Notes On The News
by Gwydion M Williams
J K Rowling caught some deep mood in Britain and the wider world with her Harry Potter novels. She has now exposed the unpleasant underside of Britain in Casual Vacancy. I’ll discuss the book later on in these notes, both its strengths and weaknesses. But to start off with, let’s look at what’s been done to Britain since the 1970s.
Traditional Toryism was vaguely Distributist. Distributism (also known as Distributionism) was pushed as an independent creed by G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. It favoured financially independent local cooperatives and small family businesses. It suffered from being tied to Roman Catholicism in a mostly-Protestant nation, and was also tainted with anti-Semitism and an association with Fascism. And in any case, large parts of the Tory Party were Distributist in a loose non-ideological way. Inequality and classes were part of the natural order. The lower orders should be cheerful in their place, but also should be looked after. From this viewpoint, welfare was acceptable as part of a stable natural order.
Enter the Thatcherite dragon, wrecking havoc on this comfortable world much as the dragon Smaug will incinerate Laketown in Peter Jackson’s film of The Hobbit. Thatcherism was a reaction to the undermining of tradition, but it laid waste and destroyed most of what it thought it was preserving.
The 1970s had failed to resolve the issues raised by 1960s radicalism. The comfortable notion of Britain as a Christian country was gone, but no one knew what it had become. Trade Union power had become too strong for the existing order – but when Trade Unions were offered a new order that would have included Incomes Policy and Workers Control, this was turned down. For some on the left it was too radical, for others not radical enough. That it was unique ‘window of opportunity’ was not grasped.
Trotsky in his autobiography describes the split into Bolsheviks and Mensheviks of what was then the Russia Social-Democratic Party as a split between ‘hard’ and the ‘soft’. He then has great difficulty explaining how he initially went with the ‘soft’ solution and then wandered for years in an ineffective middle ground before being let into the ‘hard’ faction in 1917 when it was bidding for dictatorial power. Lenin might have justified this in terms of Russian conditions, but instead he made popular dictatorship the model for the future of socialism. Trotsky was all for this, saying:
“All these so-called Socialist compromisers… are just so much refuse which will be swept into the garbage-heap of history!”
The next quarter century pretty much justified Lenin’s viewpoint and Trotsky’s intolerance. The violent disruption of the 1914-18 war derailed the peaceful progress which the “Soft Socialists” had been counting on. They did indeed get swept aside, but mostly by Fascism. Fascism flourished as a Hard-Right creed that could absorb a lot from both Hard and Soft varieties of socialism as well as Distributist yearnings in the wider population. It also won a lot of support from the Centre and Right in Britain, France and the USA as a cheap way to end the menace of the Soviet Union.
The triumph of the ‘soft’ solution in Western nations after 1945 was misunderstood at the time and is now being written out of history. It happened mostly by accident: Hitler got wildly over-confident and managed to bring about an improbable alliance between the Tory-led British Empire and the Soviet Union. Needlessly added the USA by declaring war on the USA after Pearl Harbour, cutting the ground from under those who would have sooner just fought Japan.
The post-war world saw conservative forces deeply frightened of both a Soviet advance and a revived Fascism. So they accepted the milder solutions of Soft Socialism, even implementing them themselves when the Centre-Right was in power.
Without a correct understanding of their own history, the left bungled the opportunities of the 1970s. Those who saw Incomes Policy and Workers Control as too radical failed to realise that the Soft Socialist solutions put in place after 1945 were an accident and needed a radical overhaul if they were to survive. Meantime on the radical side, the semi-hard politics of the Trotskyists and pro-Moscow politics floundered on an inability to face reality. Both hinged their understanding of history on there being some vast gulf between Lenin and Stalin, and in fact there was none. They were in an excellent position to justify the Lenin-Stalin line as unavoidable, given the weakness and incapability of possible alternatives. But something that straightforward was beyond most of them. Most of them – including the recently-deceased Eric Hobsbawm- wasted vast ingenuity avoiding the obvious and floating nonsense. The net result was that they wasted a grand opportunity for reform with phrase-mongering about revolution, without the realism to see that no revolution in Western Europe was likely.
Enter the Thatcherite dragon. Like the dragons of mythology, it was a fierce beast but also foolish and bungling. Thatcher tapped into a widespread feeling that other people should return to older values, along with a deep reluctance to do so personally. She can hardly have failed to notice the large number of gays among the New Right militants, but preferred to turn a blind eye and let Labour take the odium.
As well as Rowling’s Casual Vacancy, I’ve also recently read Chavs, which I’ll probably also review in a later issue of this magazine. Chavs is supposed to be political, but ignores the complete mess the left made of the useful opportunities.
It also takes too soft a line on Thatcher’s responsibility for the massive growth in the Chav element among workers, or former workers now dumped on the social scrap-heap. Thatcher tapped into conservative sentiments and probably shared them, but she failed to deliver.
The Thatcher-Reagan line depended on the truthfulness of Adam Smith’s Dogma of Unavoidable Commercial Virtuousness, his belief that people who pursue their personal and selfish interests will be led “by an invisible hand” to act for the good of all. Undoubtedly this happens sometimes, just not often and no more than you’d except by sheer coincidence. Nothing like often enough for a real laissez-fair system to work in the real world. But the Dogma of Unavoidable Commercial Virtuousness gives a moral air to what would otherwise be unprincipled support for the most privileged. Support that mostly earns the theorist a golden pat on the head.
From Adam Smith and from later right-wing writers one also has the Dogma of State Accursedness. Private enterprise is inherently virtuous and public or state-managed enterprise is inherently bad, blighted and burdensome. Always sinful, though some of it is Unavoidable Sinfulness.
What sense does this make? It’s a clever bit of psychological manipulation, but not as rational as it seems. It passes muster because Adam Smith presents it as if it were an agreed fact in The Wealth Of Nations, along with the first clear account that came close to describing how the new world of commerce actually worked. But there’s no inherent connection between Smith’s main dogmas and the useful descriptions of Division of Labour etc. in the rest of his work. Nothing to justify Adam Smith’s strange notion that God is money, or perhaps that money and self-interest are God interacting with the material world.
Smith’s works began as a series of public lectures by a man without regular income. They were impressive enough to get him professorships and more. If he was aware of the gaps in his theories, he may have hoped to fill them in later. But unlike Marx, he was willing to publish with parts of the chain of logic simply not there.
So why should we believe this stuff. Religious people might agree on the Dogma of State Accursedness, but the Dogma of Unavoidable Commercial Virtuousness is flatly against all existing religions and ethical systems. Most of them identify money as a source of corruption and underminer of family and tradition, which does fit observed reality. From an atheist viewpoint, or a loose Theist viewpoint that has no room for a God active in the human world, the collective judgement of a range of different religion ought to represent some sort of collective wisdom.
The world in which Adam Smith wrote was commerce that was self-organizing in small ways, and under supervision of a sympathetic gentry that controlled parliament and was well insulated against public opinion. Before the 1832 reforms, a majority of seats in the House of Commons were controlled by some 200 rich families, some of them freely gifted or traded by a single powerful nobleman. Britain industrialised well before it took the first small steps to democracy – only in 1886 did a majority of adult males in the British Isles have the vote.
Britain’s rise to global dominance happened with strong tariff barriers that protected British industry from foreign competition, and forced the British Empire to buy British. Dismantling this protection from the 1830s onwards initially seemed to succeed, because British industries at that time were the best. But the tide soon turned and other economies caught up. Most notably Germany and the United States, neither of which believed during their rise in Free Trade. Nor were they committed to either the Dogma of Unavoidable Commercial Virtuousness or the Dogma of State Accursedness. Both let their state-machines grow, kept finance regulated and valued industry when they were ascending to global power.
The USA’s departure from these policies is quite typical of a dominant nation in decline. It still has cultural hegemony and an enormously powerful system of finance. But its usefulness to the rest of the world is steadily shrinking.
What the New Right actually achieved was to re-tuned a successful system of Mixed Economy to yield higher returns to the rich. In the process, they have degraded what was left of traditional social values. And they have failed to shrink the state.
It may be the realisation of the limits of New Right success that prompted the Tory Chief Whip to make his bad-tempered remark about Plebs. Oddly, this got through to people who hadn’t before been worried by a government full of ex-Etonians.
If there’s ever to be a re-launch for the Respect party, or maybe something wider, then Plebs would be an excellent name for the new party.
Thanks to Thatcherite deregulation, Temples of Commerce became Dens of Thieves. There had always been sleazy areas of finance, just as you’d find sleazy districts in even the most respectable cities. But it used to be a fringe on a massive body of sound finance. Nowadays, one wonders just what is still sound.
Deregulation justified itself by the convenient doctrine that they were helpfully ‘unlocking’ the untapped value in conservative institutions. What this amounted to was running risks that had previously been avoided. What was rejected were the key element of stability and predictability that was needed to keep finance connected to the real world.
Vast amounts of effort have drained into parasitic finance. This has been accepted by the working mainstream, who were persuaded that they were hideously burdened by welfare, even though their income after tax grew steadily in the Keynesian era. (Has continued to grow in the UK, whereas the Rugged Individualists of the USA have gone on resenting tax and welfare even as their position got worse.)
It’s been an immense success for the New Right strategy of making people hate and resent each other. But where does that lead? We’ve seen a considerable degradation in the society, without improvement the long-term economic performance.
Thatcher put an incompetent ruling class back in a position of strong authority, no longer scared of Old Labour values. It helped that much of the Left concentrated on discrediting every form of socialism that had dared be successful, on the grounds that limit success was almost the same as hideous betrayal. But a loss of faith in the successful post-1945 solutions did not change the reasons why the old ruling class had been kicked out of power in the first place. The Tory hard men are broadly the same sort of poeple who took the greatness out of Britain in the first place. Given an immense opportunity by the Soviet collapse, they bungled it away.
Labour is making some timid noises about more tax. They need to go a lot further. Tax should be applied where the wealth is produced, not where the owner chooses to declare their income. That would stop a “flight of the rich” – they are welcome to live outside Britain, but if they make their money within British society, they should pay their fair share of the cost of keeping that society in being.
My instant reaction to the Arab Spring was that the liberal and pro-Western elements among the protestors were a pack of fools. That if they chased out existing dictators and gave real power to dummy parliaments, they would then find Western values emerging automatically.
In Western Europe, Parliaments were designed in mediaeval times as a way of settling ruling class power struggles without warfare. They were not a British invention: the Anglo-Saxons had had Moots and a Witan, but the idea of Parliament was introduced from foreign models by Simon de Montfort, 6th Earl of Leicester during a rebellion against the King. Parliaments also regularises struggles over tax between the monarch and the main tax-payers. But where they overthrew the monarchy they had been quarrelling with, they soon discovered that state power depends mostly on having a loyal army.
The English Parliament that rebelled against Charles 1st was in turn pushed out of power by the army it had created. The general population, most of whom had no vote, tended to be for the monarchy when they were asked. This was Cromwell’s argument against the radicalism of the Levellers, and there’s little doubt he was correct. Cromwell as the army’s most successful general had the loyalty of that army while he lived, but when he died the system fell apart and the monarch was restored. After much more politics and several uprisings, monarch and parliament learned to share power.
All of this has been forgotten and unlearned over the past couple of decades. You do get the occasional half-sensible voice, as in this letter to The Economist:
“Your assertion that America, or the West in general, has ‘everything to gain from being at the heart of this great [Arab] awakening’ is just plain wrong… Overthrowing authoritarian regimes does not turn Arab revolutionaries into democrats nor their societies into democracies. Neither does the act of holding an election. True democracies live in the hearts and minds of citizens and their faith in liberal-democratic principles and norms. The rights, privileges and responsibilities that we take for granted have no parallel in Arab societies. Nor are they likely to develop anytime soon.
“It took centuries to evolve into the societies we are today. To suggest that the Arab ‘awakening’ is even remotely similar is nothing short of an affront to those who fought, continue to fight, and all too often died, for our freedoms. Not all societies are of equal worth. Radical and extremist Islam, which is the true offspring of the Arab awakening, is not ethically or morally equal to Western liberal-democratic societies.
“The West’s course of action should be a policy of containment and isolation. Eventually the cancer of radical and extremist Islam will cannibalise itself and die out. We in the West would be wise to exercise patience, from a distance, until that time.” 
I too favour leaving Islam alone to work itself out. But it is foolish to suppose that the end-point will be anything familiar. Western liberal-democratic societies arose from modernising monarchies that only gave the people a share of power after they’d been transformed. A similar job was being done by dictators like Saddam Hussein and Gaddafi. It was not a smart move to get rid of them.
The 20th century saw the overthrow of Christianity in Western Europe. And its reduction to a collection of weak bad-tempered sects in the USA, sects that pander to the rich and ignore Christianity’s traditional social message.
Secular nationalism and socialism were slowly leaching power away from Islam, but that depended on those creeds continuing to deliver decent results. Vast efforts were made by the West to prevent this. Islam was seen as a safe alternative, a creed that might harass its own people but would never dare touch Western interests.
This idea did work for Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Emirates. Elsewhere it is falling apart.
The Internet allows all sorts of things to “go viral”, most recently a South Korean rapper called Psy. Which means that intolerant ideas can spread as rapidly as anything else
In the case of an offensive film called Innocence of Muslims, it’s quite possible that the people behind it were out to inflame opinion, polarise politics between the West and the Islamic world. Probably not a sensible strategy, particularly for members of Egypt’s Christian-Copt minority, but there are any number of fools around. Some of them rich fools.
The protest is about the fact that the USA has failed to ban the offensive film, which is agreed to be worthless. ‘Freedom of Speech’ is cited, but it has never been viewed as absolute. Films and books do get banned in the USA, for various reasons, mostly concerning money and ‘intellectual property rights’ trademarks given a spurious glamour by advertising.. Also obscenity insults to living people and National Security.
There should be some protection against insults to the dead who are still remembered. It’s a gap in current law, because people used to be too civilised to do it to anyone except the standard villains from history. It needs to be filled, the law changing as times change. And there should also be a law against ‘incitement to hatred’, and plenty of Western countries do have it.
The US authorities could have said ‘this is a gap in the law and we will fill it’. What they have said instead amounts to saying ‘this is something you should view as normal’. Or ‘you should view your religion as unimportant, something that should never get in the way of important things like money’. They are showing that other people’s religion is viewed as a trivial matter, a little silliness that is tolerated but not respected. One of many misunderstandings that doom the USA’s attempt at a global hegemony.
Don’t be surprised that Muslims are not accepting it. Particularly now that the USA has gone to such trouble to knock down repressive secular regimes that were repressing religious extremism, among other things.
The USA and Britain have sown the wind. Don’t be astonished now that we reap the whirlwind.
You can make millions in one specialised area of business and still be a fool on wider matters. Mitt Romney made most of his money asset-stripping US companies and sending most of the jobs overseas, often to China. Since he was only one of many patriotic Americans doing this, one must assume he was good at it. But it seems his talents don’t extend to wider matters. He pointlessly insulted Britain by remarking on the brief troubles with security in the immediate run-up to the highly successful London Olympics. And now he has managed show his ignorant self-confidence even more drastically:
“During the $6 million (£3.7 million) fundraising event in California, Mr Romney brought up an incident at the weekend when his wife’s aircraft was forced to make an emergency landing.
“He mused that she would have coped better if she was able to breathe outside air during the fire.
“‘I appreciate the fact that she is on the ground, safe and sound. And I don’t think she knows just how worried some of us were,’ Mr Romney said, according to the LA Times. ‘When you have a fire in an aircraft, there’s no place to go, exactly, there’s no – and you can’t find any oxygen from outside the aircraft to get in the aircraft, because the windows don’t open. I don’t know why they don’t do that. It’s a real problem. So it’s very dangerous. And she was choking and rubbing her eyes. Fortunately, there was enough oxygen for the pilot and copilot to make a safe landing in Denver. But she’s safe and sound.'” 
A sensible person should have asked ‘why’ before trying to lay down the law. It should be obvious that a vehicle travelling several hundred miles an hour would get a pretty good draft from an open window. Some aircraft I’ve been on will also show you the outside temperature, mostly well below freezing. If you check further, you’ll learn that the outside air is also horribly thin – that’s why aircraft fly so high, less air resistance. And in fact cabin pressure is usually lower than the norm on the ground: if you’ve ever brought a sealed crisp packet, you’ll discover it has blown up like a little balloon.
Romney might have asked someone well-informed and learned some or all of this. But he seems to be one of those people who approaches every problem with an open mouth
Corruption is normal in a fast-growing economy with uncertain moral values. On the global index of corruption,  China is slightly better than Greece and the Republic of India and only slightly worse than Italy. That’s to say, multi-party elections and a press independent of government control has very little to do with controlling corruption.
[I was not the only person to notice this. In later years, China suffered a mysterious drop in its position in the Corruption Index, even though there was a big crackdown on corruption in the interim.]
The widespread belief by Chinese dissidents and Western experts that China could cure corruption by becoming more Westernised is sheer nonsense. Western superiority is assumed without evidence and sometimes in defiance of the evidence.
China after Mao sacrificed morals for fast growth. This was not a necessity: China under Mao was matching the West German economic miracle and was growing faster than Britain or the USA. But the even more remarkable example of Japan, Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong and South Korea had a big effect on the post-Mao leadership.
As I explained earlier, these were really successes for Soft Socialism, or for centre-right governments adopting many Soft-Socialist measures as the best way forward. The post-Mao leadership were also most inclined to learn from those countries, and so did much better than Russia and its former dependencies, who took New Right doctrines to be the height of economic wisdom.
Naturally there was a growth in corruption as China opened up. But it has mostly been ‘Patriotic Corruption’, people taking their cut but also seeing that the national interest is looked after. Not really so different from Britain in the crucial period 1700-1830, which saw Britain build the first industrial society and where corruption was routine. Or in the USA in its Gilded Age, after the Civil War and up to the 1890s.
There have to be limits, and murder is one of them. Given that Bo Xilai favoured some left-wing policies, it would be nice to say he was framed. But then one hits the unalterable fact of his police chief having tried to defect to the USA, the thing that blew the scandal wide open.
One thing I noticed, as the scandal unfolded, the significance of which seems to have been missed. He was removed from his main posts just after the 2012 National People’s Congress (5th-14th March). Though it’s not a place where differences are openly aired, it is a gathering of the vital layers of leadership that the top leaders have to look to and reassure, and who then communicate with and reassure officials lower down. It suggests to me that there was a desire to check wider opinion and perhaps pass on key facts to this crucial assembly.
After that it became a legal matter.
As I said earlier, J K Rowling caught some deep mood in Britain and the wider world with her Harry Potter novels. Her attitudes included a clever parody of suburban values in “Little Whinging”, the fictitious town in Surrey where Harry Potter is confined between his seasons in the magical world of Hogwarts
Rowling now gives a much blunter view the unpleasant underside of Britain in The Casual Vacancy. It’s been described as ‘dark comedy’, but I found it too dark to be funny. I did however find it gripping and believable.
The Daily Mail called the book socialist: sadly this isn’t true. It shows the damage done by Thatcherite and New Labour policies, along with a vague feeling things were better once. But it is pretty hazy on deeper causes. Rowling’s understanding is acute with individuals and small friendship-forming groups, but totally vacant when it comes to anything larger. She is a novelist and not an ideologist or a social analyst.
The Harry Potter series was half-subversive, the main characters and heroes are continuously at odds with the main authority, the Ministry of Magic. In The Casual Vacancy, there is disrespect for authority but also an acceptance of it as a fact of life. Also you do get a vague feeling that the past was better, without any apparent remembering its faults, all of the guilt and fear and sexual repression.
If you’re going to stop repressing individual sexual choices, don’t be surprised if traditional Extended Families disintegrate. If you undermine the patriarchal authority of male householders, then some other system of control would be needed. Actions have consequences, and left-wing causes have suffered by failing to think about this.
Still, it is an interesting slice of life, though looked mostly at the negatives. The book develops from the unexpected death of Parish Counsellor Fairbrother, who is presented as a lone individual doing good with the help of a few friends and allies. In real life, you’d expect him to be either Labour or Liberal-Democrat, or just possibly Green, and with the opposition all Tories. You might at least expect to see references to national politics. But it seems that this is all above her head.
I did remember that she had given a million pounds to Labour at the last election. But it turned out that this too was highly personal:
“Harry Potter author JK Rowling has donated £1 million to the Labour Party, it has been announced.
“The donation comes as a major boost to the cash-strapped party and its leader Gordon Brown as the annual Labour conference starts in Manchester.
“Miss Rowling, whose fortune was estimated at £560 million in this year’s Sunday Times Rich List, is known to be a personal friend of Mr Brown and his wife Sarah…
“In a statement, Miss Rowling, who wrote the first of her best-selling books about boy wizard Harry Potter while an impoverished single mother, indicated that her gift was motivated by Labour’s record on child poverty and Conservative leader David Cameron’s offer of tax breaks to married couples.
“She said: ‘I believe that poor and vulnerable families will fare much better under the Labour Party than they would under a Cameron-led Conservative Party.
“‘Gordon Brown has consistently prioritised and introduced measures that will save as many children as possible from a life lacking in opportunity or choice.
“‘The Labour government has reversed the long-term trend in child poverty, and is one of the leading EU countries in combating child poverty.
“‘David Cameron’s promise of tax perks for the married, on the other hand, is reminiscent of the Conservative government I experienced as a lone parent.
“‘It sends the message that the Conservatives still believe a childless, dual-income, but married couple is more deserving of a financial pat on the head than those struggling, as I once was, to keep their families afloat in difficult times.'” 
One little extra. Some reviewers have taken to calling the book Mugglemarch – a reference to Middlemarch by Mary Anne Evans (George Elliot), with muggles being the name for non-magic people in Harry Potter. This also has a rather nice individual called Fairbrother, but as a secondary character in a novel whose theme is “the gradual improvement of the world”. I see no other similarities and I doubt she meant them. She might not even have read Middlemarch.
During the recent Paralympics, one disabled man complained that the contest was between ‘fit people with bits missing’. This seems to sum it up exactly: the event’s origins lie in the rehabilitation of war wounded. If you were already a sporty type this may be a good adjustment, and no doubt it also helps some people with other sorts of disability. But it is also not typical of disablement in general.
On Mars, a giant automatic rover called Curiosity has found something that’s unambiguously a dried-up streambed. The rover was landed in an area that was expected to have such things, but confirmation is nice.  More valuable discoveries may follow.
A spacecraft called Dawn has left the giant asteroid Vesta and is heading for Ceres, the biggest asteroid of all and the only dwarf planet in the inner Solar System. Vesta has turned out to be a gigantic scarred and pitted rock: Ceres might be much more interesting. Dawn should get there in 2015, a few months ahead of the arrival of the New Horizons probe at Pluto
There’s a total solar eclipse in November 2012, but only visible from Australia and some tracts of open ocean. Lots of people will be flocking to Cairns in Far North Queensland to see it.
There are also high hopes for a comet that currently looks like nothing much, but could be brighter than the full moon at the end of 2013. Or might disappoint, as previous comets have done:
“Could this dim spot brighten into one of the brightest comets ever? It’s possible. Alternatively, the comet could break up when it gets closer to the Sun, or brighten much more modestly. Sky enthusiasts the world over are all abuzz, though, from the more optimistic speculations — that the newly discovered C/2012 S1 (ISON) could develop a spectacular tail or briefly approach the brightness of the full Moon toward the end of 2013… Comet ISON appears on course to achieve sungrazer status as it passes within a solar diameter of Sun’s surface in late 2013 November. Whatever survives will then pass nearest the Earth in late 2013 December. Astronomers around the world will be tracking this large dirty snowball closely to better understand its nature and how it might evolve during the next 15 months. 
This is from Astronomy Picture of the Day Calendar, a site run by NASA and with an interesting new picture every day of the year.
[As with many other hopeful comets seen at a distance, C/2012 S1 was a disappointment. It never became bright enough to be readily visible to the naked eye. Furthermore, it broke apart as it passed close to the Sun.]
 This is the version in John Reed’s Ten Days that Shook the World.