50 years

Jun. 12th, 2017 11:22 pm
smhwpf: (Handala)
There's some good anniversaries to celebrate around now. Like, 50 years since the US Supreme Court struck down all state laws forbidding interracial marriage, in the Loving vs. Virginia case. For 50 years, race has not been a factor in who you can legally marry in the US. Aren't we modern? (Britain had and has plenty of racism. It never had a law forbidding interracial marriage). For about 1 year, gender has not been a factor either.

And some not so good ones. Last week was 50 years since the 6-Day War, when Israel conquered the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip, and the Syrian Golan Heights, and thus began the Israeli occupation of the remaining Palestinian territories - those that they had not been mostly expelled from in 1948.

So I'm writing this a bit late, but we had a demo in Cambridge marking it today, so it's as good an occasion as any, and hey, what's a week in 50 years?

But when you get to 50 years, calling it an "Occupation" gets a bit silly. Military occupations are supposed to be temporary things. In international law, and in reality. I mean, everything is temporary, but after enough time, an occupation ceases to be merely an occupation, and becomes something else. An empire. A new border. A new country. Like, if a peace process goes on long enough, without actually leading to peace, you need a new name for it. Nothing complimentary comes to mind.

The Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories quite quickly stopped being a mere military occupation, when an army of one country temporarily controls another in the aftermath of war: Israel started (illegally, under the Geneva Conventions which Israel signed) moving in civilian settlers in the 1970s, and now there are 800,000 Israeli settlers, including in East Jerusalem, 13% of Israel's population. There are cities. There are industrial zones. There is large-scale agriculture in the Jordan Valley. (Where the Palestinians are denied access to the most fertile land in the region, and the plentiful water resources of the Jordan, and are reduced to a precarious, marginal existence, constantly vulnerable to demolitions and expulsions when the Israelis covet the patches of land on which they temporarily reside). This is way, way, beyond an "Occupation".

What is it then? An annexation? Israel formally annexed East Jerusalem, in a move never recognized by any other country, even the US - though they never gave the Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem citizenship. They are "permanent" residents, but this permanency is a fragile thing that can be easily lst by, say, going away to study or work for too long. In the rest of the West Bank, Israel maintains strategic ambiguity. Israel has no defined borders. So where there are Israeli settlements, that is "Israel". If you want to send a letter to an Israeli settler in Ariel, you address it "Israel". But where there are concentrations of Palestinian population that can't easily be ushered away, that is - well, it's not not Israel, but it's not Israel either. Israel has perfected the art of having its cake and eating it.

Apartheid is an apt name in many ways, but apart from the familiar moans of liberals that you can't possibly use that awful word, because it's reserved for South Africa, andSouth Africa is special, (hint: it isn't: there's a legal definition of the "crime of Apartheid" in international law - look it up) - apart from this, Apartheid is just woefully inadequate to encapsulate the horrific conditions to which Palestinians are subjected.

Of course, there is gross economic discrimination. Israeli settlers in the West Bank get 6 times as much water per person as Palestinians, at a fraction of the price (the water coming from the West Bank aquifer). Then there are the separated road networks, the high quality Jews only express highways. While Palestinians who want to move around their country are subjected to a gauntlet of checkpoints and roadblocks, endless humiliations and risk of arrest or being shot; African Americans in parts of the South especially would recognize some of this, only on steroids. Palestinians cannot leave, or reenter, their country without Israeli permission.

In 'Area C' under the 1994 Oslo accords, the less populated areas where Israel exercizes full civil and security control, Palestinians are essentially never granted planning permission, and thus anything they build can be, and frequently is, knocked down at the whim of the Israeli authorities. Or if not demolished for the lack of permits that are rarer than unicorns, the same result can always be obtained on grounds of "security".

Perhaps most egregious is the "justice" system. Israelis living in the West Bank are subject to the regular Israeli civilian justice system, with lawyers and due process and a presumption of innocence. Palestinians in the West Bank are subject to a military justice system, where they have no such thing. Israeli military courts convict 99.7% of the Palestinian defendants before them. over 400 Palestinians are currently in Administrative Detention, which is detention without charge or trial, where the prisoner has no lawyer and is not allowed to know what they are accused of. Administration is for an initial period of 3-6 months, but can be renewed indefinitely. 800,000 Palestinians have at one time or other been imprisoned by Israel in the past 50 years. At a rough estimate based on demographic statistics, that's somewhere between 20-25% of the entire population of the Palestinian territories aged 15+ that have been alive since 1967. Oh wait, but Israel imprisons children too, so maybe that statistic is misleading.

Palestinians in the West Bank. Have. No. Rights.

What do you call such a set-up? Apartheid is accuate - inhumane acts "...committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons and systematically oppressing them" - but insufficient. It will have to do for now.

As for Gaza, while Israel is still legally the occupying power (and we should not forget it), that has in practice morphed from an occupation to a siege, and a slow-burning humanitarian catastrophe: a UN report a couple of years ago predicted that Gaza will become unliveable by 2020. Water supplies are running short.The sewage system is creaking and cracking. Israel's intent is to choke Gaza while not actually creating a situation where people die in such large numbers that the media notices, but things don't always turn out the way we intend, do they?

The notion of a 2-state solution is dead, if unfortunately not quite buried. The idea that you can shift this huge settler population and all the accompanying industry and infrastructure back across the Green Line, or that Israel would ever agree to it, is absurd. Whatever the legal position, either internationally or in Israel, there is one political entity between the Jordan and the Mediterranean. A just peace in Israel/Palestine now can only mean one thing: equality for all its people, regardless of ethnicity or religion.

Hopelessly idealistic. Yes. But the only option. It's the sort of thing that can never happen, until it does. It will only happen with serious external pressure, combined with effective internal resistance. Both are currently lacking, although internally there are encouraging signs, such as the recent mass hunger strke by Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, which led to significant Israeli concessions (which they will presumably renege on at some point, because that's how Israel generally behaves, but it's something). Externally, the movement for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) is growing, and is seriously scaring the Israelis, enough that they are recruiting armies of internet trolls to oppose it, giving Israelis flying out of the country propoaganda materials on how to counter it, while in North America and parts of Europe, Israel's apologists are doing everything they can to condemn the movement as anti-Semitic, and if possible make it illegal. But as yet, it is not enough to cause serious economic harm to Israel, or cause them to consider coming to the negotiating table.

Some day it may. Diaspora Jews are, slowly or rapidly, falling out of love with Israel, especially the younger generations, as the monstrous nature of the Israeli state becomes ever harder to hide between even the best PR and invocations of the Holocaust. It could take decades, or it could happen incredibly suddenly, when no-one is expecting it.

But battles for equality are never easy, and are never finished. Look at the US, or South Africa. Some in the Palestinian cause seem to decry the very idea of negotiations and messy compromises. They seem to imagine that, with enough Palestinian resistance and external pressure from BDS, the State of Israel in its current form will all at once be swept away by the inevitable laws of historical justice and the moral arc of the universe, or some such, the Knesset will dissolve itself and hand over power to a Revolutionary Committee, and a beautiful new secular, non-racial state with equality for all will be ushered in. (I exaggerate a little, perhaps).

No, it will probably come rather more slowly and messily than that, if it come at all. Dismantling this pervasive network of repression and control is a gigantic task, likewise creating a political settlement in Israel/Palestine that gives not only freedom, democracy and equal rights for all, but confidence for all groups that this state of affairs will persist. Absorbing however many of the 7 million or so Palestinian refugees, those expelled by Israel in the war of 1948 and their descendants, in a peaceful and sustainable way is no small task either, though I do not believe an impossible one. As for reducing and ultimately ending ethnic-based economic inequality and discrimination. Well.

But I do think this is the only long-term solution, what the rest of the world, insofar as it cares about the situation, should work for, rather than perpetuating the fiction of a 2-state solution that lies somewhere at the other end of an ephemeral rainbow called the 'peace process'. I believe there is also a moral debt from the west to the Palestinian people. Another anniversary this year is the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, whereby the British promised to create a Jewish homeland in Palestine, without any thought of consulting the existing population thereof. Britain, and later the US and other leading powers, created and enabled this state of affairs, and still uphold it. So I think we kind of have a responsibility to do something about changing it. Or at the very least, stop actively supporting it.

GE17

Jun. 9th, 2017 03:13 pm
smhwpf: (BuffyAnne)
Well, that was a lot better than expected.

I don't feel that celebratory, as we still have a Tory government, albeit a minority one, propped up by the far-right DUP, with potentially serious negative consequences for political stability in Northern Ireland. (Some good analysis from [personal profile] nwhyte ).

However. It is far better than expected, in line with the most optimistic (from a Labour point of view) polls towards the end of the campaign. The Tories have lost their majority, Theresa May has egg all over her face, and is pretty much a lame duck. The Tory-DUP effective majority will be only 13 or 15 (higher than it would otherwise be, due to Sinn Fein not taking their seats), which will make them vulnerable to defeat on individual issues, and to further whittling of the majority by by-elections. The Tories will probably also have a lot of internal divisions as a result of this, not least because there are likely to be not a few Tory MPs who are distinctly queasy about the deal with the DUP. Like, the 19 openly LGBT Tory MPs.

I think, I hope, they will have to moderate some of their more extreme policies, including o n the ultra-hard Brexit. Theresa May's negotiating in Brussels will be massively weakened, so it will hopefully be much harder for her to plant her feet on the ground and say no to everything. (The DUP, for all their faults, do not want a hard border with the Republic of Ireland).

The best thing is the revival of Labour under Jeremy Corbyn, on the basis of a solid, sensible, but full-throated social democratic platform, with no attempt to pander to soft racism. In spite of all the ferocious media campaign and the highly damaging internal party battle after Brexit - one thing voters consistently do not like is a divided party - Labour achieved the biggest increase in its vote share in a single election since 1945. That Corbyn has inspired large numbers of people, especially young people who actually turned out to vote (I saw a figure of 72% among 18-25 year-olds, don't know if that's a solid figure?). Hopefully, having got the voting bug, they will continue with it.

Blairism, and the strategy of 'triangulation', the endless quest for the fictional 'middle ground' is, maybe not dead, but at least in abeyance for the moment. I do believe that the only way for center-left parties in both Europe and North America to go if they are to reverse their catastrophic decline is to offer something clear and inspiring that is clearly an alternative to both Neoliberalism and anti-immigration nationalism. This is clearly the direction Labour is going in now, and hopefully after this election the party will be united behind it.

Beyond the Labour Party, there is now actually a generally progressive majority in Britain again. Left of center parties (excluding NI), got 52.52% of the vote (excluding Kensington, which hasn't declared but won't change things much), while the Tories + UKIP got 44.3%. (Independents, the main NI parties, and Other got 3.18%). That's an increase of 5.1% for the center-left, and a fall of 5.17% for Tories+UKIP.

There is clearly still a lot for Labour to do to go from this close defeat to an actual win. Paul Mason has some good suggestions, but it is actually possible to be hopeful about the direction of British politics for the first time in, well, my lifetime.

smhwpf: (BuffyAnne)

It appears that my emails were illegally hacked by the Metropolitan Police, probably some time in the 2000s.

The Guardian ran an article on Tuesday about how the Met, in cooperation with Indian police, used Indian hackers to illegally access the email accounts of hundreds of activists, and were regularly reading their emails. This was revealed in information sent by a whistleblower to Jenny Jones, a Green Party member of the House of Lords (Britain's unelected Upper House of Parliament). The information will be submitted to the ongoing Pitchford Undercover Police Enquiry, which resulted from revelations about police spies forming long-term relationships with women they were spying on. (Who were unaware of their true identities).

In particular, the information included a list of ten names with associated passwords. The article says that lawyers from Bindmans, a leading UK human rights law partnership, had contacted 6 of the people on the list, who had all provided passwords that matched exactly, or in one case almost exactly, the ones on the list.

I was one of the four who had not yet been contacted at the time the article was written. I got an email from a Bindmans lawyer on Tuesday, (which at first I took for spam - this was before I saw the Guardian article), informing me that I may have been the target of illegal hacking.

My main problem was, I have had a lot of email accounts and a lot of different passwords. It seems the list just had names and passwords, no details of the email accounts in question or the time they were hacked. But after some emails back and forward, he sent me a set of eleven dashes, corresponding to the length of the password he had for me, with two of them filled in. This fit one of the passwords I have used in the past (and will not be using again for anything!), so I sent him that one, and this was indeed the one he had on the list.

(Obviously it would not be nearly so strong evidence if he had just told me the password and I had confirmed it.)

The password in question is one I did not use before 2003. As I left the UK for Sweden in late 2007, and soon stopped being active in the UK activist scene (beyond the odd letter to MP or online petition, etc.), I would guess that the hacking can't have taken place too long after that. My best guess is that it related to my involvement with Campaign Against Arms Trade, in particular as a member of their Steering Committee from I think 2004-2007. We know, after all, that BAE was spying on our emails around that time. But there are other possibilities.

So our email correspondence will be going into the Pitchford inquiry. The Bindmans guy will be getting in touch at some stage to discuss next steps, whatever this might involve.

I can't say I am massively surprised. When you're involved in left-wing, environmentalist, trade union, or peace activism, etc. etc., you pretty much expect that the government may well be spying on you in some way, while wondering if you are just being paranoid or self-important.

You are not being paranoid or self-important. If you are involved to any significant extent in activities that fundamentally challenge the government, then the government probably are spying on you in some way, and not just the bulk meta-data collection by which they are passively spying on just about everyone.

The police are not, and never have been, neutral, apolitical upholders of the law and protectors of the public. They are, and always have been, first and foremost the protectors of the rich and powerful, and upholders of the established order. This should not be news to anyone who is paying attention. (I'm not saying that there are not plenty of police officers who are decent people who are seeking to serve the public, or that the police do not also provide an important public service. But as an institution, their raison d'être is fundamentally politically reactionary).

So I am not surprised, but I am certainly angry that the police were illegally reading my emails: potentially my personal correspondence with friends and family as well as my political activities, professional correspondence, Buffy fandom exchanges, and whatever else. (I am not completely sure which accounts they hacked; I can't remember which accounts I used this passwords for when. So I don't know for certain if my personal email was one of the ones hacked). The fact that this sort of behaviour by the police is normal (and that they have done much worse) does not make it acceptable or right.

I hope that Pitchford will succeed in digging out some of the truth of all this and that there will be some sort of consequences, although I can't say I'm optimistic that the state will stop spying activists who oppose them; a unit may be disbanded, and declared to have been a Very Bad Thing, and not at all in keeping with our values, and we do things differently now; but other ways will be found. It is the nature of the beast.

(For those who do correspond with me: I am confident that this password is one that I have not used for my main personal email account for at least, oh, 7 years or so. I am going to start shifting away from that account, however, which is not with the world's most secure provider).
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)
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: (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: (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 )
 

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: (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.
smhwpf: (Treebeard)
The election results are in. Party A has won. Well, sort of. They have more seats than their main rival, Party B. But they don't have a majority, and can't reallly get a coalition that gives them a majority.

Moreover, Party C, the 3rd biggest party, is adamantly opposed to more or less everything Party A stands for. Actually, in many respects their policies are rather close to Party B. Party C made a big breakthrough this election, and now hold the balance of power. Many people in Parties B and C think that they could cooperate and lock Party A out of power.

So Party B has maybe won after all? Not so fast. Thing is, there is one particular issue, which is at the core of Party C's raison d'être, but where Party C's position is seen as complete anaethama by both Parties A and B. Indeed, such is the distaste with which this policy is viewed by the main parties (strongly backed by the mainstream media), that Party C has come to be regarded as a pariah that no other party can possibly have dealings with. Party B could maybe do a deal with Party C to gain power, but the price would be too high; they'd be hammered by the media, it would probably split the party (many of whose activists heartily loathe Party C), and it would be a highly unstable government that probably would not last the distance.

So Party A try to form a government. They are, after all, the largest single party. But then when they present their budget, Parties B and C vote it down. (They don't need to talk to each other to do this.)

Could Party B then form a government without taklking to Party C, just informally relying on their support, at least most of the time? Maybe, but the problem is it would be widely seen as illegitimate, it would be (again) highly unstable, and anyway Party C might not be willing to put up with supporting a government that treats them as a pariah.

So only Party A can form a government, but they can't actually govern. What to do?

Read more... )
smhwpf: (Buffyanne)
One of the stupidest things I've heard recently in British politics was from Labour's Shadow Employment Secretary, Rachel Reeves, who said "We are not the party of people on benefits... Labour are a party of working people, formed by and for working people".

The context was an interview in which she actually said quite a few positive things, including reducing the severity and arbitrary nature of benefits sanctions, but this line - in many ways rightly - grabbed the headlines.

The list of cuts and tightened controls associated with various social security benefits in Britain - except for pensioners - under this government is long. Some listed here. A summary below the cut, many of you will already be familiar with a lot of them, in some cases through personal experience.
Cuts below the cut )
The consequences are dire. Food banks. Increased homelessness. Benefits sanctions leading to suicides. Children coming to school hungry.

Back to Rachel Reeves. What she said is of course denigrating and dehumanizing. Does Labour not want the votes of benefits claimants if they are not a party for them? Just who should they vote for? Or does Rachel Reeves rely on them just staying home because no party is for them? Do they not deserve representation, not deserve to exercise their vote even, as people who do not contribute to society? No, perhaps she didn't mean it quite like that, but her words drip with contempt for people on benefits.

But as I say, her words display, IMO, not just a lack of empathy, but a fundamental lack of understanding.

Labour was indeed set up as a party of working people. And who do you think fought for the existence of a welfare state, including benefits for the old, children, the unemployed, sick and disabled if not working people and the Labour movement? Not simply out of charity for the less fortunate, but because the people who formed the labour movement mostly were themselves the less fortunate, or knew that they could easily become so.

Any of us could lose our jobs, that have them now. Any of us, temporarily able-bodied, could fall sick over a long period of time, or become disabled. Once upon a time, most people knew this. The Labour Party, certainly the leadership, seem to have forgotten it.

If one is rich, or has a rich family, then one may well be able to ride things out, financially at least. The privileged and well-connected are unlikely to remain unemployed for long. But most of us are but one major misfortune away from needing the welfare state for our survival.

By "most of us", I mean those who do not have sufficient capital to sustain ourselves. That is, who are dependent on our labour, or that of those with whom we share a household. Or, to use another phrase whose meaning the Labour Party has mostly forgotten, the Working Class.

(For myself, I am by the common usage very definitely middle class, and I am better off than the majority in my income, my position in the labour market, and my degree of autonomy in my work. But by the above definition, I do include myself in the Working Class, albeit a relatively privileged member of that class. So yes, I do mean "we" and "us".)

So, while I do welcome some of the welfare changes Labour are promising: abolishing the bedroom tax, easing up on the sanctions, reforming the work capability assessment; not only do they not go far enough (Labour have made clear that they are not going to reverse all Tory cuts), but they do not remotely challenge the mindset behind the past 35+ years of welfare policy: that benefits are an act of charity from the better off to the poor; that those receiving it must therefore be made to jump through all sorts of hoops to prove both that they need it and, increasingly, that they deserve it; that, if you are claiming benefits, especially for unemployment, then in return for this generosity the state owns your ass and has the right to control your life in whatever ways it deems fit.

Rather than, what I think it should be, the welfare state as a material expression of solidarity amongst members of society, of a system that benefits the majority of us in society as a system which, when and insofar as we can, we all pay into, and which is there for all of us when we may need it. So the main questions should not be "How can we spend as little as possible?" "How can we make sure no-one is cheating?" "How can we really make sure recipients are doing enough to deserve it?" - but "What sort of system do we want to be there for us as and when we may need it"?

Solidarity. Another largely abandoned word. As I see it, "solidarity" has an aspect of compassion to it, of empathy, of putting oneself in others' shoes; but also an aspect of englightened, collective self-interest.

That second aspect is crucial, politically. Compassion is the most important human virtue. But, in the world we are in, appeals to compassion alone are not sufficient to make a successful progressive political programme. For that, you need Solidarity.

I am not talking revolution here, or fundamental changes to the Capitalist system. I am talking about the preconditions for a functioning social democracy.

Which is why, I think, that liberal appeals to conscience regarding the benefits system are never going to be enough. The horrible thing is, most of the Tory changes (with a few exceptions like the Bedroom Tax) are popular. Because most people do not currently see the welfare state as being about collective self-interest.

Why is this? Media propaganda. Labour abandoning the cause.( But is that itself just following public opinion? Maybe also the professionalization of Labour politics.) The fragmentation, individualization and consumerization of society. Because people are idiots. Take your pick.

How can this be changed? Wish I knew. But, unless and until this sense of collective self-interest is regained amongst substantial sections of the population, the argument for a generous and humane welfare state will continue to fail.
smhwpf: (Six words)
The UK General Election has been called, the national polls are still very close, and now fivethirtyeight - these days a much bigger outfit than just founder and CEO Nate Silver - has published its first U.K. General Election predictions - based on a combination of national and constituency polling, and a great deal of regression analysis based on past polling and election history, local demographics, the state of the economy, and so forth. The central predictions are:

Read more... )
smhwpf: (Handala)
Went to a talk in Stockholm today as part of Israeli Apartheid Week (in non-UKian Europe). Two speakers: the second was Khaled Barakat, a Palestinian activist (with the PFLP) and author, who gave a more broad, ideological talk. The first was Charlotte Kates of Samidoun, the solidarity network for Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. I will list some of the key points, many of which I was familiar with but which together paint a pretty compelling picture.

- There are over 6,000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons at present (over 7,000 according to another source)

- This includes 200 children from ages 14-16 (who are held in regular adult prisons).

- Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayad estimated in 2012 that 800,000 Palestinians have been arrested by Israeli forces since 1967, amounting to about 20% of the current Palestinian population of the West Bank & Gaza.

- Over 500 Palestinians are held in Administrative Detention, under which they can be held for 6 months at a time, indefinitely renewable, without charge, trial or legal representation, and without having any idea of the accusations against them.

- Palestinians in the West Bank can be arrested, detained and imprisoned essentially arbitarily, on the whim of officers of the Israeli occupation forces. Offences can relate to particitating in an illegal demonstration, being a member of an illegal organization, having contact with an illegal organization, etc. Since virtually all Palestinian protest and resistance activities, violent or non-violent, are effectively criminalized, this covers a very wide range.

- Another favourite is "stone throwing". Palestinian kids do throw stones some times; but it only takes the word of a soldier to convict them. (On a personal note, I was accused of throwing stones by an Israeli soldier. Of course internationals have rather more legal protection than Palestinians, and they were much more interested in getting me out of the country than putting me in prison, I'm glad to say).

- For example, Palestinian student Lina Khattab, a student leader at Bir Zeir University, was recently sentenced to 6 months imprisonment for "participating in an unlawful demonstration" and "throwing stones". Of course, adding the stone-throwing charge means that she is a wicked, wicked violent activist and not a nice peaceful Gandhian that we can all sympathize with.

- But at least she, like most of the Palestinian prisoners, are not in Administrative Detention - they've at least had due process of law, right?

- Wrong. Palestinians in the West Bank (and Gaza, if captured by Israeli forces), are subject to a system of military justice, in whcih their rights to a fair trial, including access to evidence against them, legal repreesntation, etc., are severely constrained. These courts have a conviction rate of 99.74%.

- The military courts system does not provide Palestinian prisoners with the right to a fair trial guaranteed them under the Geneva Conventions. That's according to the guy who was running them, back in 2013.

- Incidentally, a lot of these "legal processes" - Administrative Detention, military courts, etc., have simply been preserved and adopted by the Israelis from British Mandate law, which was used to repress Palestinian resistance from 1918-48 (and, later, against Zionist groups).

- The mass incarceration of Palestinians is part of a broader Israeli strategy of terror and repression. Palestinians  are frequently arrested in night raids on family homes, very often as part of an action against an entire village, where their homes are torn apart and their entire family terrorized.

- Taken together, this does not represent any sort of "criminal justice" system - it is a system of repression and control.

- Back to the Apartheid theme: legal mechanisms such as Administrative Detention and military courts, and the accompanying structures of arbitrary arrest and detention, night raids, etc., are strictly for Palestinians only. Jewish settlers in the West Bank are subject to regular Israeli civil law - more or less conforming to Western standards of justice.

- (Except, of course, for the fact that Israeli settlers are virtually never charged, let alone convicted, for the continual acts of violence and property destruction they commit against Palestinians).

- At the risk of belabouring the point, the justice system you face in the West Bank is explicitly dependant on your ethnicity.

- Even Palestinian citizens of Israel, who have considerably more rights than those in the West Bank, if they are charged with a crime that has anything to do with Palestinian resistance - for example, having contact with anything deemed an illegal organization - are subjected to special criminal justice procedures that again restrict their rights of representation and access to evidence. If convicted, they are classed as "security prisoners", and placed in the same highly militarized prisons as Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza.

- Palestinian prisoners, like those in Apartheid South Africa, are very much at the center of Palestinian resistance. Like in South Africa, self-education, protest, hunger strikes, sometimes winning hard-fought concessions and improvements in conditions, are a continual feature of Palestinian prisoners' lives. While at the moment Palestinian protest and resistance in the West Bank is relatively quiescent in most respects, campaigns on behalf of Palestinian prisoners are still very much an active thing. The issue of prisoners is one that really, really matters to the Palestinians, although it is not something that grabs the headlines internationally.
smhwpf: (Winter is coming)
It is a terrible thing when a small group of people take a religion and twist it into the most grotesque and brutal interpretation imaginable.

Massacring cartoonists and journlalists for insulting your religion. Massacring Jews because they are Jews. That the vile individuals who did this are no longer in this world is a relief. Let us hope there are not many more that follow.

Then, a few thousand miles away, there is the House of Saud. Unortunately, these corrupt psychopaths have an entire country under their iron rule. The fact that their Kingdom includes Islam's top holy sites of Mecca and Medina means that people may tend to imagine that they are normative of Islamism; they are not. They are more of an outlier. No other Muslim country, not Iran, not Afghanistan, none of the other Gulf states, feel the need to ban women from driving, for instance.

They beat ISIL hands down for beheadings. Their export of their ultra-extreme Wahhabi brand of Islam lies behind the ideology of groups such as Al Qaeda, ISIL, the Taliban and Boko Haram. Indeed, much of ISIL's approach to 'education policy' in the areas they control is arguably based on Saudi textbooks.

Today, Saudi blogger Raif Badawi was publicly flogged with 50 lashes, the first of a thousand he is to receive,alongside a ten year prison sentence, allegedly for insulting Islam on his blog. He is to receive 50 lashes, once a week every week for 20 weeks, after Friday prayers.

Do not expect to hear too much condemnation though from Obama, Cameron, Hollande or any other western leader. I am impressed, I must say. Whitehouse press spokesperson Jen Psaki, according to the above article, said the US was "greatly concerned", and even used the word "brutal": From so high an official as Jen Psaki, that is quite something! The Sauds must be quaking. No doubt the US will be cancelling their $60 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia any day now. No? Ah, here is the Whitehouse statement in full. A tad perfunctory, methinks.

Still, it is 88 words more than has come from the British Government. (I have searched, but not found. Google, the FCO, gov.uk. Correct me by all means if I am wrong). The UK arms industry, especially BAE, is heavily reliant on arms sales to Saudi Arabia, saturated with corruption. (For more details, see the website and book Deception in High Places by my excellent friend Nick Gilby.)

I do not wish to minimize the appaling events of Paris. Whether one likes or approves of what Charlie Hebdo published, killing journalists is a fundamental attack on freedom of speech. And the murders in the Kosher supermarket fill me with horror. Nor even greater horrors in Pakistan, Nigeria, Iraq and Syria, or, where the boot has been largely on the other foot, in CAR.

I just want to remind that the violent religious extremists are not just rag-tag bands of terrorists, and that some of them are not condemned and hunted down, but welcomed, honoured, wined, dined, bribed and heavily armed by our freedom-loving leaders (not forgetting either the oceans of blood through which the latter have waded).
smhwpf: (Way out)
As all but the proverbial Martian vacationer know, last week the US Senate released its report on CIA torture since 9/11 at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere. It found that the CIA's practice of torture had been far more widespread, more brutal, and less effective (as in 100% not) than previously claimed, and that the CIA had systematically lied about it.

Senator Feinstein and her colleagues are to be congratulated in persisting with this enquiry and getting it published in the face of opposition from the CIA itself and the Administration.

Hard to find much to say that has not already been said about this, beyond echoing the utter, unspeakable horror of such acts, whoever commits them.

There is one aspect of the discussion around it in the US, though, that gets me: namely the way the victims of this torture seem almost invisible or even irrelevant to it.

It is as if the real victim of the government-sponsored CIA torture programme was America itself. A stain on America's character, contrary to America's values. A terrible 'mistake' (which seems to be how Obama and others like to describe it).

No suggestion that America should make an apology to those it has violated, nor that it should pay them reparations. Still less, heaven forfend, that anyone should be prosecuted for these crimes. Nor that the US should close down Guantanamo Bay now, and not only free anyone it can't prosecute, but grant them a home in the US as the very least it owes them, along with compensation for the years of their life that has been stolen.

Because of course America cannot owe anything to, or be answerable to anyone but America.

If the torturers and those - up to the very top - who authorized torture - were to be put on trial, that would be like saying that there is a a higher law to which America is answerable, which is heresy. No: America decided to torture, and now America has decided not to torture, it has realized that that was wrong, it has woken up to its own values once more. That is the end of the story.

This report came out in the middle of Advent, for Christians a penitential season; but for America's great and good, for all that they invoke God and pay lip service to Christianity, there is previous little sense of repentance. Of course not for the Republicans, even louder though they are about their Christianity; the very idea that America could have anything to repent about (apart from homosexuality maybe) is heresy: if America did something, it must by definition have been right! But even for those who do recognize that torture is wrong and that the US did it, it barely scratches the surface.

Not that the US is particularly exceptional in its exceptionalism; it is a common feature of empires and hegemons throughout the ages, along with the self-righteousness and refusal to contemplate the possibility of wrongness; and even when a wrong, like the slave trade, is acknowledged, it is no sooner corrected than forgotten, and indeed self-praise for having stopped becomes the dominant sentiment. While there is such a thing as a patriotism that seeks all the more to right one's nations wrongs, in general patriotism and self-reflection and penitence rarely go together.

There are also many other nations culpable in the CIA torture scandal, most notably the UK, but also many, many others, including Sweden, which arrested two Egyptian asylum seekers in 2001, and handed them over to masked US security agents at Bromma airport in Stockholm, to be flown to Egypt for torture. If we are lucky, we may see enquiries that dig out more of the truth of what happened in various countries, but prosecutions? Well, if they happen I will be pleasantly surprised.
smhwpf: (Buffyanne)
From [livejournal.com profile] katebacross: Given that you have doctorates in both maths and economics and are a former lecturer, how do you feel about the requests from today’s economics students – and Thomas Piketty - to teach economics from a broader subject base, and reduce its reliance on “simplistic mathematical models”?

Oh God, absolutely!

Certainly, Economics can attract many mathematicians because they can very easily be good at it, and publish lots of papers and stuff, but I think that the effect for me of being a mathematician coming into economics is that I see that a lot of the work being done is very pretty mathematics, but not necessarily any actual use to man or beast in terms of understanding how economies work.

The problem is not necessarily maths per se. Right now, the sort of economics that Piketty and others criticise, namely mainstream Neoclassical economics, is certainly incredibly locked into the use of complex mathematical models, but it is not only Neoliberal economics that makes extensive use of maths. Marx's Das Kapital is full of mathematics. But Marx starts with a very different set of assumptions and uses a different set of mathematical tools - based on the assumptions he makes and the type of analysis he is trying to conduct, and thus reaches a very different set of conclusions.

Economic analysis is inevitably going to use mathematics, as it is attempting to deal with quantifiable aspects of human society - how much is produced, consumed, by whom, who gets the benefits. It is a matter of what maths you use, with what starting assumptions.

Neoclassical economics, I believe, is designed to reach a set of conclusions favourable to unrestrained, or as near as possible to unrestrained, Capitalism. Not that its inventors and practitioners are necessarily wicked or dishonest, but that it has gained traction and dominance within academic economics because it favours those with money and power.

tl;dr )

Basically, as I see it, the flaws in the assumptions of Neoclassical economics means that it not only fails to describe how individuals work as economic agents, it fails to describe how economies and economic systems work.

The maths can be very neat and pretty. But it is a very particular type of maths. It is based on a kind of Newtonian world or smooth, continuous, infinitely differentiable functions (of a particularly tractable type), which allow for stable equilibrium solutions. But this is not what the world is like, and the discontinuities, uncertainties, and jagged edges that constitute human life are not mere minor disturbances in the otherwise smooth, predictable fabric, they are the fabric.

Personally, the sort of maths I have most fun with in economics is Game Theory. Some of my most successful economics classes were when I got the students playing Prisoner's Dilemma. But I'm less and less sure how much use this sort of thing really is either, except as maybe a loose metaphor.

But at least that sort of thing actually gets people thinking about human behaviour and relationships, and their implications for economic life.

And maybe this is how I think Economics needs to go, to recognizing itself as a social science; one whose starting point is human interactions within a social system. By all means use maths, but before you know what maths to use, you need to have an initial understanding of the social structures in which economic relations take place, and the ways in which people behave and repsond within those structures. What mainstream Economics does is to assume that all those questions can be brushed aside by imagining a society populated by "Utility Robots", and then in response to the obvious protests say "But it's just a model! It doesn't need to be true, it just needs to predict! On average! You just don't understand our complex mathematics!" and so on.

I think this sort of view is gradually becoming more mainstream? But academic paradigms are slow to shift, especially when Economists are rational publication-maximisers. I suspect that there are a lot of economists who know that Neoclassical economics and the sorts of mathematical models they use are bullshit, but continue to use them because they know how to work with those models and because that's what gets published in the top journals. I do know that at my old place, University of the West of England, a fair few of my former colleagues are really trying to broaden the curriculum to include and even emphasize other perspectives. Strength to their arm.

This article lacks references. I will rectify this and try to find some suitable articles to back up some of my ramblings, but right now it is already late, and I thought it more important to get the thoughts down first. So references will follow, hopefully this Advent, but I do not promise when.
smhwpf: (No power)
There was going to be a bigger post, but there was too little sleep.

I'm not Scottish, but most of my family have lived in Scotland for 25 years now (my stepdad is from Scotland), and I visit there a couple of times a year. I have never lived there full time though, unless one counts summers between one thing and another (university, voluntary work, job in some combination) when I have not had any other address. My expat voter registration in the UK is where I last lived in Bristol, so I do not get a vote in the Scottish independence referendum (and nor should I). The decision is for the people of Scotland. Otherwise I'd have probably been posting a lot more about this, here and at the Face. But I certainly have a direct interest in the matter. I would almost certainly be eligible for Scottish citizenship if there's a Yes vote, and my family are all avid Yes supporters, and in many cases active campaigners.

I am likewise definitely rooting for a Yes vote. For me, the fundamental issue is that, with only about a twelfth of the population of the UK, Scotland's influence on political outcomes in the UK as a whole is always going to be marginal. This might not matter so much if Scotland and England and Wales had a roughly similar political trend, but they don't. For the past 30-40 years - especially since Thatcher - Scotland has taken a decisive turn against the dominant party of government in the UK, the Conservative Party. Scotland has thus been ruled by, and will periodically continue to be ruled by, governments that Scottish voters have overwhelmingly rejected, so long as Scotland remains in the UK. Scottish votes can shift the outcome a little (for example we now have a Conservative-Lib Dem coalition instead of a Conservative majority without Scottish votes -oh joy), but overwhelmingly, the UK government will be determined by votes south of the border. That is not a good position for Scotland to be in. Scotland needs to be able to elect its own government, determine its own economic policy, immigration policy, welfare, foreign policy, defence policy.

There are lots of other individual reasons for supporting independence, but most are essentially aspects of this same basic equation. Trident for example; most Scots do not want nuclear weapons on their soil, but are not at present in a position to decide. I very much doubt if an independent Scotland would have joined the invasion of Iraq. The appalling policies pursued by the current UK government, some of which the devolved Scottish government can exempt Scotland from, but not most of them. Yes, there could be more devolution, but why settle for having control of some of the decisions that most affect you when you can have control of all of them? (Foreign policy and defence, in particular, will always be a UK-wide thing.)

The main concern for many No voters and undecideds is the economy. There are a lot of things that can be said about this, there has been a lot of ink spilled on whether an independent Scotland would be richer, or poorer, or about the same. But the way I see it, the fundamental point is that, the trade and industry that exists in Scotland the day before independence will still exist after independence. Being part of a larger country does not magically create jobs and industry where demand and infrastructure does not otherwise exist. Ask Cornwall. Scotland would continue to trade freely with England, and Europe, as it would be in everyone's interest for that to happen. The rest is details. Important details to be sure, but the basic equation is that Scotland would not be, in the long run, much richer or much poorer inside or outside of the UK.

(In fact, I think it could be richer, if Scotland is able to do something sensible with the oil revenues while they last, like put them in a sovereign wealth fund as Norway did, while the UK squandered them.)

The EU is a bit question, admittedly. But at least one major EU think tank, the European Policy Center, thinks that Scotland would be able to remain in the Eu. To quote:

From a practical point of view, no member state has a material interest in Scotland remaining outside the EU, even for a short time. This would deprive the EU of the benefits of Scotland's membership (budgetary contribution, fisheries resources, etc). Scotland outside the EU, and not applying EU rules, would be a legal nightmare for: EU member states, whose citizens and enterprises would lose their rights in Scotland. No member state, particularly not the rest of the UK, would have an interest in creating such an anomaly.

This includes Spain. They are certainly against Scottish independence, as they don't want a bad example for Catalonia, but they have made clear that Scotland is a fundamentally different case, as the UK has consented to the referendum and to respecting the outcome, which Spain has not done in the case of Catalonia. The Spanish government has made clear that the view of the UK is the key factor, and the UK would certainly have no interest in blocking Scottish membership and seeing trade barriers go up between England and Scotland.

The new President of the EU Commission, Jean-Claude Junckers, has also expressed sympathy for Scottish EU membership.

Nothing is certain, except that there would be a lot of hard negotiating to do, but the other side of this is that remaining in the UK is no guarantee of EU membership; the way it looks to me, the UK is headed rapidly for the exit.

Another big question is the currency. Here I think Alex Salmond is making a mistake on insisting on keeping the pound, with or without a currency union. I think a key aspect of sovereignty is control of currency. Economically, monetary union - whether with the rUK or with the Eurozone - does not work well without fiscal union. Recent experience in the Eurozone bears this out. To my mind, Scotland would be best with its own currency; start out with a one-for-one exchange rate, maybe keep it pegged for 6 months to give some predictability, then let it float. But that would be for Scotland as a whole to decide, through elections, referenda and political processes post-independence. An independent Scotland will, like any other country, make mistakes.

In the bigger picture, I think Britain as a whole would be healthier for Scottish independence. Relations between England and Scotland would be stronger and on a more level footing. No more blaming the English for things that go wrong. Who knows, in a generation, maybe Scotland fans would even start cheering for England at football! No-one is interested in putting up border controls; travel would remain free, trade would remain free, English people would continue to live and work in Scotland, Scottish people would continue to live and work in England. But maybe also, from England's side of things, this would put the final nail in the coffin of post-imperial pretensions of greatness, of the idea of being a "Great Power" that throws its military weight around (as a side-kick to the US at any rate). The UK, with Scotland as a fully active participant, conquered and dominated an Empire on which the sun never set and the blood never dried. Good riddance.

English left-wingers have valid reason to be worried that, without Scottish votes, Tory government would be more likely. The other side of it is that Scottish independence would throw the Conservative and Unionist Party into utter turmoil. It would create a new playing field in which progressive forces would have the chance to put forward their own vision of how England and Wales (together or otherwise) could go. I would not be greatly optimistic at the moment about how rUK would go, but I am not greatly optimistic about how the UK is going at the moment. But at any rate there would be new possibilities, and it would be up to the people of England, Wales and Northern Ireland to take them. But the idea that Scotland should chain itself to continuing periods of right-wing Tory government just so that some of the time England can instead get merely center-right Labour governments that will be slightly less awful, is grotesque.

I said this wasn't going to be long. Ah, well.

Do it, Scotland!

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