smhwpf: (BuffyAnne)
The idea of the technological singularity, where artificial intelligence overtakes human intelligence, leading to runaway technological growth with unknown implications for human society, is well-established, although how likely it is remains controversial.

There are numerous concerns about the implications of increasingly autonomous computers and robot systems with artificial intelligence. A very important one relates to autonomous weapon systems, or killer robots, that not only operate without a physical human pilot/driver, but which use AI algorithms to make their own decisions about who to target, and when. In the short term, there are all sorts of moral and legal concerns - who is to be held responsible if an algorithm kills an innocent person? In the longer term, the potential for killer robots to turn against their makers and take over the world and destroy humanity. Such a risk may be far in the future, but it seems to me far from implausible, once you start building algorithms that 'work', but in ways that human programmers do not fully understand, there must exist a risk that they will develop in ways completely contrary to the intentions of the programmers. The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots campaigns on just this issue. It seems to me that, as AI becomes a reality, something akin to Asimov's Laws of Robotics becomes a no-brainer.

The other big potential danger that is often talked about, and which is the main subject of this post, is that of mass unemployment as robots replace more and more human jobs. This has long been the case for blue-collar manufacturing jobs of course, but now the middle classes are beginning to sit up and take notice, with cases like the recent decision by Japanese insurance company Fukoko Mutual Life to replace 34 employees who assess insurance claims with the IBM Watson AI system. The Nomura Research Institute estimated in 2015 that half of all jobs in Japan could be replaced by robots by 2035.

Up to now, advances in technology have certainly caused significant sectoral employment problems among workers with particular skills that are no longer needed; the tendency of a Capitalist economy has been to shrug its shoulders at the fate of these obsolete workers and leave them to rot on the dole, if they're lucky. Sometimes, where there are more social-democratic oriented governments, there may be some effort at retraining, reskilling, industrial and regional policy, etc., to provide new opportunities to such workers. So far, however, fears that advancing technology would lead to permanent and growing mass unemployment have proved unfounded; new technologies make some occupations redundant or less needed, but create new ones, and expand the production possibility frontier so that the great majority of workers can still be employed one way or another, but producing more and more output. Not that this is unproblematic, for all sorts of social, economic and environmental reasons, but the majority of humanity has not been thrown on the scrapheap, and indeed extreme poverty continues to diminish.

Perhaps, then, fears of economic doom due to AI are misplaced? In fact, I think it may be worse than most people think.

Starting with economic fundamentals, production (in the economy as it has been up to now) requires a combination of labour and capital. (The latter in a broad sense may include land). Labour is paid a wage, capital receives a rate of return, in the form of profits, interest or rent.

But capital, and the owners of capital, needs labour needs the rest of us, tho great majority of us who depend on our labour for our livelihoods*, in two ways: first as a means of production; you need some combination of people, land and machines; but secondly as a market for the goods and services produced by labour.

This is crucial. Capital does not reproduce itself, does not get a rate of return by some intrinsic magical property, but because there is demand for the goods and services capital helps produce. It is true that the rich themselves form an important market, but that is not enough to sustain the great majority of owners of capital. The owners of Starbucks and Macdonalds could not become rich just by selling to the rich. Even, say, landlords can only earn rent if their tenants are able to pay it, which means they need employment (or government transfers).

But if AI becomes sufficiently advances, this could cease to be true. If capital can create more capital without labour input, that is if robots can build robots, that can in turn do all (or almost all) the necessary work, then those who own capital (robots and the technology that drives them) not only no longer need labour for production, they no longer need to mass-produce products and services to be sold to the majority of the population. Their capital can provide them with all the necessities and luxuries they desire, and continue to reproduce itself to greater and greater levels of sophistication. No doubt a small number of very lucky humans would be needed to help maintain things (who themselves would quickly join the ranks of the rich, the robot-owners), but the great majority of the population would become completely surplus to the requirements of the elite.

This is a truly terrifying prospect. Would the rest of humanity even be allowed to survive? Perhaps the elite 1% or so would allow the rest of us to continue to eke out an existence as best we could on whatever portions of the earth they decided they had no use for, and without access to the technologies that allow the elite their luxurious lifestyle. They would certainly want to sequest for themselves all the key natural resources they need to keep this new economy running. They would protect themselves of course not only with high fences but with robot armies. They would probably see a need to 'cull the herd' periodically of the roaming barbarians outside their protected zones, less we threaten their system in some way. I suspect they would quite quickly come to see the rest of us as less than human. Maybe some of them would extend 'charity' to a few of us.

Perhaps in such a scenario, a robot rebellion would not be the ultimate fear, but our only hope.

Is there a flaw in my reasoning? There may well be, I hope there is, and please do point it out if so. Or is the point when capital becomes self-reproducing so far in the future that it is not a serious concern for now, especially in the face of other civilization-threatening challenges? Perhaos the Future of Humanity Institute has already analyzed this question, although I did not see anything obviously relevatn on a cursory look at their website.

But if my line of reasoning is correct, then Socialism becomes all the more urgent - that is, the socialization of the means of production, of the technologies that would enable self-contained labour-free production. If capital is all that is needed for production, then we must all own the capital.

The choice will be between fully automated luxury space communism, or the end of humanity as we know it.



*We must also include those of us who do not own capital, but who are unable to work due to unemployment, sickness or disability, or old age. Those of us in this position either depend on our own past labour (savings, pensions), or on a social transfer system that relies on labour income from a large proportion of the population.
smhwpf: (Treebeard)
Since the Brexit vote, there has been a massive upsurge in Brits applying for other EU citizenships. Not me, for once I had foresight and applied for Swedish citizenship about a week after the last UK General Election, when it was clear there was going to be a referendum. Didn't expect people would vote Leave, but just in case. Smart move.All too rare on my part.

So it seems that precautionary back-up measures are once again required, this time in the blogosphere, with LJ's servers moving to Russia n'all. So I have finally done what I probably should have done ages ago (not so much foresight this time), and put my journal in the queue for backup to Dreamwidth. I am also smhwpf there.

I still intend to keep posting to LJ as my primary place, so long as matters do not take a turn for the worse, but will copy to DW.

Also, fuck Putin.
smhwpf: (Treebeard)
There are a lot of narratives about why Trump won. It's racism. (Almost certainly). It's misogyny (ditto). It's anger by the white working class at declining economy and lost manufacturing jobs. (Maybe). It's a desire to give a big up yours to the system (probably). It's a reaction to political correctness. (Sceptical).

Likewise, there are two major counter-narratives: that we need to understand, reach out to and empathize with Trump supporters; and that, no we don't, or at least we don't need to 'understand their concerns' as if they're poor victims, rather than people with deep racist instincts angry at the perceived dilution of their privilege.

I tend to agree with the latter, except I think we clearly do need to understand Trump supporters, what's driving people to vote for him, and why there were enough people choosing to vote for him in exactly the right states.

I've seen the exit polls, the breakdown by all sorts of demographic indicators, race, gender, age, income, education, etc. Also plenty of articles with data on predictors of Trump support: authoritarianism, implicit racial bias, etc., articles supporting and opposing the idea that economic decline is a factor.

But these all leave so many questions. One of the key ones is, what is the interplay between racism and economics? It seems pretty damned obvious that racism is a factor behind Trump support. But racism is not exogenous; what social circumstances tend to lead to higher levels of racism? Trump has galvanized and empowered racism that was already there, but what factors have led to this strategy gaining him votes in the particular places he needed them.

There is a lot missing from the exit poll data. Like, the breakdown by income shows Clinton getting majorities among people of lower income and Trump of higher income, going against the economic anger theory. But, given that people of colour have lower average incomes, does this pattern hold when restricted to white voters? We know white voters without college degrees voted for Trump much more strongly than those with, and of course college degrees correlate with higher income, but it does not thereby follow that low income among whites correlates with Trump support.

Then again, how does the income distribution of Trump support among whites compare with the income distribution of previous Republican support among whites? Traditionally, I think, lower income whites have been more likely to vote Democrat than high income. So the question is not just are they still more likely to vote Democrat, but, is the income correlation with voting among whites stronger or weaker than before? What has happened to the relative propensity of lower income whites to vote Dem compared to upper income, from previous elections to this one?

In particular, what is the source of the increase in relative Trump vote compared to McCain and Romney? The people who voted Obama but now voted Trump, who voted Obama but now stayed at home or voted 3rd party, the people who stayed at home but now Voted Trump?

Racism is clearly a huge factor behind Trump support. But racism was almost certainly correlated with support for previous Republican candidates. It has been at least since Nixon's Southern Strategy. Trump got the support of the great majority of (self-identified or registered) Republicans, Clinton got the support of the great majority of Democrats, so the fact that racism is correlated with Trump support doesn't tell us much about the relationship between relationship and Trump's gain in support (in relation to the Democrat opponent) compared to previous candidates. (In fact Trump got less votes in absolute terms, as I understand it, than Romney or McCain, but while Clinton beat Trump in popular vote by 0.2% so far, maybe 1-2% when all the votes are in, Obama beat McCain by over 7 and Romney by 3.9.)

Some of Trump's largest gains relative to Clinton in vote share, compared to the 2012 election, were in the Mid-West, certainly if one considers swing states. (Which includes virtually all the Mid-West). By contrast, the Clinton vote held up relatively well in Southern swing states or near swing states.

What I'm possibly getting at is that it could be true both that racism is the key predictor of Trump support, and that a key factor of Trump's victory—the people who switched to him, the people who stayed at home having previously voted for Obama, and so on—is anger at economic decline and a system that has failed the working class. (Not to say race isn't still a factor. But maybe, say, the more racist people turned out for Trump, while people who were put off by Trump's racism but angry at the system stayed at home instead of voting Clinton. Maybe).

I say this could be the case, but we need better, more granular, data.

None of this changes the fact that Trump's victory has enthused and empowered racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia and much else, and that these forces need to be vigorously opposed, not empathized with. That is the priority. But we also need to understand what went wrong, and what strategies can reverse it; what, for example, is going to help the white working class people in rural, small town and suburban communities, who didn't vote for Trump, reach out to at least some of their neighbours who did and offer a better alternative? I think that is a much better question than the one that is often asked, how can 'we' (implicitly right-thinking but guilt-ridden middle-class educated urban liberals) 'reach out' to 'Trump supporters' in the abstract.
smhwpf: (Winter is coming)
The world is entering its second Fascist era.

The absolute number one priority now is to fight this new Fascism. All other ideological differences, be you socialist, communist, anarchist, scoial democrat, liberal, neoliberal, moderate conervative, all these are secondary.

I do not know how to fight it. Although I have some limited experience on what might be called the front lines, it was toes in the water, and for the most part I am an elitist middle-class London/Stockholm/Massachusetts liberal. But we are all going to have to learn fast.

We have one advantage, which is the knowledge of how things played out last time, so that maybe we can avert the very worst of it.

One thing I would say - do not put your trust in senators, or judges, or constitutions, or (hollow laugh) the international system, or any of the august established institutions of authority to hold the dark forces in check. They will all melt away when the right incentives are found. None of the normal rules can be assumed to apply. If they did, we would not be where we are today. It is on all of us to find new ways.

It is a different and darker world we wake up to. But if we survive this, we get to try again.
smhwpf: (Winter is coming)
So what do we do if Trump wins? The odds are against it, but not that much against it. Not something we want to think about, but probably eaier to think about now than in the immediate miasma of despair.

There's some obvious answers: "Don't mourn, organize". Resist, build solidarity, seek to maintain compassion and hope.

But what specifically? What would be the best ways to stand by the people most vulnerable to Trump's attacks? What battles can be realistically fought with some hope of at least fending off some of the worst? What should the top priorities be?

(Of course many of these questions are still valid if Clinton wins, but the answers are probably very different).

What about for people outside the USA? A Trump Presidency would affect the whole world of course; questions of war and peace, climate change, etc. If the US pulls out of the Paris accords as Trump has promised, what can the rest of the world do, and what can its citizens do to push their governments?

I suspect that in the US the priority is probably simply resisting fascism, resisting the destruction of democracy, standing up for minorities and immigrants, against attacks on the press, activists, civil society, opposition politicians, even fighting to keep Hillary Clinton out of jail. Because if the battle against fascism is lost, so are all others until the wheel turns again.

This is still short on detail.

Meanwhile hoping to God that this question remains hypothetical.
smhwpf: (Buffy Restless)
There's a sci-fi film I saw on TV as a kid, of the Earth-to-be-destroyed-by-giant meteor variety, I can't remember the name of the film or the nature of the calamity, and for once will abstain from Googling. Anyway, there's a last throw of the dice effort by the brave sciencey heroes to do science and avert the catastrophe, and no-one knows if it's going to work. It's all in the public eye, and so there's this scene with a newsstand, and there's two piles of papers being delivered to it, one with the headline "EARTH SAVED" and the other with the headline "EARTH DOOMED".

That's kind of how it seems now.

Nate's a bit more optimistic just now than in the past few days, giving Clinton a 70.9% chance, when it had fallen as low as about 63% a few days ago, but those are still darned concerning odds. But I'm not going to speculate on what if this state or that, and shy Trump voters versus Hillary's ground game, because I've wasted far too much breath on that in the past and it's all irrelevant afterwards, vanity and chasing of wind.

Talking of Hillary's ground game, I've been part of it in the last few days. Doing some phone banking down at the Cambridge Dem office, first of all recruiting more volunteers, then calling voters in New Hampshire for Get Out The Vote. Saturday I was up in NH as part of a party from Cambridge, canvassing. I was with a friend, and we were paired with a driver, another British guy who's been living here 20 years. Used to run theatre tours to Britain for dramatically minded young Americans. Anyway, we went up to Rochester NH, a small town of about 30,000. The campaign office was buzzing with dozens of vols, so this ground game is really a thing. My little group was sent on a really rural turf, driving along leaf-covered tracks by a lakeside, where occasional clusters of houses could be found in clearings in the wood. One of the 'streets' was called 'Hideaway Lane', which was accurate.

We only managed to make contact with a handful of voters, but by God the scenery was gorgeous.

This also counted as my first American Road Trip, albeit a relatively short one.

This evening I was calling likely Dem voters in NH to GOTV , using a cunning app that robocalls numbers until it finds a live one, then puts it through to your phone, although half the time you get the click of someone hanging up. Mostly got positive responses, yep, we're voting Dem all the way down, one 'well she's the lesser evil' (I restrained myself from saying 'right there with ya'), but several "For Gods sakes stop calling me, this is the dozenth call", and one "If I get another call from you people I'm voting Trump!".

Is it possible to have too much ground game?

Seriously, it seems loads of people round here are doing stuff, in some cases phone banking from home using a thing on the Clinton website.

More tomorrow after work, which willl be mostly directed at points West. Then an election watch party with some friends, at which I can confidently project that a very large quantity of liquor will be consumed whatever happens.

Deliver us from Evil, O Lord. Or at least from the greater Evil. That'll have to do for now.
smhwpf: (Misbehave)
I was in New York last weekend, for the New York launch of the movie Shadow World, by Johann Grimonperez, based on the book, The Shadow World: inside the global arms trade, by Andrew Feinstein, who also worked extensively on the film. Andrew, as I've mentioned, is one of the people in the group I've been in, working with World Peace Foundation on their global arms project that I'm now running.

It was a very powerful film, extremely well put together. (It won Best Documentary at the Edinburgh Film Festival earlier this year). It is partly on the international arms trade, with some entertaining/revealing/horrifying interviews with a very candid arms broker (who apparently is now in prison in Portugal), but also, moreso than the book, on US wars and militarism more generally; but it manages to fuse these two elements together pretty well, with some apparopriate readings of his work by Eduardo Galeano interspersed. Not a whole lot that I wasn't aware of, though some things, but as I say well put together and effective in its impact.

Full disclosure: I am actually in it for about 15 seconds as a talking head. So now I am wondering if I have a Bacon Number. (I might already as I was in an episode of Mark Thomas Comedy Product). And if so if I have a Bacon-Erdos number, as I have co-authored one maths paper.

It is also a salient reminder that, for all that Obama has done that is praiseworthy, there is plenty on the foreign policy front that is pretty dismal, perhaps the drone wars in particular, and that he really only looks at all good when grading on a curve. And that Hillary promises to be worse. (Yes, still unimaginably better than the alternative).

There was a Q&A afterwards with Andrew and with Anna Macdonald of Control Arms, which went on way longer than scheduled, a lot of people with questions. And I was invited to give a brief spiel about the work we're doing at WPF and hand out fliers, to justify my train fare.

Anyway, the film is definitely recommended. It has apparently already had a 3-week run in London, don't know if it will be on anywhere else in the UK. We are still trying to organize a showing in Boston.
smhwpf: (Winter is coming)
In the final round of the 2002 French Presidential election, leftists faced an insidious choice: the two remaining candidates were Jacques Chirac, of the mainstream right-wing party, the Rassemblement pour la République (RPR, Assembly for the Republic); and Jean-Marie le Pen, leader of the far-right, explicitly racist Front National (National Front).

France has a 2-stage Presidential election system: in the first round, there are many candidates – 16 in this case; but if no candidate gets more than 50% of the vote, there is a 2nd stage run-off between the top 2 candidates.

Usually, that will be someone from the main right-wing party [1], and one from the Socialists. But this time, with an even more divided left than usual with 8 parties standing [2], and partly as a result, the Socialist candidate Lionel Jospin came narrowly 3rd behind Chirac and Le Pen.

Most of French society was horrified that a fascist like Le Pen could come so close to power. [3] What, though, was a Socialist or Communist voter to do faced with this ugly choice in the second round of a right-winger and a far-right-winger? Stay at home? Spoil their ballot paper? Or swallow their bile and vote for a candidate whose politics they detest (and with a bunch of corruption scandals from his time as mayor of Paris)?

Read more... )
Footnotes )
 
smhwpf: (Dr Who Tardis)
Well, it's sufficiently official and generally known by all concerned that I can make it public.

I will be moving to Boston, Massachusetts in the autumn (or fall as I should get used to calling it), to work at the World Peace Foundation, based at Tufts University, as Project Manager for their programme on corruption in the global arms industry and trade. I start there at the beginning of October. I was in Boston earlier this week to meet with them and discuss details and ideas.

I have in fact been involved in this project for the past few years, as part of an international group of academics and civil society people convened by WPF to discuss these issues and produce various materials on the subject (there's a book coming out fairly soon, plus various internet tools). The group includes South African anti-corruption campaigner Andrew Feinstein, whose book on the arms trade, The Shadow World, has recently been made into a movie, which everyone should totally see when it hits the cinemas.

The idea of the programme has been to take a rather broad perspective on the issue of corruption, looking not only at financial corruption, but at how the global arms industry and trade, and the militarist ideologies behind it, can undermine democracy and the rule of law.

Anyway, so this project by WPF has been edging forward for the past few years, but now they are able to hire someone full time, that someone being me.

The position is for 2 years initially, potentially longer if more funds are raised; however, I am taking a 2-year leave of absence from SIPRI, so I will have the option of returning at the end of this 2-year period. I am therefore not technically leaving SIPRI at the present time, but will at any rate be gone for at least 2 years. If anyone wants to apply for my position at SIPRI working on military expenditure (again, 2 years initially), or knows someone who might be interested, the ad is here.

As to whether or not I will return in 2 years, well, a lot can happen in two years, so who knows? But it is good to have the option.

I am very excited by this. It is a really interesting project, and a really good bunch of people I'll be working with, and from all I hear (and the little I've seen so far from the meetings there of our group), Boston is a fantastic city.

I am already a US (as well as UK) citizen, but this will be the first time I have lived in the US, or indeed been there for more than a week at a time. So that too will be an interesting new experience.

I will also be sad to leave SIPRI, and will miss a lot of people there, not least my team, who are also a great bunch to work with. After the storms of 2 years ago, SIPRI is now on what seems to be moving in a very positive direction, so in some ways a strange time to be leaving; but I have been crunching the military expenditure numbers for long enough, and feeling it's been time for a change for quite a while; and this definitely feels like the right move at the right time.

(Well, except that we might have President Trump a few months after I move. But since there are no shuttles to Mars Colony any time soon, there's nowhere to escape the consequences that may bring.)
smhwpf: (Homework)
Quick post, as I'm exhausted. Today was the big day of the year for my secret identity as Doctor Milex, when SIPRI released our new data on world military expenditure for 2015. Link is to the press release, which also has links to the fact sheet and the full database.

I also have an entry in the SIPRI blog discussing trends in military and health expenditure, and the costs of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals in comparison to world military spending. Graphics, in particular the cool interactive line graph, courtesy of our new web editor.
smhwpf: (Way out)
I have never been so ashamed to be a European. God knows we have a horrific colonial history, and in the modern age there's the whole Neocolonial economic relationship of rich countries with the developing world and so forth.

But it is particularly appalling to witness the utter betrayal of hundreds of thousands of desperate refugees on and within our borders. The utter craven cowardice, the hypocricy, the abandonment of compassion and solidarity, the collective washing of hands.

Read more... )

And what is most shameful as a European, is that our governments are doing this in large measure in response to the views of the majority of their citizens. That even those, like in Sweden and Germany, who were more inclined to compassion and solidarity, have turned against the refugees. Cologne and Kungsträdgården were enough for that.

There are still those, so many, who help.The army of volunteers on Lesvos. Again, Al Jazeera has done some very good coverage of ordinary Greek people, despite their own grim economic circumstances, doing what they can to help through soup kitchens in Athens, providing food, clothing and blankets in Idomeni on the Macedonian border, and elsewehere. The Danish woman convicted of people trafficking for giving a lift and lunch to a family of refugees. So many helping across the continent in so many ways, big and small. These are signs of hope.

But those of us who favour compassion and solidarity towards refugees are, unfortunately a minority. Two weeks ago there were Refugees Welcome protests in 120 cities in 32 European countries. It is hard to find reports of them, apart from that one. I was at the one in Medborgarplatsen again, in Stockholm. But we were far, far, fewer. When Stefan Löfven flattered and lied to the crowds back in September, Medborgarplatsen was full to bursting. This time there was plenty of space, and only a part of the square filled. A few hundred maybe. It is good to have such events; but it is not enough.

I have never felt so ashamed to be a European.
smhwpf: (Sandman)
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door"

These words always get me. For all that I am aware of the horrific, genocidal history of the USA, they still get me.

Once upon a time, a century and change ago, my ancestors were among the many millions of "wretched refuse", the "homeless, tempest-tost" arriving in the USA, Jews from Poland, Russia and thereabouts, fleeing the hatred and slaughter of the times.

I can only imagine how they must have felt as that statue came into view on the horizon, signalliing journey's end after months crammed on a hot, overcrowded deck. (Or maybe my great-great grandfather and his family had managed to save up loads of money from his inn in Łomża, sold the place for a good price before things got really bad, and had their own spacious cabin. Who knows?)

The country they came to was no paradise, and they would have faced all sorts of suspicion and prejudice, but they had a chance, and they were lucky enough to thrive. Likewise my dad's family, who came instead to Britain, a land of 'storied pomp' par excellence. No  paradise either, and my dad has told me some horrible stories of the anti-Semitism he faced as a child; but likewise a country that was spared the horrors of fascism, that proved a refuge and became a home.

This is my history. It is far from unique. It  is not even unusual. It is a story shared by hundreds of millions of us around the world.

For me, not just because of my own family history, but certainly reinforced by it, it seems self-evident that we, who are fortunate enough to have been born in lands enjoying relative freedom (for it is certainly no virtue of our own), should welcome to our shores those fleeing war, persecution and extreme poverty. "Will it make us richer or poorer?" "What if some of those who come are bad people?" They may be fair questions, but they should be very much secondary ones. At some level, I really find it hard to comprehend those who think otherwise.

Refuge

Nov. 17th, 2015 01:21 am
smhwpf: (Winter is coming)
These are strange times in Sweden, both hopeful and foreboding.

In the current European refugee crisis, Germany is taking in by far the most asylum seekers out of the EU nations. But Sweden is next, and by far the most in relation to population. Last month, the Migration Agency doubled its projection for the number of refugees arriving in Sweden this year to between 140-190,000. The last couple of weeks, about 10,000 per week have been claiming asylum. That means that in the past couple of weeks Sweden has received as many refugees as David Cameron has so generously agreed that Britain will take over the next 4 years.

Various notes and musings )
smhwpf: (Warwick)
Our new Director, Dan Smith, has written an excellent blog piece, arguing for negotiated peace between Assad and his (non-ISIS) opponents - and, maybe even some time in the future, negotiations with elements of ISIS or other groups that are currently to extreme and absolute in their demands to have meaningful negotiations with.

He gives a long list of examples of nations and groups that have been in conflct, and that have ended up negotiating with each other (successfully or otherwise), despite one side or other having said for a long time that they would absolutely never negotiate with the other side. So, basically, get off your high horse about how you could never possibly negotiate with Assad or whoever because they are so evil, and grasp the nettle.

Which I completely agree with. But a rather pessimistic thought strikes me - while it very often is possible eventualy to find peace between apparently irreconcilable sides, can it be done when the fundamental point of contention is the ruler him or herself?

When the 'incompatibility' is, for example, regional or sub-national independence movements, or ethnic grievances, or visions of society (e.g. communist vs. capitalist), it may be possible to find compromises, half-way measures, ways in which different groups can live together, etc. But when it's about "Does this dictator (monarchical or presidential) get to stay in power?", where is the possibility for common ground? Maybe they stay in power with reforms, or power-sharing, or whatever, but the problem is always that the ruler, if they get to stay in power, has every incentive to renege once the rebels have demobilized. (And if they haven't demobilized, then renewed war is probably just round the corner).

So I'm trying to think of examples of conflicts - civil wars, revolutions, armed uprisings - with a goal of overthrowing a dictatorial ruler, where there has been a negotiated settlement that leaves that ruler in power. None of the cases on the list in Dan's essay fit the bill. The only example I could think of is Magna Carta, but that in fact is not an example - the Runnymede agreement broke down almost immediately, leading to the 1st Barons War; John himself died in the middle of it.

In the first phase of the Wars of the Roses, after the victory of the supporters of Richard of York, who claimed the throne against Knig Henry VI, a peace deal was achieved whereby Henry remained king, but Richard was named his heir. That broke down within 5 years.

The Russian Revolution of 1905 is another not-quite example - various reforms enacted in response to the demands of some of the rebels, but alongside the crushing of the more radical rebels. Not a negotiated settlement, and this didn't exactly stick.

Can anyone come up with any examples then? My criteria are as follows:

a) An uprising against a dictatorial ruler (including absolute or powerful monarchs), with a primary goal of unseating that dictator
b) A negotiated peace
c) That does not involve the swift departure of the ruler (which would in essence be a negotiated rebel victory)

Or does such an uprising inevitably end either in the crushing of the rebels or the departure of the ruler?

The western opponents of Assad effectively say that, while there could be negotiations, the result would have to involve Assad leaving, if not immediately then fairly soon. Which of course is not something that Assad or his supporters are willing to contemplate, and are not likely to unless his violent overthrow appears otherwise inevitable.

The only other possibility could be that Russia and Iran can be convinced that their interests can be safeguarded in a post-Assad Syria,and  that this is a better option than continuing war, and are thus persuaded to threaten to withdraw their support for the Syrian government unless Assad agrees to his negotiated departure.

Or, if there is some way round the fundamental problem with a peace deal that leaves a ruler in place, namely the incentive to renege?
smhwpf: (Buffyanne)
Should I join the Labour Party? Or the Green Party, or some other party, or no party. Interested in thoughts and opinions.

I actually tried to join the Green Party before the election. I emailed them to ask if I was eligible to join as an ex-pat voter, but they never replied.

I would not remotely have considered joining the Labour Party pre-Corbyn. Now their is actually a real possibility of them starting to once again promote the sort of values and policies I support.

I'm not sure exactly how to describe myself ideologically these days. I sometimes say Libertarian Socialist, except the term 'libertarian' has possibly been irrevocably damaged. But generally leftist, and I tend to regard political parties rather pragmatically, as imperfect vehicles for advancing positive things in a particular time and place, rather than representing undying loyalties. Though the election of Jeremy Corbyn maybe puts a counter-argument in favour of party loyalty even when your party strays very far from what you see as its true values.

I have a ot of sympathies with Green politics in terms of a) prioritizing the environment, as climate change kind of is the single most important issue facing humanity (though there's every possibility that a Corbyn-led Labour Party will develop positive policies in that regard too. b) I see them as having a less-centralized, more democratic approach to tackling problems than Labour traditionally has, including the Labour left (though again that may be changing). Finally I think they are still likely to emerge as more left wing in a lot of areas than whatever compromise emerges between Corbyn and the Labour establishment. Jeremy Corbyn is great, but so are Natalie Bennett and Caroline Lucas.

However, Labour is a potential party of government, which the Greens are not, and moreover the Labour Party has much more of a possibility of being a real mass movement. The connection with the Trade Union movement, frayed as it is, is also something I regard as really important. Basically, Labour still has something left of its roots as a working class party, as again the election of Corbyn has shown, while the Greens, love them, are not and likely never will be.

(I am myself decidedly middle class, though I am also a proud Trade Unionist, but the point is that a political party that can, by and large, *only* attract the middle classes and hippy peacenik types, in other words that only attracts people like me and the sort of people I tend to socialize with, is not going to be able to effect change.)

Then there is the thing where the UK constituency in which I am registered to vote - Bristol West - is actually one of the few constituencies in the country where the Greens actually have a shot. They came a not-too-distant second to Labour in the election, with the Tories nowhere in sight. So I could actually be tempted to vote Green, which would rather contradict being a member of Labour. (If I do join Labour, I will be put into the Labour International branch, rather than the Bristol West Constituency LP, however).

I really am not sure what I think about this, so as I say welcome different thoughts and opinions and arguments for one or the other. (And feel free to argue as to why I should join the Lib Dems (of which I was actually a member once before), or even the Tories, though in the latter case there is not a snowball's chance in hell that you are going to convince me. But I would not consider it trolling.)

(If and when I get my Swedish citizenship, I will likewise contemplate joining a Swedish party - most likely the Left Party, but possibly the Green Party or the Feminist Initiative. But that's for later, and there are only a few people likely to read this who would be likely to be able to say much on that!)
smhwpf: (Buffy fire)
I am delighted that Jeremy Corbyn has been elected leader of the Labour Party. That the disparate voices advocating for a more just and equal Britain, against austerity, against the war on the poor and disabled, has finally found political expression in a major, UK-wide political party. That the Tory government and their vicious agenda will finally have a clear and consistent opposition. I think the effect of this will be enormously beneficial.

But can a Corbyn-led Labour Party win a general election, or at least deny a Tory victory? I don't know.

There has been a lot written on this, and it is not worth rehashing all of it, though I will attempt to summarize some of the main points. Some very good analysis by Owen Jones. Some interesting advice in terms of style, based on Ken Livingstone's successes and failures. A very positive view from a few weeks ago; and a highly sobering note from Andrew Rawnsley.

Briefly, the positive case: he has created an enormous amount of enthusiasm and got a movement behind him; he can reach out to those disenchanted by mainstream politics, both by presenting a genuine alternative to austerity and by his 'anti-establishment status'; he is perceived as honest, principled and likeable. The negative: Labour lost because they were not trusted on the economy or welfare, and Corbyn's politics are doubling down on those perceived weaknesses; getting non-voters to vote and to vote Labour isn't as easy as it sounds; he will have the media against him; he wil have half his party against him.

Who might he attract? ex-Labour supporters who have turned to the Greens, SNP or Plaid Cymru; young, disollusioned non-voters (if they can truly be reached); some UKIP supporters who vote UKIP out of a general, vague anti-politics sense, rather than ideological riht-wing politics. Who might he repel? Reasonably comfortable, centrist, swing-voters who went for the Tories this time; UKIP voters for whom immigration really is a dominant issue.

Overall, I suspect that the odds are against Labour, andI suspect would have been whoever won; Labour, in opposition, were not going to be able to convince centrist voters that they were more trustworthy on the economy simply by moving even closer to Tory positions, and they certainly weren't going to win over dissolusioned voters that way.

I think the main thing that will determine how people view the relative economic credibility of the parties is totaly out of the hands of any Labour leader, namely, what happens to the actual economy, which depends on both government policies and the world economy. If it crashes and burns, which may well happen given the way things are going in China, then that could totally destroy Tory credibility, however much they protest it is not their fault. Austerity policies will undoubtedly exacerbate any downturn, and the pain that is being inflicted through Tory welfare policies will suddenly start hitting a lot more people.

Jeremy Corbyn's message might start looking appealing to a lot more current 'centrist' voters then. On the other hand, there's a risk that, if the Tories and the media are successful in portraying Corbyn as a dangerous loony lefty, then such voters might be inclined to 'stick to nurse for fear of worse'. But it will certainly give Labour a much stronger chance, and it would create an environment in which the sort of anti-establishment mass-movement enthusiasm that Corbyn has generated through the leadership campaign might have the chance to spread further into a potential winning coalition. On the other hand, I suspect that if things do not go too terribly economically, then this movement may find it hard to break out of the circles of the already convinced, the ones who go to Corbyn rallies and share lefty articles and memes on social media - which is not enough to win an election.

The Tories could destroy their credibility in other ways too - they may tear themselves apart over the EU referendum - which is something that Corbyn and Labour can influence, depending on how they play their cards - or the new Tory leader - if Cameron keeps to what he said about not running for a third term - may not prove convincing to the electorate. Cameron, much as I loathe his policies, is a highly skillful politician, and has an air about him (however unjustified) of confidence and competence. With someone else, the Tories may fare less well.

But before all this, the biggest hurdle Corbyn faces, I think, is party management; he has the support of much of the rank-and-file members (he got just a shade under 50% of 1st preference votes amongst full party members, and now something like 15,000 new members have joined, presumably most of whom approve of the latest developments) but he is opposed by the great majority of Labour MPs.

From everything I've seen he is going to try to be inclusive in bringing all sections of the party (that are prepared to work with him) into the Shadow Cabinet, and proclaims a commitment to being open and democratic about policy-making - which presumably means being willing to accept policy positions he is not too keen on where that is the clear will of the party - and all of this will be very necessary. But it's going to be a very tough balancing act of picking which battles to fight, and where to make painful compromises. Only time will tell if he is actually able to do this.

For the record, my inclination is that he should probably stand his ground on most matters of economic policy - both because it is right, and because the anti-austerity, anti-welfare cuts message is where he has most chance of capturing public imagination. I doubt, actually, that many Labour MPs are really all that convinced of the arguments for austerity, maybe some of the Blairites, but they have been convinced that Labour only has a chance if it accepts it. So many of them might be willing to say "Oh well, in for a penny, in for a pound", or something like that.

But where I think he really does need to compromise is foreign/defence policy, if he is not to totally break the Labour Party. Most especially, Labour needs to be supporting staying in the EU in the referendum. Flawed as the EU is, I really don't think there's much appetite on the left and center-left for leaving, and it is something that most Labour MPs would fight tooth and nail for. (For what it's worth, I also believe Britain needs to be in the EU, disgusted as I am by Fortress Europe and Eurozone-imposed austerity.) Likewise NATO - I am no fan, but there would be no better way to both break the party and leave an open goal for the Tories than advocating for leaving.

In opposing Trident replacement, I think there's a much better political case for him holding firm (not to say moral), and where I suspect a lot of ordinary party members would be with him (and perhaps, in their heart of hearts, any MPs). Apart from anything else, British nukes are militarily useless, as a lot of military figures recognize, and Trident replacement will take up a huge proportion of the defence equipment budget. But here the compromise might be to argue for, say, putting half or even more of the savings from cancelling Trident replacement into the conventional defence budget, with the rest for (say) green energy; even if Corbyn would ideally like to see a lot lower military spending (as would I). But it is probably a good area to open up to wider party debate to see what ordinary members actually think.

In the end, I am not higely optimistic in terms of the odds of Jeremy Corbyn walking though the doors of Number 10 in 2020 - I think it is probably no more than 50/50 that he can hold the party together long enough to make it to the election as leader. But I am hopeful, in that this is the first time in a very long time that there has actually been a real major left-leaning party in England. And he could just pull it off; the normal rules of politics says it is very unlikely, but those same rules said he was a 100-1 shot for leader in the first place; the world is changing fast, and the rules of politics with them, so just maybe Jeremy Corbyn, together with a newly-invigorated Labour Party and movement, can create a new set of rules. I hope.
smhwpf: (Going places)
So after [livejournal.com profile] sabotabby left, my dad arrived and stayed for two weeks. (He left yesterday). This did not lead to so much photography, except when we took a 3-day trip to Visby, the capital of Gotland, a large island in the Baltic Sea which forms one of Sweden's 21 counties.

Visby is an extraordinarily well-preserved walled medieval city, and a UNESCO World Heritage site. It was a major Hanseatic League trading post, founded in the 12th century, which makes it older than Stockholm. The walls are pretty much intact and have basically been in their current form since the 14th Century.

As Gotland also has much extraordinary natural beauty to offer, the island is unsurprisingly an extremely popular holiday destination for Swedes and overseas visitors, especially from Germany I think. Not many Brits seem to have discovered it though. We went in late August, by which time Swedish kids have gone back to school, which made everything much cheaper - SEK95 per person each way on the ferry, a 3 and a quarter hours (82 nautical miles) journey from Nynäshamn, a port at the southern end of the Stockholm commuter train line, which means you can get there on your Stockholm region travelcard.

Visby is also notable for the annual Almedalsveckan in late June/early July, a huge politics festival where all the major parties, along with NGOs, lobbyists, business, unions, think tanks, and a fuckload of media of course, rub shoulders and hold all manner of events. Almedalen park lies just outside the city walls to the west, near the waterside.

But enough of my waffling - here are some photos!

Photos! )
smhwpf: (Wesley solitary)
A Catholic friend of mine posted this article on Facebook a while ago, by Jennifer Fulwiler, a Catholic, recounting a conversation with a gay friend in which she tries to explain to him the official Catholic position on gay marriage, and on homosexual relationships and sexual morality in general.

I wanted to write a response to this article, because it seems to me to come not from a place of bigotry, fear or hatred, but from a place of genuine love, though I disagree with the conclusions.

Also because, so much of the pro-gay marriage discourse one sees on social media and elsewhere, where not simply true but trite slogans, is responding to or satirizing the Evangelical opposition to same-sex relationships; “I hope you’re not wearing any polyester-cotton mixes” and so forth. Which, fair enough, a lot of the most vocal opposition to gay marriage, and a lot of the most virulent hatred against gay people, comes from the Evangelical branch of Christianity; but very little speaks to the Catholic position, which does not depend on a strict interpretation of Levitical commandments or the single, passing line in Paul’s letter to the Romans that is the sole clear New Testament reference to the subject.

Finally, because I was a Roman Catholic until fairly recently, and this was one of the issues which led me to feel that I was increasingly diverging from the Church. (I know many Catholics share my views on this but remain. For the whole story, see here.)
Read on. Long. )
smhwpf: (Doctor Martha)
The meme:

1. Comment to this post with "I surrender!" and I'll assign you the basis of some tv show idea. (Science fiction show, medical drama, criminal procedure, etc...)
2. Create a cast of characters, including the actors who'd play them
3. Add in any actor photos, character bios and show synopsis that you want.
4. Post to your own journal.


[livejournal.com profile] sabotabby gave me "fantasy".

I am (with [livejournal.com profile] sabotabby's permission) cheating somewhat by doing an adaptation, a) because it's something I've long thought totally needs to be on television, and b) the concept I was coming up with was a bit lame. (But it is rather hard to follow Sabs' Party People.)

So, the show is called Rivers of London, and adapts Ben Aaronovitch's Peter Grant novels, starting with the book of the same name. (Apparently it was optioned fr a TV series back in 2013, but nothing has been heard of that since. It is becoming a comic.)

Peter Grant is a rookie cop, who discovers that Magic Is Real when he takes a witness statement from a ghost. He then starts training in magic with the Met Police's resident wizard. In his supernatural patrols, he encounters the eponymous rivers, who are the genius locii, the local gods and godesses, of the rivers.

I imagine the show will start following the books, but, Game of Thrones-like, will gradually diverge, and will have plenty of episodic stuff not in the books along with the ain arcs from the books, and with plenty of screen time for the rivers.

So, my dream cast:


Ben Bailey Smith, aka Doc Brown (rapper, Law and Order UK) as Peter Grant. I had other ideas, but he so totally nails it in the Rivers of London rap, in the video above, that he has to have it.

Peter Grant is a mixed-race rookie cop, finishing his probationary year at the start of the books. Father a white London jazzman, mother a Sierre Leonian immigrant. He has a wry sense of humour, a strong sense of curiosity, quite geeky in his way; not a brilliantly promising cop but turns out to be very resourceful, especially in working out how to combine magic with modern tech (which don't get on very well).



Billie Piper (Doctor Who, lots of other things) as Lesley May, Peter's friend and partner in crime-fighting, going through probationary year with him. Excellent cop, notices stuff a lot. Peter describes her as "Impossibly perky, even in a stab vest". More laid back than Peter I'd say, like him from a working-class background, bit cynical.

(Both these two are now rather old for their characters, who should be early-mid 20s, but then actors often play younger I guess. Thinking Billie Piper circa Rose Tyler).

Michael Kitchen (Foyle's War) as Detective Inspector Thomas Nightingale, a wizard working for the Metropolitan Police, who becomes Peter (and later Lesley)'s mentor in magic (or 'guv'nor' as Peter calls him). The last of the 'Isaacs', the society of British wizards devoted to the magical teachings of Sir Isaac Newton. A couple of hundred years old and change, lost almost all his contemporaries in a huge magical battle during WW2. Very British public-school/Oxbridge, but of the non-asshole variety.



Marianne Jean-Baptiste (Mike Leigh's Secrets and Lies) as Mama Thames. The genius locii of the Thames in London and below. Originally a Nigerian immigrant in the 1950s who tried to drown herself in the Thames, but who was instead offered the goddess position left vacant by Father Thames' abandonment (see below).


Anthony Stewart Head (Giles in Buffy of course) as Father Thames, the original god of the Thames, but hasn't been downstream of Teddington Lock since the Big Stink of 1856. Now hangs around with his 'sons' (tributary rivers) upstream in rural Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire. In the first book, Peter has to try to mediate a turf war between the sparring Thames's and their bands of tributaries and worshippers.


Art Malik (Jewel in the Crown, Passage to India, True Lies, The Living Daylights) as Dr. Abdul Walid, a Cryptopathologist with the Met Police. Fairly strong Glaswegian accent, which I trust the versatile Mr. Malik can pull off. Tagline "This is your brain on magic".


Freema Agyeman (Doctor Who, Sense8) as Cecilia "Lady Ty" Tyburn, goddess of the River Tyburn, and one of Mama Thames' daughters. Imperious, ambitious, double-first from Oxford, has powers of command with her voice. Peter manages to get on the wrong side of her early on, which is not a good career move.


Leonora Crichlow (Being Human) as Beverley Brook, goddess of the same, daughter of Mama Thames, personified as a teenage girl, but don't be fooled, girl's got power and ancient heritage. Potential love interest for Peter Grant.

(Remarkably hard to find well-known young black British actresses. They say the opportunities for black actors in Britain are poor, I'm thinking even worse for actresses).

There are lots more characters of course, but that'll do for starters I think.
smhwpf: (Despair)
Well, that was bloody depressing.

Not all of it, not in Scotland. My family were pretty much all actively campaigning for the SNP (though generally from a position to the left of the SNP), so for them, and huge numbers of others in Scotland who hope for a real alternative to Neoliberali austerity, it was a night of celebration - though certainly not untouched by what was going on south of the border.

But for the UK as a whole? Really hard to see any positives - isolated bright spots maybe, but not that affect the overall picture.

5 years of majority Tory government mean that people will die. People will go hungry, they will be forced onto the street, they will die. The NHS will be mutilated. Policies on immigration and human rights will become even more draconian, and And Britain may well be on its way out of the EU.

I do not see any point in blaming the elelectoral system. Yes, the Tories got a majority on 37% of the vote. But the fact is that the Tories plus UKIP, to the right of them, together got 49.5% of the <i>UK-wide</i> vote, including Northern Ireland (where these parties do stand, but are marginal). By contrast, in the 1983 election when Thatcher won her landslide, the Tories got 42.4% of the vote. Meanwhile, the 'progressive' parties (a stretch for Labour) got 39.8% this time (including SDLP as Labour allies). There is no way of painting this as other than a clear vote for the right.

I support PR, but if we had had it at this election, then what we would have got, instead of a Tory only government, is a Tory-UKIP coalition.

Blame the right-wing media by all means, feeding people lies and thus persuading millions to vote against their own economic interests. But you know, I kind of think that if people buy these lies, it's parftly because it's the sort of lies they're all too ready to believe. It seems to me (and this is anger rather than anything that claims to be rigorous social analysis) that this is neither simply selfishness nor ignorance, but a sort of wilfully ignorant mean-spiritedness; I don't think people are unaware that the rich are screwing them, but this just makes them all the more determined to make sure that no immigrants or workshy benefit scroungers are taking advantage of them too. No NHS? Well at least it won't be there for asylum seeers to feed off either! No social safety net if you fall ill or lose your job? Well at least it won't be there for the workshy and the fakers! No human rights? Who cares, so long as criminals and immigrants don't have them! It is the mentality of the playground bully who, knowing he can't touch the top-dog popular kids who beat on him, looks for someone lower down the hierarchy to take it out on.

I would like to believe what some people on the left are saying, that if only Labour had been bolder, offered a real vision and alternative to austerity, then they could have done better, but I don't buy it. I would certainly have welcomed such a thing for all sorts of reasons, but I think the reality is they'd have been hammered even more by the media, and perhaps scared even more people off. Such a message might play well in Scotland, but not in southern and Middle England. Ranting aside, I think the reality is that England is, in the main, a fundamentally right.wing country, where values of social solidarity are battered and frayed, something no longer of interest to the majority.

I don't think that means that Labour could have won by moving even further to the right either, or that they can have a better chance next time by doing so; I mean what reason exactly would they have given to people to vote for them? It would hardly have bought off Murdoch, who - unlike with the Major government of 1992-97  - seems very happy with what Cameron has to offer. I think there's a lot of truth to the maxim that oppositions don't win elections, governments lose them. What Labour needs to have a serious chance in the next election is neither a move to the left or the right but, first and foremost, for the Tories to either royally screw up or to have the next major crisis happen on their watch.

This could happen; Another major economic crisis is nothing to welcome, but whatever does go wrong with the economy (and Tory policies are likely to wreak plenty of damage in any case) will be increasingly hard to blame on 'cleaning up Labout's mess'.

Perhaps even more significantly, and especially with a narrow majority, the Tories still have an enormous potential to tear themselves to shreds over the in-out referendum on EU membership they're promising. Cameron will try to negotiate 'reforms' with the rest of the EU, but I suspect that the most likely outcome is that he will get some token concessions that he will try to sell as a win and justification to campaign to stay in, but which large swathes of his party will condemn as a sell-out.

That doesn't change the underlying reality of the right-wing value system of the plurality of the English majority. They may occasionally be willing to a vote for a watered-down centerist alternative when the Tories really screw up, but, well, we need a lot better than that. How you go about changing that basic equation - not really got any bright ideas, I'm afraid. I am fairly convinced that building, or rebuilding, a sense of social solidarity depends on people being actually involved in struggles that affect them - through unions, local campaigns and self-help, and so forth, and of course there are many, many people trying to make this happen. Keeping up that good work is the only thing I can really advise, cheering on here from a distance in my Scandinavian refuge. Getting it to a point where it makes a serious difference at a macro political level is not something that will happen overnight though, or in the space of a 5-year parliament.

Then there is Scotland, and that I think is the one bright spot. Although there influence will be limited in a Parliament with a Tory majority (though a small one), the fact that there is now a block of 60 MPS (including Plaid Cymru and Caroline Lucas for the Greens) who will be putting forward a genuinely progressive, anti-austerity message is something. And the likelihood is that a Tory government, especially if Britain heads for the EU exit, will hasten the departure of Scotland from the UK, and being free from Tory rule once and for all. While this would mean a stronger right-wing majority in the rest of the UK, I think losing the Union could be a massive shock to the Tory system, while allowing Scotland to act as, what I hope would turn out to be, a successful progressive English-speaking alternative on England's border. (And, very possibly for some, a place of refuge, A statue of Nicola Sturgeon saying "Bring us your poor, your huddled masses".)

That, however, is as maybe. What we have now is 5 years of awfulness. My heart goes out to those of you who hoped for something better, and who are going to be on the sharp end of it.

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