When it finally happened, it was almost as bad as we had imagined. Sixteen million Brits woke up with a bump. Nigel Farage, in many ways the sickly progenitor of this situation we now find ourselves in, his pathological grin plastered across the front pages, gave the speech he’d been begging to give.

Charlatans have flourished. I won’t dance around what I think about this: there are some good reasons to leave the European Union, but most of them had no part in the result on Friday morning. Popular votes, especially those with only two options on the ballot paper, are wont to cause divisions. But who can deny that the past 3 months of British politics have been some of the ugliest we can remember?

A lot has been said about this, but I want to say some more. In particular, what feels so outrageous, so bitter, and so sad, is the generational question. This, too, has received no shortage of attention; an elegiac comment gone viral sums up the frustration. But the real nub is what this thorny problem says about how our society is run.

Out of voters surveyed by YouGov on the eve of the referendum, 75% of those who were under 24 favoured staying in the EU. The value for voters older than 65 was 60% for leave. This is the graphic, from Politico:

YouGov poll EUref
The results of the YouGov poll just before actual voting took place. Credit/ POLITICO Europe

Why this should make people in my generation cross is, I hope, straightforward. However, interest groups lose elections all the time. Indeed, is it not the hallmark of a mature, pluralistic society that those who don’t get their way accept the fact peacefully and prepare to campaign for the next cause? A tidy objection, but one worth inspecting: it does not fit the Brexiteers’ case quite as smoothly as they might think. In fact, if we are going to appeal to the long pedigree of democratic theory, one concept springs to mind.

‘Tyranny of the majority’ is a dramatic phrase. It summons the spectre of an angry mob howling for a scapegoat; at its worst, it invokes ethnic conflict or cleansing. But most of all this old but persistent worry about democracy is a simple observation: people tend to choose what’s best for themselves, and large groups of people who all want the same thing tend to stick together within any community. It is when a majority repeatedly asserts its will over those in the minority that the problem arises, because this calls into doubt democracy’s greatest selling point: that everyone involved is having a say over their own fate.

Many young people today feel like they do not have any say at all over their own fate. The older generation most often referred to as the baby boomers – who have profited from the FTSE All-Share rising 21 fold in 41 years, house prices that have multiplied 18.5 times, triple-locked pensions in a time of near deflation, and late-20th century interest rates (stratospheric by today’s standards) – roundly spurned their grandchildren and voted for Brexit. Boris Johnson claimed on Friday that those grandchildren have a prosperous future ahead of them. Perhaps, though only once they are old enough to be eligible for the National Living Wage, denied to under-24s. The thought that house prices might fall would be some consolation if they weren’t already quite so far beyond even our government-assisted buying power.

Sad toddler
Feeling let down. Photo/David Goehring

However, the tyranny argument may be overstepping the mark. Is there some fundamental right that has been stripped from young voters? I don’t think so. We may be socially and economically poorer, but again, that is how democracy works, for better or worse. We still enjoy our formal and legal liberties. Certainly, the repeated disenfranchisement of the youth is symptomatic of a faulty system, and there is something peculiarly horrifying about a society that fails to nurture its own posterity. But the worst signs of a tyrannising majority are less clear, so a wholesale rejection of our democratic pact seems undue.

Voters in major metropolitan centres, graduates, and under the age of 50 are therefore probably bound by respect for our idea of the good society to honour their loss at the ballot box. It is also bad faith for those of us with the good fortune to live in towns and cities with relatively healthy labour markets to call for independence from poorer, Brexit-supporting regions, satirical as some such suggestions may be. Many who call for disintegration now that they are on the losing side also wish fervently for Scotland to remain British.

All that may be so, but it does not lessen the sting of our distance from the democratic ideal. And the fact that many of those who voted for Brexit were themselves protesting – against some vision of an ‘establishment’ that neither understands nor cares how they feel – shows the extent of the rot. It helps here to point to some of the many failures of the EU referendum in general. There are compelling reasons to think that, when it comes to questions of self-governance and autonomy, it is right that such long-term decisions be entrusted to a direct vote. But if so, at the very least, the conditions necessary for fruitful democratic practice ought to be fulfilled.

Simon Wren-Lewis, macroeconomics professor at Oxford University, has coined a telling moniker for what he sees as the perverting effect of the tabloid press on our politics. He terms it ‘mediamacro’ and it represents a tremendous threat. The power of the Daily Mail, The Sun and similar publications is that they feed disinformation to millions to suit their own agenda: profit. With a readership that grows more belligerent with every story on immigration, editors know more of the same will drive the vicious cycle.

Data and fact give way to falsehood and spin. I will not list the instances from this campaign here – if you’ve read this far I take it you either agree with me or are at least looking to exercise rational thought, so you will know them already. This is not what we should aspire to in our democracy, and those who crow over the result as a great victory for ‘the people’ should not be taken seriously.

In truth, Brits are at a loss for genuine representatives. Young people, though not quite the moral martyrs we take ourselves to be, are nevertheless forsaken time and again. Working class voters who opted for Brexit will soon be greeted by a new Tory cabinet that continues to do little for their needs, besides the job losses and unstable prices the next few months will likely bring.

There are steps we can take. The first is to discuss what is wrong, loudly and repeatedly, with clarity and good judgment. One rally set to take place in London proves the appetite is there, and its spirit of positivity is admirable. But secondly, do not be afraid to feel enraged. Change requires pressure and energy, often generated best when harnessed to a large group of indignant individuals.

And finally, guard against what comes next. More migrant-baiting and untruth is not far away. The campaign tested Britain’s capacity for reasoned debate, and has left many on both sides feeling understandably drained. Do not give up. And when Mr Farage or Mr Johnson next spouts their toxic nonsense, have your reply at the ready:

You do not represent us.




Rigging the system, re-writing the rules

Right now one would be forgiven for thinking that nothing apart from Britain’s membership of the EU will worry the heads of our legislators for years to come. The Conservative Party has disappeared in a storm of in-fighting, perhaps never to be seen again, in its present form at least. But some from the opposite benches have kept quiet, busying themselves with something of a side project.

Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell used Labour’s State of the Economy conference on May 21st to announce the progress made during all of this brainstorming. His speech concluded a series of lectures this year entitled “The New Economics”, delivered by well-regarded left wing economists in conjunction with the Labour Party. Although the results are unclear, few should question the need for a re-evaluation of the consensus in Westminster.

Start with the simple observation that despite all the bombast, several economic issues of singular importance will persist no matter the result on 23rd June. Though employment is high, many people still suffer from unstable work; real wage growth remains mysteriously listless, matching feeble productivity in the UK; escalating levels of inequality between the richest and the rest are sapping the life out of the British economy. These problems need technical, well-designed solutions, but the Treasury is producing little light on such matters (though, via the EU campaign, enough heat to plug Britain’s looming energy gap).

Consider further the scandalous headlines Britain woke up to one Monday morning this April. The leak of the Panama Papers was possibly the most desperate news story of 2016, but was received like a glum inevitability. Most of us felt we already knew that corruption and tax dodging were everywhere. But inspect the numbers for a moment. A governmental estimate puts the cost to the UK of income tax evasion at £16 billion a year. That is significantly larger than the foreign aid budget (so reviled by the right-wing press), at £11 billion. The total tax gap – what wasn’t paid out of what HMRC calculate is due – is £34 billion. Our annual defence budget is £45 billion.

A favourite at the British departure gates. Photo/ thetaxhaven

And then there’s the inequality issue. In Danny Dorling’s book Inequality and the 1% – a purposeful march through the gallery of economic unfairness – the Oxford professor repeatedly points to the 15% of all UK earnings taken by the top 1% of individuals. At the same time cuts were taking £19 billion a year out of the economy. In the autumn of 2013, 120,000 children were relying on food banks.

This is why Mr McDonnell quotes Joseph Stiglitz in calling to “rewrite the rules” of the economy. Even the canniest players can’t beat the game when the system is rigged in the first place. Unless, of course, you’re canny and it’s rigged in your favour.

It is not just Brits who have licence to feel cheated. The figure for the share taken by the 1% in the US was 20% in 2014. To touch lightly on the epic drama across the Atlantic (by now mired somewhere in its third or fourth act), if Donald Trump stands any chance of winning the United States presidency, it will be because of untempered ill-will against the problems I describe here. Hilary Clinton is the very definition of a political insider, and is in trouble because of it. Anxious observers point to Mr Trump’s billions: surely this inherited tycoon can’t play the ‘crooked economy’ card? And yet, in the eyes of many, those who benefit from a rigged system can seem somehow less vile than those who rigged to their hearts’ content, and got away with it to boot.

There is much to be feared in this sort of politics. The most terrible moments in modern political history have occurred when ordinary people making justified complaints have found no honest, reasonable solutions offered to them by those in charge: only lies and false promises.

So Labour’s re-branding is sorely needed, to offer just those solutions. The party has a woeful reputation when it comes to economic governance. An Ipsos MORI poll in February asked who would “make the most capable Chancellor” and showed George Osborne leading his Shadow counterpart by 17%. That is greater than any lead he enjoyed over Ed Balls. Yet the Beckett report on Labour’s electoral defeat last May noted that the party “decided not to concentrate on countering the myth of ‘Labour’s crash’”. Ed Miliband tried to fight the Tories on their own terms. Conversely, the Green Party fought the 2015 election on the (un)happy grounds that they were the only anti-austerity party of the bunch, and received plentiful media attention for it.

Even as Labour tries to define a new path, it is mocked for going back to the old, in spite of cries of protest from Mr McDonnell and his team. Annie Huddart at the PR firm Blue Rubicon, writing about the Queen’s Speech on May 18th, is fairly representative of the received wisdom:

With a Labour opposition that looks set to continue fighting the politics of the 1980s, the Conservative leadership’s search for an alternative ideological agenda has led to the obvious need for reform of public services and markets, matched by a visible commitment to social justice.

As well as her apparently low threshold for what counts as ‘visible commitment’, Mrs Huddart here performs the sacred rites of what is sometimes called the ‘Third Way’. This starts with the idea that New Labour represented the emergence of a keenly profitable type of politics mixing the best of the free market and state social protection. But some modern acolytes thereby imply that any leftist platform detracting from the Blairite view must be going backwards – to ‘the politics of the 80s’. By extension, society never changes past the modern era of the 2000s, and the Third Way remains the superior compromise. Given the trends and statistics we see today, I beg to differ.  The economics of social democracy has simply not worked in the way we had hoped it would. Understanding why that is so would require space far beyond what I am trying to say here.

New challenges abound: the digital economy; tighter credit markets; interest rates stuck at the zero lower bound; a tremendously stubborn property bubble. The New Economics must look to solve this very 21st century set of ailments.

Moreover, even on pure fiscal policy grounds macroeconomists are far from united over Tory policy, in particular the Charter for Budgetary Responsibility. This legislation mandates a fiscal surplus “in normal times”. In a December 2015 survey of experts by the Centre for Macroeconomics, almost half of respondents disagreed that it “is helpful in underpinning the credibility of fiscal policy” (with 40% agreeing). The Institute for Fiscal Studies expressed doubts in February over the fiscal mandate, concerned by its inflexibility and the cost of big tax rises or spending cuts at sudden notice to ensure it is met.

The International Monetary Fund, long-time proponent of fiscal consolidation, noted in 2012 that “the [fiscal] multipliers used in generating growth forecasts have been systematically too low.” That means that austerity has hurt more than its advocates thought it would. Answers to worries over public debt are called for that don’t suffer from full-blown austerity fever. As such, Labour is now promoting its own fiscal rule. This allows for much-needed governmental investment, while staving off the temptation to allow ballooning deficits driven by social spending (Paul Mason explains the theory here).

Nonetheless, during Prime Minister’s Questions earlier this year, Mr Osborne lampooned Labour’s new advisory team as akin to Chairman Mao and Mickey Mouse. These cheap jibes seem to work, and Labour remains speared with little credibility in the eyes of millions of voters.

We have had roughly the same narrative of economic governance in the UK for the past four or five years. It is extremely tiring and absolutely no good for the health of the British economy. The new toolkit might yet buck the trend. It will have to cooperate with centrists – as even Jon Lansman, chair of Momentum and veteran of the Left, admits, “if you don’t take the mainstream of the Labour Party with you, you’re going to lose.” But the need for innovative policy is urgent. Let us see if Mr McDonnell can prove the detractors wrong, and save further damage in the meantime.

Modern mythologies: from Trump to COP21

The walkway between the runway and Gatwick Airport’s north terminal is filled with the sound of running water. Tired passengers are treated to HSBC’s ‘A Living River’ installation, featuring images and sounds from along the river Yangtze. Promoting its partnership with the WWF, the bank has recognised an important truth about the human mind. Statistics are all well and good, but photos and ambient noise? That’s something to pay attention to.

Every political cause needs some kind of story. Without an emotional narrative – and the themes and motifs that go with it – campaigns and interest groups don’t get very far. This is simply because of the way the human mind works, latching onto images and evocative ideas sooner than dry fact.

We might view this as the political manifestation of Daniel Kahneman’s thesis on human psychology; the dual aspects of our brains he calls System 1 and System 2. The latter lets us work through complex problems rationally and make a reasoned decision. This takes cognitive effort, something the human brain tries to avoid. So we function throughout most of our daily lives using only the System 1 portion. System 1 is impressionable, instinctive and makes decisions hastily. Kahneman spends much of his book – Thinking, Fast and Slow – in demonstrating this idea, fooling the reader time and again with optical illusions and mental puzzles.

Upon reflection, one ought feel rather concerned about this. To the extent that many people engage with politics at all, public political life tends to operate on a System 1 basis. Slogans and propaganda speak to this less critical human faculty.

Even if attempts are made to bring facts and objective data to the table, facts can still be spun appropriately in order to manipulate suggestible minds. Take the debate over the coming referendum in Britain on membership of the EU. The national media has played host to some laughably contradictory claims from opposing sides. When the content of ‘fact’ becomes contingent on the opinion one holds in the first place, we’re back squarely in System 1 territory.

Implicit in much political commentary is the assumption that people do not fully think things through when throwing their vote behind one cause or another. Those who most closely appeal to this type of politics are referred to as ‘populist’.  The pejorative suggestion is usually that such movements appeal more strongly to emotion (outrage, hope) than to considered policy design. Are they therefore fundamentally unsuitable to govern?

In a long piece in The Atlantic, David Frum discusses the ‘Great Republican Revolt’, citing the many grievances driving voters in the United States to support Donald Trump. “You hear from people like them in many other democratic countries too,” he points out. Too true, on both the left and the right. Would Mr Trump actually enforce his blanket ban on Islamic immigrants? Similarly, it is uncertain that all of his supporters would back the policy if it came down to it. I am firmly in the camp that reviles the real-estate mogul as a political reprobate. However, the point is moot. Certainly, appealing to symbols – like his proposed wall between the US and Mexico – has earned Mr Trump the loyalties of disaffected voters all across America.

Philosophically speaking, a great deal of public life in our post-Enlightenment world remains rather unenlightened. The appeal to uncritical thought seen in so many a democratic campaign and an ideology of the primacy of Reason do not make ready bedfellows. At times, we seem awfully distant from the world of intellectual self-realisation envisaged by pretty much every philosopher post-Descartes and Spinoza.

Terry Eagleton explores this issue in his book Culture and the Death of God. He argues that the Enlightenment failed to remove our reliance on the religious and transcendental. Indeed, he points out that this wasn’t even the purported goal of many theorists, who were more concerned by the corrupt and unjust authority of the church here on earth. Deists like Voltaire hardly denied the existence of some form of creator. Instead, the Enlightenment thinkers elevated their hallowed Reason to divine status. Nature’s rational laws became the surrogate for an interventionist Christian God.

Eagleton takes us through the following progression of Western philosophy, through the Idealists and the Romantics. Importantly, both understood the deficiencies of the cold, unfeeling system of thought the Enlightenment theorists had fought for. Put simply, common people have little reason to care about societal order in a rationalist universe, something the fear of God had accomplished for centuries. As Eagleton writes, “rationalism was able to damage the credibility of the clerics, but not to step into their shoes.”

In his treatment of the Idealists, Eagleton refers to their appeal to a ‘new mythology’ to fix this rift. With the philosopher as a new, secular form of priest, society might yet understand the world through the power of reason; at the same time, traditional values of ‘faith’ and social loyalty need not be foregone. What kind of thing would this mythology be? Maybe a reverence for the product of our work, for social connections, and for the seemingly wondrous technology that brings us the living standards we now enjoy.

Unless it proffers some higher sense of meaning to the life of the everyman, any philosophy will make for shoddy ideology. This idea goes a long way towards framing why stories and narrative hold such sway over a modern populace.

A particularly intriguing quote belonging to Karl Marx, also in Eagleton’s book, brings us back to Gatwick Airport, conservation and the environment. I’ve written somewhat pessimistically about the politics of populism above. But I see one area where a good dose of mythology wouldn’t go amiss. Discussing the myths of antiquity, Marx asks:

Is the view of nature and of social relations that underlies the Greek imagination… possible with automatic machines, railways, locomotives and telegraphs? What chance has Vulcan against Roberts and Co., Jupiter against the lightning conductor, and Hermes against the credit mobiliser?

His comments imply that material development makes a modern mythology implausible. Not so, if HSBC’s initiative is to be believed. The climate and environment is one sphere where images and motifs are still hugely important. Consider the COP21 in Paris in November: the meat of such international agreements is often ultimately symbolic. The power of campaigners lies in their ability to pressure democratic groups through emotive themes and messages. Leonardo DiCaprio’s speech in acceptance of his Oscar for The Revenant – a film full of stirring environmental imagery – spoke to the same mythology of nature.

Marx head and trees
Cold stone and gentle nature: Karl Marx in Highgate Cemetery. Photo/Roberto Maldeno

Factual work remains critical to speak to key stakeholders in the fight to change our treatment of the planet. A recent publication by academics claims climate damage could reduce global investment portfolios by 10% – $7tn – over the coming decades, with a 5% probability. This is excellent and valuable work. But as I have argued above, the democratic polity obeys different principles.

Environmental advocacy groups cannot discard the mythologies populations subscribe to. The establishment, too, should pay heed to this symbolism. It is precisely in this respect that the Paris agreement is promising. The nasty surprise suffered by the US Republican Party awaits those who lapse. That’s cause enough to resist Marx and embrace our System 1 (although perhaps to resist it during presidential elections). If not, droughts and rising sea levels will be the penance, and it will be all of us who suffer.

Feeling the strain: sanctions and the Russian character

An anniversary of some controversy will come around on February 27th: two years since soldiers backed by Russia seized the parliament building in Simferopol, Crimea. President Putin announced the annexation of the territory a mere 19 days later.

It is beyond reasonable doubt that this move was aggressive, nationalistic and highly illegal. The Economist newspaper at the time called Mr Putin ‘a force for instability and strife’. The response from the United States and Europe was a relatively severe string of economic sanctions.

Perhaps hawkish pundits (myself included) honestly expected a victory for hard diplomacy and international law. It is modish among international theorists nowadays to proclaim states’ increased ‘sensitivity’ due to our interconnected world. Globalised finance, trade and information add a host of ‘vulnerabilities’ to that most timeless of strategies: military threat. Put plainly, there are more ways for governments to hurt each other. Throwing Russia in the dock for however long it takes for Mr Putin to repent is a wonderful thought. But is it sheer optimism?

The blunt tool of economic aggression is somewhat older than the Obama and Putin regimes, even than the modern state system. Thucydides wrote on the Athenian economic exclusion of fellow city-state Megara. Sanctions are the modern equivalent of starving a stubborn foe out from behind equally stubborn fortifications. Inflict the gravest attack short of lethal force: impoverishment. More recently, we find the idea has developed a nuance: sanctions are now ‘smart’, in that key figures close to the offending regime have their assets frozen and face travel bans.

Two years on from Crimea, the Russian rouble has depreciated by over 100% against the US dollar, as if determined to outstrip the plummeting oil prices – now hovering just above $30 a barrel – it is so dependent on. The effects of this decline can of course be felt in Russia itself. State banks and corporations face the possibility of a rapid-fire sale of their assets to private buyers (although one Russian banker told me sarcastically that “there won’t be any investors” thanks to the rouble’s terrible performance).

The streets of Moscow, energetic capital city that it is, no longer stock European imports like dairy produce (in actual fact a counter-measure imposed by the Kremlin) and have seen prices climb rapidly, even for lower-quality goods. “The main thing is that prices for all products are several times higher now,” complained Lena, proprietor of a small independent café and restaurant. “There have been changes to business, life, everything – we have an economic crisis. Everything is affected.”

High rises, not-so-high spirits. Photo/jaime.silva

But behind the pessimism, Lena managed also to represent a streak of Russian conviction, of belief in itself as a uniquely fated country. “Russia is a special kind of nation. It’s impossible to compare us with other countries – we’re half in Europe and half in Asia.” This schizophrenia in the Russian psyche has long dogged its political behaviour.

Geoffrey Hosking, a leading scholar on the country, writes in his history Russia and the Russians that “the polarity between East and West has afflicted Russia’s political and cultural life at least since the sixteenth century.” Dragged towards Europe by modernising Tsars like Peter the Great, but bound to the Asian continent, traditions and cultures, Russia finds itself reacting and responding to contrasting influences. Diplomacy practised on the steppe went awry in Europe, provoked the Crimean War and resulted in humiliating concessions for Russia. Only then was the necessity of emancipating the serfs truly understood. And this followed the drawn-out decline that began well before Pyotr Chaadev’s flowing diatribe of 1831, published five years later:

“It is one of the most deplorable things of our strange civilisation that we have to discover truths which are the most trivial elsewhere…. We are neither of the West nor the East. As if we were situated outside time, the universal education of the human race has not reached us yet.”

The Putin regime, too, is reactionary – it embraced the West in the early 2000’s, but has since grown dismayed at EU and NATO enlargement right up to its doorstep. And Mr Putin enjoys enormous personal ratings among Russians. In October last year, the state media claimed a positive score of 90%; more recently, the Russian Public Opinion Research Centre (VCIOM) has reported scores of around 60%. This is even more pronounced in rural areas than in the buzzing metropolitan centres of Moscow and St Petersburg.

In this light, we see that sanctions have an untoward effect. With a crisis ostensibly – even if not wholly – caused by foreign powers, a narrative becomes available. The Kremlin points to Western interference, in so doing fanning the patriotic resentment it relies on for its support. Again, Mr Hosking reminds us of “stark oppositions of truth and un-truth and ‘us and them’.” Mr Putin thrives on rancour and fluid truths. He has built and profited from an image as a ‘strong’ leader, ensuring Russia’s place as a force on the world stage.

We should look to former sanction victim, Iran, for comparison. The Islamic Republic suffered total investment and trading bans to both its energy and banking sectors. Companies at all implicated were shut out from dollar markets. But as last year’s nuclear deal is implemented, the ultra-conservative theocrats who make up the supreme power in the country push back in predictable fashion. Moderate candidates for imminent elections on February 26th have been disqualified by the autocratic Guardian Council. Ayatollah Khameini delivered a grating rebuttal in January to the triumphalist mood following the deal, claiming the need to “guard against deceit and violations of arrogant states, particularly the United States.”

It is far from certain that Iranian policy will continue to mellow with time. If it does, it must come from gradual regime change – moderates like Rouhani must repeatedly capture the state through elections. And this, in turn, requires that Iranian people place more blame on their own former, more conservative governments than on the West. Otherwise, they’ll hand the reins back to the hardliners.

And there’s the rub: without regime change, why should Russia change its policy? Smart sanctions earned their moniker because they ought to work around this quandary, convincing a band of oligarchs to perform a volte-face on policy even without the threat of being punted out of office. This looks more and more like a chimera. Mr Putin’s support leeches off a crisis when it should diminish. One gets the feeling that sanctions were built with the wrong target in mind, able only to cripple a perfectly accountable democracy with voters ready to rescind culpable policies.

But failure to castigate such actions as the destabilisation of Ukraine feels almost equally unfulfilling. Encouraging civil society – the same that Mr Putin has spent years choking the life out of – and a thriving democratic opposition seems the best bet to produce change. But miserably, this too is frequently labelled as ‘meddling’. In a Soviet throwback, NGOs have been legally obliged since 2012 to declare themselves as ‘foreign agents’ if they receive funding or support from abroad.

It’s not obvious that the West should let the Kremlin off the hook any time soon: analyst Alexei Chesnakov told The Moscow Times that implementation of the Minsk agreement in Ukraine is currently “complete fantasy.”

But Western powers also cannot conquer Russian patriotism. So as sanctions enter their third year, it might just recall and try to minimise sentiment which, as put by Tolstoy, “produces that Governmental organization under which power may fall, and does fall, into the hands of the worst men.”

Battle lines: Islam and the Paris terror attacks

Crises are revealing. We know now, for instance, that there is at least one way in which François Hollande, the elected president of an advanced European democracy, agrees with masked murderers at the head of an international terror organisation. “This is an act of war”, claimed Mr Hollande, speaking about the atrocities ravaging the streets of his country’s capital city this weekend.

Exactly whom this war is between was subsequently explained. France, paragon of the free world (no exaggeration by French rhetorical standards), is taking a leading role. Its opponent is identified as the ‘Islamic State’, a diffuse yet infamous group of militants and terrorists. Mr Hollande assured these killers that they could expect to meet his nation “on every battleground here and abroad”. While his response will be lawful, it will be merciless.

Let me be clear. The leadership of the Wahhabist fundamentalists operating within Iraq and Syria do not believe in international law. They claim that Allah’s divine word is absolute; that infidels who do not practice their perverted version of the Muslim faith must be put to death; that foreign powers conspire against their god’s will and are therefore an enemy. But the harsh truths of foreign meddling in the Middle East are their greatest recruitment tool.

Most importantly, they believe, or at least purport to believe, that in their bloodthirsty mission they continue a holy war that never really finished. The battles won by Salah al-Din in the 12th century, and later by Ottoman caliphs as they swept towards Europe: this image of the Islamic world contra the crusading West forms the basis of their warped mythology. The fundamentalist version of Islam they preach attracts so many young minds because of, not despite, its purist intolerance of unbelievers or political enemies. The broad construal of the latter is crucial. An unwavering resistance to multiple oppressors is what these young men crave – an ‘answer’ to trouble, frustration, poverty.

In this respect Daesh is as medieval and atavistic in its declared purpose as it is modern in its methods and membership. Much has been written on why this combination has proven quite so deadly since the group first gained mass attention in 2014.

But so what kind of war is this? Is it between ideologies, as David Cameron would have it, or between soldiers? Where are the aforementioned battlegrounds? Perhaps Mr Hollande posits that the substance of IS – its infrastructure, resources, manpower – is his antagonist-in-chief. In doing so, he would therefore either recognise the latter’s status as a state, or do away with conventional notions of war. Can a nation declare war on an organisation or set of individuals?

By speaking in these terms, Mr Hollande obviously wishes to announce a state of battle, of military posture, and to justify extraordinary measures. But IS is more than a military or an army. The killers on Friday night struck from homes and apartments in an urban community. This is a recent development in IS’ identity – the evolution into a truly global terror network.

Another, more harrowing option takes shape: the concept of a monolithic ‘other’ against which Western powers (and now perhaps Russia) are arrayed. This ‘other’ is increasingly posited as Islamic, and fundamentally backwards in nature. ‘Ideology’ rhetoric feeds this trend.

One of the most astute observations on Islamist politics (including but not limited to groups engaged in terrorism) I have read comes from Fred Halliday, a prominent academic who specialised in the Middle East. He notes that “the opponents and proponents of the Islamic movements [in the 20th century] were in agreement that ‘Islam’ (the idea of the religion and its intersection with politics, as distinguished from Islam, the religion) was a total, unchanging, system.”

The broken, corrupt men at the head of IS want you to view ‘their’ religion as the one, total whole they advocate. Then the war can begin, and believe them when they claim that it will be on their terms.

In the West, the public response to these horrifying events is multi-faceted. It is by turns self-congratulatory and self-pitying, defiant and introspective. It is difficult to take on board all at once.

The immediate response – the only possible – is horror. The sensation I felt as I rolled out of bed and browsed the news on Saturday morning is what gives the terrorist his name. What follows is grief and condolence. Then, in time, come bold statements of resistance and courage in the face of the fear and pain.

The response now reaches its most dangerous phase. As literally millions marched on the streets in the aftermath of shootings at the offices of Charlie Hebdo in January this year, some, like me, felt uncomfortable. Because the content of the cartoons under scrutiny is, in its essence, noxious, by the very standards of pluralistic tolerance supposedly so cherished in the West.

A backlash occurs. I refer to slogans of solidarity swiftly converted into banners of criticism – ‘Je suis Charlie’ so quickly spawned ‘Je ne suis pas Charlie’, and the quarrel evolved into one seemingly over the soul of Western liberalism. This November, the fight is one over ‘prayer’: for Paris, or for the world? The inescapable superficiality of the social media setting threatens to consume these essential discussions.

I believe solidarity is the necessary response: in times of suffering, communal hope is the only antidote. But this hope must be mature, and it must be well informed.

Seeing comments like those of the most high pontiff in January – expressing the idea that “you cannot provoke, you cannot make fun of the faith of others” – the reality of at least part of the question becomes abundantly clear. Militant dogmatism remains the unforgivable sham and evil that it is. By this reality, the use of force or threat to attack and intimidate others in a peaceful community is, and always will be, rightly deplorable.

But this is precisely why I find the baying of some Western crowds in the wake of these tragedies so disturbing. The Paris attacks have played out against the backdrop of Europe’s singular and feeble failure to help hundreds of thousands of refugees. Refugees from the same region Westerners presume to fix with their bombs and bullets. The persecution of these refugees – dividing them into categories of worthy and unworthy, dangerous and tame – continues apace. Such discourse becomes the accepted norm, the contemporary groupthink.

And what then, when dogmatists and bigots stand shoulder to shoulder in the secular crowd with the truly liberal and tolerant? Will we notice? Will we care? Christopher Hitchens, that tireless dissident against religion, tyranny and coercion, wrote that:

In every epoch, there have been those to argue that “greater” goods, such as tribal solidarity or social cohesion, take precedence over justice. It is supposed to be an axiom of “western” civilisation that the individual, or the truth, may not be sacrificed to hypothetical benefits such as “order”. But such immolations have in fact been common.

What would Hitchens say about the recent drive to promote ‘British values’? When does the assault on religious terror, an assault he lauded so openly, become a witch-hunt, the very same order-worship he abhorred?

The general distrust of communities in our midst is fuelled by the idea that they are in some way like the terrorists. These communities have generally suffered more than Western audiences can conceive, at the same destructive hands of extremism. If we persecute our peaceful Muslim neighbours, if we drive and shut them out, it is IS, not Europe, who will be winning the war.

Finally, there is the issue of media coverage and sympathy. Our reserves of both seem inexhaustible for the Parisians; for those in Beirut, the confessional city long wracked by faith-driven violence, the attention devoted lasted a day or so. I cannot see a way this last issue is not burningly pertinent. In our hope for tolerance; for one world united in peace, if not opinion; for a host of nations each of them equal; how can we continue to weigh lives by their proximity to London, Washington, or the rest?

I do not presume to have some special insight or answer to our moral dilemma over Islamism, international relations, and the Middle East. Rather, my aim is to elaborate just quite how confused and overwhelming that dilemma really is.

France has a shockingly gritty history as far as race and colonialism (and the Arab world in particular) are concerned. Andrew Hussey’s book The French Intifada is required reading for anyone seeking to understand the roots of terrorism in France, in the past and at present. Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Syria; the 20th century histories of each of these nations must dwell at length on French rule and oppression. If you consider it insulting to mention this period so soon after the terror in Paris, learn to deal with uncomfortable facts.

The generations of Islamic immigrants to France from the Middle East and North Africa have not been well integrated. They primarily live in the banlieues (‘suburbs’, but much more pejorative than the English word – these areas are commonly extremely poor and hotspots for crime and violence). There is an important way, as Hussey records so well in his book, in which these people do not feel at home in France. They do not feel ‘French’ in the European, nationalistic sense. Many, primarily unemployed young men, are more than ready for a ‘war’ against those they perceive as both their modern and historical oppressors. Mr Hollande underestimates the size of the ‘army’ prepared for mobilisation against him. Hence why an IS video beseeching these men to begin their ‘work within France’ is quite so chilling.

Islamist movements are, counterintuitively, primarily modern in their roots. They react to changing realities and attract members through a package formulated as resistance to this change. The Muslim Brotherhood swelled because neoliberal and authoritarian policies led to spiralling unemployment in Egypt, particularly among the youth. Its call that ‘Islam is the solution’, as an unelaborated panacea to economic woes, fed its growth.

Daesh thrives because angry Muslim men and women have been insulted and sidelined in Europe, as they watch the nations of their faith burn (frequently under siege by NATO jets). France suffers most keenly because it has failed most dramatically to understand these people. Its active role in the aerial campaign in Iraq, and now Syria, compounds this.

So we must strike a niche between understanding this historical process and condemning the twisted ideology and actions it produces. The author Nick Cohen writes with great insight on this matter. A significant failure of the anti-imperialist Left in the West, he claims, is to show empathy to these deranged totalitarians. In their supposedly bold anti-Americanism, leftist intellectuals associate themselves with those who deny basic rights to women, homosexuals and minorities. This is not pluralism, and we must not be found defending it for even a second.

But it is no less true that when people are slaughtered in Paris, some of the uglier tendencies in the West – xenophobia, notions of cultural superiority, racism – can be seen through the panic. The reason a discussion over Charlie Hebdo’s frankly racist cartoons is appropriate is because without that debate, without our recognition of chauvinism wherever it occurs, terrorism achieves its aim. It divides and conquers. Only the intellectually courageous and honest can bridge the gap before it becomes too wide.

Albert Camus faced the same mountainous task during the debate over then-French Algeria in the 1950s. While troubled by his conflicting sympathies –his pied-noir heritage largely to blame – the Algerian-born philosopher saw how violence practiced by the revolutionary Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) was tearing the embryonic nation apart. This he could not sanction. He was thus deemed a traitor to each cause – too colonial for Algerians, but inherently sceptical of the right-wing French position. “Each side thus justifies its own actions by pointing to the crimes of its adversaries”, he wrote in 1958. And so each are contemptible.

There is a colossal difference between repellent claims that European victims of terrorism ‘had it coming’, as heirs of empire guilty by association, and simply noting that integration and tolerance have been sorely lacking in some major respects. Remember that terror is the enemy to be annihilated. The longer the lack continues, the more terror will breed.

We must condemn violence, but open our arms to the violent-in-waiting before it is too late. And we must not do this like parents reaching down to the immature child, but like compassionate friends who account for, and even admire, each other’s diverse needs.

That is how we must fight this war.

Edit: If it was not already apparent, the idea I speak of here – of integration, of adopting a welcoming posture – goes, in my opinion, beyond merely what governments and authorities should do. Arguments over immigrant entitlements to welfare are part of a general debate over both national budgets and international justice. More essentially, my view is about how we, as a society and as individuals, respond to the notion of ‘outsiders’.

The greatest test of the (predominantly) Western model of multiculturalism and tolerance lies ahead. A simple expectation of Muslims to abandon their heritage is useless. But this doesn’t entail the pockets of strict Shari’a up and down European countries. The first step is recognising, as an intellectual position, that there is a middle path between such pointlessly polarising viewpoints. That is a task every one of us can take up in our personal lives, and in our communities.

Markets and the climate: failing whom exactly?

Economists talk a lot about market failure – when free exchange can produce socially undesirable results despite everyone working in their best interest. The ascendancy of liberal, free-market wisdom over the past three decades unchained a host of industries to pursue their sole economic objective: profit. Culminating spectacularly in the sub-prime mortgage crisis, global finance was one notable case. The freedom to buy and sell comes with the freedom to make enormous mistakes. Economists are fully aware of this possibility. Tackling failure is necessary if the case for markets is to have any credence.

Like many, I am thus far underwhelmed. In 2007-8, the market was so hardwired into our political economy that when it failed, private liabilities were underwritten by sovereign debt. The ensuing outrage was understandable. The finance sector was hit hard, losing 325,000 jobs in 18 months. But the doubling of unemployment in industrialised countries carried a clear message – if these giants fall, the damage will be felt where they land.

We are familiar with the most tragic of these ‘inefficiencies’. Sir Nicholas Stern, of the 2006 Stern Review, deemed climate change “the greatest market failure the world has seen.” On September 22nd, Radio 4’s The World Tonight announced that it would ask: ‘what is the relationship between business and the environment?’ I listened with pessimism. Indeed, Bill McKibben – author of The End of Nature – went on to reveal just how opprobrious a bond it really is.

The matter in question was the Volkswagen scandal that came to light on September 21st. Diesel cars being markedly bad at not emitting nitrogen oxides –a constituent of smog – most models with such engines were disallowed in the United States. Fitting sophisticated software to their diesel cars in the US, VW ensured that emissions tests would produce benign (and fallacious) results. This charade may have accounted for up to 11 million cars worldwide, hoodwinking Europeans in similar fashion.

Especially if your car is a VW. - Photo/Tony Webster
And your VW a magnificently harmful ruse. – Photo/Tony Webster

Now the game is up, VW has joined a long list of corporations to enrage the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 landed it with the largest ever fine levied by authorities (which could yet be surmounted if Volkswagen’s clobbering $18bn potential fine rises any higher). 4.9 million barrels flowed into the Gulf of Mexico before the spill was capped. The chemical titan DuPont, which environmentalist Curtis Moore claims “has consistently treated the long-term interests of humanity as largely irrelevant”, was last year fined around $3.5 million for toxic releases in Virginia.

But VW stands out because of the degree of perfidy involved.   Above and beyond the level of accident or irresponsibility, the firm flagrantly and extensively cheated the authorities to boost production and raise profit margins. This behaviour persists, despite the massive stakes in the automobile industry: cars and trucks are responsible, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, for one-fifth of all US emissions. While nitrogen oxides – the main product in the diesel scandal – are not directly responsible for global warming, they are linked to widespread health and respiratory problems. Regardless, the principle of acceptable losses (in the eyes of the firm) translates easily to wider themes. And so this colossal market failure begins to look even more miserable. When the authorities that do exist to solve these issues are so contemptuously cheated by corporations, what is the solution? We dismiss this question at our own peril. Rank duplicity is not far-fetched.

One might try to find hope in the evolution of a public consciousness hostile to environmental abuse. The rapid drop in the VW share price on the 21st and 22nd might be thought of as the market’s own way of punishing transgressors. But already the business strategists are forming ways of ‘regaining consumer confidence’. Eventually, they will arrive at a familiar decision: pollute, and gain profits. And this says nothing about other potentially mendacious firms, with their own elaborate hoax waiting to be discovered. As George Monbiot writes, in the UK, “corruption, like pollution, is omnipresent and invisible.”

The sad fact is that the topic of climate change leaves most people feeling fatalistic at best, and uninterested at worst. The level of abstraction required to figure from the particular act of consuming a product to the environmental damage committed by the producer means that most people just don’t think about it. Aside from a few impassioned voices – those whom Mr McKibben calls, in his 2001 essay Speaking Up for the Environment, ‘guardians of the places and communities that they love’ – the public is unmoved.

The proportion of Brits who believe that people should be allowed to drive their cars to their heart’s content, irrespective of the environment, has risen since 1993. In the US, Gallup polling finds that only 46 per cent of the population would give priority to the protection of the environment over economic growth. This compares to 71 per cent at an early 90’s peak, and 60 per cent in 1985. Economic slowdown means that even as the climate disintegrates, the urgency of its cause is lost on many.

It seems to me that the dearth of successful environmental policies from the champions of the free market fuels and is fuelled in turn by this lack of engagement. Economics offers solutions in theory. But this week we have seen the determination of the corporation to avoid authority. And political division scuppers policies. Cap and trade schemes (to legally limit companies polluting without first purchasing permits to do so) are not coordinated between regions. It is the uninspiring record of such initiatives as the Kyoto Protocol and the European ETS that leaves those who do find themselves upset and angry about environmental damage searching for increasingly bold ideas.

Green politics seems at times to be a relatively quiet subset of the political left. But look at the broader trend. Fundamentally, it seems like the calls for a ‘new type of politics’ seen in Jeremy Corbyn’s rise to the head of the Labour Party are cries for a renewed sense of collective purpose. There is a reaction, particularly among young people, against the increasing emptiness they see in traditional liberalism, as it fails to deal with the problems the modern, cosmopolitan left cut their teeth on: global poverty, but also the environment, multinational corporate responsibility, sometimes animal rights.

For this reason, I don’t accept those who focus purely on the more old-fashioned leftist policies advanced by Mr Corbyn (he is, according to The Economist, “in a time warp”). Forget rail nationalisation for the moment. Behind him can also be found those who know the damage the planet will face in 50, 100 years under our current system. With the scale of market failure we plausibly face growing steadily, free-market thought will have a long list to answer for.

Academic economists and policy makers – those with pail in hand, fighting the sinking ship – have an unenviable task. Whether or not the collective realisation required to shake off our uselessness will occur in time is rather unsavoury food for thought.

The morality of nations

On September 4th, upwards of 1000 refugees embarked on foot on a gruelling journey towards Germany. The night before, Gleisdreieck Park in Berlin had played host to hip-hop group the Antilopen Gang. A British friend of mine, accompanying German revellers to the week-long Radioeins Festival, recounted the scene. The crowd struck up a chant: “Say it loud, say it clear, refugees are welcome here.”

Public displays of compassion are welcome news after a summer marked by headlines vilifying the same nation’s leadership during the Greek crisis. Germany is now held aloft as the example of saintly behaviour. Oddly enough, in February 37 per cent of German respondents told a poll that immigration was the biggest challenge facing the EU, compared with 38 per cent of British respondents. But Chancellor Angela Merkel and her cabinet appear determined to set a beneficent example, amid a sequence of crises throwing Europe’s place in the ethical universe into stark relief.

Cue a tide of moral introspection in the UK – the minimal extent of our action so far, as Polly Toynbee put it, ‘shames us all’. But underlying the outrage, grief and bewilderment is a tangled web of delicate issues. Political questions have ranged from linguistics – ‘refugees’ or ‘migrants’? – to the duplicity of the tabloid press (perhaps the least surprising insight). At the heart of the crisis is the fundamental question: what do we owe to the rest of the world? What moral reasoning, if any, can we look to for guidance, while still more bereaved Syrians, Eritreans and other refugees arrive every day?

Many columnists insist that ‘common humanity’ is the foundation of our duty to take in refugees. Equating roughly to some sort of Kantian imperative to curb egregious suffering, this argument has held a lot of sway, and rightly so. Under such a view, nationality is rendered irrelevant to morality. But the awkward truth is that many in the public find such cosmopolitan principles abrasive. Opponents, generally on the political right, feel that the needs of our fellow nationals ought to come first. Might then we assume that the competing projects they have in mind aim to assist the very worst off in our own society – like the 21.6% of UK households in absolute poverty in 2013-14? (I’m unsure if most warrant the benefit of the doubt.)

However, the point remains that global ethics are typically murky even for the left. Only when the burden of hardship is so clear, and basic human conditions so evidently compromised, for those outside our borders are commentators so adamant that more should be done. A good deal of rage has been generated by the obvious reality that Western audiences are moved more by media-ready microcosms – the body of young Aylan Kurdi on the beach at Bodrum – than by a general sense of suffering elsewhere in the world. This goes for the commentators themselves, too. Many criticise European citizens for struggling to connect with issues which ordinarily seem so distant, and of which the scale is so difficult to comprehend.

Syrian and Iraqi migrants sleep on railroad tracks waiting to be processed across the Macedonian border Sept. 2 in Idomeni, Greece.
‘Syrian and Iraqi migrants sleep on railroad tracks waiting to be processed across the Macedonian border Sept. 2 in Idomeni, Greece’ – Photo/Freedom House

But it has often been thus. Whatever one’s view of the perpetrators’ true identity, worldwide horror at the Markale marketplace massacres was critical in generating public support for NATO intervention in Yugoslavia. It is not unusual for vivid images to convey a sense of urgency that statistics often lack. Action taken once that urgency is made tangible might be a superior demonstration of morality.

Nonetheless, one can scarcely believe David Cameron’s bald assertion that ‘Britain is a moral nation’. Carefully sculpted for the press release, such brazen talk flies in the face of current British policy. So I find it relevant to ask: by what metric are we moral? Perhaps Mr Cameron means that our society is characterised by a particular set of morals: relatively individualist liberal principles. But in this situation a claim like this is mostly meaningless. So surely he is insisting that we have the courage to take action on our moral convictions – on the sense of empathy we feel for Europe’s refugees. In which case the paltry commitment to accept on average 4,000 asylum-seekers a year for the next five years is really quite an embarrassment.

We must remember that Mr Cameron’s claim predated by three days the decision to use our international aid budget in Britain’s ‘national interest’. The morals he speaks of are apparently rather inward looking. So it is a bad joke to pretend that Britain is doing well in the ethical rankings, given the issue at hand is one of international suffering. And the can of worms opened by the prime minister goes further still. The government swears its commitment to tackling the root causes, or ‘push factors’, of the numbers fleeing countries in the Middle East and Africa. One might suspect our leaders of deliberate irony, given the cumulative contribution of Brits to both oppression, in colonial form, and destabilisation in these regions over the past century. And it is easier for patriots to fortify our borders against refugees while asserting the fundamental morality of our overseas crusading. The editorial stance taken at The Telegraph betrays an instance of such thinking.

This craven tendency is of course part of a wider issue – how should ethics stack up against high politics and national economics? For sure, the German example is not as crisp as it might first seem. Robert Peston of the BBC has rightly pointed out that the nation’s demographic trends motivate the need to accept young, determined workers. And he ponders the moral comparison between accepting migrants who have already made the perilous journey, and extracting refugees from Syria’s camps (as Mr Cameron vows to do). The latter might indeed be the more admirable move if attempted on something like the scale, even in per domestic capita terms, of asylum applications now faced by Germany.

In sum, we should be alert to the fact that couching morality in terms of the national interest is surely a false and lame justification for policy. And when mired between moral compassion and fears of (un-quantified) resource scarcity, Europeans must beware these meaningless claims. Let’s ensure our convictions hold our leaders to account during this essentially human crisis.

George’s gambit and the language of work

In Westminster, the extent of the Conservative hegemony early in this Parliament is beginning to crystallise. But the conquest runs deeper than the detail of governance: the Tory executive is redefining the terms of engagement. By this I mean the way British people view and understand political events; how concepts like ‘work’ and ‘desert’ can be used and abused by those who wield them in the political contest. This amounts to the appropriation of some of the finest political tools in the opposition kit. The consequence has been a severe worsening of Labour’s crisis of identity. That such developments were predictable and partly visible even before the election should not diminish their gravity.

Reading the mainstream press this summer, I am confronted with headlines which tell the two parallel plots of this tale, of the rise of one party, and schism of the other. Two events of the past fortnight – Chancellor George Osborne’s Budget on July 8th and the announcement of the Trade Union Bill on the 15th – are of course chief among the critical turning points.

The former was a fairly deplorable state of affairs as far as socioeconomic justice is concerned. Most notably, the relative abandonment of ailing young people compared to their older counterparts. This also represents a failure to invest in the future population’s skills and prospects. The fact that the former are much more likely to vote – almost twice as likely, according to this Ipsos MORI estimate –pays dividends. Alan Mackie assesses here the damage done by, for example, the cessation of maintenance grants, and young people’s ineligibility for the new ‘national living wage’.  The situation we find ourselves in, however, is that the line coming out of 11 Downing Street is swallowed wholesale by the political establishment at large. Osborne is now conductor.

Converting the message of the Budget into a pro-work, anti-shirk sermon proved easy enough. “A Budget for working people”; “the best route out of poverty is work”; remember, this is “all part of our progressive goal of securing full employment in Britain”. What scoundrels it would take to deny such clear cut principles of fair contribution, and of Doing Your Bit! – forgive me the sardonic tone, but the Budget had scarcely been announced when the Social Market Foundation noted that, in fact, plenty of the most vulnerable working families were due to lose income under the proposals. Furthermore, the persistent Tory tendency to equate the national finances to those of a household – looking “to create a country that can truly pay its way” – bolsters the paradigmatic image of the honest, ever-toiling citizen.


All of which has been said with almost as much vehemence by a range of commentators. But it took the Trade Union Bill and the furious row that engulfed Labour shortly after the budget to reveal how effective Osborne’s game is. Harriet Harman’s tepid response to the welfare cuts took centre stage in more than one sense, to the dismay of the party’s left. The schizophrenia rampant in the Labour ranks is largely about how the party should respond to the prevailing wisdom over that thorny issue of work and benefits. The rift occurs because the left must not abandon the needy; but so long as it supports extensive welfare payments, it cannot effectively champion workers against Osborne’s rhetoric either. The Chancellor has today (the 20th) hounded the routed opposition through this call to support his reforms. The Conservative arrow has found the heel of modern Labour.

In discussion on Radio 4’s PM on July 15th, Oliver Dowden MP justified the Trade Union Bill (of which the ruthless consolidation of Tory advantage in party funding and industrial relations is the most pertinent feature) thus:

“When there’s a tube strike or a teachers’ strike… so draconian in its impact…. I don’t think saying that four out of every ten having to vote for strikes, that have a tremendously disruptive effect on hard-working people, is an unreasonable proposition.”

Hard-working people are relatively frequent in this world – politics is the art of reconciling their conflicting claims. Which is why the ubiquitous buzz-phrase which afflicted this year’s general election carries so little meaning. Dowden may well support hard-working people in general, but the policy supports a particular set of such people – those in no need of collective bargaining. The language of rights is similar – the (human?) right not to be disturbed in your daily routine established contra the (human?) right to strike provides scant guidance as to which is really of the higher order. But the choice made by David Cameron’s cabinet places the many, as Zoe Williams writes, in an even weaker position vis-à-vis the few.

Such an effective promotion of a particular set of political ideas reminded me of Antonio Gramsci’s idea of cultural hegemony and the perils the imprisoned Marxist warned of. His concerns ran deeper than the phraseology of Budget speeches, but once an idea takes hold, it can spread and be reinforced by everyone involved in the establishment and intellegista. Thus capitalism justifies its longevity as an organising principle. The Conservative take on work fits neither the pessimism of Adam Smith nor the optimism of Marx (see this essay), but is a hybrid of the language of collectivism (‘all in this together’) and individual enterprise. Thereby appealing to blue collar workers and traditional liberals, the Tory line is doubly powerful. It has room to thrive.

Fitting indeed that Sajid Javid, the former Wall Street darling and free-market devotee, should announce the Trade Union Bill. His illegitimate MP status by the democratic standards of the Bill’s union voting reforms notwithstanding (a mordant point, but one I couldn’t pass up), his presence at the forefront of these changes in industrial policy embodies the ideological persuasion of the current government. True, Osborne invokes the ‘One Nation’ motif, at once purloining a favourite of Ed Miliband’s devices while invoking the original philosophy of Disraeli. And yet the government pursues reforms – presumably to Javid’s delight – inspired by Mrs Thatcher and the 80s, from Help to Buy to union relations.

All of this calls into question the idea that in the past decade the British people might have cast off their typical reticence in the face of an unchecked, unified executive. Hugo Young’s 1988 characterisation of the electorate in Britain as “prepared to be quiet accessories to mandates they never really gave” has a track record in heavy flux in the 21st century. With thousands marching against austerity, it seems that the age of begrudging acceptance is waning. But the general election in May indicates that Osborne’s compelling tune may have the electorate in a trance for a while longer.

Photo/ copyright mrgarethm; https://www.flickr.com/photos/mrgarethm/15195262730/

The Death of Solidarity

Europeans march in solidarity in Berlin and London, Paris and Dublin; all will be cold comfort to the Greeks in the harsh light of this morning’s deal. The pressure exerted upon Greece by its creditors will have parlous consequences for the European project and its lofty democratic ambitions. As is so urgently pointed out by the #ThisisaCoup hashtag, the terms of the new deal, and the behaviour of the central EU and German administrations, fly in the face of any supposed national sovereignty.

The pretence of political solidarity in the Eurozone can now be seen for the farce it has become. The language involved in negotiations between the Syriza cabinet and the troika (ECB, IMF, European Commission) reached such virulent heights as Yanis Varoufakis, the pugnacious former Greek finance minister, accusing the EU of terrorism. To speak of terrorism is to appeal to particular understandings, emotive ideas of some intensely abusive behaviour; it is to invoke dramatic hostility and violent consequences. This between partners in a political union. The treatment of Greece has been akin to that of a country under sanctions for aggressive or warlike international conduct, not relative economic frailty within a cooperative regional institution.

The human cost is frankly appalling, and will remain a blemish on Europe’s record for many years to come. Of course, Europe is a developed society and a cynic might draw the unequal comparison to abuses elsewhere in the world. But that an economic bloc larger than the US, founded on principles of fundamental freedoms, should allow one of its constituent states to come so close to human tragedy is indefensible. Ranging from images of pensioners crying in the street to worries over the supply of pharmaceuticals, concern for the Greek people is legitimate. Thus the solidarity felt by protestors on the streets of Europe.

Autonome Gruppen demonstrieren für Griechenland

However, it is becoming increasingly clear that this empathy does not translate into political reality. The forces which occupy the upper echelons of European politics at present are singularly unsympathetic to the plurality of European citizens clamouring for debt relief and compassionate financial assistance. The grounds proffered for such a rejection are that the taxpayers of other Eurozone countries should not be responsible for supposed Greek laxity and imprudence in its fiscal stance. Indeed, the crux of the issue is that many of those taxpayers may well agree. But the ever-insistent European emphasis on rules and the letter of the law places troublesome countries in a category of those who deserve some degree of punishment for their transgression. This normative move has repeatedly proven successful during negotiations, allowing Germany and supporting states to press harsher terms on the Syriza government. Nonetheless, the idea of a country even beginning, tout court, to pay off debt worth 177% of the value of its GDP is economic lunacy.

The words of the German Chancellor herself are illuminating as to the degree of the sanctimony at hand. Angela Merkel, appearing before the international press, offered lip-service to the notion of solidarity among member states. But the reality is that the European project is in grave peril. Paul Krugman, always a vocal critic of austerity, has opined all too accurately on this. Mr Varoufakis is due to write in Die Zeit that the deal today is but a spectre of the brutal economic treatment the Eurozone as a whole would receive, if left to an unchained Wolfgang Schäuble, the German finance minister. He, too, is worryingly correct in his provocation. The vision of a Europe rife with rising inequality and dangerously liberalised financial markets is surely at odds with the traditional European social contract.

There is the not-insignificant question of the Greek referendum on the 5th July, which delivered a resounding rejection of bailout terms less harsh than those agreed upon this morning. Let alone strengthening the Greek hand at the bargaining table, the expression of a valid, democratic national will seems simply to have cost the country the chance to take a kinder deal. Whether this was a poor gambit on the part of Alexis Tsipras, the Greek prime minister, is a moot point. The actions of the ECB have been notably political, confirming the hegemony of the neo-liberal order as it refused to support the Greek banks. The upshot of the near-irrelevance of the referendum is that when national democracy within Europe produces outcomes contrary to the wishes of the elite in Brussels, it counts for ostensibly little. The problem is that reclaiming the democratic prerogative for nation-states themselves strikes at the core of political integration. Those who denounce the EU’s democratic deficit will now see their arguments grow more persuasive at both ends of the political spectrum.

As Mr Tsipras was grilled by MEPs on the 8th July, he was criticised for failing to present a serious programme of reform in response to creditor demands. Syriza’s uncertain start to its term in government can be justly questioned, but the conditions under which Tspiras is being forced to turn around his economy are despairingly hostile. His government might yet crumble under the tension of trying to pass bills supporting the raw deal Greece has been handed. But it is extremely poignant of Manfred Weber, chair of the European People’s Party, to accuse the Greek prime minister of “destroying confidence in Europe” – appealing to far-right and far-left parties sceptical of the state of the EU. Mr Tsipras is a man with few options, subject to “blackmail”, according to his party colleagues. That the allies fastest to his side will be those who already vilify the bureaucracy and machinery in Brussels is obvious and understandable to an extent. Through their uncompromising stance, the EU’s politicians have worsened, not helped, this problem.

Mark Mazower has previously written excellently on the historical context of German leadership in the EU. The implications of this context are taking the union down a turbulent path. The project relies on the absence of German dominance. At present this cannot be reconciled with economic asymmetries between the European nations, especially when domestic factors within each country, including Germany, play such a large role. Mrs Merkel has complained about the loss of trust and credibility – in fact, it is her administration and the EC which have squandered that crucial currency in this crisis.

Here I wish to echo Owen Jones’ anxiety over growing disillusionment: Eurosceptics across the continent will decry the unaccountability of ECB and EC officials and the bloated political elite, with ever-greater appeal. That will have ramifications for Britain’s own debate over membership, for instance. For those of us who, at heart, support the European project, our patience will surely be tested further in the coming weeks.

Photo/Thorsten Strasas

A misnomer of the highest order

Thoughts on narrative, incentives and the Israeli-Palestinian ‘peace-process’

It is by now vividly apparent to observers of the recent chaos in the ‘Promised Land’ that the factions involved, on all sides, are tragically opposed to one another in the most intractable of ways. As I write, Israel has continued its bombardment of the Gaza strip for the 17th consecutive day. The situation in Gaza is unquestionably a humanitarian crisis.

It is reasonably fair to say that the Western reaction to the situation, in the professional as well as social media, has been one of outrage and at least implicit condemnation of Israel’s actions. This is the case chiefly because of the huge asymmetry between the casualties on each side – again, as I write, the count for the Palestinians had reached 732, and the Israeli count was at 32. This is nothing new; after the War of Independence in 1948, casualty counts have followed a trend along these lines. Yet the situation is more complex than can ever be represented by these figures. The goals and objectives of each organisation are so engrained in their behaviour, so multi-layered and interdependent, that to paint a simple picture of tyrannical oppression, or conversely terrorist insurgency, is unhelpful, misleading and false.

The greatest tragedy in the Israel-Palestine case is that the ‘peace-process’ cannot be termed as such within any helpful understanding of the phrase. A gradual movement towards peace implies that peace itself is viewed as a clear, sharply distinguished end in itself, by all interested parties. The muddied waters of negotiation, stagnant with vested interests, historical antagonism and international posturing, have seen peace sink to the bottom of almost everyone’s agenda apart from those external to the region, who watch on distraught at the loss of life and human dignity.

I by no means wish to accuse any party in this troubled land (at least not those not in the extreme militant divisions of their respective factions) of deliberately invoking pain and suffering for its own sake, and I do not believe that any element of this conflict is being fought solely to wreak devastation on the other side. That is not what I mean when I say that the relevant organisations are shirking the opportunity and attempt for peace. But shirk they do indeed.

The region is plagued not only by a bloody history and intensely foul relations between the two ethnicities living there, but by a set of regional actors that have perverse incentives due to the way they interact, and the narratives they create. Hamas, the organisation that is the de facto power in Gaza (de jure by the legitimacy granted by its popularity among Palestinians in Gaza, but Israel and the US label it as a terrorist organisation, and the Palestinian Authority (PA) makes claims to authority over the entirety of Palestine), is a key element of the agitated mix. The news recently focused on its rejection of an Egyptian-brokered suggestion for a ceasefire deal. Bear in mind – this deal came at a point when the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) had commenced its massive bombardment of anything in Gaza with so much as a whiff of Hamas about it. Several things can be learnt from this occurrence. First, that relations with other states in the Middle East are frequently a defining factor for the behaviour of groups in the region. Egypt’s current leader, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, took power after a long process including the ousting and

Graffiti at Separation Wall near the Kalandia checkpoint between Ramallah and Jerusalem

persecution of the Muslim Brotherhood, close allies to Hamas. Relations with him are understandably strained for the Palestinian group. Second, the narrative created by Hamas is one of resistance against a united set of evils, a crusade for the freedom of Palestinians (and, more importantly, for Muslims – thus the Islamism) against the antagonists arrayed before it, be they Israeli, American, or new Egyptian strongmen. This is admittedly a slight caricature, but will do for now. Finally, and most importantly, the deal did not involve any mention of the opening of borders between Gaza and Israel. The fences and walls built around the Palestinian’s tiny strip of land are viewed as dehumanising and illegal by Hamas, Palestinians, and many international observer. Quite rightly so, in my view. The situation is typical and reminiscent of deals in the past – Israel often makes claims to either more land in the West Bank (another factor in the whole debacle), the entirety of Jerusalem, or continued control over Palestinian society, in return for offers of peace.

The three aspects I have brought up therefore involve international relations and their role in the peace-(war)-process, the narratives constructed by the actors in the conflict, and their uncompromising goals and aims. Brief words can be said on all three, in reverse order.

So, incentives and goals. I have spoken of Hamas’ intentions, and the demands made by Israel, but why does it continue to terrorise (in the technical sense or not, however you will) Israel with rockets that can barely leave a scratch compared to the IDF’s capability to obliterate buildings with air strikes (see the Iron Dome to explain this asymmetry of power)? The aforementioned question of legitimacy comes into play in this respect – the legitimacy, that is, of Hamas in representing the Palestinian cause. ‘Ruling’ in Gaza is about something very different to what it might be in a peaceful nation-state. Resistance to the Israeli mission is now part of the qualifying criterion to be the spokesperson for the Arab population there; granted, Israelis and Palestinians can coexist peacefully, but given that a resistance group exists, every Israeli effort to quell it fuels its popularity among Arabs and increases the incentive for Hamas to show that it can cope with the strain. Moreover, Hamas needs to damage the Israeli effort if it is to have any substantive power to bring to the table. This opinion article explains well the acute problem the Palestinians face.

Israel’s goals, so we can deduce, are expansive in nature. The explicit Zionist approach may be well behind us, but building in the E1 corridor demonstrates the desire to continue to forcibly claim areas of land in what are currently Palestinian territories. This is often criticised internationally, and rightly so. But what is most crucial about Israel and its approach to the current bout of conflict is its relationship with Hamas. If Hamas stands for the only source of true resistance against Israel in the eyes of many Palestinians, then for the Israelis it is a brilliantly convenient reason for war. The thousands of rockets Hamas launches at the nation consistently affirm, in the Israeli government’s book, the need for reactionary violence. This violence helps keep Palestinian resources drained and their leadership weakened. With a divided leadership, the Arabs are drastically less able to resist expansion by Israel into the West Bank. By demonising Hamas and attacking them, drawing continued rocket fire in return, Israel polarises Palestinian actors, thereby strengthening both their own actual position and the strength of their argument for the moral backing to their actions.

These points all allude to the second element – narrative. Hamas’ narrative has been touched upon; it proclaims Israel as the ultimate enemy in order to justify its more extreme, militant responses. Israel constructs a narrative on the world stage of a youthful nation that stands up for freedom and self-determination and self-defence. This is in large part due to the history of the Jews and their abhorrent treatment. Yet now that the IDF’s military capacity far surpasses anything the Palestinians have to offer, it is difficult for them to insist on being the victim. Yet this is the narrative that Israeli’s have to try and produce to defend their case. Mitchell Barak, a former media adviser to the Israeli President Shimon Peres, claimed while speaking on Al Jazeera that ‘the’ Israeli Defence Force’ is the only army in the world that has the word ‘defence’ in it’ (point of order Mr Barak – naming something does not alter its substantive identity and nature). Hamas’ continued rockets are an issue and lend some credence to the Israeli case. Yet the vicious cycle spurred on by air bombardment is bad for all involved. Sadly, however, the whole affair merely feeds into the separate pictures each party is trying to paint.

israeli boys running - IDF

A third aspect of the impasse is the familiarly pathetic reaction of international leaders to the actions of Israel. The Jewish state is an awkward object for Western foreign policy. In part born out of what was perhaps Europe’s greatest shame of the 20th century, indeed more, the Zionist movement’s plight to escape anti-Semitism gave it a degree of legitimacy it could never have otherwise had. Now European governments find it hard to bring themselves to criticise Israel, an effect heightened by the powerful Jewish lobbying groups. The US is more infamous in its repeated defence of Israel no matter what actions the state commits.

These Western powers need to come to their senses and intervene, diplomatically, with more force and conviction. We need direct communication with Israel, to specify the limits of what is acceptable. Hamas is beyond reproach for Western governments because it is an Islamist group, insofar as we desire any such rebuttal to be effective whatsoever. Israel needs to be accountable as any other nation state. Medhi Hasan remarks pointedly in the New Statesman that treating Israel differently for similarly terrible conduct smacks of duplicity and hypocrisy.

I have attempted to sidestep around asserting any particular position of my own. I hope the points I am trying to make here demonstrate the need to avoid polemical argument when constructive observation can help so much more. Yet while pragmatic and humanitarian reasoning can help, I am aware that bias is likely detectible. I strongly object, like many others, to most of Israel’s actions in the recent conflict. But I understand the need to recall historical background and the history of the conflict. I find it much more meaningful to recognise the failure of the international community, particularly the US government, to cease its complicity in Israel’s policies and approach. With ample pressure from outside, the nation should come to realise the error of its actions, both in the advancement of its own interests (if it granted the Palestinians some of their demands, violence would slow down and Hamas’ militant side would hopefully wane, or would at least be made far less legitimate), but also in safeguarding basic human rights. The U.N. has stepped in to suggest possible war crimes perpetrated by Israel. This will merely open up further argument. Israel’s allies are the countries that need to exert their influence. However, the chances of that happening are distressingly bleak.

There is so much that will go unmentioned in a treatment such as mine here. I have yet to touch on Hamas’ relationship with the Palestinian Authority and Fatah, for example. Yet if we can better grasp the complexity of the situation, how each organisation and actor responds to certain pressures and events, then we can better discover where progress might be made and where it never will.

Pessimism is nowadays rife over Israel and Palestine. Many say that the two-state solution is dead in the water. Indeed, the most important immediate goal should very reasonably be the cessation of conflict, thus ending the killing of both innocents and soldiers, and allowing humanitarian aid to be brought to those who are suffering. But the obstacles standing in the way of this are as diverse as they are infuriating. The ‘peace-process’ has lost all sense of direction. That is the greatest tragedy of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict: how effectively ‘peace’ has been smothered under all the noise and smoke.

Photos/RvDarlo; Israeli Defence Force