Notes On The News
by Gwydion M Williams
Iran – the Revolt of the Twitterocracy
Feed The Bankers, Says New Labour
Get the Abbey Habit – Vanish! [Building Societies]
One Giant Leap for a Cold Warrior [1960s Space Race]
China Stays Steady [Tiananmen 20 Years On]
Iran – the Revolt of the Twitterocracy
The election in <xxxxx> has been followed by riots by supporters of the defeated candidate, who claims electoral fraud. That’s become all too common a headline over the last few years. No doubt there have been some actual frauds. But the USA has made things much worse by abusing the process, crying ‘fraud’ where outside observers found no significant abuse. Using it as a routine process rather than accept a few results it did not want. It’s rather like the way the mediaeval papacy lost its authority by using excommunication and the Interdict so frequently that people lost all respect for its authority.
In the run-up to Iran’s recent election, the media reports that I saw were hoping that President Ahmadinejad would lose, but admitted he had many supporters and might well win. But when he won by an unexpectedly large margin and the defeated candidate alleged fraud, the West rallied behind his cause.
Supposing that the actual vote was close, why should anyone choose to rig on a massive scale? The basis for the protests is that the opposition did much worse than was expected. But election upsets happen all the time. The most plausible explanation is that while the opposition had the most vocal people, there was a poorer and less vocal majority that disliked what the opposition offered.
The USA and the western media have not been consistent supporters of multi-party democracy. They cheer when it produces a result they like, allege fraud or ‘dictatorial tendencies’ when they don’t like the result.
The failure of multi-party democracy in Africa began with the United Nations betrayal of Patrice Lumumba, the first elected Prime Minister of the Republic of the Congo. Lumumba thought that the United Nations would help enforce his right to rule: instead they helped his pro-Western foes and encouraged disorders that have continued ever since. The short-term interests of a businesses trying to control the Congo’s mineral wealth was allowed to override the possibility of successful democratic government, which might indeed have become the norm if the UN had acted as an impartial ‘policeman’.
In a similar spirit, westernisation in Iran was derailed back in the 1950s, when Britain and the USA organised the overthrow of the democratically elected government of Mohammed Mosaddeq, because he’d dared nationalise Iran’s oil. During the 25 years of the Shah’s pro-western autocracy, religion was seen as ‘safe’. They supposed that ‘fundamentalists’ in Islam were as useless and timid as the US sort. (People who’re scared to take on Mickey Mouse – there was a minor dispute after Disneyworld added its weight to the general trend to accepting equal rights for gay employees, but nothing much came of it.)
The USA has never actually respected democratic elections. Sometimes they’ll go along with an unfavourable result if this seems the best way to get what they want. But the idea that you should live with the result whatever it is has never been part of their creed. Or anyone else’s creed, except for a few idealists, but it has been the official doctrine, with breaches explained away.
The spread of multi-party elections has gone hand in hand with a spread of violent protests and general discontent. People everywhere have got good at bringing down governments. Not at all good at putting anything coherent in its place. This fits the New Right attitude, which holds that governments should have no function except as purveyors of military force, police enforcement and long-term imprisonment, the things the rich find useful.
Those developing countries that were able to develop a strong socially-conscious state did well. Those that didn’t flounder. Non-communist East Asia made its big advance under autocratic regimes, mostly with only one party of government. Something similar applied in West Germany, Italy and France when they caught up with Britain. All of those countries started floundering when the accepted Anglo advice in the Thatcher / Reagan era. But meantime China had developed a Mixed Economy that built on solid Maoist foundations and has achieved unprecedented growth. Despite which, the New Right retains its prestige amidst all of the economic turmoil.
Iran fits a wider pattern of better-off people in cities wanting to be part of globalisation – you could call them the ‘twitterocracy’, since the new ‘twitter’ chat-lines are one of their things. Such people are suspicious when it turns out that poorer people and rural people have outvoted the urban elite. In Thailand, they used the pretext of corruption to overturn the poorer people’s choice. In Iran they allege vote rigging.
“Ahmadinejad’s 62.6 percent of the vote in this year’s election is essentially the same as the 61.69 percent he received in the final count of the 2005 presidential election, when he trounced former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. The shock of the ‘Iran experts’ over Friday’s results is entirely self-generated, based on their preferred assumptions and wishful thinking.
“Although Iran’s elections are not free by Western standards, the Islamic Republic has a 30-year history of highly contested and competitive elections at the presidential, parliamentary and local levels. Manipulation has always been there, as it is in many other countries.
“But upsets occur — as, most notably, with Mohammed Khatami’s surprise victory in the 1997 presidential election. Moreover, ‘blowouts’ also occur — as in Khatami’s reelection in 2001, Ahmadinejad’s first victory in 2005 and, we would argue, this year.”[A]
The urban elite wanted an opening up to the West, the bulk of the population didn’t. The urban elite is outraged that its wishes have been overruled. And the USA has played up to it.
So too has the BBC. It used to have a world-wide reputation for fair and accurate reporting. But it has become a cheerleader for globalisation. It even got caught presenting a pro-Ahmadinejad rally as being anti-Ahmadinejad.[B] The BBC did admit the error, which was unmistakeable, but with the feeble excuse that they’d received the photograph in a form that made it unclear which side the demonstrators were on.[C]
If you know both sides have mass support and you see an anonymous crowd, don’t you have a responsibility to check? Or has the BBC joined the Post-Truthful brigade, people who think that there are no objective facts, just opinions?
European Union Elections
In a sense, Western Europe and Middle Europe have become a kind of global city and has voted accordingly. The Centre-Right in Continental Europe denounced ‘Anglo-Saxon Capitalism’, but seem committed to more of the same. And a majority of Europeans are content with it for now.
The Centre-Left just now has no convincing voice. It adjusted to the ideas of the New Right, losing its original basis in the demand for social justice. But in times of crisis, they are mostly not seen as trustworthy. The Centre-Right are the more convincing ‘voice of authority’.
Not, indeed, that it has been as bad for the left as the British media have suggested. Poul Nyrup Rasmussen ,the Danish leader of Europe’s socialists used the Guardian‘s ‘Right of Reply’ column to note this, saying:
“The problems facing Britain’s Labour party, in power for 12 years and rocked by anger over MPs’ expenses, are quite different from the problems facing France’s Socialist party, out of government for seven years, which are different again from the problems of the Polish left. We did gain seats in 10 countries out of 27. We remain the second largest group in the parliament. The socialists’ share of seats is down 3% – hardly a meltdown.”[D]
The election has been a meltdown for New Labour, far worse than Old Labour at its lowest point in the post-war world. Bad also for the Portuguese and Spanish socialists, both governing parties. But in Portugal, the anti-capitalist Left advanced. In Germany, the Christian Democrats lost votes and seats, mostly to the centrist Free Democrats. The Social Democrats held their own, the Left (which includes ex-Communists) gained votes and an extra seat. In France, the Socialists slumped but the French Greens advanced – this party includes Daniel Cohn-Bendit of 1968 fame. In Denmark, Mr Rasmussen’s socialists lost a seat but the more left-wing Socialist People’s Party won a seat.
Greece saw a small advance by the left, with the governing centre-right losing seats. In Cyprus, Communism lives on as the Progressive Party of Working People and hold two of the six seats with a third of the votes. The Centre-Left are smaller but gained a seat at the expense of the centrists. In the Czech Republic, the Czech Social Democratic Party gained five seats and now have seven out of 22. The Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia lost two of its four seats but remains significant. Meantime in Slovakia the Socialists gained two seats. This party is a merger that includes some ex-Communists and the party briefly led by Alexander Dubcek. In Poland the left is small but growing again. Italy saw what looked like an amazing collapse of the Greens and Hard Left, but in part this was because of a 4% threshold, which they fell below. Berlusconi has suffered no damage from merging his party with groups with a neo-fascist origin. But actual fascists haven’t achieved much, despite a situation that ought to be better for them than for the Centre-Left. Disaster favours radicals, it is not a disaster yet.
In Britain, both the Greens and the British National Party gained votes. The Greens remain the larger protest movement. But they already had two seats, while the BNP had none and gained two. Both in the north of England, and the way the north has been treated, it is a wonder more of the neglected white working class didn’t vote that way.
[In Britain, UKIP did well in the European Parliament election of 2009, a point I overlooked at the time. But they were still marginal in the British General Election of 2010, getting 3.1% of the votes and no seats. Meantime the spectacular rise of the Greek left had not yet begun: Syrize were still marginal with 4.7% of the European election votes.]
Feed The Bankers, Says New Labour
It’s an odd world where a Labour Chancellor is a lot more right-wing and pro-finance than the Governor of the Bank of England. That’s the world we’re living in right now:
“Mervyn King, the governor of the Bank of England, tonight called for banks that are ‘too big to fail’ to be cut down to size as he opened a deep rift with Alistair Darling over the future regulation of the City.
“While the chancellor used the annual Mansion House gathering of City grandees to oppose a break up of the big financial institutions, King sketched out plans for a much more radical overhaul.
“He voiced opposition to high street banks having taxpayer-funded guarantees for their speculative investment banking activities and expressed scepticism about changes to regulation in the aftermath of the run on Northern Rock that would limit the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street to delivering ‘sermons’.
“In a clear divergence with the chancellor, King said: ‘If some banks are thought to be too big to fail, then, in the words of a distinguished American economist, they are too big. It is not sensible to allow large banks to combine high street retail banking with risky investment banking or funding strategies, and then provide an implicit state guarantee against failure.'” [E]
We also have Gordon Brown standing out against attempts by other European Union governments to impose some sort of regulation on the people who caused the current crisis:
“Gordon Brown is to resist European attempts to exert greater controls over the City of London, the British financial sector and, possibly, national fiscal powers at a Brussels summit tomorrow.
“With the other big European states backing moves to tackle the financial crisis by establishing a new system of pan-European regulators and supervisors, with last-resort authority to dictate bank bailout orders to national governments, the prime minister is expected to argue that Britain is different because of the City’s pre-eminence as the EU’s biggest financial centre.
“The two-day summit will be dominated by proposals for a new European ‘financial architecture’ in response to the crisis.
“The European commission and several of the key member states want laws enacted later this year creating a two-tier regime of financial regulation, supervision and risk monitoring.
“While the Brown government broadly supports the proposals tabled by the European commission, it insists Britain will be disproportionately affected because of the bigger role that the City plays in the British economy and because of the presence of hundreds of foreign banks in London.
“Brown is short of allies, supported vocally only by Romania, Slovenia, and Slovakia among the EU-27. He could be outvoted if the summit, improbably, decided to forego consensus and push ahead with the new rules.” [F]
I’ve heard it suggested that it’s all shadow-boxing, that the other leaders are only proposing regulation because they know that Britain will stop it. Still, it is an odd end to the New Labour project. They’ve so thoroughly swallowed Thatcherism that no real-world setbacks can change them. The Bank of England has a better sense of what needs to be done.
Of course being seen as the ‘bankers friends’ ensures Brown and Darling a prosperous future after they lose power. The same media people who have hysterics over half a million in dodgy expenses for MPs ignore the whole world of patronage by the rich institutions for retired or out-of-office politicians. Of course the ‘free’ press is dominated by much the same people. What else would you expect?
Get the Abbey Habit – Vanish! [Building Societies]
When Thatcher came to power in 1979, there were still vast swathes of British tradition that were pretty solid. Elements of middle-class respectability that had survived two world wars and the major social changes of the 1940s and 1960s. Building Societies were one example: small shops were another.
Thatcherite ‘wisdom’ said that Building Societies with their limits on profit must be a burden on productive capitalism. As for small shops, they should exist only if they could justify themselves in a competitive market-place. They had already been damaged by the ending of Retail Price Maintenance, the laws that once said that the same goods should sell at the same price everywhere. Thatcher mostly made things worse for them. Schemes that would have made it easier for small business people to collect legitimate debts from giant corporations were suggested but never got anywhere.
In the case of Building Societies, they were encouraged to turn themselves into banks, losing the protection of mutual status. This happened despite the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s and 1990s, in which the US equivalent of Building Societies were either looted or led into foolish investments, leaving behind a crisis that cost the US taxpayer more than 120 billion.
None of this was taken notice of. The Abbey National Building Society was founded in 1874 and was at one time noted for the slogan ‘Get the Abbey Habit’. It was ‘floated’ 1989, becoming technically a bank. Fifteen years after ‘floatation’, it sunk 2004 and was swallowed by Grupo Santander of Spain. We now learn that it is due to vanish without trace by the end of 2010, along with Santander’s other UK subsidiaries, Alliance & Leicester and Bradford & Bingley, both derived from building societies of 1850s vintage. That’s the fruit of Thatcher’s ‘conservatism’.
The existing branches of Santander’s UK subsidiaries are supposed to continue as Santander branches for the time being. For how long? Consider the case of the Cheltenham & Gloucester Building Society, founded 1850. In 1997, it ‘de-mutualised’ and was taken over by Lloyds Bank. Now all 160 branches are to be closed, with the loss of many hundreds of jobs.
What’s happening is a draining-away of the former basis of British middle-class life. I’d not hugely miss it myself, but I find it baffling that those people have consistently failed to defend
One Giant Leap for a Cold Warrior [1960s Space Race]
40 years ago, the USA gained a decisive advantage in the Cold War. Soviet ideology had justified itself as ‘the future’, and early success in space boosted this claim. Losing the space race dented this claim, and came only a year after they had slammed the door on sensible socialist reform in Czechoslovakia.
The moon landings won the ‘space race’ for the USA, and was followed by a massive cut-back. There was no real point putting more people on the moon: they already knew the basics and it had anyway been about power, about showing that the Soviet success with the first satellite and the first man in space. (Note, incidentally, that the Soviet Union also put the first woman in space, but then somehow managed to decide that space was unsuitable for women.)
An embarrassing detail in the USA’s lunar success was that they owed it mostly to a group of German engineers led by Wernher von Braun, men who gave Hitler the V2 rocket missiles that did quite a lot of damage to Britain during World War Two. Men who were unconcerned at concentration camp prisoners being worked to death on their project – it wasn’t even intelligent ruthlessness, because the victims figured they were going to die anyway and so sabotaged production as much as they could. Of course there was no vast gap between fascism and the USA’s 1950s culture. Mussolini and Hitler had been quite popular in the USA until they became enemies of Anglo interests. Former fascist countries adapted very nicely to the USA’s New Order, often with the more sensible former fascists flourishing. That was true of Japan, South Korea, West Germany and Italy.
The USA was also at its best when it was being measured against the Soviet Union. As the Soviet challenge weakened, especially after loosing the Space Race, the USA got more arrogant and much more foolish. Still, they did get to the moon, thanks to NASA. They may go back there, but it would be a pure propaganda exercise if they do. There is no good reason for humans in space during the 21st century – we might need space habitats one day, but just now there are vast areas of Earth that are almost uninhabited. Serious science in space is mostly done by robotic probes or satellites controlled by humans, people ‘on the spot’ are not needed and are hugely expensive, as well as causing great anguish when some of them die.
Meantime also there is finally some serious private enterprise in space, but so far very little. Whatever the defects of NASA’s giant bureaucracy, it has always got the job done, where rival agencies have mostly done badly. (The Chinese program is the only possible exception, but is very secretive)
China Stays Steady [Tiananmen 20 Years On]
June 4th 2009 came and went without the BBC saying much about the violent ending of the Tiananmen protests. People’s memories were jogged by a few little news-items, but there was a surprising lack of in-depths analysis. Obama, oddly enough, chose that particular day to make his big speech about the Middle East, in which he rejected the idea of US interventionism.
There was a leaked biography by Zhao Ziyang, the leader who let things drift into bloodshed, whereas Jiang Zemin handled similar protests in Shanghai quite smoothly. I’ve seen Zhao Ziyang’s book and it seems to miss the point entirely. June 2009 was the moment when China’s Communist system came close to collapse. The fate of Russia and Middle-Europe after similar collapses in their Leninist systems convinced many – myself included – that China was lucky to escape such a collapse. Russia has yet to get back to what it had in the stagnant but comfortable era before Gorbachev took over. Middle-Europe mostly fell and bounced back, it had its own stable traditions to return to, as well as the larger structure of the European Union to absorb them. Czechs and Poles have both been embarrassingly bad taking their turn at the EU’s Presidency, but nothing very worrying has so far happened.
China would have been a different matter, had the Communist Party agreed to multi-party elections in 1989. They might well have won, as happened in neighbouring Mongolia. But China has never yet had an elected parliament that anyone took seriously: their attempt to copy Western forms after the 1911 revolution soon turned into warlordism and fragmentation. A lot of bad things might have happened in a transition. A cluster of regional parties would surely have emerged. Likewise one or two parties banging the drum for Han Chauvinism, saying that minorities have been given too much special help – note what has happened to the gypsies or Roma in Middle Europe since Communism fell. Meantime Mao’s descendants, currently living rather obscure lives, would be likely to emerge as significant leaders or at least ‘fronts’ for major movements. Writers critical of Mao normally concede that Mao’s memory remains revered among most ordinary Chinese, though I’ve not seen any of them take the next step and say that maybe it’s best to stick with the current system and not try to mimic the West in a very non-Western situation. Nor do any Western experts see it, as far as I know, though you could figure it out if you knew the basics of West European history. Napoleon Bonaparte’s nephew Louis Napoleon surprised everyone after the 1848 Revolution in France by getting elected President and then raising himself by stages to be Emperor. And ending up getting ignominiously defeated in an avoidable war with Prussia: names are not good predictors of ability.)
(Incidentally, it was in this context that Victor Hugo coined the notion of ‘two and two makes five’, a phrase mostly associated with George Orwell, who was rather bad at citing sources.[J] It was Victor Hugo’s a way of ridiculing the referendum that authorised Louis Napoleon to seek a second term as President, overturning a constitutional rule limiting him to one term. I’d see the analogy is false: the French nation cannot validly change the laws of mathematics, but they are quite entitles to decide about their own culture and their own politics. By analogy, if enough English-speakers decided that domestic cats should be renamed ‘Miowers’, then that would be their name. Cats are already validly known as ‘Puss’ or ‘Pussy’, a word of obscure origin but now part of the language.)
To return to China. A conversion to multi-party democracy would have been risky. Supposing all had gone well, at the end of the day they might have a less effective system than they have now:
“The World Bank has raised its forecast for growth in China this year from 6.5% to 7.2% amid signs that the economy is doing better than expected.
“Bank analysts say the government’s four trillion yuan ($585bn, £358bn) stimulus package has helped the economy.
“But it says the country’s exports are still down, as the rest of the world struggles with the global recession.
“The World Bank believes the global economy, excluding China, will shrink by about 3% this year…
“But it is not all good news. China’s export sector has been one of the hardest hit parts of the economy and has still not recovered.
“This has led to millions of migrant workers – farmers who leave their villages to find work in China’s factories – losing their jobs. ” [H]
China never reversed Mao’s policy of abolishing private property in land. Deng encouraged individual farming, but the land is leased from the state, it is not sold off. Because of this – because the leadership remained socialists despite a general Western belief that they had all become fans of capitalism – they are able now to cope with the displaced migrant workers:
“Most villagers in China are given a small plot of land to farm, and many migrant workers returned to these plots when they lost their jobs.
“This has kept them off the city streets where they could gather and protest – and gives them an income so they can feed their families.
“This is what Mr Wu has done. He now relies on planting crops and raising pigs…
“There have also been protests, particularly in Guangdong province in southern China, where many of the country’s exporters are based.
“But these have mostly been individual incidents that have not developed into a co-ordinated nationwide campaign for political change.
“That is partly because there are no independent unions or other non-government organisations in China that could organise a national protest movement.
“China is also spending money on a series of projects, including retraining, to help migrant workers find new jobs.” [K]
Elsewhere in Asia, the poor sell their land to the rich, or lose it to pay debts. Things there are rather worse.
The Hungry Billion
“One billion people throughout the world suffer from hunger, a figure which has increased by 100 million because of the global financial crisis, says the UN.
“The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) said the figure was a record high.
“Persistently high food prices have also contributed to the hunger crisis.
“The director general of the FAO said the level of hunger, one-sixth of the world’s population, posed a ‘serious risk’ to world peace and security.
“The UN said almost all of the world’s undernourished live in developing countries, with the most, some 642 million people, living in the Asia-Pacific region.
“In sub-Saharan Africa, the next worst-hit region, the figure stands at 265 million.
“Just 15 million people are left hungry in the developed world…
“The increase in the number of hungry people was blamed on lower incomes and increased unemployment, which in turn reduced access to food by the poor, the UN agency said.
“But it contrasted sharply with evidence that much of the developed world is richer than ever before.
“‘It’s the first time in human history that we have so many hungry people in the world,’ said FAO spokesman Kostas Stamoulis, director of the organisation’s development department.
“‘And that’s a contradiction, because a lot of the world is very rich despite the economic crisis.’
“Mr Diouf urged governments to provide development and economic assistance to boost agriculture, particularly by smallholder farmers.
“‘Investment in agriculture must be increased because for the majority of poor countries a healthy agricultural sector is essential to overcome poverty and hunger and is a pre-requisite for overall economic growth,’ he said.
“Urban poor would probably face the most severe problems in coping with the global recession, the UN warned, because lower export demand and reduced foreign investment were more likely to hit urban jobs harder.
“Many migrants to urban areas would be likely to return to rural areas, it added, transferring the burden.” [L]
I don’t find anything unexpected or odd in the mix of wealth and poverty in developing nations. I find it the predictable outcome of what most of the world has been doing since the 1970s, the dropping of a commitment to social justice. If you concentrate on ‘free markets’, then naturally some go hungry while others prosper. Britain was at its peak of industrial dominance in the 1840s, but also sat back and let at least one in eight of the Irish die of hunger in the potato famine. Back in 1993, noted New Right writer Ruth Dudley Edwards chose to celebrate this choice:
“Laissez-faire–a belief that the public good is best served by leaving individuals to look after themselves, since government interference in economic affairs tends to upset the natural checks and balances of wealth-creation. Wilson’s magazine The Economist was to be perhaps the most influential disseminator of this doctrine, through the prism of which it examined and pronounced on the topical issues of the day; its greatest test was to be the Irish famine.” [M]
“It was unusual for Wilson to invoke the deity: certainly, when it came to the greatest issue of his editorship–the Irish famine–it was Adam Smith, not Jesus Christ, whose counsel he reluctantly followed…
“Did the existence of widespread starvation not prove impractical the abstract principle that a government should not meddle with the subsistence of the people? On the contrary, it demonstrated ‘the propriety of rigidly adhering to non-interference’, for it was interference in the shape of the Corn Laws that had caused the problem in the first place. Similarly, it was no part of a government’s duty to feed any or all of the people. Since its only funds came from taxation, it could feed one section of the population only by depriving another.” (Ibid. p 58)
How could corn laws cause a potato blight? Nor could regulations on food imports have much to do with the inefficiency of Irish agriculture, which was the deeper cause of the disaster. Ireland was at all times a food exporter, even during the famine. Though altogether four times as much food was imported as was exported, that there should be any exports from a famine zone was outrageous, both wicked and stupid.
People rich enough to pay taxes can spare a bit more; their comfort ought to be secondary to the simple survival of the poor. Meanness was also deeply foolish; Britain suffered enormous loss of prestige for its failure to behave with simple decency in the 1840s. A fair and generous effort to help the starving Irish might perhaps have not saved very many extra lives. But it would have left the Irish still feeling part of a wider British-Isles identity, an idea that was gravely weakened after the famine. The eventual loss of Ireland was maybe the beginning of the end for the British Empire.
In our own era, the West squandered its brief dominance after the Soviet collapse. It showed that it wanted to rule the world and was unfit to rule the world. With the current financial crisis, the West has shown it is not even competent to run the world on a selfish basis.
I’ve not been able to find an exact breakdown by nation of the 642 million ill-fed people in Asia. Figures for 2003-4 said there were 122.7 million undernourished persons in China, 230.5 million in the Republic of India.[P] It’s disgraceful that China has that many underfed people, even in a population of 1.3 billion. But India with a slightly smaller population is failing much more badly. And things are much worse in sub-Saharan Africa, where Western influence has been dominant.
[J] This is in Napoleon the Little. A good English translation is available from Gutenberg, [http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/20580]. The Wikipedia has more on the use of this phrase [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2_%2B_2_%3D_5]
[M] The Pursuit of Reason: The Economist 1843–1993, by Ruth Dudley Edwards. Page 6
[N] Ibid., pages 47 and 58. I dealt with the matter at greater length in an article entitled Economical With The Irish, which was published a few years back.