Sunday, December 22, 2013

Soylent Green

Out with the old, in with the new.

Chris Huhne has written an unpleasant article about the allocation of resources vis-a-vis the young and the old. What upsets me, and being over sixty I have a stake in this fight, is not so much the debate as the attitude that defines one group of people as being of less worth than others. And, as expected, the wrinkled cliché about the old is rolled out - "They are the past, not the future."

The statement is nonsense. Both young and old are the present. The difference between them is that the young may, if they are lucky, have a longer future ahead of them, but they have little in the way of a past. History and experience lies with the old. Are they really of so little value? Should Churchill not have become Prime Minister in 1940 at the age of sixty-eight, giving way to some neophyte instead? Well, yes according to Huhne, because us oldies are selfish and shortsighted, we do not care about the future because we have none.

I can see it all now. Children, grandchildren? Nah, don't give a toss. The environment? Who cares? And even worse, we vote. Shocking behaviour. It makes our interests too politically sensitive to touch. And my, with all the infirmities of old age, aren't we expensive. There is the small matter of the fact that older people have worked and paid taxes for forty or fifty years. They have paid for their benefits. But that doesn't matter, does it?

It is the prejudiced nastiness of the article that depresses me the most. Macho grandstanding and stupid, unsubstantiated generalisations pile one on top of the other. The assumption that money is wasted on the old is the attitude that led to the destruction of adult education for older adults. And yes, the old were once young, just as the young will be old. We are not fixed in time. Our assets will become theirs and they will, in turn, want the services that we have now. People are on the same journey, their needs change. That is all. 

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Fighting ignorance

There is nothing as pleasing as an informed and enraged rant

And just to re-iterate, this type of bollocks kills people.

Via and hat tip to Snoopy

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Anti-Socialist Dwarf

That's me:
All facts go to clearly prove that Ryley is a thrice-cursed traitor without an equal in the world, who had desperately worked for years to destabilize and bring down the DPRK. The hateful and despicable nature of these anti-party, anti-state and unpopular crimes will be fully disclosed in the course of the trial. No matter how much water flows under the bridge and no matter how frequently a generation is replaced by new one, the lineage of Paektu will remain unchanged and irreplaceable.
Yes, you too can be denounced by the Democratic People's Republic of Korea with this new denunciation generator. Fun for all the family (except uncles).

Thanks to Terry.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013


What links widening participation to higher education, the Euro crisis and welfare reform? The answer is a bit of psychology.

This little article got me thinking. It starts by generalising about how we all tend to see ourselves as above average, but I was more interested in what it goes on to discuss, the extrinsic incentives bias. Apparently, our sense of superiority over others is reinforced by the supposed nobility of our motives. We do things because we are intrinsically motivated to do so. We see others as needing extrinsic motivation - such as a financial incentive or a proverbial kick up the backside. And this is what links the items in my apparently disparate list.

So, widening participation was a big part of my job in Hull, but I was constantly irritated by the assumption that we needed to raise the aspirations of working class people. They were seen as deficient in motivation and, as a result, needed to, well, be like us - nice, aspirational and middle class. This was to be incentivised by painting a rosy picture of the monetary rewards for escaping from their class. We couldn't accept the notion that they were in no way deficient, but were excluded by the nature of institutions that needed reform to be able to meet their aspirations.

Then there is the Euro crisis and those lazy, corrupt, Mediterranean types with their, horror of horrors, siestas. Why can't they be more like the hard-working Northern Europeans, driven by their intrinsic Protestant work ethic? A little austerity will be salutary medicine to make them change their ways.

And in welfare reform, to ensure our superiority we invent convenient fictions like 'dependency culture'.  This is something that has to be broken by intervention, work experience and benefit sanctions. Only then can work-shy scroungers be made to get up and get jobs. And won't they be grateful to us for our 'tough love'.

I do not think that psychology is as important a political force as ideology and interests, but you can see why such programmes have appeal. We are very comfortable with the notion of the inadequacy of others. Then again, those others are looking back and thinking the same about us, and often with good reason.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Seasonal cheer

Christmas is coming. It is a season for giving, but wait. Hard on the heels of him trashing Christmas presents - Are we so bored, so affectless, that we need to receive this junk to ignite one last spark of hedonic satisfaction? - George Monbiot has decided that having nice things "is both socially destructive and self-destructive. It smashes the happiness and peace of mind of those who succumb to it. It's associated with anxiety, depression and broken relationships." 

Thanks George, I used to like my iPad, but I better burn it before the fiendish contraption plunges me into a pit of despair.

This comes after Rebecca Smithers passed on the The Wild Network's recommendation to give your kids a stick for Christmas. I have never been a great fan of Christmas, but all I can think when I read this is, 'what a bunch of smug, puritanical, miserable bastards'.

Monday, December 09, 2013

Conflicting ideas

This post is a spin-off from both work in progress on a paper on Peter Kropotkin's stance in the First World War (he supported the allied effort to the dismay of many of his anarchist colleagues) and some debates with friends over Syria. It is an attempt to create a rough and ready typology to categorise the responses to wars and conflict. I am interested in the way that, though circumstances are different and are never analogous, the intellectual arguments about how to respond are unchanging. There is a spectrum that runs through from non-intervention into some form of full engagement. As always, the real world is not as neat as that and there are areas of overlap. Nevertheless, it helps me, at least, find my way through the mountains of articles that conflicts generate. Let's start with non-intervention.

One of the founding documents on liberal thinking about conflict is Kant's essay on Perpetual Peace. One of his preliminary articles contains the following:
No State Shall by Force Interfere with the Constitution or Government of Another State
For what is there to authorize it to do so? The offense, perhaps, which a state gives to the subjects of another state? Rather the example of the evil into which a state has fallen because of its lawlessness should serve as a warning. 
Although Kant qualifies this, "But it would be quite different if a state, by internal rebellion, should fall into two parts, each of which pretended to be a separate state making claim to the whole. To lend assistance to one of these cannot be considered an interference in the constitution of the other state" (in other words saying that you should take sides in a civil war), it has been taken as an absolute principle by non-interventionists.

Non-intervention is the policy of anti-war activists. Its justification spreads from anti-imperialism on the left, through the isolationism of the right, to the anti-statism of libertarians. Such pure abstentionism is not neutral. Non-interference when you have the power to influence the outcome of a conflict always favours the strongest side and generally ensures that it can prevail over the weaker. As such, it can be based as much upon realpolitik as principle.

The idea that one can simply stand aside from any conflict and let it take its course, however many innocent victims there are, is amoral as a general principle. This is one reason why it is often justified by elaborate sophistries. More practically, non-intervention has been diluted by forms of limited engagement intended to avoid participation in a conflict, mitigate its worst effects and to steer it to a peaceful resolution. The two main ones are appeasement and containment.

Appeasement avoids entanglement by using diplomacy to remove the causes or worst effects of an existing conflict in order to avoid military action. It recognises the legitimacy of the aggressor and seeks to strike a deal that would give it limited gains in return for some restraint. Containment again recognises the legitimacy of an aggressor, but only on the territory it currently holds. 'Thus far and no more', is its mantra. Both involve the threat of military force against transgression, but both also leave a tyrannical regime in place, free to oppress its own people.

There is a final strand of non-intervention, one that sounds nice and civilised, humanitarian aid as an alternative to military and diplomatic action. It is a demand to help refugees, support the displaced, provide medical aid and do nothing about the cause of that displacement. In many cases it is all that some nations can do and it is most welcome. However, limiting all action solely to that, even when more can be done, may enable its advocates to claim the moral high ground, but is the continuation of abstentionism by other means.

All these are conservative doctrines, in that they do not challenge the status quo or seek 'regime change'. But that does not mean that they can never be wise. Everything depends on the specific circumstances and the potential risks involved.

As for interventionism, there are several very different types of interventionist ideas. I am going to start by being provocative by arguing that pacifism can be interventionist. I can say this because I would always make a big distinction between anti-war sentiment and pacifist thought. Pacifists adhere to a concept of positive peace. Peace is the outcome of just social relations and the absence of violence, not merely the avoidance of war at any cost. And so pacifists do not indulge in the apologism of anti-war activists. They want to change the status quo, they do want to overthrow tyrants, it is just that they see the use of war to do so as, at best, counter-productive and, at worst, the greater evil. Instead they propose non-violent action.

Non-violent direct action and organisation to confront oppressors requires extraordinary courage, self-sacrifice and a commitment to social change. Seeing a unity between means and ends, pacifists refuse to use violence to achieve peaceful ends. It is heroic, but I am not a pacifist and I think that pacifists have got it spectacularly wrong on many occasions. Pacifists have to pick their enemies carefully too, some would treat them with murderous contempt.

There are times that force has to be used to confront the overwhelming violence of despotic states and psychopathic insurgencies. Kant's narrow criterion has been widened now to include, rightly in my view, the responsibility to protect, armed intervention to prevent the abuse of human rights. Intervention involves one or both of two policies, economic sanctions and military action. Both inflict suffering on the people who are the victims of the regime as well as on the regime itself, but may well be necessary to bring down the regime or to end a war by aiding the victory of one side over another. Again, the scope and extent of the action depends entirely on the situation and the prospects for success. Of course, what happens next is an equally crucial question and involves more than a commitment to policing, but to reconciliation and nation building. And, again, intervention can be both wise and foolish. We can never escape the need to make judgements.

Interventions can also be conservative in intent. For instance, the Soviet Union's interventions in Hungary and Czechoslovakia were designed to preserve deeply unpopular regimes against the actions of the people. The United States, too, has propped up many a dictator. With the end of the Cold War, and especially after 9/11, we have seen a difference, with American action to overthrow tyranny and replace it with democracy. It was a welcome change, not that anti-imperialists appear to have noticed.

So, from my perspective as a 'keyboard warmonger', I would tend towards advocating intervention where it aims to protect people from the brutality of their own governments or fascistic militias and, where possible, to support the people's hopes to escape oppression. It is not conservative. And so to Syria.

Syria gives us examples of the failure of both intervention and non-intervention. When demonstrations broke out against Assad's police state, he turned the tanks on the demonstrators and transformed a protest into a revolution. Seeing that Assad was in trouble, his main allies, Russia and Iran, poured in weapons and sent Hezbollah fighters to his aid. Whilst the regime certainly had the brutality, it had neither the popular legitimacy nor the competence to put down the rising. This intervention turned the revolution into a civil war.

The only other power that mattered, the USA, sat on its hands. And in its absence, the space left vacant was filled by jihadis opening a third front. Then came the chemical weapons attack on Ghouta. It appeared that the US was about to take an interventionist stance. It hesitated, as if paralysed by caution, then jumped at the opportunity that was opened up for it by Russia and, later, Iran; appeasement. A limited deal on Syrian chemical weapons and on Iranian nuclear development allowed it to step back from military intervention. The jihadis grew in strength, the killing continued unabated, the humanitarian catastrophe got worse and Syria imploded. It is a classic example of policy failure. The victims are the hundred thousand dead and the millions displaced, lives lost and devastated as the world looks away.

Action has become more difficult and we do not know the consequences that will flow from a failed state in the strategic heart of the Middle East. Somehow, I don't think that they will be what any of the decision-makers would have hoped for.

Friday, December 06, 2013

City of water

Hull was awash last night. A record 5.8 metre tidal surge was held up by the barrier on the Humber, but still parts of the city and surrounding areas flooded as the river overcame all the defences. Some of the city blacked out as power failed. The main through road, the Clive Sullivan Way, was under water and was closed. All trains out were cancelled as the main westerly rail line runs right by the river. And who thought it might be a good idea to have a day-trip over to see friends yesterday? Yes, you guessed right.

I got increasingly anxious about my train back, checked on the internet in the bar I was in and saw it was cancelled. The information on the web site was limited. I tried to ring the station, but it was hard to find the right number. Every one I rang gave out a similar long taped message. All asked you to ring National Rail Enquiries, so I did. An Indian voice answered. The conversation was not easy.

"Where are you travelling from?"


"I am sorry, I can't quite get that name, where is it?"


"Where, sorry?"

"Hull ... 'Ull ... Hawl," every possible pronunciation.

"Could you spell that for me."

"H U L L"

She then proceeded to read what was on the web site and said that they had no further updates. I had tried to phone somewhere a mile away and had ended up in Bangalore. I couldn't believe it, surely they hadn't outsourced train information to India? Yes they have. The BBC reported:
A union representing UK call centre workers has criticised the chief executive of National Rail Enquiries for saying that Indian staff were better than their British counterparts.Rail enquiries chief executive Chris Scoggins said the service could be improved if outsourced to India.He said the move could also save rail firms up to £25m over several years.But Amicus union said: "This attitude is an example of the idiocy of moving the inquiry service 10,000 miles away."
It is the curse of the call centre. Stressed staff may be able to answer general queries, but in a crisis or for anything that needs some local knowledge they are useless and end up being abused by frustrated customers, whose real anger should be directed at the management who think that all we need is an underpaid person reading a prepared script and calling us customers instead of passengers.

I used my initiative, got down to the station early and spoke to the station staff face-to-face. They were fantastic. I was given information and when the situation changed, Selby station had closed as well and the replacement buses were stuck in the chaos, they ordered taxis to take the passengers to Leeds. All the time they were calm, helpful and friendly, even though one had a house near the river and was worried. They got us home eventually. And I bet they are paid peanuts too.

This was a microcosm of the British economy. Stupid management cutting costs by any means they can devise and the poor bloody infantry who actually do the job making it work in spite of it all. It is time we abandoned the cult of the manager in favour of investing in the worker; the local expert who knows what is going on and can make things happen. Now that would make a refreshing change.

Sunday, December 01, 2013

The party's over

And what a party it was. I was there as it wound up under a stunning sunset in front of 74,400 people on a cold Manchester afternoon.

One of the failings of Rugby League has always been the weakness of the international game, but this World Cup gave it a tremendous boost with record crowds. Although the stubborn problem still remains that one nation is a long way ahead of all others. Even worse, that nation is Australia.

That a powerful New Zealand side was so comprehensively beaten in the final is a sign that, though progress is being made there is still a long way to go to provide good international competition. There are only two national sides, England and New Zealand, that can compete with the Kangaroos, and even then they rarely win. And that does not make for compelling viewing.

But this year the crowds rolled up, the final was a sell-out and the only disappointment was the very limited coverage by the BBC. The lesser sides provided some thrilling matches and the New Zealand v England semi-final was a heart-breaking classic. It was a superb, celebratory festival for the game. Let's hope that this time it is a platform for serious long-term international development that the game needs and deserves.

Now for something completely naff: