Notes On The News
by Gwydion M Williams
The British Economy and the “Heavenly Creatures”
The Mundane Usefulness of Esoteric Science
Bury My Heart at Tahrir Square
Liberation by State Power
The 20th century was mostly about “Liberation by State Power”. It would have been nice if it had happened otherwise, by a spontaneous outbreak of virtue among ordinary people. But realistically, whatever spontaneous outbreaks of virtue might occur were ineffective unless they forced or persuaded the state to back them. Or to break and re-create the state, but that doesn’t happen easily and has only been done by people with harshly authoritarian attitudes.
The other main exception was “National Liberation”, people against a state they don’t view as entitled to rule them. Yet this process has never yet produced any other outcome than the creation of a fairly standard modern state on the basis of a revived nationality. And with most of the governing machinery of the former rulers taken over, sometimes under new names.
Note also that National Liberation has often been helped by one empire state using separatists to undermining another, or simply decreeing the new “liberated” state as part of the peace. And after World War Two, when the liberated people themselves were the main factor, this was almost always under Leninist leadership.
When it comes to people in existing states expanding their personal freedoms, this has always been by bringing the state round to their point of view.
The big successes since the 1960s have been the Feminist Movement, Anti-Racism, Multi-Culturalism, Gays and the Green Movement. All of these have in practice looked to the state to defend them, rather than supposing that the state should withdraw and let “spontaneous social forces” sort it out. They may also grumble about state power, and on occasions accuse the state of persecuting them. Occasional persecutions happen, of course. But the reality in Britain and most other places is that the state is pushing these causes against a noisy but mostly ineffective opposition. (Against people who can generate nothing better than the “UK Independence Party”.)
The big defeats since the 1960s have been suffered by the Trade Unions and by socialists in Europe, especially Britain. But this was mostly a self-inflicted wound by the Left. Too many people had an attitude of “don’t take ‘yes’ for an answer”. Rather, don’t accept a positive but limited advance or an imperfect solution. Sabotage all such half-measures in the belief that this will give you just what you want. Whine a lot and learn nothing when the opposite happens. Rather than learning from your mistakes, learn all of your mistakes and go on to repeat them exactly.
There was also a generalised feeling on the left that state power was inherently bad, paving the way for nightmarish “corporatism”. The most influential book on the matter was The State in Capitalist Society by non-Leninist Marxist Ralph Miliband, father of David and Ed Miliband.
Though Ralph Miliband’s outlook was very different from New Labour, New Labour was a very logical outcome if you start from the view of the state as something dangerous and inherently oppressive. It was very much the mood of the 1960s, found among many people who’d never taken notice of Ralph Miliband or similar thinkers.
It’s time to say that this view of state power was wrong. Not just slightly wrong. A system of “unwisdom” that needs to be thrown out and denounced if left-wing politics are ever going to make progress again in Britain and the rest of Europe. (Or possibly the rest of Europe without Britain.)
The 1960s began a process that expanded “acceptable freedoms” way beyond what would have seemed possible in the 1950s. This was fine in itself, but the rhetoric asserted that this was a simple assertion of “freedom” against “oppression”. Though there were clear limits to the degree of freedom most people would find acceptable, this was always evaded. Most people (myself included) supported the idea of limiting depictions of violence and wholly banning depictions of under-age sex. But this was very seldom described as a sensible limit upon freedom. The typical line was “freedom is unlimited – but if I don’t like it, it isn’t really freedom. This sounds nice, until you realise that it can potentially be applied to almost anything. Can be used to remove some of the things you regard as “essential freedoms”.
Freedom will always have to have some limits. Admitting this is useful when trying to decide just what those limits should be. What’s actually happened is that governments using anarchistic and libertarian rhetoric dismantled necessary economic controls, with predictable results. And have also used the threat of terrorism to undermine the long-cherished principle that the security services can’t invade people’s privacy unless they can convince a judge that there is reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.
Freedom operates within the arena of necessity. Pretending otherwise helps no one.
Radicals will achieve nothing whatsoever without making use of a standard modern state. Anarchism has turned out to be a creed that flourishes entirely within out-of-date systems in need of reform, most notably Tsarist Russia and 1930s Spain. In both cases, the outbreak of actual political disorder was fatal to anarchism as a political creed. New authoritarian systems sprung up, incorporating many who had started out as anarchists. (This also happened with Italian Fascism.)
Anarchists like to look back to pre-state societies and suppose that they are removing an historic anomaly by abolishing the state. Actually the norm for pre-state societies is slavery, local warfare, blood-feud, obligatory kin ties and a complex collection of superstition that is not systematic enough to be a religion. Almost all are alien to the social values of anarchism, apart from the one small matter of not having a state.
People who overthrow an existing system invariably bump into the harsh reality that you can’t run a modern society without a state. Nor end disorders without being even tougher and more ruthless than the original oppressive order you were protesting against.
Which also suggests that it’s not so smart to overthrow an existing system which shows some willingness to change. I said this during the “Arab Spring” – in both Egypt and Syria, it would have been much wiser for Westernised liberals to work with the existing regimes, which were willing to change when their survival was threatened.
China is another interesting case. Up to 1920, anarchism was a more important creed than Marxism. But when they learned that the Russian Revolution was Marxist-Leninist, some of the best Chinese radicals decided to copy this successful system. China had overthrown its monarchy in 1912 and remained in chaos: Russia had done so in 1917 and was now coherent again. So they abandoned anarchism, after some thought. One who did so (with some reluctance) was the young Mao, already an important local leader in Hunan. He looked at the alternatives and decided anarchism simply wasn’t going to work. He also repeatedly rejected chances to go and study overseas, thinking that he could learn more at home, and turned out to be correct. He saved Chinese Communism after Moscow-trained leaders almost wrecked it, led it to victory and sanctioned the complete transformation of the society by a Leninist political machine. But then in the mid-1960s, his older anarchist notions must have re-surfaced. In the Cultural Revolution he tried putting ordinary young Chinese in charge of the society, and it didn’t really work. After his death, the Leninist political machine under Deng’s leadership made a compromise with Global Capitalism, which worked well, but mostly because the machine never let go of the society, even though controls were eased.
Let’s admit that the “withering away of the state” is an ideal for the far future, if indeed it is possible at all. For now, socialists should insist that past “liberations by state power” were entirely correct in the various situations as they actually existed. And that a return to state regulation of the economy is essential.
The British Economy and the “Heavenly Creatures”
There’s a sad habit of viewing the self-made rich as “Heavenly Creatures”, superior persons that the rest of us depend on. And that normal rules should not apply to them.
This viewpoint is associated with the rise of the urban middle class (bourgeois), but is not confined to them. It can apply to some sorts of anti-bourgeois rebels – rebels usually have a lot in common with the people they are rebelling against. Or it can be purely personal and flourish among the powerless, as with the two teenage girls in the Peter Jackson film Heavenly Creatures. Dostoyevsky had it bracketed in both Crime and Punishment and The Possessed, though he had no coherent alternative. (His exact beliefs are uncertain: he clearly doubted the truth of the Orthodox Christian faith he had been raised in, but could suggest no coherent alternative.)
Note also that this notion of a self-made superior person challenged and substantially destroyed an older notion of privilege. Replaced a much more oppressive system in which status was basically determined by birth, with some modest rises or falls permitted over several generations. You find the older idea in the plays of Shakespeare, whose father was a successful businessman and whose mother came from a family of minor gentry. Shakespeare himself by his success as a playwright and actor-manager made the sort of modest rise that was acceptable at the time. None of his plays show any positive images of self-made men, “upstarts”.[a]
The whole world of inherited privilege has passed away. It is foolish of socialists to be concerned with the small remnants (such as Britain’s Royal Family) when a whole new game has started.
The idea of business people as “Heavenly Creatures” seems to be the real belief behind the Neo-Liberal blather of the New Right. It massively contradicts the other doctrine, markets as self-regulating entities, which would imply that those involved would do nothing clever for themselves and be guided just by the “Invisible Hand” of market forces. This aspect is ignored, and instead it is asserted that the “Invisible Hand” would stop business people from just benefiting themselves when state regulations were removed.
Once there was nothing to stop business people from just benefiting themselves, that is exactly what they did. Paid themselves
The global Overclass that became dominant from the 1980s takes a much bigger chunk of the social wealth without actually improving average growth in the developed economies. And as I said earlier, only state power can re-curb this enormously powerful Overclass. Socialists should stop being frightened of this option.
Since a lot of people can fancy themselves as “Heavenly Creatures”, it is also worth defining what this Overclass actually consists of. The entry level is to have two or three million in investible capital. People who have houses or retirement funds in the millions are well above the rest of us, yet still not Overclass. Anyone with less than a million is definitely not Overclass and stop deluding themselves that they are. (It seems that 25% of US citizens believe themselves to be part of the richest 1%. 200% of US citizens are bad at simple arithmetic.)
Considering the Overclass, this particular batch of “Heavenly Creatures” tend to be vain, banal and not very competent outside a few narrow areas. It is not a conspiracy, and lacks the coherence of a ruling class. It is a mob of disconnected rich individuals who have a notion of what helps people like them, but seldom make sacrifices or forgo advantages for the sake of the Overclass in general. The mirror-image of the Underclass.
George Soros, who’s one of the more wide-thinking of the Overclass, correctly outlined a winning strategy after the Soviet Collapse. There needed to be a Marshall Plan for Russia, money pumped in to ensure that ordinary Russians had no reason to regret the Soviet Collapse. By his own account, he was laughed to scorn by the swarms of second-rate right-wing thinkers who buzz around the Overclass. (And occasionally join it through exceptional literary success.)
Much to the surprise of the Overclass and its stagnant Think Tanks, Russia saw a drastic fall in its living standards when New Right ideas were applied. And many of them did indeed come to regret the Soviet Collapse. Parties pushing their own version of Western Liberalism sank into well-deserved oblivion. It seemed very possibly that the Russian Communists might be returned to power via a Western-style competitive election. Putting Putin into power and taking account of the popular discontent avoided this. But hardly anyone in the West seems to understand that Putin is the best Russian friend they are likely to get.
The Overclass has also been ignorant and foolish in their broad effort to undermine People’s China. Banging on about Tibet plays well in the West, among the people you don’t particularly need. It deeply offends almost all Chinese citizens, including those hostile to Communist Party rule. Extending to who otherwise would like to mindlessly copy what the West offers them. And as well as Tibet, it also would not hurt to make a comprehensive apology for the Opium Wars and subsequent Western misdeeds. But the swarm of intellectuals they have acquired tend to be chauvinistic about European values. They please themselves and unintentionally sabotage their own purposes by showing a general disdain for Chinese values.
All of this is down to the Overclass not being a coherent entity able to make rational plans. It is not a ruling class, though it includes the remnants of those who once ruled without having to sound democratic. It is as scrappy as the Underclass. It has the same false glamour and the same inability of most individual members to trust each other.
The Overclass have also been mediocre in developing world wealth, the area they were supposed to be good at. They have been good at hovering up wealth already existing in the society, but not at making a better life for everyone. The initial promise was “trickle down” – that giving the rich a free hand would create a mass of extra wealth that would trickle down to the rest of the society. This never happened, except maybe in China, where the state always kept a firm grip. Elsewhere it was clear it had not happened: the right quietly dropped it. And the left let them get away with it rather than continuously taunting them with it. New Labour did not want to reject the shift from “corporatism” just because it had not delivered as promised.
New Labour swallowed the New Right notion that business does best when least regulated. And that new wealth is only created when the profit motive applies. The state is always bad, private enterprise is almost always good and should be defended from “red tape” and burdensome regulations.
This is the mentality that allows Apple, Amazon and Google to feel good about using devious but legal methods to avoid paying their fair share of tax. Tax is bad, so rich people avoid it is no worse than rich people securing better medical care for themselves and better education for their children. Besides, economic orthodoxy says that they are doing best for everyone if they pursue their own selfish interests. An “Invisible Hand” will take care of it all.
This was the doctrine of Adam Smith, apparently dead in the 1940s to 1970s, revived in the 1980s. But though the Keynesian system was in trouble, the New Right cure produced no long-term gain, apart from an increase in the share of wealth taken by the very rich.
The highly successful methods applied in the 1940s to 1970s are denounced as “Corporatism”, when the aim is to move away from them. But also praised as “Capitalism”, to claim credit for their successes. The same is done with China’s post-Mao system, which is vastly more regulatory and interventionist than the West’s Corporatism ever was.
(You can get the hard facts from The World Economy: Historical Statistics by Angus Maddison. Also Kicking Away the Ladder , by Ha-Joon Chang. And a refutation of the Invisible Hand in Forecast: What Physics, Meteorology, and the Natural Sciences Can Teach Us About Economics, by Mark Buchanan You can also get a detailed study and refutation of Adam Smith’s ideas in my book, Adam Smith: Wealth without Nations. Surprisingly, this seems to be the only left-wing study of the man’s main work, at least in English.)
It is also worth noting that Adam Smith was a Deist who privately despised Christianity. Deists often think that God will take care of the world, just as other religions do. Unlike most religions, Deism makes none of the good or bad demands that regular religions impose.
What did Thatcher do for Britain? Between the second quarter of 1979 and the fourth quarter of 1990, the average annual growth rate of the economy was 2.3 per cent, no better than Britain’s postwar norm. People credited Thatcher with having shifted Britain from a century of relative decline to three decades where the US, Germany and France did a lot better. But it would be more accurate to say that Germany, France and Italy slowed down till they were doing no better than Britain. Which may have been because the era of fixed currencies ended. Or may have been because of China’s growing role.
The Mundane Usefulness of Esoteric Science
We are told that the “Heavenly Creatures” of private business need to have salaries tens of times greater than the average employee. Even hundreds of times greater. It is loudly asserted that they deserve it.
Meantime some of the best minds on the planet can be employed at maybe 50% above the average salary, seldom more than twice the average. These are scientists, not involved in the “war for wealth” that preoccupies the Overclass.
Europe’s rise to global dominance began with emergence of networks of scientists freely communicating their results, and with sailing ships that established a network of trade across most of the known world, and in fact beyond it to the New World of the Americas. Similar things had happened in the past in other civilisations, but had fizzled out. The Counter-Reformation did successfully extinguish original science in Italy, which produced few original minds between Galileo and the 20th century. But elsewhere, science flourished and Europe steadily got an advantage over the rest of the world.
You get the demands that science be “more practical”. Actually that’s not a good idea. Many of the most valuable ideas come from unexpected uses of pure research. For instance liquid nitrogen was produced in a purely intellectual search for lower temperatures. But it has a range of uses, including removing warts and creating superior ice cream (two entirely separate processes).
Esoteric studies of Quantum Mechanics produced an understanding of solid-state electronics that allowed the first transistors to be produced. And which lies behind the vast mass of small cheap electronic devices we now enjoy.
When CERN confirmed the existence of the Higgs Boson, some people asked “so what”? Actually, it mattered a lot. The Higgs Field was almost certain to exist, but might not express itself as a Higgs Boson. Or there might be a several of them. Current evidence indicates what the magazine New Scientist called a “boringly normal Higgs”, nothing pointing to an understanding beyond the Standard Model of particle physics. But more could turn up with further studies or higher energies. And if the SF notions of anti-gravity, instant communication and faster-than-light travel are ever realised, it will be via a deeper understanding of physics that includes sorting out the nature of the Higgs Boson
Its understandable that profit-based companies see the benefits in having the best available managers. Also it is a matter paying people like themselves. People at the top prefer not to stick out too much. Not having the best scientists is less obviously damaging. But that’s why the state has to play a big role, forcing profit-based companies to serve the public interest and covering areas that they would ignore.
Bury My Heart at Tahrir Square [Coup in Egypt]
The Arab Spring was hailed by the Western media as another triumph for Liberal Capitalism. Autocrats had fallen and we would now have peace and prosperity thanks to clean governments elected through the Western system of competitive electoral politics based on universal franchise. All would now be fine.
Then reality hit.
We were fed the story that a majority of Egyptians had rejected Morsi. Had this been true, there would have been every reason to promise new elections after the coup. So clearly it is not true. Total baloney.
Two-thirds of the voters had voted for some sort of Islamism. Morsi was overthrown because he was trying to implement something like the will of the majority.
The protestors were a mixed bag, many former supporters of the Mubarak regime, and some harder-line Islamists. And some Westernised liberals, but they are a much smaller faction than their appearances in the Western media suggested.
In the Egyptian parliamentary election, 2011–12, a block led by the Muslim Brotherhood won 37.5% of the vote and 45% of the seats. [b]
Next came the Islamist Bloc, two Salafist parties in alliance who got 28% of the vote and 25% of the seats.
Third was New Wafd Party, secular and state-orientated, got 9% of the votes and 7.5% of the seats
The strongest more-or-less liberal party was the Egyptian Bloc, 9% of the votes and 6.5% of the seats.
National Democratic Party, the official party under Mubarak and Sadat, got 6.5% of the votes and 3.5% of the seats.
(All figures rounded to the nearest half percentage, and with many more small parties making up the balance.)
The protests that undermined Morsi was a mix of incompatible elements. New elections would almost certainly confirm that the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists between them have a clear majority, and perhaps persuade them to work together. But the coup was broadly old-regime, though including some Islamist elements opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood.
The problem goes back many decades. Nasser’s secular regime was inconvenient for the West, but mostly because it demanded equality. The Saudi dynasty and other old-style rulers seemed safer, content to be lackeys of the West so long as they were allowed to maintain hereditary rule and a strict Islamic lifestyle at home.
Islamism was encouraged by the West as a counter to Arab Socialism. It successfully killed off Arab Socialism. But in societies that have felt the touch of Modernism, Islamists are not content to be lackeys.
“Formally, the Brotherhood abandoned its terrorist past in the 1970s under President Anwar Sadat, who wanted its backing against his political rivals on the left. It won popular support by providing social, educational and welfare services to fill the gaps left by the rickety Egyptian state and built up a formidable organisation across the country.
“Until the fall of Mubarak it spent years playing cat and mouse with the security authorities, its leaders often in prison though sometimes free to organise – but invariably viewed with suspicion by the state and many ordinary Egyptians who saw it as unpatriotic and disliked its distinctive blend of piety and politics. The Brotherhood won five elections after the January 2011 revolution, but millions of people still cheered the army’s removal of Morsi.”[c]
US foreign policy over the past few decades was based on a belief that Muslim hard-liners would be as pathetic in the face of rampaging capitalism as their own Christian Right have been. They have been something else.
Egypt’s liberals should have learned from the election that they are maybe one in ten and need to compromise. Instead they have learned nothing and forgotten nothing.
Likewise the Copts, who’d traditionally kept a low profile and looked to the state to protect them, are now implicated as foes of the Muslim Brotherhood. Some of their leaders backed the anti-Morsi protests, and they are now seen as enemies by the Muslim Brotherhood.
The situation now is horrible. I’d expect the next stage to be Civil War. And a mass flight of both Egyptian liberals and the Coptic Christian minority, one more group of Middle-Eastern Christians destroyed by Western “help”. And if the harder-line Islamists hope to take over the Muslim Brotherhood support, which seems likely, they are hardly likely to be more moderate.
Snoops and Terrorists
Traditional liberalism always prized privacy. It could not be an absolute, but it was held as a firm principle that no one should have their privacy violated without reasonable suspicion. Of course police and spies usually believe that their suspicions to be reasonable, and also like to do “trawls” among groups they see as containing a lot of undesirables. So traditionally it was put under outside control. They needed to get a warrant from a judge, who was supposed to uphold principles.
The Neo-Liberals have trashed that, with New Labour following them. The law used against David Miranda removes any need for “reasonable suspicion”. The authorities can detain anyone they please for up to nine hours and pry into their secrets, without the least indication before-hand that this person has done anything wrong. They can also jail their target for non-cooperation. And they can do it to someone who was simply in transit and had shown no intention of entering Britain.
The Act in question was passed on the assumption that the targets would be terrorist suspects. But it seems that the wording is much looser. People involved in revealing secret government snooping can be targeted, because it is useful to terrorists to know how much the government can snoop.
This happened, interestingly enough, at a time of a wave of unrelated stories relating to the internet and its anonymity. About young people driven to suicide by cyber-bullying. And by threats to some high profile women via the internet. Interestingly, the people who threatened high-status women are being caught and punished, quite properly. What seems odd is that the same zeal and efficiency is not being shown in tracking down threats to much more ordinary people.
My own view is that we need to drop the idea of internet anonymity. Introduce an Internet Passport. Sites can let you post anonymously, if they want. But they can report the real identify of anyone who gets threatening or intimidating, or uses the internet for criminal activities.
In forecasting a free digital future, people assumed that if there was no regulation, the wishes of the majority would prevail. That’s not how it has turned out. It’s been repeatedly shown that a few greedy or aggressive people can disrupt a community based on trust and cooperation.
They in turn are replaced by (or evolve into) corporations. Entities big enough so that ordinary users can assume they will be treated OK if they pay their fee.
Corporations will exploit their power in all sorts of bad ways, so state regulation is needed.
In the case of the internet, it evolved out of a US military project. They never let go of control of the root servers, though they were happy to let it mostly run wild so that it became popular, and to prevent alternative systems getting far. (The first was Britain’s Prestel, which remained small. The French Mintel was popular, but only among French speakers.)
One big element in the success of the Internet was that there was nothing to prevent it being used for pornography, digital piracy and loose chat that might be libellous.
As a bonus (from the US viewpoint), lots of people supposed that the Internet was secure. The US authorities probably hoped it would be secure against everyone except the US authorities. It actually proved not so hard for efficient national governments to also control, most notably in China.
Now we learn that the USA are using their snoop-power in ways that might be illegal. What did you expect?
What do you expect from a pig except a grunt?
Olympic foolishness [Russian Winter Olympics]
Male homosexuality is currently illegal in Afghanistan, Algeria, Angola, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Brunei, Burma, Burundi, Cameroon, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Iran, Jamaica, Kenya, Kuwait, Laos, Lesotho, Liberia, Libya, Malawi, Malaysia, Mauritania, Morocco, Namibia, Nigeria, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Singapore, Somalia, South Sudan, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Swaziland, Syria, Tanzania, Togo, Turkey, Uganda, United Arab Emirates, Yemen, Zambia and Zimbabwe.[d] (Some of these do allow lesbianism.)
All of these countries attend the Olympics, as far as I know. Qatar was given the World Football Cup, and only the very hot climate was raised as an issue.
Russia has de-criminalised homosexuality, but is currently asking homosexuals to keep a low profile. This was the existing situation in China in 2008, but no one mentioned it as a reason not to go. There is no logic to the sudden demand for a boycott of the Winter Olympics in Russia.
Or none except a general habit of getting at Russia, after Russia started ignoring Western advice that had visible failed to work.
The West moved very slowly from decriminalising homosexuality to normalising it. It went along with a general rise in prosperity. While in Russia, legal homosexuality was part of a bungled package of Westernisation that made most Russians poorer and less secure.
There is indeed a pattern of shocking homophobic violence in Russia. But not only in Russia. It’s really a very common human reaction. Feel low? Hit someone you rate as either lower or misbehaving, preferably both. Monkeys and non-human apes do it all the time, and we have not moved all that far from our ape heritage.
The boycotters ignore anti-homosexual laws and customary attitudes outside of Russia. They also ignore the likely results of their own actions.
What do they think the Russian reaction would be if they really did manage a boycott? Hardly a greater tolerance for gays. But the Western protestors evidently work within the tradition of “how to be politically active without achieving anything”, or “how to avoid getting your own lovely politics contaminated with vulgar prospects of achieving real but limited success”.
There is a lot of homophobic violence in Russia, but also a lot of violence in general. The internet may also contribute, abuse of homosexuals gets posted on the internet and gets circulated, allowing the perpetrators to feel they have at least got themselves noticed.
[a] There is Cardinal Wolsey in Henry 8th, which however is probably not entirely by Shakespeare. And in any case, Wolsey is not shown very positively and in due course “falls like Lucifer”