Notes On The News
by Gwydion M Williams
When Ed Miliband promised some minor measures against profiteering gas companies, the Tories accused him of attacking the “wealth creators” who were essential to Britain’s future.
Note that he didn’t say anything new about tax avoidance. Ending tax avoidance is everyone’s official policy, but the Tories seem to take care to do as little as they can. New Labour failed to tackle, and for that matter Old Labour did nothing much about it, though it was small in the days of Harold Wilson and James Callahan. But they failed to tackle currency speculation, which did a lot to ruin the technocratic-socialist values they cherished.
Labour – Old and New – seem to accept the basic idea of rich people as “Wealth Creators”, Heavenly Creatures who must be given broad freedom to do what they want. They notice that some people accumulate a lot of wealth, and assume that this must be new wealth added to the society.
Supermarkets are great accumulators of wealth, but whether they are Wealth Creators is more moot. They are definitely destroyers of jobs, taking trade away from small shops which then go out of business. They are also increasingly replacing checkout staff with automatic checkouts, destroying yet more jobs. You can see this as convenient for shoppers, but they also do everything they legally can to tempt shoppers into over-eating. Including sweets placed at the checkout in most of them, mostly to tempt children brought along with their parents, but also a lure for adults.
Elsewhere, entrepreneurs have helped create new industries, but mostly things that were happening anyway. Microsoft succeeded without doing a single thing that was new: what they did was copy existing methods in a cheap and easy way. And it was built in part on sheer luck: they were given the middling-important task of writing the Operating System for what was originally the IBM Personal Computer, one of many alternatives in the early days. Unexpectedly, various rival companies (none of them connected with Microsoft) found legal ways of producing computers that would run the software written for an IBM Personal Computer. Microsoft then showed some cunning in letting computer manufacturers give away the Microsoft Operating System free with the computer: their other software worked rather better with their own operating system than did software from rival manufacturers. Microsoft’s business software became the unofficial standard.
Luck and greed and marketable skills make a few people very rich. This is mostly way out of proportion to whatever wealth they may have added. A lot of the pioneers made very little money out of their innovations.
As well as entrepreneurs, most senior managers are now getting much bigger salaries compared to the working mainstream than they did in before the 1980s. They are not doing a better job in the USA or UK: growth decade by decade has actually been slightly slower than it was in the 1950s and 1960s. Even the troubled 1970s were no worse than the Thatcher-dominated 1980s, despite the vast boost from North Sea Oil. Things since then have been slightly worse, leading on to the slump that began in 2008 and shows no signs of ending.
It has been Soviet failure that demoralised the left and energised the New Right. But with hindsight, we can see that the Soviet Union and the other European Leninist states were attempting to do a reform of the sort that People’s China carried through successfully under Deng Xiaoping.
Chinese reforms never gave a free hand to the “wealth creators”, who are allowed to get rich but are expected to know their place, and slapped down by the party authorities if they forget. Likewise markets are used but heavily controlled. Land is farmed individually but still publicly owned. The currency is very heavily controlled. In all, it is a vastly more state-regulated and state-dominated system than what existed in the USA
Anti-fascists who treated 1930s Britain as a doubtful friend had sound reasons. If the teenage Ralph Miliband found mainstream British exasperating, so did many left-wing Britons
Britain as a whole became anti-Fascist only after Hitler’s Fascism became visible anti-British, and Mussolini chose to follow him. Splitting Czechoslovakia into Czech and Slovak halves wasn’t particularly wicked: the same split was chosen by the peoples themselves soon after they became free of Moscow rule. Annexing the Czech portion was bad, but no worse than things that Hitler had got away with before. But it was decidedly anti-British, or seen as such in the late 1930s, when the British Empire was still a global superpower and thought that major changes to sovereign territories should not be made without their approval.
The odd thing is, if Hitler had been more patient and polite, he might have got most of what he wanted from both Czechoslovakia and Poland with British approval. Probably not annexation of the Czech lands, but the existing government was subordinate to his wishes and he could have left it alone, or annexed it after he had won the world war. His mistake was to think he could do it without bothering to ask. His demands on Poland were not unreasonable, but since he had not been satisfied with what he had been given with the Munich Agreement, the Poles were understandably unwilling to trust him.
It is also possible that Hitler could have repaired good relations with the British Empire even after his blunder over Czechoslovakia. He wanted Danzig, and it was in fact the most reasonable of all his demands, but he didn’t actually need Danzig. He could have waited till later. Waited till after he had defeated the Soviet Union, which he probably could have had he not been fighting a simultaneous war with Britain and the USA.
It is notable also that although most Britons had come round to the idea of an alliance with the Soviet Union after Hitler broke the Munich Agreement, the British government seemed anxious to avoid it and were stalling. Probably the hope was that Hitler would see his error and back down, after which he might be indirectly helped to attack the Soviet Union. Instead he made a further blunder, making a deal with Stalin to give him a free hand to invade Poland. Stalin undoubtedly saw that this would end forever the chance of Britain working with Nazi Germany.
Britain had formed a National Government in 1931: elements of the Liberals and part of the Labour Party under Ramsey Macdonald accepting Tory hegemony in response to the Great Slump. And firmly rejected the Keynesian solution to the Great Slump: instead they imposed austerity and remained in slump. It was not as drastic as the actual suspension of parliamentary democracy that happened in much of Europe: the Labour Party remained a major opposition party. But it had elements in common, and there was a lot of sympathy for the various right-wing dictatorships that sprang up in response to the Great Slump.
Sympathy for right-wing dictators included sympathy for Hitler from much of the Tory Party, and some Liberals. The Daily Mail under the ownership of Lord Rothermere were outright admirers of Hitler. They also supported Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists, something which had almost slipped out of popular memory. It was rather dumb of them to lay themselves open to reminders of the issue by trying to get at Ed Miliband via his Marxist and refugee-Jewish father.
But it wasn’t just the Daily Mail. I detailed in a previous article that Churchill said very little about democracy in his critical speeches in 1940. He had also expressed strong enthusiasm for Mussolini’s Fascism, an inconvenient fact which most of the plethora of books about him choose to ignore. But Churchill quite correctly saw that Hitler was going to be an enemy of the British Empire in the long run. He had become a political outcast among Tories for saying so, but then Hitler helpfully gave him his “finest hour” by showing his anti-British feelings prematurely.
The Tories as a whole need to be hammered on their 1930s policy. The Daily Mail has given the perfect excuse. Whether Labour will be strong and confident enough to respond is another matter.
Ed Miliband’s modest radicalism has led to dire warnings that he is leading Labour back to the “bad old days” before Thatcher.
Actually the period 1950-1970 was something of an optimum for Britain, assuming you put no value on the British Empire, and most Britons did not. And Thatcher was actually a disaster for Britain, even from a conservative viewpoint.
Thatcher flourished in the gap created by different strands of socialism frustrating each other. Workers Control had been very much on the agenda. The Report of the committee of inquiry on industrial democracy (1977), also the Bullock Report, would have introduced a system of worker involvement in management, on the pattern of what had been created successfully in what was then West Germany. But the Labour Right thought that there was no need for such a radical change, while the Hard Left was convinced that it was far too moderate and would prevent something much more radical. In a way this latter view was true, but neither the Trotskyists nor the various pro-Moscow elements were up to making radical changes once Industrial Democracy was rejected. Instead the functional radicalism came from the right of the Tory Party.
Up to her defeat of Arthur Scargill’s bungled Coal Miner’s Strike, you could say she was acting as a functional conservative. A proper conservative would have stopped at that point. Would have allowing a significant but reduced role for a Trade Union movement that knew it had gone to far and alienated much of the working class.
What she did was the reverse, following the abstract creed of the New Right, assuming that if she disrupted everything then it would shake back down to “normal”. That was her big error, to suppose that the values that she cherished were normal rather than an historic accident that had in part been planned by the ruling class of past generations.
Thatcher’s first move was to let unemployment rise, which undermined the power of the trade unions. It also hugely damaged British society, including what was left of authentic working-class conservatism. These were people significantly different from most of the current Tory voters among the working class. People who cherished social values of a traditional sort, rather than just looking to what they could grab.
She also made life easier for the unemployed. The post-war welfare system created by Labour looked on work as both a right and a duty. It was hard back then to avoid being employed. Former Labour minister Reg Prentice as a minister under Thatcher eased a lot of the regulations and made it easier to be permanently on welfare. The effect of this, intended or not, was to create a permanent stratum of workless whose existence irritated those still in work. (Oddly, most left-wing critics ignore this.)
By various measures including allowing the exchange rate to rise, she destroyed a lot of British manufacturing.
Financial deregulation encouraged the growth of parasitic finance. Stuff that is basically gambling: but gambling only destroys those who chose to participate, while this stuff infects regular banks and destroys the values of savings.
She did not in fact do anything to improve average growth. The 1980s were no better overall than the 1970s, despite the huge bonus of North Sea Oil. Since then, average growth has declined slightly. There was none of the “trickle down” promised in her early years. (Oddly, most left-wing critics have let “trickle down” be forgotten about.)
She successfully reversed the equalisation of incomes that had been happening from the 1940s to 1970s. The rich increased their share of the “national cake”, which however was no bigger than if Thatcherism had never happened. Quite possibly smaller.
The social values she thought she was preserving have gone on crumbling faster than ever. On this she was maybe deceived by the authentic Libertarians of the New Right. Thatcher and others probably thought that they were just following a long Tory tradition in tolerating private behaviour that contradicted official Tory values. The Libertarians were sneaky about it: they gradually accumulated power and then showed their hand when they were strong enough, with such things as legalising Gay Marriage. This was after they had let the Labour Party take the odium and unpopularity of appointing the first openly gay ministers.
[Miliband failed to seriously defend pre-Thatcher values, and lost the election. Big gains were made by UKIP and by the Scottish Nationalists, who each in different ways were challenging the Status Quo.]
Last month I wrote about “Liberation By State Power”. That wasn’t quite the right formula: it could be taken as seeing the state as something sitting above the society and superior to it. It is occasionally just that, a modernising force independent of those it rules. But mostly it arises from the society and is basically there to do what the society asks it to do.
I’m not and never have been an admirer of state power as such. But when I look at the alternatives, state power does seem the least bad option. Or will be until we can make major changes in human nature, which I am confident is possibly but is likely to take generations.
The main alternative to state power is various irregular acts of trickery, theft and violence. These can sometimes produce positive ends, certainly. But on average, no. And in the real world, as distinct from popular entertainment, such things are vastly more oppressive and authoritarian than state power.
Socialism from the 1950s got into a muddle about state power. There was a desire for more individual freedom, which was fine in itself. But instead of saying that you wanted a larger area of freedom, the demand was packaged as a demand for “Freedom”, for obvious rights that state power was restricting for no good reason. It made for good propaganda, but not clear thinking.
As I said last month, 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. But this was done almost as a “secret vice”, and not with an understanding that state power was something that could and should be used for progressive aims.
20th century socialism succeeded in most of its original aims, and then found itself unsure what to do next. Marxism didn’t really have the answer. The Marxist view is that capitalism is a stage of development that is needed initially and can be discarded later. This and the general historical-materialist attitude have been a great advance in human understanding, and account for the major successes of Marxism up to the 1950s. But both Marx and Lenin were wrong on three vital points:
a) The original system was never purely capitalist, and could not have functioned if it had been. There was always “social conservatism”, traditionally-minded people who would also insist that the rich do something like their duty to those less fortunate.
b) It could carry on fine after discarding bourgeois values (which happened in Western Europe and the USA between the 1960s and 1990s).
c) With a large element of state management, it was in no way obsolete.
The Soviet Union failed because it did not adapt to this. People’s China did, keeping state control but allowing capitalist elements.
The New Right in the West are messing up their own system by believing that it urgently needs to be freed from state regulation and returned to a mythical era of “pure capitalism”.
In the long run, human society is likely to outgrow capitalism. And for the immediate future, people might be happier and no less wealthy with rather less of it.
There’s an old nursery rhyme about an old woman who swallows a fly. And then swallows a spider to catch the fly, and a bird to catch the spider, a cat to catch the bird and so on. It ends with her dying while trying to swallow a horse.
At least in the version I heard as a child, each verse ends with the question “I wonder why she swallowed the fly?”. A mistake in the first place, and each attempt at a fix makes things worse.[A]
There’s a lot in common between this and US policy since the Soviet collapse. Having an outstanding problem with the Islamists whom they had raised up to fight the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, the US government preferred to ignore this. Instead they adopted a policy of quietly subverting Cold War allies whom they felt they no longer needed. Mobutu in what was then Zaire and is now the Congo, but it caused a major war. Yugoslavia, another avoidable war and with dangerous risks taken in the final detachment of Kosovo from Serbia.[B] Ceausescu in Romania and Suharto in Indonesia, both smooth enough from a US viewpoint. But trying to get rid of Saddam Hussein in Iraq was the start of a series of errors that are likely to prove fatal to US hegemony.
Saddam had unsuccessfully waged war against Iran between 1980 and 1988. This was done on behalf of Western interests, but ended with Iran coming close to victory and the West having to step in to prevent a possibly Iranian conquest that might have been seen as liberation by Iraq’s Shia majority. So Saddam’s Iraq survived, but was left with huge debts. That was the reason he invaded Kuwait in 1990.
Saddam and Iraq were exactly the same thing in 1988 and 1990. A dictatorship based on Baathism, which had been inspired by European fascism. A regime that used torture and mass repression. A country which had regularly used poison gas against its Kurdish rebels. But in 1988, the West had seen Saddam as useful. By 1990 the Soviet Union had unexpectedly lost its grip on Eastern Europe and was in clear decline. Saddam was intended to fall as various other autocrats did fall. Invading Kuwait changed the name of the game and got him another 13 years in power, as well as an historic reputation that is likely to long outlast characters like Mobutu and Suharto.
Meantime the last solid Westernising elements in Afghanistan vanished with the fall of the Najibullah government in 1992. This could have been a much more effective ally for the USA than the gaggle of corrupt warlords who replaced him, and who were restored when the USA invaded after 9/11 and threw out the Taliban in 2001.
Before the invasion, the Taliban had offered to punish al-Qaeda if the USA could prove their guilt using the Taliban version of Islamic law. This too would have been a much wiser move, the Taliban’s concern was local. The invasion of first Afghanistan and then Iraq widened the conflict and made it increasingly seen as the USA and its allies against Islam.
The Arab Spring began spontaneously, but the West took advantage on the basis of delusions. They thought it would be like Eastern Europe, or rather the region we should start calling Middle Europe again, since it is middling both geographically and socially. Those nation-states with long associations with Latin-Christian culture fitted quite easily into the expanded European Union. The Ukraine is pulled both ways and remains a mess. Russia itself found that it had been cheated and has asserted its own identity strongly under Putin.
Tunisia was the best candidate for a successful transition to something like Western values. Even there, a moderate Islamist party emerged as the single biggest party and there have been many disputes, leading to the bringing-forward of a general election to December 2013.
In the rest of North Africa, the West ratted on the deal it had done with Libya – probably meaning that no other leader with an anti-Western past will bother to make a similar deal in future. In Egypt, pro-Western elements were encouraged to take a strong line against Mubarak rather than make a deal. There were then elections, in which it was shown that the pro-Western elements were about a tenth of the population, while rival Islamist parties got a clear majority. The Moderate Islamists tried ruling, and the West once again urged “no compromise”. This led on to the coup and something like the Mubarak regime restored.
Similar policies were followed in Syria, except that Syria never let the West subvert its military or became dependent on Western aid. But the pro-Western elements were encouraged to demand Assad’s removal rather than seek open elections, which Assad’s people might well have won.
Intervening in Syria was maybe “swallowing the horse”. It was a small group of British Tories who first decided “enough is enough”, concluded that the West’s pet rebels in Syria were losing ground to Islamists who were much more effective as fighters. It was also unlikely that the government would have used gas at a time when they were winning, and highly likely that one or other faction of rebels staged it.
The same considerations looked likely to lead to a revolt in Congress against Obama’s wish to step into the Syrian civil war. So there was a sudden switch to the idea
Somalia has some curious similarities to Afghanistan. A left-wing regime overthrown by a gaggle of warlords, who then can made nothing coherent of it. And Political Islam developing as the only force with a prospect of re-uniting a shattered nation-state.
The difference is that the intervention has been by African troops, with Kenya playing an increasing role. This was the context of the terrorist massacre at the Westgate shopping mall in Kenya – a place very much for the richest and most Westernised Kenyans.
“Somalia, one of the poorest and most conflict-riven countries in the world, is often cited as an example of what political scientists refer to as a ‘failed state.’ After the fall of longtime dictator Mohamed Siad Barre’s administration in January 1991, the country’s national government collapsed, and rival warlords and factions battled for supremacy.
“Al-Shabaab, a radical offshoot of the Islamic Courts Union – the preeminent Islamist faction in the country during the early part of last decade – established itself in the mid-2000s and eventually became allied with al-Qaeda. Spurred by the 2006 Ethiopian incursion into Somalia to dislodge the Islamic Courts Union from the capital, Mogadishu, al-Shabaab rapidly gained support and expanded into new territory, wresting control over most of the southern part of the country.
“But like the Islamic Courts Union, al-Shabaab is a loose confederation of Islamist warlords and not a highly centralized organization. Altogether it has approximately 5,000 dedicated fighters, as estimated by the United Nations Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea…
“Recognizing a need to restore some stability to its neighbor, the Kenyan government hosted the internationally recognized Somali Transitional Federal Government, as well as European training facilities for Somali soldiers.
“After Ethiopia withdrew from Somalia in 2009, an African Union peacekeeping force stayed behind. This force, led by Ugandan troops, managed to provide some cover for the Transitional Federal Government to operate, but had to cede most of the south of the country to al-Shabaab.
“In retaliation for the African Union establishing a mission within Somalia, al-Shabaab in 2010 staged a series of attacks in Kampala, Uganda, killing 74 people.
“Then in mid-2012, Kenyan forces (nominally under the auspices of the African Union) began an offensive against al-Shabaab in the south of Somalia. The Kenyans restored the rule of the recognized government in several areas, including the important port town of Kismayo, al-Shabaab’s primary economic center and political stronghold.
“Shabaab anger over its loss of territory and economic resources likely spurred the Westgate Mall attack…
“Kenya’s deadliest terror attack, however, was the August 7, 1998, bombing of the American Embassy in Nairobi. Carried out by an al-Qaeda cell, the coordinated attack against the American embassies in Kenya and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, killed a total of 234 people, 223 in Nairobi alone.
“Prior to the Kenyan intervention in Somalia, and with the exception of the 1998 embassy bombing, most high-level terror attacks within Kenya targeted Israelis or Israeli interests.”[C]
“The Somali government, although internationally recognised, is weak; its army is mostly a mixture of militias still loyal to quarrelling warlords. Africa’s leaders did not want another Afghanistan on their doorstep, so they moved in with Amisom – led by Uganda – seven years ago with a mandate and financial support from the United Nations.
“The al-Shabaab militia, brought to world attention by its actions in Nairobi, is more than a radical Islamist group committing acts of terror. It is also by far the most powerful local army in Somalia. It controls more than half the country. ‘If Amisom left today,’ said a Somali journalist who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals, ‘al-Shabaab would take power in the capital Mogadishu tomorrow.’
“A clue to understanding al-Shabaab, and why it has such influence, is in its name. It means ‘The Youth’ in Arabic. Somalia is a nation of some 8 million and one of the poorest in the world. The vast majority of people here are under the age of 20. The Somali people have a proud history of nomadism, but drought and food shortages have forced millions off the land they once shared with their prized camels and endless skies. Somalia is now a part of the modern world, where jobs and income matter – and jihadists are recruiting. Mostly unemployed, poor and disenchanted by corrupt governments, Somali youths are relatively easy to manipulate. A story is told in the excellent study of Somalia by James Fergusson – The World’s Most Dangerous Place (Bantam Press) – of a group of schoolboys who were tempted into joining al-Shabaab by being given a piece of fruit every day.”[D]
Where it goes next is anyone’s guess.
[A] A similar version can be found at [http://archive.bebo.com/BlogView.jsp?MemberId=233831670&BlogId=2242442117]. There seem to be many variants and the origin in unknown.
[B] [http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-11753050] – it came even closer to a conflict with Russia than was known at the time.