the new government. Islamic elements are also the most coherent thing in the Libyan mess (no longer given much attention now that Gaddafi has gone).

None of which stops the West from targeting the last-but-one secular Arab nationalist regime. I assume that Syria is targeted because it is friendly to Iran, and a war with Iran is the latest Good Idea among the people who can’t produce an acceptable outcome from their earlier invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. I assume Turkey backs it because Turkey’s current government would be happy to see the religious Sunni element dominate in Syria. Meantime Yemen and Bahrain are not under pressure. Yemen would likely see another Islamist victory, if it comes to elections, as now seems likely.

Algeria will probably be the final expression of secular Arab nationalism. Back in 1991, there was no talk of ‘protecting civilians’ when they crushed their own Islamists after they seemed set to win a general election. Protests this year seem to have fizzled out.

Meantime, the Spanish general election was won by the centre-right. Or more accurately, it was lost by the governing Socialists. Half their lost vote went centrist or centre-right, the rest went left.

In Croatia, the opposition leftist coalition have won, with a hard core that came out of the Yugoslav Communist Party to re-connect with the social-democrat tradition. Sadly, they are acting much like other European social democrats, treating the financial crisis as if it were a natural disaster and accepting austerity as unavoidable.


Catch-22 and the Good War [World War Two]

“Fans of Joseph Heller’s novel Catch-22 may be surprised to learn that the American author actually enjoyed his military service during the second world war – at least according to a letter about to be auctioned in the US.

“The 1961 novel, a powerful satire of military bureaucracy and official doublethink, features on lists of the best works of 20th-century fiction and made its author a millionaire, but the three-page-long typed letter, written in 1974, contrasts his experience with that of Catch-22‘s central character, John Yossarian.

“‘How did I feel about the war when I was in it?’ Heller wrote in the letter to an academic preparing a collection of essays about the book. ‘Much differently than Yossarian felt and much differently than I felt when I wrote the novel … In truth I enjoyed it and so did just about everyone else I served with, in training and even in combat.

“‘I was young, it was adventurous, there was much hoopla and glamour; in addition, and this too is hard to get across to college students today, for me and for most others, going into the army resulted immediately in a vast improvement in my standard of living.’

“Heller says he made $65 or $75 a month while in the US military – more than the $60 he received as a filing clerk – ‘and all food, lodging, clothing and medical expenses paid. There was the prospect of travel and a general feeling of a more exciting and eventful period ahead … more freedom than I enjoyed in the long years afterwards.’

“The author enlisted in the US army air corps in 1942 at 19 and subsequently served, like Yossarian, on the Italian front, flying on 60 combat missions as a B25 bombardier.

“He spent much of the 1950s writing Catch-22, having gained a contract with the publisher Simon & Schuster on the basis of the first chapter. In a letter to James Nagel, then an English professor at Northeastern University in Boston, Heller explained: ‘I knew [the book] would be published. I knew I worked slowly. I took my time and tried to make it the best book I could possibly write on that subject at that time.’

“Two of his letters to Nagel are being auctioned by the Nate D Sanders online auction house over the next fortnight – and are expected to fetch between $2,000 (£1,253) and $3,000. The 1974 letter cites Heller’s inspirations: Céline, Nabokov, Faulkner and – ‘always present in my awareness’ – TS Eliot’s The Waste Land.” [A]

I read Catch-22 and found it to be mildly funny, but not at all believable and shallow in its insights. It fails to ask the question: ‘just how should you run a large war-machine facing highly competent opposition?’ Really, it is hard to see it could have been done much differently, assuming the war was going to be fought (and you’d not find many people nowadays believing that the war against Hitler should not have been fought). You could make a case that bombing wasn’t the most effective methods, but ground combat is worse from the viewpoint of those in it. So what’s the logic?

It’s not a good description of warfare or of life in general. When I saw the chief character Yossarian identified as an Assyrian, I took this to be part of joke, much as if he were an Ancient Egyptian. Later I learned that such a people do exist, a Christian survival of some 3 to 4 million people scattered between modern Arab states. They are among the Christian communities that have suffered in Iraq after Saddam’s secular dictatorship was destroyed. A lot of the rest are in Syria, where a similar fate is likely to overtake them if the West gets its way and destroys Assad’s secular dictatorship.

Catch-22 was one of a number of cultural products that had the general effect of ridiculing and deflating the considerable achievements of World War Two and the subsequent peace. Heller, a man who enjoyed the actual war and had seen his economic circumstances improve, got literary ambitions. He somehow acquired a dose of T. S. Elliot, a man I’d class as a good wordsmith with not a single new or interesting ideas. Elliot was US-born but preferred Britain and tried to become part of its ruling class. But he was trying to join what was by then very much a failed elite. In this he was similar to Evelyn Waugh, discovered weakness and worthlessness in what they aspired to. And had no other ideas except to be another futile moaner

Maybe for Heller this was a way of handling the horrors of war, but a pretty pointless way. The result of such works in the wider society was the Coolheart view, which doubts everything and has no coherent defence against the New Right outlook, even though it often dislikes it.


China: 1911 And All That

The more the ‘Atlantic Crisis’ damages the USA and Europe, the more insistent its pundits are that their system must be imposed on everyone else. The 100th anniversary of the start of the Chinese Revolution in October if this year was mostly cited as something to nag Beijing about, because Beijing shows no interest in repeating that failed experiment. China’s first generation of revolutionaries tried importing a Western electoral system where it had no strong local roots, and it failed badly.

A partly successful rising of October 1911 laid the basis for a Chinese Republic to be proclaimed in January 1912, with Sun Yatsen as President. But it was confined to South China, while General Yuan Shikai in Beijing had a much bigger army and threatened to win a civil war.

February 1912 saw a botched compromise – Sun Yatsen agreed that Yuan Shikai could be President, provided that Yuan compelled the Imperial family to abdicate on behalf of the infant Emperor. Elections followed in 1913 – not at all democratic, based on a limited franchise, but still hopeful if they had produced a viable political system. They didn’t. Sun’s Kuomintang won, but Yuan Shikai had the bulk of the army and refused to yield. In 1915 he tried to become Emperor, but failed and died disappointed in 1916. Thereafter the state broke down completely, with regional warlords creating chaos.

Interestingly, there was no coherent account of this process in any Western news source that covered the October anniversary, or none that I saw after taking a keen interest in the process. The story of China’s botched 1911-12 revolution would have made a fine television documentary, but it would be impossible to tell the story in a way that didn’t make it obvious that Western values in China flopped badly when first tried. So instead there was only oblique sniping at China’s current rulers.

Back in 1911/12, the West showed no interest in helping people like Sun. People who stood for broadly Western values but also insisted that Chinese were equal. Most Europeans at the time would have denied it and Chinese were treated as inferiors in their own country up until World War Two. A reluctance to accept Chinese as equals lasted into the 1960s. Books such as The blue ants: 600 million Chinese under the Red Flag by Robert Guillain in 1957, and Mao Tse-Tung, Emperor of the Blue Ants by George Paloczi-Horvath in 1961. Also the 1961 Arrow edition of a rather improbable thriller by Dennis Wheatley called The Island Where Time Stands Still says in its back-cover blurb “a fantastic tangle of slit-eyed intrigue and murder in China“. (Wheatley is obscure nowadays, but once he sold millions.)

In 1920s China, Sun Yatsen found himself abandoned by the West. So he made an alliance with the Soviet Union, the only power willing to help. Soviet advisers made the Kuomintang much stronger by reorganising it on Leninist lines, in alliance with the newly formed Chinese Communists. Sadly, Sun Yatsen died in 1926. The Kuomintang launched a Northern Expedition that got as far as Shanghai, briefly held by the Kuomintang-Communist alliance. But Chiang Kai-shek didn’t dare try to keep a city that was then dominated by foreign-run enclaves created by one of the Unequal Treaties imposed on Imperial China and inherited by the Republic. He preferred to massacre the left and make peace with the West, who allowed him to set up a nominal government in Nanjing. Within a few years, most of the warlords officially recognised him, but they never exactly obeyed him. Most of them remained effectively independent until the late 1940s, when they made separate peace agreements with Mao and the People’s Army, securing their personal future without much regard for ideology. A few may have welcomed national unity and a few had taken risks earlier on when Japan invaded China, but most of the warlords were selfish from first to last.

Mao’s rule saw the economy triple in a quarter century, better than most countries in the same era. He also achieved this in a country that had had no net growth for centuries, and in the face of a hostile outside world. And life expectancy rose rapidly, ahead of countries like India or the Philippines despite the set-backs of the Three Bitter Years.

Europeans have a tradition of accepting rulers chosen by election, though not democratic elections until relatively recently. In Britain, it was only in the 1880s that a majority of adult males had the vote, no women voting till 1918. But there was a general view that the outcome of the election must be accepted, a view that was dignified by centuries of doing so. This did not apply in China in 1911, and would probably not apply now if there were multi-party elections.


Dead dead Winehouse [Amy Winehouse]

So it was alcohol rather than heroin that got her. Alcohol is not as dangerous as most drugs: to kill yourself with alcohol, you must already be seriously maladjusted. But Amy Winehouse was definitely that: one of many young lives ruined by sudden success in the highly uncertain world of pop music. Heroin or LSD or vodka or red red wine, it can call be lethal.

We also have the ongoing trial of Michael Jackson’s doctor, who was a minimum letting him use a highly dangerous sedative. He was never an artist I liked, yet he clearly did have musical talent and should have been helped develop it. Instead from early to end, he became just a ‘cash cow’ for all sorts of people around him.

Is it getting worse? Someone could check, doing a statistical study of those alive at 30, 40, 50, 60 or 70 after getting a hit record at a fairly young age. The results might be interesting: possibly the ‘one-hit wonders’ live longer.


Shakespeare: the Play’s the Thing [Dispute Over Authorship]

No one questioned the authorship of the plays in The Complete Works of Shakespeare until long after the event. Nor were they generally seen as better than other plays of the period. Only once it was realised that these particular plays had kept their relevance centuries after their time were questions raised about whether an otherwise undistinguished fellow called Shakespeare had actually written them.

I’ve heard the arguments, including those in Brian McClinton’s The Shakespeare Conspiracy, and now a film called Anonymous. It does seem that the fellow from Stratford-upon-Avon owned no books and took no part in literary life as it existed in his time. But is that really an argument against?

Most playwrights nowadays are literary, but that’s because it has become a high-prestige art-form. In Shakespeare’s day it was seen as rather vulgar, but also a way for a man of middle-class origins to win favour from the powerful. Maybe also he wrote up some of their fancy ideas and listened attentively to their views of how power-relationships would have worked out in some of the histories that he dramatised.

(It’s been claimed that real life gangsters attended the filming of gangster-movie The Long Good Friday and made comments about how a real gangster boss would handle the fictional situations. Someone modest enough to listen and learn can pick up quite a lot.)

It’s quite possible to imagine Shakespeare as a clever chatty fellow taking ideas from Francis Bacon (whose own prose style is almost unreadable, but whose New Atlantis might have made a fine drama, one we still lack. An opening for someone who can write fluent Elizabethan English.) Or maybe Marlow lived on after his reported death and wrote plays, which Shakespeare re-wrote and adapted and introduced errors of fact that Marlow or Bacon would have been unlikely to make. And also added a human understanding that Marlow’s plays lack.

The plays contain a funny mix of learning and simple errors , like giving Bohemia a sea-coast. Asimov’s Guide To Shakespeare is well worth reading: he cites a number of errors that a university-educated writer would not have made. So maybe Shakespeare was primarily an actor who was uninterested in either reading or writing as such: they were just means to create new dramas. Successful drama is a very un-intellectual art. Things that read well may flop on the stage. An inconsistent or incomplete education may actually help. Consider William Blake, an unlikely genius mostly ignored at the time, but his style is so distinctive it cannot be argued about.


Steve Jobs and Apple [Death of Steve Jobs]

The late Steve Jobs was very much part of the hippy era. He had his own vision, an idea of the end-product he wanted. He pushed the engineers into developing machines that would do the job, created products with a nice integration of hardware and software. There was a time when he was criticised for not allowing the Apple operating system to be used on all sorts of machines. But Apple has survived as the only big alternative to Windows PCs. (Themselves an outgrowth of what was originally the IBM PC.)

The Apple II was the first success: I actually used one. Like every other machine in those days, it needed long strings of instructions to be typed in. Xerox had developed a better idea, a ‘desktop’ of imaginary objects, but their Xerox Alto had little success. Jobs picked up the idea – he arguably violated copyright, but won his case in the courts. He produced a machine called the Apple Lisa, which was the right idea but it made a limited impact, in part because it cost nearly 10,000 dollars. Some of the same ideas were then packaged much more cheaply the Mac, which was his second big breakthrough. I used Macs in the days when they ran from floppy disks and a hard-drive was a distant dream, yet they were nice machines.

The US computer industry thrived while its auto industry withered, in part because in the world of computers the ‘bean-counters’ were mostly ignored. Power was in the hands of people who valued the product much more than the financial return.

Which is not to say ‘nice people’. He was a man centred on his own vision of what other people should have and he mostly succeeded, but not a very caring person:

“Unlike his contemporary, Microsoft’s Bill Gates, Steve Jobs showed little inclination to use his personal wealth for philanthropic purposes.

“And, strangely for a self-professed Buddhist, he did not embrace environmental concerns, with Apple coming under fire from Greenpeace for its reluctance to produce easily recyclable products.

“Steve Jobs was a one off; a man who had total belief in his own abilities and a shortage of patience for anyone who failed to agree with him.

“His great gifts were an ability to second guess the market and an eye for well designed and innovative products that everyone would buy.

“‘You can’t just ask customers what they want and then try to give that to them,’ he once said. ‘By the time you get it built, they’ll want something new.’” [B]

He was thrown out of Apple by a manager he had brought in, but then came back for further triumphs. And finally probably shortened his own life by being a dedicated hippy and hoping for a ‘natural cure’ for his cancer when modern medicine is mostly quite effective. Still, it was an amazing life and a permanent legacy.


Cameron as Conservative and Nihilist [Gay Marriage]

“Marriage is not just a piece of paper. It pulls couples together through the ebb and flow of life. It gives children stability. And it says powerful things about what we should value. So yes, we will recognise marriage in the tax system.

“But we’re also doing something else. I once stood before a Conservative conference and said it shouldn’t matter whether commitment was between a man and a woman, a woman and a woman, or a man and another man. You applauded me for that. Five years on, we’re consulting on legalising gay marriage.

“And to anyone who has reservations, I say: Yes, it’s about equality, but it’s also about something else: commitment. Conservatives believe in the ties that bind us; that society is stronger when we make vows to each other and support each other. So I don’t support gay marriage despite being a Conservative. I support gay marriage because I’m a Conservative.” [C]

Conservative but not conservative. There were a lot of right-wing gays lurking covertly in Thatcherite think-tanks back in the 1980s. Labour took the odium for pushing gay rights and other social reforms, with the Tories talking in a manner that would have led the voters to believe that they were defenders of the existing social order. But it was a sham. After New Labour had sealed the new consensus and with a lot of the older voters safely dead, the Tory gays and their libertarian sympathisers ‘came out’ and adjusted party policy to suit their own tastes.

The ‘ties that bind us’ depend on tradition to actually bind us. You can’t undermine one part of that tradition and expect the rest to stay strong. Myself, I am not bothered about gay marriage heading for legalisation, or about the general collapse of the prestige of marriage. But I’m not a conservative and I fully expect things to change very radically in the decades ahead.

One oddity about gay marriage is that its advocates are generally against the notion of legalising polygamy or polyandry, even though these have a much stronger basis in human history. No doubt you could have a conservative society in which gay marriage was normal. Traditional Japan was pretty relaxed about both divorce and homosexual relationships. But that was their own society, and a society that was hideously restrictive and patriarchal. And as far as I know, both the Japanese and the Classical Greeks saw homosexual unions as a thing in itself and quite separate from marriage, a legal regulation of sex that governed inheritance rights for any resultant children.

But the Tories seem in the grip of libertarian ideology. Toryism once had real roots in Scotland, now it is dying. They’ve just elected Ruth Davidson as their new leader, an open lesbian in her 30s.[E] It’s a peculiar end to a grand tradition.

Functional conservatism has to be familiar and comfortable to the population you are dealing with. But nothing nowadays is familiar or comfortable. The current crop of Tories seem to think they can selectively disrupt some parts of the society and keep other parts safe and harmonious. This has no chance of working.

You can’t change anything without the risk of changing everything. Radicals might think this a bonus. Tories should be more scared and modest, but this seems unlikely.



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