Friday, 18 December 2015

Review: 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens'

The short and non-spoiler version: I liked it and I had fun with it. The characters are great. Daisy Ridley (Rey) is brilliant in the film; I didn't quite take to her when she was introduced but she grew on me hugely as it went on. John Boyega (Finn) is also really good and seeing Han and Chewie again (you know who plays them) is brilliant. Adam Driver (Kylo Ren) is also excellent and conveys the anxieties of his character very well. The visuals are stunning, but kept safely in the background (correcting an error of the prequels). Broadly I agree with a lot of what John Scalzi says in his review.

But I also find myself uncertain about it, which is indicated by the word 'like' I suppose. I found it to be a bit underwhelming. Below the fold is a fuller review - which I will try and keep spoiler free, but there are a bit more plot details so the especially spoiler panicky (of which I count myself) should avoid.

Friday, 11 December 2015

In the Multiverse...

The Day Britain Abandoned Democracy


Cast your minds back to Saturday, February 15th 2003.

On that day we witnessed one of the largest civil protests in history. By some estimation there may have been close to two million people who turned out onto the streets. What were they protesting? Some affront to civil liberties? The wickedness of Kim Jon-Il's regime in North Korea?

No. On that day they were protesting against the overthrow of Fascist regime.

The course of events on that day is now well known. Tony Blair, the then Prime Minister, was eager to follow George W. Bush into war in Iraq. The plan was simply to overthrow the murderous dictator, Saddam Hussein, and promote freedom and democracy in Iraq. An extension of the invasion going on in Afghanistan. 

Yet that protest changed everything. Gordon Brown, the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, telephoned Blair to announce that he would not be supporting the decision to go to war. Brown, self-servingly, saw an opportunity to seize the crown of Prime Minister for himself, acting on, as we now know, advice from the weasel, and now Prime Minister of limp minority government, Ed Milliband. Blair, nobly, unwilling to risk the parties collapse in the face of stern opposition, resigned. Brown was elected leader and took the party away from war. His actions were met with much celebration.

And for what? Look on Iraq. The Americans, having to handle things themselves, obviously made a hash of their noble mission. Although now something approaching a workable state, Iraq still has problems to deal with, no least from the wicked forces of ISIS. The region is in a perilous position. And just think, all of his could have been avoided, could have been prevented, if Britain had but gone along.

"The idea," Tony Blair said, speaking later, "was always that by being in that coalition, standing alongside the Americans, we could influence things. We could have helped George, helped keep the hawks in his administration down, and more importantly helped improve things for the people of Iraq.

"I often wonder if I did right. Should I have put party unity in before helping the people of Iraq? Could I have done things differently? I suppose we will never know, but the thought haunts me."

He's right. Bush was clearly incapable of handling the responsibility on his own. He had the right intentions, we can never fault him for that, but the skills needed to successfully build the future of a democratic Iraq were always lacking. The judgment needed for it was never there. Those skills and that judgement would have been ably provided by Blair who, working with the President, would have been able to steer him onto the right course.

Milliband has, of course, maintained his disgraceful stance of opposition to intervention, thus giving tacit support to Assad and now ISIS. "It's dreadful," George Osborne, leader of the opposition, said. "Our reputation among our allies is now so soiled we're not considered worth their time. The Prime Minister may well have to start seeking new friends in the world, like China. Think on the terrible implications of that."

So we should. But then cosying up to totalitarian dictators has long been a past-time of the left. Think of the way they praise Castro for example, and look upon his regime in Cuba. Why should we expect that, in reality, they aren't more comfortable being chums with Xi Jingping, than Barack Obama?

That Saturday will come to be a day that we associated with shame. What were the people protesting? What were they celebrating? They were protesting the defeat of a fascist. They were celebrating a poke in the eye to the Americans. And that really does sum up the Stop the War Coalition and the Left. They are anti-Western. Their ire will never be turned against the likes of North Korea, or Russia, or any other corrupt and belligerent nation. Because fundamentally this is an act of self-hatred. Because fundamentally they hate the West and its values as much as ISIS does. That is the reason why they celebrated their successful opposition to bringing freedom and democracy to some of the most oppressed, brutalized and deprived people in the world.

That was the time when Britian should have stood up, together, and fought for freedom, as it did in World War II. Thanks to the left we instead decided that abandoning our allies at their time of need was more important. 

History will judge them harshly.

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Intervention Without Responsibility

The proposal of extending airstrikes into Syria to combat Daesh is under discussion today, with the vote occurring later. You can read the whole sorry 'debate' in the commons here. As for the particulars about whether or not we should be intervening, or on the nature of the evidence Cameron has provided to support his view that they would be supported by 70,000 moderate fighters [1] who would push back Daesh in Syria Septicisle covers it very well here and here.

I'm not going to get into this. Suffice to say I think that this is all putting the cart before the horse and that, with the United States and Germany looking to commit their troops to the ground, I suspect we'll be in for more than just airstrikes in the coming future. Corbyn is basically correct: until there is a political solution and an objective that we're working towards, very little is going to be achieved by dropping bombs on Daesh held territory. We'll kill a few of them, and probably a lot of civilians, but it won't actually succeed at anything until it's welded to a more concrete strategy. Getting the strategy sorted first would be the most important thing, then the intervention.

Instead, I'm just going to briefly go into the morality of it. My jumping off for this point is Cecile Fabre's article 'Mandatory Rescue Killings'. More specifically the thought experiment that she poses in it. Starting from the assumption that is morally permissible to kill someone in self-defence [2] she argues that in a scenario where a victim (V) is threatened by a morally culpable attacker (A) [3] and cannot defend themselves, then a rescuer (R) has the right to intervene and kill A on the behalf of V. This makes logical sense, after all if you are allowed to kill in your own self-defence then it does stand to reason that the right to kill in self-defence can transfer to someone who is capable of defending you when you are not.

Fabre's position is quite nuanced and the article itself is interesting (whilst she asserts that a person would have the moral right to intervene, it's not so clear that they would have the moral duty, or obligation to do so). What I want to take from this is it's relevance to humanitarian interventions. The logic, obviously, is clear in the Syria case: Daesh (the A) are killing Syrians and threatening others (the V), so we (the R) have a duty to intervene to protect them. As the Syrians, the civilians, are incapable of defending themselves their right of self-defence has transferred to us.

Obviously the case is a lot more complicated than this and many, many of these assumptions can be argued with, but I want to keep it to it's basics and just complicate it in one respect. If the victim has been attacked, and is injured as we might suppose, then if R intervenes and stops A, his obligations do not end there. After all, it'd be a funny sort of interventionist who dives in, kills the attacker, and then runs out to roar his triumph and beat his chest in victory for all to see, whilst quietly leaving V to bleed to death.

And yet this is the situation that we appear to be in. Nobody, after all, is making any kind of serious proposition towards what will happen after Daesh are defeated. The chaos of Syria would still be there and would still need to be resolved. It would likely need the interventionists to stay for a while, sort things out and promote a better future. But that isn't on the table. Indeed the precedent from Libya is worrying. What happened in Libya was exactly the scenario I described above: we went in, we stopped A (Qaddafi) then we ran away and shouted our triumph and left the Libyans to burn. Indeed the country is in such a state that you could make a plausible argument that Virgil was a time traveler who brought Dante to the future, not a spirit who took him on a tour of Hell.

This is the legacy of Blair and Bush. Say what you like about them, but at least they were prepared to stay and try and solve the problems in post-war Iraq (badly, but hey). Their successors, Cameron in particular, are wary of this having seen the political fallout and the cost. Public's loose interest in moral missions; and, unfortunately, interventions take a lot of time and money particularly when they're on a large scale. So, instead, they take the plaudits of going to war and doing something, but avoid the climb-down and the miseries of the aftermath. This is intervention without the responsibility that goes along with it.

Any intervention carries a responsibility to the people intervened on the behalf of, particularly in situations where they're already badly wounded and the place is chaotic. That responsibility doesn't stop with bombs. If we have a moral right and a moral duty to intervene, then we also have a moral duty to stick around and help make things better.

Remember that the next time some politician goes prattling on about what our moral obligations are.



[1] If they're anything like the Labour 'moderates' then that's a large barrel of dangerous fanatics we're dealing with here...

[2] A not incontestable assumption, but I won't get into it.

[3] That is, someone who is acting of their own volition and not at the behest of someone else, controlled by something, or out of their mind etc.

Sunday, 22 November 2015

On the Genealogy of Moderate

Another day, another Guardian columnist belts their toys out of the pram. This one will probably go down as a classic of the genre. All the arguments are there: 'people being insulting, despite my very reasonable manner', 'you don't understand, my calling people lunatics is merely an accurate description, not an insult' and, the number one in the list of 'bullshit preschool debating society rhetorical tricks': 'If wanting a world of sunshine, good will, freedom and no suffering for all makes me x, then fine: I am x'.

What particularly seems to exercise Ellen's ire is that 'moderate' is now a term of insult. This seems puzzling to me. It would suggest she either doesn't understand the concept of irony or else is being willfully obtuse.

When people, like me (who is not, incidentally, a Labour supporter), use the term 'moderate' it's used ironically and for a specific reason. The people in the Labour party who call themselves 'moderate' are not moderates; they're from the right of the party, sometimes it's outer fringes. They gave themselves the name 'moderate', not other people (the second rule is you don't automatically trust the label others give groups). Now the first rule in politics is that you don't just automatically assume that the label a group gives themselves is an accurate description. Otherwise you'd have to concede that the People's Republic of North Korea really is a people's republic, rather than a rather vile dictatorship.

The fact is the 'moderates' gave themselves the term in order to seem more centrist and reasonable than they actually are. Hence why people like myself, and the Corbynites, use the term ironically - it's mocking the right of the party, not the actual moderates in the party [1].

Ellen is, however, making a ghost of a good point; that you can't have a mass party entirely of just one wing. There always needs to be compromise and a key part of compromise is having a centre that can mediate between the two wings and help find a consensus with a 'best of both worlds' [2]. The fact that Labour doesn't have this right now, however, is not the fault of Corbyn. He has shown that he is willing to compromise in many areas (not least in making deficit reduction a policy plank) and appointed many actual moderates to his Shadow Cabinet to create a broad church. It's hardly his fault if the right of the party ruled themselves out for participation. But then they can hardly subsequently complain if they're not being included.

The trouble for the right of the party is that they don't have any ideas with which to engage or discuss. Tristram Hunt pops up in the media every now and again to insist that the moderservatives should come up with their own ideas to appeal to people, but the key continuity between all of these appearances is that he never actually proposes any ideas, never so much as suggests a vague direction for them. From an outsiders perspective it does really look like the only idea they have is to just keep throwing a temper tantrum until people give into their demands. Whatever they make think that's not an attractive, inspiring or helpful position.

The fact is that the right of the party lost and lost badly. Ellen has one hilarious passage where she states

Eventually, you just give up, driven back by a torrent of “leftier than thou” abuse, quite often from people who thrillingly “found their voice” after shelling out three quid on a whim in the leadership contest.

Note quickly how this is an article nominally talking about how awful it is being insulted that is essentially nothing but a collection of insults [3]. But it is revealing, seeing as this passage can be translated as: "Oh no! Corbyn inspired lots of people to join up to Labour and vote! What a catastrophe!"

Let's be perfectly clear here: Corbyn won fair and square across the board, but even if we just assume that it was on the £3 joinees it's worth saying that it was the same for all the candidates. There was nothing stopping Burnham, Cooper or Kendall from inspiring people to join up and vote for them, except Burnham, Cooper and Kendall themselves. The fact that they couldn't inspire people to sign up and vote for them, but Corbyn could, is the key fact that needs to be looked at in any explanation for why the moderservative and moderate candidates lost, but Corby won.

Sadly it won't be, though, as for some in the party they're far more comfortable with the belief that their own membership are idiots and nutters, and willing to call them this, than they are with idea that their way of doing things might not be the right way and that they have some self-reflection and critical thinking to do. As TheFlyingRodent aptly put it:

the party's leading lights are ever-prepared to countenance almost any kind of heresy, except for the type that suggests that the problem might be them.

Friday, 20 November 2015

'Look on My Works, Ye Mighty, and Despair'

(I had, originally, planned to write a post on the continual humour of the 'principles and power' that the moderservatives [1] keep going about, but the horrible attack in Paris has changed that. What follows, instead, is a somewhat rambling piece covering my own political journey, ISIS (henceforth Daesh) and why the West is doomed. You have been warned.)

John Quiggin, a while back, noted how although stories of conversions from left-wing positions to right-wing positions is a reasonably common affair you don't often hear of stories that track the other way. Well, you can count me as one of the bizzaros who went right to left (admittedly I'm something of an outlier, having gone from right-wing lunacy to left-wing lunacy). A big part of the story of my conversions is the Afghanistan and Iraq wars and the continuing fallout from that enormous clusterfuck.

Back when that all happened it had seemed right to me. Exciting even. Having spent days in school fascinated by war, the tales of glory of World War I and II, here was one about to happen. My lifetime finally had a deciding conflict, of good and evil. Except it didn't quite turn out that way. As time past it became apparent that, whilst Al-Queada were monsters, the West wasn't exactly good. We weren't there out of a genuinely humanitarian mission, but for ulterior motives centering around gaining power in the region. The government had actively lied to us with reports about weapons of mass destruction. It's certainly telling when defenders of these actions (such as Nick Cohen and the late Christopher Hitchens) have to retreat to the 'Saddam was vile fascist, so all of you opposing are fascist sympathizers' as the strongest case they can make.

On the back of that a healthy suspicion and dislike of government emerged, starting me down the process to becoming an anarchist (there's more to it than that, but this was the kick-off for the journey).

All of which leads to Paris. But it's not just Paris, of course, it's everything that now surrounds it. Daesh, as even Tony Blair himself recognizes, was a product of Iraq. Many people, I think, just don't understand how chaotic that country was. I see a number of people citing Graham Woods article on how Daesh are Islamic, very, very Islamic as the authority. And it is an interesting article, though not in the way Woods or the people who cite it think. It's used to support the idea that Daesh are really Islamic, so all the bad stuff results from that. And on some level this is true; the Qu'ran undoubtedly does contain passages that could be read in support of what Daesh does. But then I could pick up the Bible and find passages that support what Daesh does without too much trouble. No, the interesting thing about the article is that, aside from a brief part at the beginning and end, he's actually talking about politics; namely the competition between Al'Queada and Daesh.

The fact is I don't think many people really realize just how chaotic the Bush and Blair jihad, for that is what it was, into the region made the country. When in desperate circumstances people will turn to desperate measures and to people who seem to offer them a solution and a way out. Similarly with the youths who run away; they want to believe in something, or find an identity, so go to somewhere that promises to provide, like some people undoubtedly did when they ran off to join North Korea, or the Soviet Union. Like those people they probably regret soon after, when they realize its not much fun or even close to what they imagined it to be. Undoubtedly, as well, some of them are just horrible shits who have fun doing nasty things. But characterizing everyone that way won't help. There is, after all, a reason why we're often adverse to labeling things as 'evil'. It's a dismissal, not an explanation.

Of course this no longer matters a great deal. As has been made clear, anyone who so much as attempts to suggest that poor foreign policy decisions from the West played a role in this, and that Daesh is composed of something more than just nasty shits, will be told that they are excusing their actions. This is Cameron's solution to the problem he faces. Having always been embittered by the fact that he was halted from assisting Daesh is conquering Syria by bombing Assad he's now determined that, rather than come up with a better plan, he will instead close down debate by ensuring that anyone who speaks out is shouted down as a terrorist sympathizer. For this he will find support from the Blairites in the PLP, who've never forgiven reality for crushing the reputation of St. Tony the Wonderful under it's iron heel and have subsequently refused to engage with reality ever since.

This is, of course, what Daesh wants. They want us to clamp down on people, fuel divides, be paranoid. They want us to increase the conflict. Because they know full well that in a battle of values and ideals they'll lose. The way they win is getting us to go against our own values and drop the hammer of Thor on them. Because defeating people with military might, doesn't prove that our way of life is better than what they offer (as it certainly is); all it proves is that we have bigger and nastier weapons than they do. The lesson learned is that what they need is bigger and nastier weapons. So it goes.

This is our problem. Nobody is going to stop and think that maybe, just maybe, doing what Daesh wants is a bad idea. Maybe, just maybe, we should try and understand the situation and what gave rise to it before we act. Maybe, just maybe, we should stop taking The Lord of the Rings as our blueprint for foreign policy, with the notion that if we just defeat the Dark Lord in the Dark Land order will naturally restore itself, and instead take a lesson from V for Vendetta: that you can't kill an idea with guns. Only ideas can defeat ideas. That's why the crushing of Soviet style socialism was so total.

It's sad. Depressing. Despairing. I don't know how many more unfortunate people will have to die in Europe and in the Middle East before this is over. How many more lives will be disrupted and ruined before it comes to an end. How many more wicked groups will emerge and perform barbarities on others. But to think that it all could have been avoided had someone with power just for a moment said 'hang on, let's go over this again and make sure we do actually understand this and what we're going to be doing'. Even now, nobody is saying this. We'll just keep blundering into the same errors, over and over again, our own civilisation slowly cracking and crumbling, not because of terrorists, but because of us. Because, like children, we refuse to accept that we hold any responsibility, refuse to accept that we have anything to learn.

And that's a sickening thought.

[1] A portmanteau of 'moderate' and 'conservative'; it's the best appellation I've come up with to describe the 'moderates' of the Labour party

Friday, 6 November 2015

Book Review: 'The Curious Enlightenment of Professor Caritat' by Steven Lukes






 (Image Source: http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1373997237l/1051150.jpg)

In The Curious Enlightenment of Professor Caritat Steven Lukes, as the blurb says, does for political philosophy what Sophie's World did for philosophy in general. Sort of. The novel is essentially a satire of various political ideals. The title character, Professor Nicholas Caritat, an enlightenment scholar, is forced to flee his home country of Militaria, after he is arrested and put in jail. Broken out by a resistance group called the Visible Hand he is charged with travelling around the world and finding the best possible one, that is finding the country with the best system. His code-name is Pangloss, a reference to the character from Voltaire's Candide who maintained, in the face of catastrophe after catastrophe, that they lived in the best of all possible worlds (a wry reference to Leibenz).

So Caritat journeys through the world of Utilitaria, Communitaria and Libertaria, in each one finding a country dedicated to one system, and one system alone, that initially seems to work well, before the problems are exposed. It is a satirical blast at the various factions of political philosophy and Lukes is a fair satirist, in that he treats everyone with equal disdain (but for one omission, more on that in a moment). The odd one out in the group is Militaria, which seems to be based on everything Lukes dislikes (police-state, French postmodernist philosophy and Richard Rorty - a decidedly unusual mix). I suspect the actual inspiration is Hobbes' leviathan taken to an extreme conclusion. 

The strongest section of the book is undoubtedly Caritat journeying through Utilitaria. Lukes does a good job presenting a world that looks pretty good, everyone smiles, everyone is happy, there is strong welfare provisions for all, before slowly revealing that the world is not quite so perfect and that there is an insidious undercurrent to it all. In particular is the revelation that the farewell homes that Caritat is taken to by Gregory, the professor helping him, are not nice old people’s homes but euthanizing centres, that also take care of the unemployable and otherwise deficient. The people, as it were, smile out of fear that people might think they are not contributing to the overall happiness. This is a good and funny section as the baffled Caritat bounces around people arguing over who should be the ones to make calculations of utility (ordinary people with their pocket calculators - called the 'Actor' groups - or people with specialized knowledge who make the decisions for them, the 'Rule' group).
  
Caritat, after being kidnapped by a terrorist Bigotarian group, is rescued by a Communitarian citizen, Goodington Thwaite and is taken to Communitaria and then, from there, he flees to Liberataria. These sections are still funny and still pointed in their satire, but not quite a successful as Utilitaria. They are shorter and there is no sense that they might be the perfect world, as was the case in the utilitarian land, before it is slowly undermined as Caritat journeys through it and understands the world. They are shown to have flaws effectively from the off. Although Communitaria has respect for different communities, they are in fact ghettoised, with each community split off from one another and not interacting. The task of showing respect to ethnic and religious groups (the two major divides, there being an Ethnic lower house parliament and a Religious upper house parliament) in practice descends to the case of not showing offense to anyone, meaning that certain words, phrases and even satire are banned. Students at the university are heavily restricted in what they can do or say and interethnic and interreligious marriages are frowned upon and can lead to excommunication. After a run-in with a female professor, who accuses him of making improper advances, Caritat flees to Libertaria. Here libertarian philosophy rules, and everything is privatized, is being privatized or has a price attached to it. Caritat, for example, has to pay for three different tickets on the train, in order to pay the train maker, the train operator and the railway line operator (as well as a charge for using the platform). A thinly-veiled caricature of Margaret Thatcher closes down a psychiatric ward, giving the patients their 'freedom', to make way for a plastic surgery ward, altogether more profitable. Although Caritat occasionally commits a crime in this world he is not punished. As one character explains, the police are privatized so for most crimes it’s not worth the bother paying the fee to call them out. 

Throughout all this Caritat writes letters to the Hand member who freed him, Justin, as to his thoughts on the world, discussing it as a place he would him and his children to live whilst also looking at it from the point of view of where an unborn embryo would want to be born. Here Lukes is able to outline the trouble with each world, making it clear what the problems are with the general philosophy. Caritat also has conversations with enlightenment philosophers in his head before going to sleep, though this part of it feels tacked on and sort of disappears towards the end of the story. The satire itself is very good, although it's hard to know how well it serves as an introduction. Unless someone was familiar with the philosophies I'm not sure they would know enough of what was going on, and whether there is enough of explanation of the worlds, in order for them to get the joke. As such it feels like an in-joke from one professor to another. 

Caritat ultimately does not find the perfect world, though he holds out hope for journeying towards it. As above I noted that one major philosophy was noted by its absence: liberalism. Socialism/communism gets an airing, in Proletaria, and appears near-perfect but it's revealed to all be a dream (the satire their being pointed and obvious). At the end of the Libertaria piece Caritat sets out on foot to find Egalitaria, a supposed mythical place where all are equal. This, presumably, is the world of liberalism. If the work of satire is pointing a way to a conclusion, what Lukes seems to be suggesting is that liberalism is the best that is achievable in reality (communism would obviously be great but it's not possible, just a dream). I think there is a problem with this though. In not satirising liberalism Lukes seems to be ducking out, as if worried that his preferred system would not be able to handle the satire. I suppose it is true that liberalism is a hodgepodge of everything else, or at least it is nowadays, so one could argue that all of it is effectively satirised (multiculturalism in Communitaria, welfare and happiness seeking and social calculation in Utilitaria, negative freedom in Liberatria etc.) but its omission is none the less notable. 

Caritat never gets to Egalitaria, not knowing whether it exists, but thinks he sees some lights in the distance as he sets out on his journey, and the story ends there. After conversing with the Owl of Minerva, and seeing some activists in trees protesting against the bulldozing of trees to build a parking lot, Caritat/Lukes announces his conclusion: that trying to build a perfect world on one system is always doomed to fail, as it will not encompass enough of the human experience. Rather a piecing together of different parts of it is necessary. The activists then show that one has to keep battling, striving and fighting for what one believes in and in order to make things work. The book has some ups and downs, as mentioned it’s not quite as good after Utlitaria, and some of the explanatory sections are awkwardly placed and feel forced in. Nonetheless it does what it sets out to do well. As the end of the book symbolises, the perfect system is a myth, a dream, but it’s one that we have to keep working and journeying towards, even if it can never be met. If nothing else that is a pretty good message to take away.

Friday, 23 October 2015

A Gathering Perfect Storm

As may have been noticed the Chinese President, Xi Jingping, was in Britain on a four-day state visit. The reason behind this is fairly obvious; the government is desperate for cash in order to fund its needed infrastructure projects for the Norther Powerhouse and the nuclear plant deals. Rather than going to the market, where they could borrow the money for a 0.6% interest rate, they have instead gone to other companies and China to get the funding - at inflated interest rates. The reasoning is the same as what led Gordon Brown to PFI: utter paranoia about public debt leads to taking on more debt at inflated rates, with less oversight and control, that will provide a real burden for future generations. But at least the numbers will look nice.

This was why the Chancellor, George Osborne, was in China not so long ago. It is also seen as a re-balancing act of realpolitik. China is seen as a rising power and the United States of America is seen as a declining power. It thus makes some geopolitical sense to improve ties with China and that is exactly what the British government is going for. They want to be China's best friend in the West; the entry point for their dealings, the voice on their side[1]. The benefits we'll glean from this are, supposedly, greater links, more access to their economy, investment in our own economy, which will help us out in many varied ways - with the nuclear deal being seen as a chief example of those kinds of benefits.

I rather suspect that the benefits to derive from this will mostly be marginal. Not to mention that there are other, image problems being created, namely the government being very hush-hush about human rights (although, in fairness, the Conservative government is lukewarm on human rights anyway). This is damaging in some ways. As a country that likes to think of itself, and promote itself, as one of the good guys going silent on these things looks bad. It also raises problems of how do you then complain about abuses in other countries? After all, if we're silent about human rights in China we can't very well go and give a smaller country a kicking over them because that would look hypocritical (not to mention bullying).

There's been mention of rift forming between the UK and the US and some of our other Western allies as well; I wouldn't put too much by this. A geopolitical reorientation is obviously going to irritate some people but it's not going to have much of an effect. I doubt the US is suddenly going to start cutting us off after all (not that it really matters; the Obama administration, like the EU, doesn't even bother to pretend that their including or listening to us anymore).

So this whole thing shouldn't have any adverse consequences geopolitically. Except... well it might...

Remember that Country called Taiwan?

Well they're having an election in January 2016, and the polls are pointing towards a thumping victory for the Democratic Progressive Party's (DPP) Tsai Ing-wen. She currently has more support than the Kuomintang (KMT) and the People First Party (PFP) combined. It's so bad, in fact, that the KMT have made the unprecedented move of dumping their presidential candidate, Hung Hsiu-chu, and replacing her with Eric Chu, the mayor of New Taipei City. In all probability it won't make much difference. The damage has really been done by the current, KMT, President Ma Ying-jeou.
A bit of an elaboration is probably necessary. The DPP is, effectively, the Taiwan independence party. For a long time their policy proposal was for Taiwan to declare itself and independent nation. They've softened this approach, since Chiang Ching-Kuo relaxed the rules of party formation, to being merely seeking a seat at the United Nations, as most Taiwanese don't want independence. In any case the DPP is clearly the 'distancing from Beijing' party. The KMT, meanwhile, is the nationalist party, which in this case means the reunification with China party. However the KMT policy has always been to reunify on the KMT terms. Back when Chiang Kai-Shek fled China, with his supporters, the plan was to relaunch an invasion of the mainland. When this rapidly proved to be an absurd idea, not helped by the fact that, in spite of various disasters, Mao Zedong and the Communist Party managed to maintain their control on the mainland, the KMT opted to devote themselves to a political rapprochement - essentially play a waiting game for China to become more similar to them and then reunify. This started to move in that direction with the reforms instituted by Deng Xiaoping, but of course political reforms did not come and Taiwan stayed away. Overtures were made with the 'One Country, Two Systems' proposal, but it came to nothing (though had Ching-Kuo not passed away when he did it's possible that it would have happened; he was negotiating with Deng about it). [2]

The problems for the KMT sprung from the fact that President Ma seemed to be moving too close to integration with China. Taiwan much prefers the current status-quo (particularly, I'd imagine, after seeing the shenanigans in Hong Kong). It could be argued that, facing an economic slowdown, Ma didn't have much choice, but in any case its been badly handled and corruption allegations have not helped. So the pendulum looks very likely to swing to the DPP in order to distance away from China again.

China also views reunification as its ultimate goal and is paranoid about Taiwan declaring independence. For this reason they don't like it when the DPP wins power in the presidential elections. As part of this as well they attempt to diplomatically isolate Taiwan; hence why if countries want to have diplomatic relations with China they have to cut off ties to Taiwan (that is, not recognise them as a country and maintain no embassies). The US is the exception to this rule (because their strong enough geopolitical to be so); whilst recognizing China, they maintain relations with Taiwan (less than in the past) and also keep a continual commitment to defending it from any Chinese aggression.

At this point you might be thinking: what has this got to do with Britain?

Well I'm glad you asked...

The Perfect Storm

China is going through some economic trouble. Whilst growth of 6.9% is the stuff of Western treasury ministers wet dreams, for China, which has ridden on growth of 9-10% this is bad. The reasons for the slowdown are not complex, but many varied. This video from Tyler Cowen gives a good enough summary. In brief, China is attempting to make a transition from a resource intensive economy, towards a more service based economy. Part of this problem rests on attempting to reform the State Owned Enterprises (SOEs), many of which are bloated and inefficient and survive on cheap credit from the state banks. The problem is reforming these might significantly damage the economy in the short-run, if not handled well. Likewise there is also a problem that a lot of municipal government regions have piled up lots of debt, from the cheap credit available (and were encouraged to do so by the government). This money has not been spent wisely, hence the problems. [3]

The slowdown looks like it will continue to go on. This is problematic for the regime as, essentially, they're likely forgiven a lot of their political repression on the grounds that, for most Chinese, they maintain them at an affluent standard of living [4]. If the slowdown persists, and gets worse, grumblings might start to appear among the populace. Beijing is well known to be paranoid of witnessing uprisings of the likes of Tienanmen square again, because they worry that this time they won't be able to put them down or control them.

What is the oldest trick in the political book for gleaning support from the populace when you hit bad times? Well, it's declare a war and win it, but that's off the table. So instead we usually get nationalist sabre rattling of one sort or another, to support the regime by the power of patriotism.

Enter Taiwan. If the DPP win, which is likely, and the Chinese economic slowdown continues, which is also likely, its not implausible that we could see some tightening and sabre rattling and military maneuvers across the strait (there are already worries about this). This would be an attempt to distract the population from the internal problems. Geo-politically, however, this presents a problem for us. If this were to happen the US would get involved, as it maintains a protection around Taiwan. And then enter us, Britain. What are we supposed to do in such a scenario? If we do anything other than take China's side we're likely to pee off our new bestest pals, with the predictable knock-on effects (remember Cameron was diplomatically frozen out of China for over a year for the offence of having met the Dalai Lama). On the other hand, jumping to take China's side will likely irritate the US and every other ally that we have.

Now, of course, all of this might not happen and I might just be running away with it. On the other hand, it is possible to see it happening. And if it does Britain will have unnecessarily dropped itself into a right old pickle that, whatever happens, we're not going to come out of looking good. And this stuff matters; remember Britain is not a powerhouse on the world stage. We've already lost tons of influence in the world, thanks to Cameron's inept foreign diplomacy (basically, ignore it unless there's a vote boosting opportunity to take part in). This matters. Another blow and our image and influence will be further diminished, which will tie us even more strongly to China.

China. Which is currently going through economic difficulties, and which our Chancellor has just dumped a significant chunk of our economic future on in a gamble. Rather like in the manner of someone on roller-skates who hooks a cable onto the back of a car about to go off a cliff. If this goes wrong, it's going to go wrong very, very quickly and very, very badly. [5]


[1] Bluntly; we're ditching a 'special relationship' with America that's not worth the imaginary paper it's printed on, for a 'golden friendship' with China, that's not worth the imaginary paper it's printed on. One of these pieces of imaginary paper is still better than the other though...

[2] For an account of the Taiwan political scene and parties see Shelley Rigger, Politics in Taiwan: Voting for Democracy; for a biography of Chiang Ching-Kuo, that also gives a good general political history of Taiwan and its relations to China, see Jay Taylor, The Generalissimo's Son: Chiang Ching-Kuo and the Revolutions in China and Taiwan.

[3] This article by Paul Krugman, whilst not specifically about China, also explains what the problem is. China has achieved spectacular growth by largely putting idle resources, that is the population, to work, whilst also improving efficiency. The trouble is that this has diminishing returns; you start to reach a point where everyone who can work is working and the more inputs that are done, the less outputs are gained (one tractor on a farm will improve efficiency immensely, but ten won't improve it all that much because you can't use all of them at once). This part of the problem that China is running into and that they are attempting to shift away from (hence their focus on nuclear and solar engineering, which they see as an area they can branch into).

[4] Ernest Gellner, in Thought and Change and other works essentially makes the point that maintaining economic affluence is, for industrial societies, the key factor for maintaining legitimacy of a regime. If that starts to look shaky...

[5] And even if it goes right there's not much guarantee that they'll be any major long-term benefit to it.

Thursday, 15 October 2015

The Manchester Rally Moment

Last week the Conservative party had their annual conference. It was, or seemed to be, a big success. There was much wittering about Labour and their uselessness, much talk about their colonising of the centre ground, indeed there was talk of them taking over the centre-left with policies about the Northern Powerhouse, their much vaunted 'national living wage' and their re-branding strategy as the 'worker's party'. Cameron, indeed, seemed to recover his big society and hug-a-hoodie mentality.

I'm not going to focus on any of that - others have already trawled over the policies and their merits and demerits. Instead I'm going to look at what this might mean for the future. Specifically whether this conference might, just might, have been a Sheffield Rally moment for the Conservatives. The Sheffield Rally, for those who don't know, was a moment when the Labour party, back in 1987, have a final rally prior to the general election. It was widely seen as triumphalist, as the members turned up in suits and cars that looked like ministerial vehicles. Labour went on to lose the election and, so legend would have it, they lost because of that rally - they looked too triumphalist and smug and the public responded negatively too it. In all likelihood it had no effect, maybe a few points here and there but certainly nothing to generate the big difference in the polling results (they lost by 8%).

Looking at it, though, I felt a similar air of triumphalism about the Conservative conference. Among their leadership, their members, their supporters (or as we call them 'the press'), and most of the Labour party there's a sense that the 2020 election is already dun and dusted. Corbyn can not win, because he is unelectable [1]. Perhaps this is true, perhaps not. No one at this stage knows. But it is interesting to see how this is infecting parts of the conference. Because what was really interesting about the Conservative conference was the way in which the starting pistol for the leadership election has been fired.

Michael Gove, George Osborne, Theresa May, Boris Johnson; in their own ways each of them was making a pitch for the leadership (Gove, though he might just be pitching for supporter in chief, and May to the right of the party, Osborne to the 'centre' as the continuity candidate, and Johnson to the left). Because everyone knows Cameron is winning, and because they all know that 2020 is in the bag, none of them are willing to hang around. Because Labour are already beaten the idea of keeping unified to defeat Labour seems to be going out of the window - everyone wants that shot at the guaranteed position of being Prime Minister.

And this might cause problems. For one thing, this is probably going to get quite brutal before its over, with lots of competition among the candidates. It will, to some degree, split the party as no one is just going to allow Osborne to take the leadership. Labour, by contrast, have the virtue of getting their acrimonious infighting out of the way early. If, and it is a big if, the party can come to a compromise around Corbyn in two years or so, they'll be able to put forward a united platform as well as spin the line that 'see, we behaved like adults. We had our differences, we sorted them out in a mature fashion and these are the policies we've arrived at'. If the Conservatives descend into in-fighting that'll look like an attractive proposition and the party that was divided is now unified and the unified party is now divided. It could turn things around. And it all comes as a result of people thinking it's all done and dusted. Hence the Manchester Rally moment.

Another two things to say, that is often forgotten, is that the contest will not be between Cameron and Corbyn; it will, in all probability, be between Osborne and Corbyn. This changes things, as Osborne is not as well liked among the public as Cameron and he doesn't have the same quality as a public speaker or being able to connect with voters. That might hurt him. In addition, during the contest, he may be drawn right in order to secure his leadership, vacating the much vaunted 'centre' ground. And, after all, this will not be the first time that the person seen as little more than the skilled speaker with no real ideas, is replaced with the smart, intelligent, brains behind the whole operation and it proves to be a disaster [2].

The other thing is that, in reaching for the centre-left, Cameron, in his moment of triumph, may have reached too far. Because it is unlikely that he will achieve the vision he set out too (not least because on all the metrics he was pointing to, things have got worse under his first five years). This could well come back and bite him. In order to take a lot of terrain you need to have the forces and the strength to do it. And with a paper-thin majority and a leadership election on the way it does not appear as though the Conservatives do, and could therefore be prey to a concentrated assault in particular areas.

Too Long; Didn't Read Version

It's like the game Risk. You can never hold onto the Russia-Asia region; even though you get seven extra soldiers it's just too large and your forces are always stretched too thin. A successful attack on one area leads to the loss of the extra men at each turn and the subsequent collapse of the hold. A successful strategy, however, is taking the Australasia region and placing everyone on Papa New Guinea. Putting all your soldiers there, the only entry point, allows you to have a strong defensive wall, whilst you build up your troops behind it. If you can survive the early assaults, you can then break out and go a lightning attack through your opponents and smash-and-grab the victory.

That is to say, it's entirely possible that Cameron and the Conservatives have overreached themselves and that Corbyn and the Labour party can turtle their way to victory.


[1] It's worth noting that all the people who claim this tend to be the same people who claim that Liz Kendall would have swept to victory (and to a lesser extent those who backed Burnham and Cooper). Now this, for all any of us will know, might be true but it is somewhat staggering that people can, with a straight face, maintain that someone who couldn't triangulate a way to victory with their own party members would somehow, magically, be able to do it for the country as a whole. The fact that none of them have even paused to think about whether or not they might, just might, need to reassess things shines a disturbing light onto the mentality of the average Very Serious Person.

[2] Indeed the Blair-Brown and Cameron-Osborne relations and succession may well prove Marx's dictum that history happens twice: first as tragedy, then as farce.

Thursday, 8 October 2015

On a (slightly) Narcissitic Endeavour

So, to begin...

The purpose of this blog, for the most part, is to dispense some reasoned and critical thoughts about the day, occasionally from my far left, as in orbiting Neptune, position. It will be a collection of my thinking about things, working out, responding to articles or events that I find interesting and offering a, hopefully, enlightening and somewhat idiosyncratic commentary on it. Occasional book reviews as well.

By doing this I am suggesting that things I say are worth reading and can help understand the world. Hence the narcissism.

The title of the blog comes from William Somerset's, played by Morgan Freeman, quote in the movie Seven: "Ernest Hemingway once wrote: 'the world is a fine place and worth fighting for'. I agree with the second part." It kind of gives a good summation of this enterprise and my position: a sort of optimistic/idealistic cynicism. Yes the world is mostly awful, but it's the only one we've got so we have to do the best we can with it.

Whomever comes by, I hope you enjoy it!

Well, at least enjoy it until I get locked up because of the governments anti-extremism laws some two years hence..