Newsnotes 2015 02

Notes On The News

by Gwydion M Williams

Visible and Invisible Hands

Greece – the Left Renews Itself

Austerity and Plutocracy

Feudal Democracy

A War Without Borders

Rebels Without a Clue

Ukraine and Poland

Snippets: Elections in Japan, Tunisia, Moldova; Hong Kong Goes Quiet; Nepal Incoherent; Rituals; Global Warming

Visible and Invisible Hands

“We should make good use of the roles of both the market, the ‘invisible’ hand, and the government, the ‘visible’ hand. The market and the government should complement and co-ordinate with each other to promote sustained and sound social and economic development.”

That’s from a recent speech by Chinese President Xi Jinping.[A] It sums up what China has actually been doing since Deng moved China away from the system of total state planning that Mao had created. It wasn’t ever capitalism, but a Chinese version of what used to be called the Mixed Economy.

Note that Mao’s system had been doing very nicely. Under Mao, China cut itself off from the rest of the world, received no aid or investment after the break with the Soviet Union, but managed to equal the average global growth during the same period.[B] The economy tripled, though living standards didn’t go up as much because the population doubled. But most Chinese accepted this, because things had been dreadful for most of them before 1949. China when it was open to global capitalism had broadly failed to modernise. Limited growth in the coastal cities was matched by an actual decay of rural industries exposed to cheap foreign goods. Net growth was essentially zero, apart from a small amount of growth in the early years of the Kuomintang.

China’s Opening-Up over the past 30 years became possible after Nixon dropped the USA’s long-standing hostility, which had begun when China kicked out a US-backed government that the USA had been expecting to make China into something similar to but subordinate to the USA. The USA spent more than 20 years pretending that the Kuomintang remnant on Taiwan was the real Republic of China, keeping the real China out of the United Nations and generally hampering and threatening it. The Kuomintang remnant made repeated threats to take back Mainland China, which might have been feasible with US participation. It was probably failure in Vietnam that persuaded Nixon that the policies he had helped start were pointless.

Had the USA taken a softer line, Mao too might have been more moderate. He had taken great care to include moderate elements in his new People’s Republic, even though the victorious People’s Army was (and still is) totally loyal to the Communist Party. Significantly, Mao delayed proclaiming a new People’s Republic until October 1949, despite having captured Beijing at the end of January and the Kuomintang capital Nanjing in April. There were also covert messages sent to the USA that perhaps the new China didn’t want to be entirely dependent on the Soviet Union. But the USA then was in no mood to treat the Chinese as equals. Even after their later defeats in Korea this attitudes persisted, with US troops told that they should not be letting ‘Chinese Washermen’ defeat them. (Laundries were a Chinese niche occupation in California, where most of them settled.)

That is past history, but history necessary to understand the present. Both Western experts and Chinese dissidents tend to take a sycophantic view of US power, not daring to suppose that it might have messed up massively in the 1950s and inflicted needless suffering on those close to it. (Not so different from the mess-up they have created for pro-Western Arabs, come to think of it.)

Deng had lived through that history and it seems he understood it, though he was understandably cautious about what he said in public. The biggest impact on him and other leaders was made by Japan, which had massively increased its lead over China. And he was wise enough to follow the Japanese example of keeping a large role for the state. He basically ignored the Thatcher / Reagan notion of the state as a burden and of unregulated businesses seeking profit as the key to wealth. The nonsense that Boris Yeltsin later took seriously and applied to his fragment of the Soviet Union, with disastrous results.

(The Russian economy contracted from the comfortable stagnation of the Late Soviet era, and the death rate went up. But hardly anyone in the West now remembers the details of the Western-inspired botch, or how it sunk the weak little growth of pro-Western liberalism in Russia. Putin’s attitudes are seen as baffling, not as the predictable result of Western greed and incompetence.)

China refused to swallow New Right values and continues to prosper, whereas Japan was eventually persuaded to modify its successful formula and has been floundering ever since.

It was big news recently when China’s yearly growth fell to a mere 7.4%, below their norm.[C] Note that regular 7.4% growth would still mean an economy that doubles every ten years. Of course it has often been faster than that, and China successfully improved on its previous period of growth in the 7% to 8% bands, which happened in 1998 to 2001.

Most Chinese would be getting incomes about double what they had ten years ago, and this has been true continuously from the 1980s. Interestingly, an infographic from the Chinese on-line newspaper Global Times showed that both rural and urban incomes have grown above average. And both imports and exports have relatively low growth, 3.4%, which is probably due to export opportunities drying up when export markets suffer austerity.[D]

The global crisis that began in 2008 threatens to discredit New Right policies. If you classify China today as a Mixed Economy, then it becomes obvious that all of the alleged successes for capitalism since 1945 have been successes for the Mixed Economy, for an intelligent mix of ‘Visible Hand’ and ‘Invisible Hand’. And would discredit the entire attempt to return to Classical Capitalism, which has anyway been much more talk than action.

The reality of New Right power has been a continuation of the Mixed Economy, but with different priorities. More for the military. More subsidies for farmers, who get gigantic amounts of state support but vote for right-wing parties that promise to squeeze the rest of society. And since 2008, a vast bail-out for wobbly banks with very little attempt to make them behave better.


Greece – the Left Renews Itself

The rise of Trotskyism in Europe and the USA coincided very nicely with the decline of the left in general. The claim that Leninism was perfect but that Stalin was an aberration was never very plausible outside of a relatively small number of enthusiasts for Marxist ideology. It was Lenin who decided to establish a one-party dictatorship: Stalin simply made it functional and successful. All of this could be justified in the context of the First World War, the rise of Fascism and the Great Slump. It should also be admitted that even though Social-Democracy had failed in the 1920s and 1930s, it had succeeded brilliantly from 1945 onwards, meaning that Lenin’s original decision to treat them as enemies was simply wrong. Also that Stalin’s decision to work with them in various United Fronts and with non-socialists in Popular Fronts had been correct and should not have been abandoned after the defeat of Fascism.

What happened instead was a growth of Fantasy-Leninism. A Hard Left determined to prevent reforms like Workers Control, that were very possible in the late 1970s. People determined to undermine any idea of an Incomes Policy, because they thought it would prop up a system just about to collapse.

At the same time, we had what Russians now call the ‘Period of Stagnation’, with Brezhnev preserving a kind of frozen chaos after cracking down on serious and hopeful reforms in Czechoslovakia in 1968. The last 21 years of the Soviet empire were disastrous for socialism, in part because too many people on the left failed to say at the time that this wasn’t at all what socialism should be about.

As we all know, what happened in the 1980s was the rise of right-wing populism with considerable working class support. People had wanted some sort of radical change, but only a small minority wanted an actual overthrow of the existing system. Fantasy-Leninism supposed that continuing the crisis would lead to a collapse of capitalism, but this was never realistic. The system was anyway not capitalist but Mixed Economy, and very much open to change.

The chance was missed, and socialists were then appalled by the vigour and success of right-wingers like Thatcher and Reagan. They began to doubt everything. Now, perhaps, the left is recovering from its ideological sickness.

In Greece, the electorate split three ways. Just over 36% supported Syriza. 32.5% supported the previous pro-austerity parties, the centre-right New Democracy and the shrunken centre-left PASOK. The rest supported a mixed bag of anti-austerity parties, including old-style Communists and Neo-Nazis. But since Greek electoral law awards an extra 50 seats to the biggest party, Syriza ended up with very nearly half the seats.

Out of six other parties that got seats in the new Parliament – which has a 3% three percent threshold that keeps out very small parties – four were not realistic coalition partners. The Greek Communists, former rivals on the Far Left, ruled out in advance any possible coalition. The Neo-Nazis were inherently enemies. So were “New Democracy” and PASOK, coalition partners in the government that accepted austerity. PASOK had anyway been ruined by it: it got votes of between 38% and 48% between 1981 and 2009, but fell to 13% and then 12% when it accepted austerity in 2012, and has now fallen to 4.68%. A split led by former leader Papandreou for rather hazy reasons got 2.46%, below the threshold for seats.

The only realistic coalition partners for Syriza were the right-wing Eurosceptic “Independent Greeks” and the centrist pro-Europe but anti-austerity “The River”. They were also likely to be a sympathetic opposition if Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras had chosen to try a minority government. But by choosing the Independent Greeks, he is in a position to have a massive confrontation with the European Union, or even to leave the Euro. “The River” would have been likely to take a soft line, and negotiators would have known this.

He is also in a strong position in partnership with the “Independent Greeks”, who have been losing seats and votes ever since 2012, when they split from “New Democracy” on the issue of austerity. Making a success of the coalition may be their last chance of surviving.

What about the matter of electing a President, which brought down the last government? . The last government fell because it could not get a super-majority of 200 or 180 out of 300 MPs after three rounds of voting. The rules say that there will now be three more rounds, with requirements relaxing and a simple majority being enough on the 6th round[E]. Tsipras would probably be able to place whoever he wants in the Presidency, which has a five-year term – but it seems now (28th January) that he intends to give the job to a Greek EU Commissioner from his “Independent Greece” allies, perhaps just to get the matter settled quickly. He also placed a right-winger as Minister of Defence, which seems a sensible precaution.

It also leaves him well placed to accept a deal with the rest of Europe if he can get one. His party includes people who don’t want any sort of compromise. Syriza began as a coalition that included Trotskyists, notably the “Internationalist Workers’ Left”.[F] It is now officially a single party, while retaining the original name, which translates into English as the Coalition of the Radical Left, but with a diversity of opinion. Not everyone accepts the idea of renegotiating. Some of the current Syriza MPs might split, but he could then change partners and form a coalition with “The River”. Or call a new election, ejecting uncooperative members of his party. And if he gets any sort of deal, he could hope for the complete disappearance of PASOK and its offshoots, who would been seen as hopeless failures who should have made their stand in 2012.

Meantime in Spain, a new party called Podemos has come from small beginnings to move ahead of the ruling party and the socialist opposition, and also eclipsing the United Left, which is grouped around the Spanish Communist Party. Elections must be held by December 2015 and Podemos may be following the same trajectory as Syriza.

Reasons to be hopeful.


Austerity and Plutocracy

I’d previously described New Right policies as ‘Feed the Rich’, and this has become even more blatant since the crisis of 2008. What should have happened would have been massive losses for the speculators and hedge funds, plus money pumped into the society to boost consumption by ordinary people. Also nationalisation of banks that had blatantly put profit before people. Instead we have had ‘quantitative easing’, which has meant money given to financial institutions to prop them up, along with austerity to limit debts. President Obama claimed that this was a good idea because money would mysteriously multiply itself when passed through commercial banks. Instead it mysteriously stayed within the banking system, avoiding a financial panic but also allowing an actual decline in lending to small businesses. Many small businesses have gone bankrupt or had to sell out to larger concerns, following the pattern that Marx predicted for capitalism.

(Theoretically, a Mixed Economy might conserve small business. Only some versions of fascism managed to do this, to a degree. Socialists tend to favour modern big industries, while right-wing parties get influenced by big business. Also small business interests tend to be fragmented and selfish, demanding that their own particular interest be looked after but mostly opposing the same generosity for other people. You could break your heart trying to convince a significant number of such characters that this is a suicidal policy: many have tried and generally failed. With certainty they will not be breaking my heart: it would be truly astonishing if they ever got their act together and I am currently assuming they remain doomed.)

In the face of Thatcher / Reagan populism, Europe’s centre-left mysteriously lost faith in the Mixed Economy and started accepting the New Right notion of letting business interests dominate. This despite the failure of the New Right to do more than get the Mixed Economy back on track after its 1970s crisis. And despite a massive skewing of benefits to the rich. Even the crisis of 2008, caused by speculation in deregulated financial markets, was twisted to justify huge subsidies to financial institutions and cuts for ordinary people.

“The wealthiest 1% will soon own more than the rest of the world’s population, according to a study by anti-poverty charity Oxfam.

“The charity’s research shows that the share of the world’s wealth owned by the richest 1% increased from 44% in 2009 to 48% last year.

“On current trends, Oxfam says it expects the wealthiest 1% to own more than 50% of the world’s wealth by 2016.”[G]


Feudal Democracy

It was fair enough for the BBC to celebrate the 750th anniversary of the origins of parliamentary government, with the meeting of Simon de Montfort’s Parliament on 20 January 1265.[H] It did establish the English Parliament as something with an independent voice, not just a body that the King summoned when it pleased him. What was ridiculous was calling it ‘Democracy Day’.

The earliest date on which Britain could be called a democracy would be 6th December 1884, when 60% of adult males in the British Isles got the vote. It might be better to cite 6th February 1918, when all British men and some women got the vote. Or maybe 2nd July 1928, when women got formal equality. But in 1928, Britain was the core of a vast Empire. Mostly-white Dominions like Canada and Australia had their own parliaments with considerable rights, but non-white colonies had either no vote or a vote with little significance. During World War Two, the Congress Party were the elected representatives of the vast majority in British India, but were given no say in India’s participation in the war. They were jailed when they refused to support that war without some definite promise of independence after the war.

Another thing that the BBC failed to mention was that a gathering including elected representatives of the knights and burgess was an extension to England of a Continental European system. A system that was mostly abolished later on, or else lapsed as royal power became greater. It was definitely not an English invention.

Back in 1265, the body that met was arguably not the first English Parliament. There had been “moots” before the Norman Conquest, which abolished such things. It’s doubtful that these moots were very democratic, they were probably dominated by big landowners, but they were something. There was also intermittently a Kings Council, consisting of big nobles and royal appointees, and basically including whoever the King felt like listening to or else needed on his side. And in the decades before de Montfort’s parliament, the King would on occasions summon the Knights of the Shires to try to get a consensus for new taxes. The innovation in 1265 was to also include “burgess”, people from the growing towns and cities, and also to have them elected.

Elected by who? Not by ‘the people’ as we would understand it now. A majority of the population were serfs, agricultural slaves with some useful customary rights, and freely referred to as ‘slaves’ at the time. This majority had also not benefited from Magna Carta, which specified rights just for Free Men. It may have been this free minority that elected the two knights to be sent from each shire in 1265 and afterwards. The rule for the towns and cities was “forty shilling freeholders”. In today’s money, 40 shilling (£2) could be anything between £1000 and half a million, depending on what comparison you use. In money as it existed in 1430, when this became the norm for all elections, it would be about 31,000 in terms of economic status, but nearly half a million in terms of economic power.[I]

The rule for “forty shilling freeholders” was actually retained in the 1832 Reform Act, which cleared away Rotten Boroughs and other anomalies. By that time, forty shillings was worth somewhere between one tenth and one fiftieth of its value in 1430, and the country was also richer, so it would have been a wider electorate. Even so, the reform produced an electorate of about one in seven adult males, at a time when few people owned much property. Even that was seen as dangerously democratic by some of the ruling class, including the monarch.[J] It took decades of struggle to get the vote extended beyond that.

Stable parliamentary democracies are mostly countries that had learned to live with competitive elections and a parliamentary system for a very long time before the electoral system became democratic. And which retained habits of compromise and tolerance, which do not come naturally when a similar system is plonked on top of a society that has no previous experience of such things. Bad history of the sort the BBC pushes makes for bad politics, as with the total mess in Iraq.


A War Without Borders

The murder of the cartoonists at satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo occurred in the context of a global war against those aspects of Islam that the West finds inconvenient. Very few people wanted to fact up to this.

It’s not really about Human Rights. Saudi Arabia does not respect the Western concept of Human Rights, but Saudi Arabia also helps the West by keeping oil prices low and pumping most of its funds into the Western financial system, ignoring the needs of other Arabs and other Muslims. It maintains a highly traditionalist culture at home and tries to encourage it abroad, but at critical moments its rulers act as Western agents rather than sincere Muslims. This was blatantly obvious after Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Saddam had vast debts that he’d accumulated from his war against Iran, which had been useful to the West and to the rich oil-landlords like Saudi Arabia. There was an excellent chance he would have pulled out again in exchange for those debts being written off. But Thatcher and Bush Senior decided it was an excellent chance to show that the Anglosphere was now dominant and would slap down anyone who angered them, ignoring the United Nations if it did not fall into line. Saudi Arabia allowed this, starting a process that led on to sanctions that cost vast numbers of Iraqi deaths, and then an invasion which wholly shattered the structure of what was a fairly artificial country.

Western intervention has been both brutal and ineffective, and a lot of Muslims have died. The West has also allowed Israel to oppress the Palestinians and take more and more Palestinian land for new settlements in places of historic significance to Israelis (and also sacred to Islam). In the light of this, it is not at all unexpected that hard-line anti-Western versions of Islam are vastly stronger than they were in 1991. The West had fostered them in Afghanistan, and then let the place turn to chaos once the Soviet effort to take it over had been clearly defeated. Of course Muslims were going to be offended.

Among Muslim immigrants in Europe, austerity had also played a role, increasing the number who are jobless and without hope of regular progress within the society, as was the case with the men from Frances’ downtrodden Algerian-origin community who murdered the cartoonists. But many have opted for Islamic extremists despite having excellent personal prospects, including Osama bin Laden himself and large numbers of British Muslims who’ve gone to fight in Syria. The West has failed to integrate them and has destroyed most of the secular Arab regimes, the realistic alternative to Islamic extremism. People take it as an insult to their culture, which it indeed is.

Charlie Hebdo were a bunch of fools who wilfully took sides in a war without borders. They call themselves ‘Journal Irresponsable’, translated on the English version of their website as ‘Irresponsible Journal’,[K] and they were truly that. But also selective in what they attacked, treating Islam as such as the enemy by mocking Mohammed.

Existing Muslims are not likely to suddenly cease to be Muslims. They are likely to be strengthened in their faith in the face of vulgar attacks by outsiders.

If the Western establishment had clearly and strongly condemned anti-Islamic satire, both the original Danish cartoons and the Charlie Hebdo republication, things would have been different. People may talk about some unlimited right to be offensive, but they don’t really mean it. The entire establishment will typically react to condemn and marginalise anything that appears racist, anti-Semitic or sympathetic to terrorism. Or flippant about rape or child abuse, or even voluntary under-age sex. Everyone knows this, so for Muslims it was further evidence that they are not treated as equals,

The Western mainstream demands complete freedom for things that don’t bother them, but not for things that they are seriously offended by. There was a long struggle over which category criticism of Christianity should be in, and in the 1960s and 1970s this was decisively won by the secularists. And at the time it went along with a more tolerant attitude to other religions. Among other things, people stopped using the term ‘Mohammedan’, which some Muslims found offensive. This was not the view of all Muslims, and was maybe as arbitrary as the rule against depicting the Prophet in any manner whatever, however respectful. But it was people’s actual viewpoint, and back then the West was wise enough to respect it.

What you are now getting is arrogance and chauvinism. You could call it the Sinatra Principle – I’ll do it my way, you’ll do it my way.

The point about anti-Christian satire is that it is a “family quarrel”, people criticising their own tradition. I defended Salman Rushdie’s right to be blasphemous about his own Islamic faith back in 1988, because it was internal to Islam. And because the West was not at that time waging war on Islam in general, even though it had backed secular and Sunni-dominated Iraq in its long war against theocratic and Shia Iran. I didn’t ever say that there was an unlimited right to be offensive: I just felt (and still feel) that Rushdie had a right to be heard, even though a lot of what he said was silly and vulgar.

The attack on Charlie Hebdo was probably intended to increase polarisation and mobilise more of Europe’s immigrant Muslim minority for the wider struggle. The way most people in the West have reacted have played right into their hands.

There were many alternative small voices talking sense on the matter, including this one:

“There is an expression in Russian: spitting in somebody’s soul. It fully applies here. Muslims worldwide have be unambiguously clear about that. They take blasphemy very, very seriously, as they do the name of the Prophet and the Quran. If you want to really offend a Muslim, ridicule his Prophet or his Holy Book. That is not a secret at all. And when Charlie Hebdo published their caricatures of the Prophet and when they ridiculed him in a deliberately rude and provocative manner, they knew what they were doing: they were very deliberately deeply offending 1.6 billion Muslims world wide. Oh, and did I mention that in Islam blasphemy is a crime punishable by death? Well, it turns out that of 1.6 billion Muslims exactly three decided to take justice in their own hands and kill the very deliberately blaspheming Frenchmen.”[L]

There was also the matter of the Muslim policeman Ahmed Merabet, intentionally killed by the attackers when he was no threat to them.[M] A potential propaganda gift, but mostly treated in a very mean-spirited way. It’s no wonder more and more Muslims are feeling alienated.


Rebels Without a Clue

Outside of the human species, the primate norm is for an angry male to get randomly destructive. But a less bold individual may throw dung instead.

Inside of the human species, we have overwritten our basic ape nature with much more complex patterns. But most of us will go ‘back to basics’ on occasions. Some people do it more than others.

Charlie Hebdo seems like an updated version of the dung-throwers. Whereas Private Eye has managed some genuine satire against Islamic extremism – and republished them along with some additions in its latest issue.

Private Eye also had the main “Charlie Hebdo” march on its front cover, but has them saying “Je Suis Charlatan“. There would have been sincere opponents of censorship on that march, but the front row included many who use repression freely. (I’m not sure the front rank included anyone who wasn’t like that, but since I didn’t recognise all of them I will leave it open.)

All of this is part of a dangerous power-game that Private Eye seem to understand but Charlie Hebdo did not. Muslims are not going to cease to be Muslims, and the general trend towards emptiness and stress in Western culture is tending to make them more devout. But terrorism and extremism can be plausibly seen as deviations from Real Islam. Sensible Westerners should go with this flow rather than being randomly insulting.

Behind every Great Man there is a Great Ape. And a visible pattern for the Beta Males who are aiming for Alpha Male status, which they may or may not achieve. There is also female violence, but mostly personal and directed against someone weaker, except when it is a matter of self-defence. A woman who tries getting violent in public is likely to find that there is at least one nearby man who could pick her up and render her helpless. So women tend to be more indirect methods, mostly by persuading or tricking men into doing her work for her. This, incidentally, would seem to be a purely human pattern: it requires careful thought about a chain of consequences and seems to be beyond all other species. And may well be nastier than simple violence: being human is a complex business.

Note also that there is more than one pattern of violence. Alpha males mostly step in to keep order, though they will inevitably react savagely to a serious challenge to their authority.

Beta males were the original ‘rebels without a cause’. They oppose what exists, but without bothering much about what might replace it. Bits of fancy philosophy may get attached to this animal behaviour, but it is recognisably an old ape and broad-primate approach re-surfacing. Authentic rebelliousness is something else, distinguished by being carefully targeted, idealistic, self-sacrificing and having some hope of success.

Nowadays, senseless beta-male violence gets glamorised in a society that has mostly disarmed itself. (But not in those cultures that still have personal violence as the norm for males, where similar stuff always gets hedged about with slightly improbable adherence to rules of honour and fair play.)

People confuse power and dangerousness. Gangsters are both highly dangerous and highly vulnerable, with few of them lasting long. They also tend to be useful shock troops for right-wing politics, when they are allowed in at all. The most powerful forms of violence are military machines, where people trust each other but are alienated from the rest of society – is something different from and sometimes much worse than the versions inherited from our ancestral apes.


Ukraine and Poland

Ukrainian Neo-Nazis played a big role in the fighting round Donetsk airport, though you’d never guess it from Western news reports.

“Lawmaker and leader of the Right Sector nationalist party Dmytro Yarosh was wounded in the fighting in Pisky village near Donetsk airport on the morning of Jan. 21.”[N]

Their presence must be polarising an already unhealthy split which began with the “Blood Orange” revolution of 2014 making common cause with neo-Nazis, Right Sector and Svoboda. If they don’t nowadays get many votes, that may be because sympathy for Ukraine’s pro-Nazi past runs right through the ruling group.

The Guardian did allow a small mention, speaking of “Right Sector, a militant nationalist group fighting with Ukrainian forces”.[O] Much less than the whole truth.

Meantime Poland has also behaved foolishly, renewing the conflict with Russia that has existed for about as long as Poland and Russia have existed as historic entities, often with the Poles as aggressors. And also trying to rewrite history:

“Russia has accused Poland of engaging in a ‘mockery of history’ after the Polish foreign minister credited Ukrainian soldiers, rather than the Soviet Red Army, with liberating Auschwitz 70 years ago.

“The exchange underlines the deep tensions between Russia and Poland, which is hugely critical of Russian actions in Ukraine. Those strains are casting a shadow over the 70th anniversary commemorations of the liberation of the Nazi death camp, which will be held Tuesday in Poland.

“Poland has apparently snubbed Russian President Vladimir Putin, who will not attend even though he was at the 60th anniversary event in 2005. The situation is particularly awkward since Auschwitz was liberated by Soviet troops on Jan. 27, 1945, and some of the more than 1.1 million victims were Soviet citizens, including Jews and prisoners of war.

“In a radio interview Wednesday, Polish Foreign Minister Grzegorz Schetyna was challenged over what the journalist called the ‘pettiness’ of not inviting Putin, given that he is the inheritor of the Soviet Union and that the Red Army freed Auschwitz.

“Schetyna replied that ‘maybe it’s better to say… that the First Ukrainian Front and Ukrainians liberated (Auschwitz), because Ukrainian soldiers were there, on that January day, and they opened the gates of the camp and they liberated the camp.’

“In Russia, Schetyna’s comments were seen as a cynical insult and drew an avalanche of angry official comments. The Foreign Ministry accused Schetyna of ‘anti-Russian hysteria’ and disrespecting the memory of those who died liberating Europe from Hitler.

“‘It’s common knowledge that Auschwitz was liberated by the Red Army, in which all nationalities heroically served,’ the Foreign Ministry said in a statement. ‘We believe that the mockery of history needs to be stopped.’

“The group of forces involved in the liberation of Auschwitz was called the First Ukrainian Front after it pushed the Nazis back across the territory of then-Soviet Ukraine before moving into Poland.

“Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called Schetyna’s comments ‘sacrilegious and cynical.’

“‘Auschwitz was liberated by the Red Army, which included Russians, Ukrainians, Chechens, Tatars and Georgians, among others,’ Lavrov said.”[P]



Some interesting elections since the last Newsnotes:

In Japan, the Liberal Democrats are firmly in control after an election in December 2014. The Japanese Communist Party made gains, though it has not yet recovered to its high point in 1996.

In Tunisia, secularists won both the general election and the presidential election, which concluded in December with some minor rioting. There are signs of polarisation, with the secularists stronger in the north and Islamists stronger in the south. But for the time being, the last survivor of the Arab Spring holds together.

In Moldova, an election in November saw the Socialists gaining seats at the expense of both the Moldovan Communists and the Liberal Democratic Party. This socialist party is eurosceptic.

In Uruguay, a second round of voting at the start of December confirmed a victory for the left.


Meantime Hong Kong has gone quiet again. The protestors were gradually worn down to nothing. Ordinary people on the mainland stayed out of it – protests tend to be on local issues, and many of them see Hong Kong citizens as over-privileged and ungrateful.


In Nepal, politics continue to be incoherent and ineffective. The Maoists were briefly dominant and are now in opposition after the Constituent Assembly elections of 2013. But that Constituent Assembly still cannot decide anything.[Q]


The magazine New Scientist recently carried an article about the important part that rituals play in human life:

“Rituals are often complex and nonsensical. Yet every culture has them – and for good reason. ‘Rituals provide a very visible means of identifying who is a group member and who isn’t,’ says developmental psychologist Cristine Legare from the University of Texas at Austin. ‘They help define us as a group, reflect our group values, and demonstrate shared commitment to the group.’ For a species like us, that is dependent on social support, this is crucial for survival – so much so that, Legare believes, we are born with a mind for ritual. Her studies with children suggest that the nonsensical nature of ritualistic behaviour triggers a mode of thinking distinct from the logical cause-and-effect approach. This ritualistic thinking, in turn, prompts us to copy actions that make no apparent sense.

“Rituals come in a bewildering variety, and that makes it difficult to define exactly what counts as one…. However, they do have certain characteristics in common. In particular, they tend to involve several discrete, specific steps that follow a defined script (see ‘Complexity rules’), and the actions are often hard to make sense of in terms of cause and effect, unlike other multi-step behaviours such as changing a tyre or baking a cake. ‘To an outsider, ritual behaviours seem utterly useless,’ says psychologist Matt Rossano at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond. ‘You have to do things in a very rigid, arbitrary way, but this is completely tangential to achieving any practical goal.'”[R]

Rituals are also probably older than religion, which tends to organise them and try to explain them as part of a single system. And no society has so far been able to do without them.


As expected, 2014 was the warmest year on record. And 14 of the 15 warmest years on record have occurred since the turn of the century.[S]

As usual, details are complex. Much of the east of the USA was cooler than average. But Alaska and other arctic regions were unusually warm, and that’s where the ice is melting.


[A]              The ‘Invisible Hand’ and the ‘Visible Hand’, speech by Xi Jinping, May 26th 2014. Page 128 of Xi Jinping: The Governance of China, Foreign Languages Press Beijing, 2014.

[B]              Current Western books about China will give you everything except hard facts about the entire society. You can get the whole picture from The World Economy: Historical Statistics by Angus Maddison. He was not at all pro-Communist or pro-Chinese, but his project was to give accurate estimates of growth wherever these could be found.

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[I]               Calculated using a website, []

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[P]              []

[Q]              []

[R]              [], issue 3004 of New Scientist magazine, page 36-39.

[S]               []