Notes On The News
by Gwydion M Williams
Austerity Britain. Outsized war-machine and gigantic financial parasite to support. Please give generously. Cut back on little things like health, education, libraries and public safety.
Most British Prime Ministers get a private funeral and minimal publicity. There was a conscious decision to bang the drum for Thatcherism. It should have been opposed much more vigorously than it was.
Classical Socialism was in trouble by the start of the1970s and well before Thatcher or Reagan. Brezhnev in 1968 had crushed the Czechoslovak attempt to take European Leninism in the direction later taken by Deng in China. He thus delayed the collapse by 21 years and made it truly disastrous. The Solidarity movement among workers was growing in Poland well before Thatcher. Meantime Deng allowed elements of capitalism, but never allowed it to run free. The Wise Men from the West never stop telling him off for this, even though his system worked while they failed in Russia and have now delivered a seemingly endless recession in the West.
Thatcherism initially sold itself with the promise of Trickle-Down. Remember Trickle-Down? We were promised that if entrepreneurs were released from stifling state controls, they would boost the economy so much that the rest of us would be better off, a smaller share of a much bigger cake.
It was all nonsense. Instead of Trickle-Down, we have had Hoover-Up, the rich grabbing more of the common pool of wealth without improving their contribution. They have slowed Britain’s decade-by-decade growth. The “brilliant” Thatcherite 1980s was no better economically than the “disastrous” 1970s. It was much worse than the Corporatist 1950s and 1960s, decades in which almost everyone had a job.
Note also that Thatcher had the enormous windfall of North Sea Oil, some 69 billion extra income for the nation. But the nation as a whole didn’t get it. Some went to the rich and the rest was squandered in an attempt to return to Classical Capitalism. And she ended the role of Toryism as a British party, reducing it to be a party of the richer half of England. It was already going that way, but she was both a product and a confirmer of that trend.
Without North Sea Oil, the Thatcher Decade would probably have seen less economic growth than the “disastrous” 1970s. Far from saving Britain, she began a process that has made life worse for the majority, and in which it is no easier to enter the elite than it was before.
But Thatcherism didn’t exist in isolation. After Thatcher, New Labour chose to take her policies further and things slowed even more. It has also somehow slipped out of memory that there was widespread expectation that Thatcher would lose the next election, if she had not been ousted.
John Major delayed the election till 1992 and then won it. Seemingly he had reverted to One Nation Conservatism. But meantime Blair replaced John Smith, who had replaced Kinnock after the 1992 defeat. John Smith’s death from an unexpected heart attack was a tragedy: he had adjusted Labour to meet what the electorate wanted, and would have been unlikely to have invented New Labour.
But why was New Labour possible? As I said, Thatcherism didn’t exist in isolation. Back in the 1970s, the naïve and hopeful radicalism of the 1960s had been replaced by a cynical trend, something you could call the “Extremely Popular Front for the Liberation of Selfishness“. It tapped into the weaknesses of 1960s radicalism, that it was sometimes selfish and often not concerned with the wider society. Blair could not have acted as he did without a whole host of 1960s radicals who had been co-opted by the new elite that had emerged under Thatcher. Jack Straw is a notable example, but there are many more.
People nowadays depend on fashion and are mostly overawed by whoever is currently rich and powerful. Assume that their extra talents must be proportional to their wealth and power. I don’t see it so. It’s more realistic to credit them with a lot of luck, some cold ruthlessness and talents that are high but not unusually so.
As for being the first female Prime Minister in Britain, that was coming anyway. Indira Ghandi had been a decisive Prime Minister well before Thatcher. So had Golda Meir, who was also the first female leader since ancient times to be there on an individual basis, rather than inheriting power by being linked to former male rulers by blood or marriage. And Thatcher failed to promote any other women within Toryism. That happened after her, and they are not notably worse than the men, but it seems she was only concerned with her own position.
Labour should have had someone like Thatcher? Labour had at least one, Barbara Castle. She’s had a wider range of important jobs than Thatcher, who was bumped up from being Education Secretary. She had the right ideas for reforming Trade Unions with her scheme, In Place of Strife. And was rejected by both Labour Right and Labour Left, sad to say.
US culture tells young people that they can be whatever they want to be. And then sneers at them as ‘losers’ if they fail to get more wealth, fame or power at a level way above average.
US culture is then utterly surprised if an evil fringe element go on a rampage of destruction, punishing the society that calls them ‘losers’. Such people are behaving more like angry chimps than humans. But in a better sort of society, they might have had sensible ambitions and been satisfied with what they did achieve.
The week of Thatcher’s funeral, the USA got hit by a “triple whammy”:
- First the Boston Bombing, now blamed on two Chechen brothers who had spent years in the USA. Chechens are Muslims but exact motives are unclear.
- Second, letters with toxic Ricin sent to President Obama and a senior Republican – reasons unclear, the man arrested is an Elvis impersonator from Mississippi. He apparently believed there was secret conspiracy in the USA to steal human organs, and was outraged when no one took this seriously.
- Finally a massive explosion at a fertilizer plant. Seemingly just an industrial accident, but why was it so close to a town? And sabotage is not unthinkable.
Thatcherism was all about making Britain more like the USA, preventing the trend under Heath into becoming more like a normal part of Europe. Likewise New Labour. Does this still seem like a good idea?
The New Right have been very successful at convincing a majority that a better world is impossible and that greedy striving and individual ambition are all there is.
If you have most people striving for what most people don’t have, that will mean a lot of losers and a lot of discontent. Yes, these are also individual failings, but they’ve made it a lot easier to fail badly and a lot harder to be content.
People try evade the things that would cost them money, effort or moral responsibility. Regarding society and crime, it’s generally true that a better person in the same circumstances could have lived a decent life, as many other individuals have. But it’s equally fair to say that the same person in better circumstances could have lived a decent life, and few rich societies have a crime rate equal to the USA.
Individual criminals tend to blame society for not being nicer to them. Moot. But the people who could have made a nicer society also evade their social responsibility in grabbing much too much for themselves.
“The point is not to change the world, but simply to moan about how dreadful it is”. This has been the main cultural theme in both Britain and the USA from the 1970s, after the 1960s discredited solid technocratic values. And after the new wave of radicals found that changing the world was tougher than they thought.
Changing the world is always tough but seldom impossible. Often it can involve harsh choices.
Mick Philpott was wastrel, but had be been paid less benefits, would he have acted any differently? What were Social Services supposed to do, castrate him? Besides, his children were well cared for. He acted wickedly and stupidly in starting a fire that accidentally killed them, but I’d blame film and television for that. Not for showing violence, but for making it seem much too easy to get away with trickery and resorts to private acts of vengeance.
He also might have done exactly the same if monogamous and regularly employed. Nasty things tend to happen when a relationship turns sour. Even fairly normal people can come to see a former lover as an extremely wicked person against whom almost anything would be justified.
Note also, Philpott was far from normal even before his final crime. He had been released after three years and two months for Attempted Murder of another former girlfriend in 1978. That was much too soft and must have given him the idea he could get away with things, or not get much of a punishment.
Society used to see private acts of vengeance as wicked. Now it is soggy on the issue.
Society could stop “excess breeding”, maybe by taking such babies from their mothers immediately after birth. Or by breaking up polygamous households, as used to happen. But no one feels like getting that nasty. The attitude seems to be, it is WICKED to allow it and also it would be WICKED to prevent it. Definitely not impossible, China did run a successful One Child Policy for many years. We could have a “Childright” system, one per adult, allowing for divorce and loose relations, with extra only by permission. But I’d not see it as justified for Britain, and I doubt many others would. But while rejecting control measures that might work, people won’t face up to the simple truth that either you limit people’s freedom or else live with the consequences of not limiting it.
Every year we get a “Global Competitiveness Index”, in which an outfit called the World Economic Forum ranks the various countries of the world according to their economic virtue, or the lack of it.
Has anyone tried checking the rankings on the Competitive Index against actual economic success? A quick look shows China at 29th, below Ireland and way below Taiwan. Yet China has grown 50% since the economic crisis started in 2008, while much of the rest of the world has stagnated. Switzerland comes top, yet had 0.8% growth for 2012. Venezuela is ranked 126th out of 144, the United Kingdom is ranked 8th, yet Venezuela had 5.7% growth for 2012 while the UK had 0.1% shrinkage.
Cyprus was ranked 58th, despite having shrunk 2.3% in 2012. (The list was published before Cyprus’s current crisis, of course.) India ranked just below Cyprus, despite being second only to China as a large economy with fairly steady fast growth.
The “Global Competitiveness Index” is blatantly an index of the things that are nice for private capital, often very bad for workers, and mostly not good for growth in GDP. It gives a gloss of objectivity to New Right ideas that have visibly failed. The hypothesis that an ‘Invisible Hand’ will keep things balance is a nice excuse to be a praise-singer for the rich. (Blessed are the praise-singers, for they shall receive money. Adam Smith himself received a splendid job as tutor to a teenage duke when his Theory of Moral Sentiments seemed to prove that the relative tranquillity of the third quarter of the 18th century should be viewed as safely rooted in Eternal Values.)
I don’t see why the ‘Invisible Hand’ should be taken more seriously that someone claiming to have invisible pixies at the bottom of their garden. Looking at the hard facts, the European Union did much better than Britain before letting Britain in. Rather worse after accepting Anglo advice. And in the relatively good times before 2008, the USA did no better than Europe when you measure GDP per head. It has also let in vast numbers of hard-working immigrants, many of them highly qualified or highly motivated or both. So it should really have done better than it has.
Someone needed to do a systematic study of score on the Competitive Index against actual achievements in terms of GDP growth. This is the sort of thing a Trade Union research department should do and then make a big noise about. Point out that the measure should be called the “Global Kindness to Capitalists” index. That it is very different from benefit to the society as a whole. Little related even to the simple matter of GDP Growth.
“Pioneers of the internet are the first recipients of the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering.
“Sir Tim Berners-Lee, Robert Kahn, Vinton Cerf, Louis Pouzin and Marc Andreessen will share the £1m award.
“The citation panel said the five men had all contributed to the revolution in communications that has taken place in recent decades.
“The UK government initiated the QE Prize as a companion to the Nobels to raise the profile of engineering.
“It is endowed by industry and administered by an independent trust chaired by Lord Browne, a former chief executive of BP…
“Sir Tim may be the best known of the winners, certainly in the UK. Working with others in the late 1980s, he helped develop the world wide web, which radically simplified the way information could be shared on the net.
“Robert Kahn and Vinton Cerf provided the engineering insights that actually made the internet work. Their TCP/IP protocols define the way data travels around the internet.
“Louis Pouzin helped work out how data should be labelled so that it reached the right destination.
“Marc Andreessen is the man who developed Mosaic, the first popular browser for the web.
“The men were commended for having the foresight to make their work freely available and without restriction. The internet and the WWW could not have taken off in the same way without this open approach.” 
Tim Berners-Lee did his main work while working for CERN, a purely scientific institution with no concern for profit. Kahn and Cerf were US academics doing work for the US military. Pouzin was a French researcher. Only Marc Andreessen was a conventional entrepreneur, moving quickly to build on the work of others and making a lot of money by helping develop the Netscape Navigator. The core work was far removed from the world of commerce.
The police who searched the dead tycoon’s home for exotic hazards didn’t say “only one piece of noxious biological material was found, and it was dead in its bathroom”. But it would have been a fitting obituary for a man who accumulated vast personal wealth during the 1990s while most Russians got poorer, sicker and less happy.
Lots of developing countries have rags-to-riches stories, people rising from humble beginnings and helping develop the economy, as well as sometimes (not always) helping raise up their fellow citizens. Post-Soviet Russia has been the grand exception, very much “riches from rags”, a few people rising while the economy as a whole declined.
Before the Soviet collapse, Berezovsky was an unimportant mid-ranking individual in the stagnant but comfortable Soviet system. News sources seem unsure what he was, Mathematician or Applied Mathematician with a role in Forestry. What’s much clearer is that his rise occurred during Russia’s decline, following Yeltsin’s decision to do more or less what his Western advisors told him. The BBC puts it thus:
“His first career was as a mathematician, his second as a car salesman, his third as a political kingmaker, nicknamed Rasputin, under Russia’s first president Boris Yeltsin.
“Mr Berezovsky made his fortune importing Mercedes cars into Russia in the 1990s, and setting himself up as a middleman distributing cars made by Russia’s Avtovaz.
“While Avtovaz struggled to survive, Mr Berezovsky nevertheless made millions.
“By the mid-1990s, he was one of Russia’s leading oligarchs, a word used for those who made their fortunes during the wholesale privatisation of state assets.
“As well as taking ownership of the Sibneft oil company, he became the main shareholder in the country’s main television channel, ORT, which he turned into a propaganda vehicle for Boris Yeltsin in the run-up to the 1996 presidential election.
“He has survived numerous assassination attempts, including a bomb that decapitated his chauffeur…
“Although he helped Mr Putin enter the family, and funded the party that formed Mr Putin’s parliamentary base, the new president moved to regain control of the ORT television station, and to curb the political ambitions of Russia’s oligarchs.”
Since libel laws do not protect the dead, we will probably be getting a lot more details of the dirty deals quite soon. What interests me more is the overall politics.
Yeltsin stepped down and put in Putin when his “reforms” had visibly failed and a return to power by the Communist Party was a serious possibility. Putin was chosen to look after the interests of the new class of oligarchs, but presumably it was also agreed that the New Right idea of unfettered private capitalism had failed badly. He was given authority to introduce some curbs to stop the system collapsing altogether. Berezovsky may well have accepted this in principle. But when he found that he would have to bear part of the burden of saving the system, it seems he got indignant. Decided to invent his own rival politic movement that would let him go on doing what he wanted.
Berlusconi managed it in Italy, but Italy was in no danger of collapse. Russia was. Putin slapped down Berezovsky and other serious rivals, and there was general approval from ordinary Russians.
The same Western sources who gave the original bad advice were furious at being ignored and treated as fools or foes. But since most Russians already despised them, this can not have harmed Putin.
The killings of campaigning journalist Anna Politkovskaya and former KGB agent and paid MI6 informer Alexander Litvinenko was blamed on Putin by the overseas dissidents, and on the overseas dissidents by Putin’s people. Either are possible, but Putin had little reason to worry about overseas dissidents. The pro-Western dissidents as a whole have become a bad joke, with two dwindling liberal parties losing their last national representatives in the 2007 Russian Duma elections.
The post-mortem examination found that the man died by hanging, and there was nothing pointing to a violent struggle. Presumably suicide by a man who seems to have wasted his wealth on foolish struggles, some of them with his fellow oligarchs. And it’s likely that he’d realised that his opposition to Putin had failed completely. It’s claimed by the Kremlin he was trying to negotiate a return, presumably with existing criminal charges dropped. But perhaps Putin didn’t have any need for him.
Berezovsky probably understood the significance of Xi Jinping’s visit to Russia, which happened just before Berezovsky’s death. Xi Jinping has been party boss since November, but only now has become State President with the proper status for official overseas visits. He chose Russia first, emphasising that China wishes to prop Russia up rather than try to push it down any lower. His line was that “China’s friendship with Russia guarantees ‘strategic balance and peace'”. Presumably he is happy to see the USA exhaust itself and fail in the Middle East, with a Russia-China block serving as Official Opposition with no expansionist aims of its own.
An interesting interview has been attributed to the late oligarch:
“Exiled Russian tycoon and Kremlin critic Boris Berezovsky, who died Saturday, said the day before his death that ‘his life no longer made sense,’ according to interview published on Forbes’ Russian language website.
“My life no longer makes sense,’ he told journalist Ilya Zhegulev. ‘I have no desire to take part in politics.
“‘I don’t know what I should do. I am 67 years old and I don’t know what I should do from now on,’ said Berezovsky in the interview, published on the Forbes.ru website.
“Zhegulev said it had been an informal interview on Friday evening, which he had not recorded. He had promised Berezovsky not to publish it.
“But he decided to make it public after the oligarch was found dead in his home outside London in what police called unexplained circumstances.
“‘There is nothing that I wish more today than to return to Russia,’ he quoted Berezovsky as saying.
“‘I had underestimated how dear Russia is to me and how little I can stand being a émigré.’ Berezovsky has lived in exile in Britain for 13 years.
“‘I have changed my opinion on a lot of subjects. I had a very idealistic idea on how to build a democratic Russia. And I had an idealistic idea of what democracy is in the centre of Europe.
“‘I underestimated the inertia of Russia and greatly overestimated the West,’ Berezovsky said, according to Zhegulev’s report.”
It is better to be wise after the event than never to be wise at all, and it seems he had basically learned nothing and forgotten nothing. The actual rise of Britain and the rest of Western Europe began with a rather limited pluralism, extended very gradually to the wider population, reaching 60% of white males in Britain by the 1880s and never applied to the vast non-white majority in the British Empire.
Fast democratisation in the French Revolution led to chaos and ineffective government. Napoleon had majority support when he scrapped competitive elections and put himself in place as autocrat. Exactly the same thing has happened in dozens of places since them, but the “experts” seem unable to learn. Understanding has actually been going backwards since the 1970s.
Berezovsky died knowing that reality had failed to match the theory, but with no signs he drew any intelligent conclusions from this. This made him typical of the New Right and its hangers-on.
In 1991, George Bush Senior was handed the world on a plate, with the unexpected collapse of the Soviet Union. He knocked the plate over, sitting back and letting Russia fall apart when a couple of trillion in generous aid might have secured US hegemony for generations.
The hundreds of billions pumped into Western Europe and non-Communist East Asia after World War Two helped the USA win the Cold War. So did the enormous expenditure that allowed the USA to put men on the EarthMoon ahead of the Soviet Union, trumping Soviet successes with the first satellite, the first man in space and the first woman in space. All Bush Senior needed to do was stick to this winning formula to gain an historic victory by assimilating Russia into Anglo values, as Japan and Italy and West Germany had been assimilated. And perhaps undermine People’s China as well, since it was at a very low ebb ever after the mass protests and vicious crack-down of 1989.
That’s how it might have been. But by 1991, the West was dominated by New Right ideologues. Their wisdom was that the Marshall Plan and the era of so-called Keynesian Economics had been a hideous error which the West had been lucky to survive, while Outer Space was best left to private enterprise.
For the New Right ideologues, Western survival and prosperity while their ideas were scorned was remarkable good luck. The relative decline of the West under their management is equally puzzling. The loss of Russia after it followed their advice was down to the silly Russians not listening properly. Invading Iraq in 2003 was going to give them full power to remould a society. The 911 attacks on the Two Towers back in 2001 were so convenient that suspicions of some sort of US compliance are very reasonable.
But the mess in Iraq goes back 22 years, not just 10. Saddam had been defended and preserved as a useful ally during the Cold War. No major western leader complained then about him gassing the Kurds. When his war against Iran went wrong and he seemed likely to lose it, the West stepped in to pressurise Iran to make peace. But when he tried to win sensible terms for the debts he’d run up, neither the West nor the Gulf Arabs were sympathetic. They presumably hoped he’d fall and be replaced by someone less ‘uppity’. This hope continued during the years of suffering they inflicted on the Iraqi people between the two Gulf War, along with ludicrous stories about Weapons of Mass Destruction.
By 2003, the Wise Men from the West felt it was time to take over a suitable society and remould it completely. Surprisingly, boastful comments made at the time about how they’d rebuild Iraq have been allowed to fade from public memory.
Remoulding Iraq was never likely to work. Shoving aside local politicians and “doing it properly” is a common error by powers out to dominate the world. The USA did this when the toppled Diem in South Vietnam. The Russians did it in Afghanistan, when a pro-Soviet government was in trouble but was far from hopeless. Most recently in Iraq. the USA thought they could do it from scratch.
It’s not a method that is ever likely to work. It is different when you intrude a section of your own society and force the native population to adapt, as happened in much of the British Empire. Of course Britain managed it at a time when their prestige stood at its height and there was no other serious model of modernisation. And the white elite who ran the British Empire missed the chance of assimilating those they had modernised, insisting on keeping the lion’s share of power until the Empire was past saving.
For both Iraq and Afghanistan, the resultant mess cannot be denied, so the best defence is to pretend something much worse was due to happen. Having created the Civil War in Syria by advising the non-Islamic opposition not to compromise with Assad, the resultant mess is cited as a disaster that was averted in Iraq. It would make as much sense to claim that Blair and Bush saved us from the Jabberwock!
Had there been no Iraq War, a lot of dead people would still be alive. Islamism would be much weaker, and secular Arab politics much stronger.
Saddam was willing to change, so long as he retained power and he could be sure that his people would not be punished for things they did to give Iraq a coherent government. Events since his fall show very clearly that in Iraq and similar places, you can’t have a coherent government without repression.
It was foolish to think otherwise. The West created the modern world under various monarchical governments, some with parliaments, but always parliaments elected just by the rich. Britain had its Industrial Revolution with a parliament that was effectively controlled by a couple of hundred rich families. The 1832 reform extended this to just the richest seventh of the society (men only, of course.) It was only in the 1880s that a majority of adult males in the British Isles had the vote. The USA began earlier, more or less democratic for white males from the 1830s. But it took a bitter Civil War for four fifths of the nation to batter the remaining fifth into submission and end any notion of a right to secession.
So, the West wasn’t just ignoring that the Arab World was different. It was also fantasising about them could do what the West had not in fact done, form a modern state without repression. Solve the problem of secession or unity without brutality.
(Not that the West has got it right even now. Northern Ireland remains unresolved, with a long war ending with the IRA part of the regional government and hoping to win by electoral means.)
Like it or loath it, modern life is wholly built around the State Machine. A State Machine that is vastly larger, richer, more powerful and more intrusive than anything seen before in human history.
Pre-modern states were sometimes arbitrary and brutal, but mostly distant and unimportant for the majority. Britain accidentally tipped the balance heavily towards state power, because the English version of the Protestant Reformation was state-led and demolished many existing traditions. And because it prevented Puritan enthusiasts from creating new traditions in place of them. There was also an unofficial understanding that the gentry were outside of state regulation unless they did something outrageous.
Britain and the Netherlands had the highest taxes, the biggest military machines and the most intrusive states in Europe. The Netherlands went a long way towards creating a modern system, but was hampered by being a relatively small portion of Europe, and by having frontiers that any determined army could march across.
Britain’s industrial revolution occurred in cities that were further away from London than any portion of the Netherlands was from its main political and trading centres. The Netherlands was occupied several times during various wars. Britain has never been successfully invaded from outside itself without a direct attack on its south-eastern corner. (And these successes depended on not facing any large portion of Britain at any one time: there were always some Britons who supported and helped each successful invader.)
The relationship between trade, politics, learning and productive industry is a complex dynamic that that was only partly understood by Marx. He was however way ahead of any of the rival thinkers of his day. He didn’t share Adam Smith’s foolish belief that Britain’s industrial success happened despite the state and despite the intense protection against foreign commerce that were the actual conditions of this breakthrough. He and Engels did have a hangover of this belief, seeing the State Machine as just a tool of the rich and something that the victorious Proletariat would have no need of. It would have been much more accurate to have said that the State Machine is a way of pooling the interests of some or all of those it governs, though not necessarily with equal care for all men and women. Seldom with a notion that equality of men and women was even desirable, until very recently. But always with the necessary curbing of various individual acts that the state machine classifies as damaging to the common interest
Common interest and “the general will” run into two problems. Firstly, there is no single understanding of what these should be, with vast difference even within a culture on the key matters of sex, marriage, property and social obligations. Second, there is also what one might call “the disagreement between anybody and everybody”. To take a simple example, almost everybody would prefer to live among people who didn’t tell lies and didn’t break their promises. But almost anybody will encounter cases where it would be more convenient to lie and much easier not to keep particular inconvenient promises. A small number of individuals will set aside personal advantage regardless. A rather larger number were in the past constrained by the notion of one or more supernatural beings who would punish lies, oath-breaking and other offences (which was the usefulness of religion, a concept beyond the understanding of Professor Dawkins and other theophobes.) But for the most part, a workable society depends on enforcement, either by a tribe or a state.
The role of the state may be small in an unchanging society where most people live among the same neighbours for the whole of their life, and where customs go back to “time out of mind”. (Which is typically centuries, sometimes much less, but mostly believed to be thousands of years or perhaps eternity in societies where such controls actually work.)
When society gets more mobile and values less certain, the State Machine has always and everywhere expanded to keep society coherent.
The right-wing response to these off-message facts follows Adam Smith, claiming that British industrial and commercial success happened despite the growth of the state. The minor fact that every other successful modern economy had a modern and intrusive state seems not to bother them. They prefer to concentrate on cases where a modern and intrusive state did a bad job, most notably the Soviet Union from the 1970s.
With as much logic, you could refute the common notion that “you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs” by throwing a few eggs onto the ground and pointing out that the resultant gooey mess was nothing like an omelette
State-building is a tricky process, and a successful government will be careful to apply brutality selectively, in ways which do not alienate either the dominant majority or minorities whose loyalty they need. A modern State Machine is expensive and is difficult to keep in smooth running order in an ever-changing world. Yet it is a necessity if you’re not minded to return to pre-industrial conditions, which anyway could not support more than a fraction of the modern population.
Modernisation has always and everywhere involved the suppression of older habits by a State Machine. But the New Right fail to see it.
The modern New Right also reject the older conservative notion that the state did have a responsibility to look after the needy, and also might sensibly subsidise some things and supply other things free, in the interest of a harmonious social order. They will note, accurately, that this has to be funded from somewhere, mostly by taxing well-off people who would sooner spend the money on themselves, or perhaps on a charity of their choice. Since they’d sooner spend the money on themselves, taxing them limits their freedom. From this, with a definite slither or slight of hand in the chain of logic, they say that taxes as such are the same as theft or totalitarian tyranny. And the success of Britain, the USA and their imitations is based on having Freedom, which obviously includes less tax.
No human system has ever existed that didn’t stop some of the people doing things they might regard as legitimate freedom. Britain during its Industrial Revolution was “free” in the sense that Britons had an agreed area of freedom that matched what the dominant elements in the society believed to be proper for Britons. It was mostly not applied to people ruled by the British Empire who were not classified as Overseas Britons. The freedom-loving Westminster Parliament also decided that British North Americans were not fit to elect even one Westminster MP, and then were amazed that British North Americans would not be taxed without representation.
Despite the loss of British North America, that same Parliament maintained a system until 1832 in which a couple of hundred rich families controlled a majority of seats in the House of Commons. Fear of revolution prompted them to extend it to the richer one-seventh of male Britons. Not until the 1880s did a majority of Britons living in the British Isles have a vote to elect MPs to the Westminster Parliament. The much vaster population of the British Empire was required to obey the Westminster Parliament until the Empire as a whole became unsustainable.
The current fashion, and not just among the New Right, is to treat pluralism and democracy as if they were the same thing, and both guaranteed by a Western style system of multi-party elections. Life would be simple if it were so, but life is not simple and it is not so, not even half true. Pluralism and democracy are inherently enemies, though there are also systems that are neither. A dominant minority who cannot be turned out of power can afford to be tolerant: a government with eyes on the next election may find it convenient to whip up prejudices and blame unpopular minorities.
Back in February, my guess about the forthcoming Papal election was “ethnic balance would suggest a Latin American, but there seems a lack of strong individuals among them. Maybe too many of the best were tainted with Liberation Theology.” Like most people, I had not heard of the individual who is now Pope Francis. He wasn’t listed as a strong candidate, even though we are now told he was second choice when Ratzinger was selected. It must have helped that his parents came from Italy.
That an Argentinean bishop should support the Argentine claim to the Falklands was expected, and not serious. The controversy has been about Argentina’s own bloodstained past.
During Argentina’s Dirty War, he didn’t support the Junta, but he also kept his distance from the supporters of Liberation Theology who were being targeted. What else would one expect from a man who believed Catholic tradition to be valid? “Obedience Theology” was the choice of the Church during and after the French Revolution, when it saw an upsurge of anti-Christian radicalism. Existing rulers might not be very Christian, but they saw the Church as useful. The radicals saw it as something to be shoved into the dustbin of history.
A study of the roots of Christianity strongly suggest that the dustbin of history is where the creed belongs. But you’d not expect a pope to accept this, any more than you’d expect him to start saying nice things about Luther and Mohammed.
What we now think of as Christianity was largely a Greek invention, adapting and almost certainly distorting a short-lived movement that flourished in the last days of the conquered Jewish communities in Canaan. The Jewish movement was expecting the End of the World, but not the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, assumed to be protected by God. The Book of Revelations contains all sorts of bizarre disasters, but no mention is made of any harm happening to the Temple before its renewal in the ‘New Heaven and New Earth’ (produced without New Labour).
Awkwardly, history went otherwise. The Temple was utterly destroyed after a short-lived Jewish revolt, and the world carried on much as before. Communities of Jews in the wider Roman world were able to live with this: they lived their own lives and expected Salvation to come in the far future, with the assurance of a place in heaven before that. But for Jewish Christianity it was a baffling and demoralising outcome, and it seems to have faded and been absorbed by its Greek offshoot.
Greeks had been conquered by the Romans a couple of generations back. The best of their culture had been assimilated, and it was anyway a culture based on being a dominant elite. For ordinary Greek-speakers, the modified Jewish creed being pushed by missionaries like Paul of Tarsus would indeed have seemed like a Godsend. It offered a way of co-existing with the conquerors while feeling superior to them. And Paul managed to get it accepted that converts could be full members of the Church without accepting Jewish customs, alien to most Greek-speakers. The Acts of the Apostles records this struggle from the viewpoint of the winners.
But co-existence is an inherently unstable relationship. It can easily tip on the one hand into becoming lackeys and on the other into becoming rebels and creating your own new order. But in the 20th century, it no longer seems likely that any group of Christians will create a new order. Radicalism is mostly non-religious and faith is mostly conservative.
Britain and the USA were on good terms with the Argentine Junta until it grabbed the Falkland Islands. Pinochet in Chile had maybe killed more than his Argentine counterparts, and had overthrown a democratically elected left-wing government, but he was still valued at the time. Only after the end of the Cold War did the Anglosphere rat on him.
The current Anglo view of the Dirty War is based on global defeat of Leninism, which might not have happened if several Latin American countries had gone revolutionary in the 1980s. Most of them are not making an issue of similar methods being used against Islamists, who are currently dangerous. Their understanding of the broad movements of history is very limited, which is why they are better at messing things up than creating anything decent as a replacement.
And what about this Pope’s ‘conservative theological positions’. My view is that an old religion in the modern world is either conservative or doomed. It can’t in the long term concede enough to satisfy modernists. It may make some doubters happy in the short term, people who don’t want to live by the traditional rules but also retain an attachment to the Church. The nature of this attachment is rather nicely described by Alain de Botton in Religion for Atheists. Much smarter and more balanced than theophobes like Professor Dawkins, he recognises how an established religion gives a good forum for our inherent need for community.
“The Church lends its enormous prestige, accrued through age, learning and architectural grandeur, to our shy desire to open ourselves to someone new.”
There’s nothing to stop anyone forming a Church of Christian Non-Believers, except it would seem ridiculous to most people. Various political creeds have done a better job of this, as have some artistic movements. Also fan groups for Tolkien and Star Trek and Star Wars: a surprisingly large number of Britons have given their religious affiliation as Jedi.
The weakness of most substitutes is that they don’t give you a definite answer if you ask for guidance on tricky moral issues. Pope Francis rightly says that the Church has no real point in its existence if it does not do this.
This March, China completed another smooth hand-over of power. It confirmed the pattern of a complete replacement of its top leaders every ten years. The two top party leaders became President and Premier, as expected. This regular change-over duplicates the best feature of the West’s competitive party politics, avoiding the Soviet pattern of tired old leaders hanging on to power until they die of old age.
Would fully competitive electoral politics in imitation of the West give the Chinese better government than they have already? It would be a world first if it did. The most successful competitive systems are no better at giving the public what the public want. And those have all had electoral systems that grew slowly on top of stable traditions.
The Chinese seem to know this. They are better off than India, and quite happy to say so:
“The gang rape of a Swiss tourist in India over the weekend has attracted wide attention. The Indian rape epidemic has not only shocked the world, but shamed the country which prides itself on being the largest democracy in the world. The frequent rape cases cast a shadow on the quality of Indian democracy.
“India’s rape problem comes from two things. India has a deeply rooted social discrimination against women. And India’s rule of law is loose and government management is lacking.
“These two things are closely linked to each other, and directly decide the level of India’s social progress and the quality of its democracy.
“There are both pluses and minuses in the traditional culture and social habits of any nation. The process of modernization is accompanied by changes in social customs, and the rivalry between tradition and modernization can be fierce.
“India has long entered the rank of democratic countries and started its modernization. However, the country stays in the past when it comes to the status of women.
“Even in the 21st century, there are still obsolete social customs such as forced marriage and widow-burning. The frequent rapes mirror such bad social habits.
“The largest democracy still maintains the most backward practices in the world. Such a sharp contrast highlights the weakness and incompetence of India’s democratic system.” 
There is also some recognition in the West that China is doing OK. Thus from The Guardian:
“There are conflicting assessments of how far and fast Mr Xi can go in turning around that great supertanker of state. It is debatable whether he has to. Since the start of the banking crisis, China’s GDP has grown by 52.5%, as opposed to America’s paltry 2.4 % or Britain’s, which has slipped back four percentage points. Mr Xi’s intentions will remain a political mystery.” 
Women are much safer in China than India. They have not, however, got political equality yet. There seems a general East Asian pattern of men only for the very top jobs, though women may have important posts on the second and lower tiers of power.
There were other significant changes. When the top seven leaders were selected for the new Politburo Standing Committee back in November 2012, someone made a shrewd observation which I missed at the time:
“The new PBSC is more than one year older on average than the last one (63.4 vs 62.1 years). The new leaders who were promoted to the Standing Committee are all sixty-four years old or older. Of the seven members, all but General Secretary Xi Jinping and the presumptive premier Li Keqiang will need to retire in five years after one term. At that time, five (or more, depending on the size of the next PBSC) additional politicians now on the Politburo will get the chance to move up.
“Seniority, plus a norm of five-year instead of ten-year terms, allows power, patronage, and the other rewards of top office to be shared more widely so that no one loses too much. Xi Jinping can work to get his close associates into the PBSC in 2017…
“In this transition, there were eight Politburo members competing for five PBSC slots, which means three disappointed and potentially disgruntled losers: Wang Yang (age fifty-seven), Li Yuanchao (age sixty-two), and Liu Yandong (female, age sixty-seven). Wang Yang and Li Yuanchao likely will be consoled with a soft promise (not enforceable, of course) that they will move up next time. The only one who has reached the glass ceiling is Madame Liu, and they are probably counting on her, as one of the very rare women ever to rise to a senior political position, not to push back.” 
It also means that Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang will be a very powerful leadership team, assuming they do work together harmoniously. In five years time they can play a large role in selecting their own likely replacements, and then have another five years in the top jobs before a new top team need be selected from those they choose.
 Botton, Alain de. Religion for Atheists, page 32 of the 2012 Penguin edition.