Archive for the 'current affairs' Category

COP 26: Cop-Out

November 7, 2021

Warning: politics ahead

It’s clear from the pitiful reactions in what passes for the media in our country that Greta Thunberg is yesterday’s news: all they seem to have been interested in this week is her use of four-letter words when she sang songs with fellow activists. And yet, amid all the posturing of the politicians and the clowning of our prime minister, it is through her and the other protesters that our only hope seems to shine. Why can’t we just get on and sort a few things out?

Given the will, our government could pass laws that would begin to make a real difference to our current over-use of fossil fuels, both as energy and in the production of plastics, and the amount of pollution and waste we produce.

Give food and drink retailers a couple of years, and then all single-use plastic cups, glasses, cutlery and the like are banned. There are alternatives, or we can change our habits.

Give those retailers a couple of years and then all single-trip plastic and glass drinks bottles are banned. Recyclable plastic and glass, as well as aluminium cans, should all carry a deposit. Other countries have been doing this for years: is it so hard for Britain?

Give retailers a couple of years and then all plastic packaging of fruit and vegetables in shops and supermarkets is banned. France has just passed such legislation.

Private jets should be banned. Aircraft should be capable of carrying a minimum number of passengers, or have only cargo space on board.

Internal flights within the UK should be banned. France has passed legislation restricting internal flights where trains are available. We have public transport, and if it needs improving, this must happen. People will need to plan journeys accordingly. There can be exceptions for emergencies if need be. Everyone should be allowed only one return air trip per year, to a destination of their choice. This could be marked on one’s passport, so that it could be regulated fairly. There should not be a market for people to sell the entitlements they choose not to use.

Driving should be charged by the mile. Since MOT certificates record mileage, people could pay the requisite rate based on mileage in the previous year in order to obtain their new certificate. Certificates could be brought in for new cars, without the need for the mechanical testing at 3 years plus. Electric cars could be charged at 50% of the annual rate, petrol vehicles at 100%, diesel at 150%, SUVs or large-engined cars at 200% or higher.

These charges should apply to all commercial vehicles too: this should encourage more efficient use of more polluting vehicles, or even shift some freight away from roads.

Public transport needs to be encouraged and improved. All public transport is free in Luxembourg. Austria is bringing in an annual travel card which costs 3€ per day. Small countries clearly have an advantage, but we already have zoned travel cards in London, and surely this idea could be extended. Germany already has a range of regional travel cards. It may be that government subsidy is needed initially to get such schemes off the ground. What are governments for?

Enormous amounts of energy are wasted because our housing stock is so poorly insulated. Regulations for new buildings need to be much tighter. Much more encouragement to homeowners to improve insulation of existing properties is needed.

The switch from using fossil fuels for heating and cooking is probably the one which will have the biggest financial effect on families, and this is the area where government investment and subsidy should probably be concentrated.

It’s clear that in this country we can generate a large proportion of the energy we need from renewable resources. We need to do more of this, and build more solar and wind farms. We should also develop tidal energy since we are an island, and look to more efficient ways of storing electricity in batteries. The very last thing we need is more nuclear power: the cost of this would be paid by future generations over many years, and people will resent this when they see other countries who did not go down this futile route benefitting from much cheaper power.

I’m sure like-minded readers could easily add a few more suggestions. But we need action; we need governments to take the situation seriously. They can do this by doing what they are elected for: to pass legislation, and to govern. Plenty of people are already doing their bit, but individual effort is not enough.

Why England is screwed (part 2)

May 16, 2021

Warning: more politics ahead

England is a small country (the UK isn’t exactly huge); let’s briefly rewind the clock a few centuries: at the end of the fifteenth century, Spain and Portugal were the European superpowers, and the Pope divided up the unknown world between them. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Holland was a major economic and maritime power. Those three countries are now just ‘ordinary’ countries – no empires, no pretensions to global power status, just getting on with being Spain, Portugal or the Netherlands for their citizens, whether well or badly. And this is England’s trajectory now too, a couple of centuries later: no empire, no great power status (except that we delude ourselves that we are). We are another of those smallish countries of Europe. Our nuclear deterrent is rented from the USA, the weapons built and serviced by the USA, and apparently we may only use them with the consent of the USA. And yet we have a seat on the UN Security Council. The only nation that approaches us in presumptuousness is France, which still hasn’t managed to unpick its colonial past and is enmeshed in various quagmires on the African continent. But at least they own and manage their own nuclear armoury.

Global capitalism has rewritten the rules once again, and neither England, nor our political parties, seem to have fully understood. Power now seems to reside in nations with a very large landmass – the USA, Russia or China, or in the EU, with is a conglomerate equivalent; you don’t need to be reminded that we have just sawn off the branch on which we had been sitting quite comfortably for over forty years.

So where is the necessary realism to come from, where the acceptance that things are different and therefore we need to change, to adopt a constitution and move into the new century? The things which other countries admire us for – the BBC, our NHS, our enormous contribution to the arts – are all under threat from Tory philistines. And yet even as a relatively small country we have the potential to punch above our weight, in co-operation and collaboration with our fellow Europeans.

I am very pessimistic about the future, because I see that it takes much time for the broader sweep of history to become clear and to be taken into account, and therefore I fear that we have a good deal more pain to undergo and a good deal further to sink in status as a nation. I do not want to end my days in a one-party state, and I think our opposition parties have a sense of responsibility to the people, the voters of the nation, whether it’s just England or some version of the UK, to do something about it.

Why England is screwed (part 1)

May 16, 2021

Warning: politics ahead

As I have watched, becoming ever more depressed, the movements of English politics over the last few years, I have become increasingly convinced that this small country where I live is screwed, for the foreseeable future, long past my lifetime. There are quite a few pointers to this gloomy picture.

Scotland wants independence, and appears to be moving pretty relentlessly in that direction. If they want independence, they should have it; if they get it, I can see the Scots wanting to rejoin the EU as soon as they are allowed. I like Scotland; I love whisky; but what they want is their affair, and I don’t feel my country has the right to try and stop them.

Similarly, it is seeming increasingly logical that the two states on the island of Ireland should reunite, and if the memories of the horrors of nearly forty years of civil war keep heads level it may happen, and that reunited nation will obviously be part of the EU.

Wales is a smallish nation; smaller nations exist and prosper. I do not know if the Welsh will aim for greater self-determination, but if they do, again, it is their business. Which leaves England, smallish in size, with a large population, and heading in the direction of becoming a one-party state, with Tory hegemony entrenched forever. This is a prospect which fills me personally with horror, although I think it will be subsequent generations that will suffer most.

Our main opposition party, Labour, is the only party of its kind still standing in Europe, and how much longer it can stand as it is, is debatable. There is no clearly definable working class to appeal to any more, and what remains of that class has moved on. I am not sure what the purpose of the Labour party is any more. And the trade union dinosaurs who fund it and determine its direction do not endear it to an electorate that has moved on. Do not think that I am against trade unions: I was a union member for my entire working life, and I know how much unions protect their members and improve prospects, salaries and working conditions for them. But, sadly, this is not the picture many people have any more, and it’s not the subject of this post either.

There is potential in the Green Party; the Liberal Democrats shot themselves terminally in the foot in 2010 by going into coalition with the Tories. The nationalist parties are just that, and when they have nations of their own again, will presumably no longer figure in our Parliament, which is elected by a grossly unfair and utterly unjustifiable electoral system, that suits the Tories fine, because they can always win at first past the post, and which Labour will not challenge because they hope fondly they can do the same and then build some kind of socialist utopia in the following four years…

Increasingly it’s blindingly obvious that electoral reform, with proportional representation for all elections, is necessary for England to move into the twentieth, let alone the twenty-first century, and the only possible way to achieve that is for all the opposition parties temporarily to lay aside their differences and co-operate to campaign for fairness in politics, standing for a parliament that will only enact reform, then dissolve itself immediately to allow new elections by the new system, accepting whatever the outcome of those election is. The idea must be to show everyone that currently elections are decided by a very small number of people in marginal and swing seats, and that everyone else’s votes are largely irrelevant.

Look at it this way: a parliament has 100 seats, and 10,000 voters in each seat. Under the current system, 5,001 votes will elect an MP. So one party could get 5,001 votes in all 100 seats, a total of 500,100 votes, sweeping the board; the other 499,900 votes count for nothing. Do the sums.

With proportional representation, there will be more parties trying to win votes. You could vote for a ‘More Corbyn’ party, a ‘More Blair’ party, a ‘More Clegg’ party, a ‘Harder Brexit’ party or whatever. The point is that parties would then have to consult, negotiate and co-operate to form a government. Just as they do in the rest of Europe, and Germany, for example, hasn’t done too badly on that kind of system…

I can see that the Tories would be happy with first-past-the-post until the end of time, but they also need to think about other aspects of a country in continuing decline. And all shades of government would need to deal with this.

To be continued…

Philip Pullman: The Secret Commonwealth revisited

April 4, 2021

     It was time to revisit The Secret Commonwealth, which was published a year and a half ago; I’m looking forward to the next and possibly final novel, which may come out in the autumn, if Philip Pullman and his publishers stick to the existing schedule…

This time around, I was struck by just how much this book is about daemons, the relationships between humans and their daemons, and, for those of us living in the world without them – at least without the separate, visible companions – quite deep reflection on what the daemon may symbolise. In Lyra’s world, as she grows older, it becomes apparent/ she learns that quite a number of humans can separate/ be separated, voluntarily and involuntarily, from their daemons: we are a long way from the horrors of Bolvangar in the first volume of His Dark Materials. Lyra and Pan have fallen out; she changes as she grows older, becomes more cautious, less adventurous, and he leaves her, to try and find and bring back her imagination…

Lyra has read a novel set in a world in which humans have no daemons (and yet, curiously, she does not seem to make a clear connection with Will’s – ie our world), and she has read a philosophical work which argues that daemons are a figment of the imagination; in my terms, she’s struggling with the relationship between the material and the spiritual, a struggle which many manage completely to avoid in our world. But the secret commonwealth, a sense of hidden but real connection in mysterious ways between all sorts of beings and creatures, which does not exist on a rational level, keeps impinging on her as she pursues her adventures.

We’re also engaging with Pullman’s view of our own world, as reflected at one remove in Lyra’s. Pullman clearly does not like many things about the ways we live – and I’m happy to agree with him there – and we see characters engaging in that struggle for the Republic of Heaven that was formulated at the end of His Dark Materials, working beneath the surface of society in numerous ways for decency, and a sane and sensible attitude to life for everyone, against superstition and power games. Pullman’s message is a subversive one, especially as he engages with the blurring of the lines between truth and lies which is going on even as I write. For Pullman, the rational approach alone is not sufficient, and furthermore seems to be being used to reassure people that it’s OK to be selfish… which it’s not (within limits).

I’d have expected the cataclysmic events at the end of His Dark Materials to have made more of a difference to Lyra’s world even ten years later, than they actually seem to have done; the Magisterium and its religious fanaticism seem as strong as ever.

I think Pullman is also writing about what happens to us as we grow up, grow older, hopefully mature, certainly as we become adults. Lyra’s journey isn’t an easy one, as she reads and argues, and tries out new ideas for size. Many people do this, and are perhaps radically transformed, or develop along quite unexpected paths; her conflict with her daemon is at one level an obvious externalisation of a process a good number of us experience internally as we grow older. Pullman wants his readers to stop and reflect, I feel: back with Socrates’ idea of the unexamined life not being worth living. And beneath it all are the important values of decency in our own behaviour, and care for the less able or less fortunate than ourselves, very Christian values expounded by an author who at the same time is ferociously challenging the mind-controlling structures of established religion. Subversive, as I said before, and very good stuff.

You may feel I’ve said precious little about the novel itself. True, and I invite you to read what I wrote first time around, here.

Losing the BBC?

April 4, 2021

I’m beginning to feel that it’s a generational thing, and also that it’s inevitable that the BBC as we have known it for many years is withering on the vine and will not survive much longer.

It has many enemies, particularly the Conservative party and media moloch Rupert Murdoch, and between them, they are succeeding in their long-term aim. The BBC has been weakened by political interference and political appointments and is now no longer the voice of the nation, but the voice of the government, and as such, afraid to be critical or even impartial; economically it has been on a government-imposed shoestring for many years, and had recently announced that its flagship BBC4 channel is to become ‘archive-only’ ie no new programming, only repeats.

Murdoch, possibly the most destructive and vindictive media baron ever, has always hated the BBC. His tactic is also working: he has swamped the airwaves with cheap multi-channel programming, encouraging viewers to think in terms of multiplicity of choice, which the BBC cannot match. But once there is sufficient ‘choice’ (we all need to have the choice between 400 different shampoos and conditioners, after all) especially when other companies like Disney, Netflix and Amazon follow suit, pile in and flood the market, then you can argue that people have chosen, and are paying for their TV anyway and so should not have to pay a licence fee for a state-run organisation… then it can be allowed gradually to fall to bits, as may eventually happen to the NHS as well.

Is this any great loss? I’m in my sixties, and would argue that it is. I got a free education in classical music from Radio 3, which has given me lifelong pleasure. I’ve often felt that my annual licence-fee was worth it just for this one radio channel; there was no commercial channel in my younger days to offer classical music and the gobbets of advert-surrounded music clips that is Classic FM just doesn’t bear thinking about. There was a wealth of informative documentary programmes, excellent news coverage and analysis, and my cultural education was furthered by the wealth of international films shown late-night when I was a student – all on the BBC. So yes, I feel a debt of gratitude to the BBC, even as I see it dumbing down, and giving up on what it did so well in the past.

Is it a generational thing? Yes it is: younger generations have grown up with Sky and all the other myriad commercial channels, and consume TV very differently from the way my generation did, channel-hopping and binge-viewing in ways which were just not available way back when. And the concept of programming, ie having to watch a programme at a particular time or miss it, just doesn’t exist for them with streaming providing instant entertainment whenever. And nobody, but nobody, thinks about the environmental cost of streaming. Younger generations have no debt of gratitude to BBC children’s programming when so much cheap trashy pap for youngsters is now part of the entertainment package they pay for. Bundle TV services in with broadband and the BBC is on a hiding to nothing.

In the end, yes, these are the moans of an oldie who liked things the way they were. But, as with a good deal of the things that disappear with the passage of time, it’s the baby that gets thrown out with the bathwater that worries me. Entertainment, diversion, even education via TV should not have to be dependent on selling stuff in order to exist; everything is devalued by being reduced to this level. And in unmeasurable ways, we are all the poorer for it…

More thoughts on social media

March 23, 2021

I’ve been doing some more thinking about the problems with social media, given the attention it gets nowadays. First of all, I think we need to be aware of several distinctions:

There’s using social media for personal/friend/family contact: WhatsApp messaging, Facebook and the like; we are communicating with people we know (pretty) well. This is different from reacting to posts from strangers/ casual acquaintances/ friends of friends that also pop up in such things as our Facebook feeds: how well do we know that person and their attitudes? Does this/ should this matter? And think about how the platform shapes your communication: Twitter limits what how much can say, Facebook algorithms choose which of your ‘friends’ will see a post, Instagram heightens the competitive in you…

What about the audience: is it private (WhatsApp and the like) or more generally public (Facebook, Twitter &c)? Does this make a difference?

What device are we using? Because we all know about fat fingers, it being harder perhaps to type accurately on the tiny keyboard on a phone, and so we may tend to write shorter, curter, less subtle messages or responses. I know I may be showing my age here! But it’s different writing something with the relative comfort of a table with a laptop and fully-sized keyboard, imho… So, an e-mail or a blog post like this one is an open-ended communication, not limited by the platform or the device, only by my reader’s attention-span (tl;dr?)…very different, as I can try to explain and nuance my ideas and opinions when I’m allowing myself five or six hundred words.

And this ought to be linked to things like the limit on the number of characters on a platform like Twitter: how subtle can you be? This should matter.

There are broader issues, such as the fact that mobile phones are not often used for talking: they’re mini pocket computers, offering all sorts of comms possibilities. But think about the difference between a conversation and a text exchange: you don’t hear your correspondent’s voice, its tone, the pauses, the noises they make as part of their reaction to what you’ve said; you don’t pick up cues from them. The entire interaction is shaped and developed differently. And don’t imagine that emoticons help: it’s like letting someone else make all those non-verbal communications for you.

There’s also one’s attitude to responding: psychologically the ‘ping’ announcing the arrival of a message primes us to make an instant – unconsidered? – response. Why does this have to be the case? I’ve lost count of the number of times some one has told me of a message and said, ‘I don’t know what to say!’ and I’ve found myself replying, ‘There’s no law that says you have to reply instantly!’ An instant response with no thinking time may be too angry, too emotional, too simplistic a response, and damage is done instantly; it will necessarily be brief because you’re typing on a phone… When someone’s there with you, or you’re talking to them on the phone, if you put your foot in it you can often verbally backtrack and correct things: in a text exchange, someone can go off in a huff and ignore your messages…

And, of course, phones have always replaced physical social interaction, where you can actually see the other person and pick up all sorts of visual cues and messages from body language.

At some level, none of the above is rocket science, if you think a little about it; the problem is that the media do not allow that sort of reflectiveness easily, and it seems to me that this is how misunderstandings from throwaway comments, whether to total strangers or someone we know well, arise and do damage. And no, I don’t have any wise advice to offer, other than ‘Switch brain on!’

There’s also the question of fake news, false information, propaganda or whatever you want to call it; messages sent out en masse by organisations. Perhaps this was not anticipated in the early days of social media, but once it became apparent that enormous amounts of money could be generated from all kinds of advertising, it was surely inevitable. The structure of social media encourages brief, simplistic messages, whether advertising or political propaganda, and because these messages are jumbled in with more personal stuff, our critical faculties are disarmed or at least less attentive, in that we are more likely to view and judge them with the less critical eye that we use with more friendly messages. And anyway, how are we able to check or to verify? How do we know – how can we find out – who is behind that unexpected post or message that appears among more innocent material? And the more we try to lockdown our privacy or shut out unsolicited material, the more it impacts on the communications we actually want to have.

Final, broader and perhaps more cynical question/ reflection: did the builders of all these social media platforms know the full implications of what they let loose? Did they care? Or was/is it all about money?

One thing is for sure: we need to think seriously about how social media is changing us, our opinions, and how we relate to the rest of the world…

One year later

March 21, 2021

One year into the pandemic. One year ago, we decide to isolate ourselves: not officially lockdown yet, but then our PM never has managed to act in a timely fashion… Then, I re-read Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year and thought to myself, I’ll write a contemporary journal. It wasn’t long before I gave up: there was nothing to write about, with so much of my ‘normal’ life disappearing: no U3A language groups, no weekly yoga classes, no Quaker Meeting for Worship, no holidays, no seeing family. And there was no point in recording the tergiversations of useless, lying, corrupt and venal politicians because there’s public record of that wherever you look. I was full of intentions of reading other plague-related literature such as CamusLa Peste – which I still haven’t gone back to – and I did manage Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague recently. There’s still Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, and George Stewart’s Earth Abides to reread.

Of course, some of those lost activities soon resumed on that tiring platform which is Zoom. Our French conversation group still meets fortnightly to talk about anything and everything, although with life as curtailed as it is, there’s actually far less for us to talk about. And I know I’m not the only one to notice how group conversations on Zoom and other platforms are different: much harder to pick up visual and body language cues with such small pictures, and one is inevitable distracted by one’s own picture in the corner of the screen. Our German group opted not to continue on Zoom, and I don’t know whether it will recommence; our Spanish teacher finally decided to retire from teaching. Quite a gap in my routines and my learning.

Our elders at local Quaker Meeting have done sterling work in enabling Zoom meetings every Sunday, for which I am very grateful, and again Friends agree that it just isn’t the same as being gathered together in the same room. Modern technology has meant it’s been easy to be in touch with friends and family, and at various points it was even possible to meet up under carefully defined circumstances. I have sorely missed my weekly yoga classes: our teacher carefully followed guidance and we managed to have some smaller, fortnightly classes but these inevitably fell at the first hurdle when things had to be tightened up again…

Travel – which has been one of my major retirement activities, with usually a couple of serious road trips to Europe each year – disappeared almost completely, although I did manage a week’s walking in Scotland late summer.

I thought I’d get loads of reading done, but this was not to be; I couldn’t settle on what to read, and frittered time away. Much gardening, and much tidying and decluttering happened. Things are different now, in that I’ve lately got a reading fit on and am revisiting lots of books I haven’t opened for many years, which has been very satisfying.

In and among all this, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and reflecting: what have I learnt over the past year?

I have learnt a good deal about people, and can see that we have not yet reached peak stupidity. People swallow the lies of politicians, and the lies spread on social media. People do not listen to advice, especially that of the experts in the field who advise us carefully. Too many joggers thud selfishly past, not putting distance between themselves and others, too fixed in their own little achievement bubbles; a lot of cyclists are the same; dog-walkers can be worse. People don’t wear masks properly, or pretend that they can’t. They clap for the heroes of our NHS and then vote for the politicians who have starved it of resources for years and pretend there’s no money for wage increases for nurses: people don’t want to pay taxes.

I have learnt how corrupt the UK actually is. We have a mental picture of endemic bribery and corruption which we associate with the Third World, when actually the same things are happening right here at home, and with our tax-payers’ money. Our NHS has done astonishing work tackling COVID and planning and carrying out a massive and apparently successful vaccination programme that’s the envy of many other countries: our shameless government is basking in the credit for this, and people are lapping it up. I’ve learnt how undemocratic the US really is, despite all those lectures to the rest of the world about its being a light shining on a hill, an example to the rest of the world.

In and among all this negative stuff, I’ve learnt how caring and thoughtful neighbours can be, with a word or a chat, a note through the letterbox or a message on social media. I’ve realised how important social contact is, especially now I’m retired. Retirement has made staying safe easier, although my greater age brings greater risks along with it. I’ve renewed contact with many friends and acquaintances with whom I’d lost contact for years. I’ve learnt the importance of sustaining regular exercise – the same boring circuit every day – and even made new friends, chatting briefly at a distance with total strangers whilst out for my daily walk. And I’ve learnt that being financially comfortable makes all these things much easier. We’ve wrestled with click and collect at supermarkets, and learned how much we don’t need to go shopping.

I’m a different person; tidier, more organised, somewhat more wary. I’m nervous about what happens when we’re ‘allowed’ to do things again: will I have lost my nerve? Self-confidence is one of those things that does wane as one ages… I am fervently hoping that I will still have the nerve to get behind the wheel of my under-used car and drive off to the forests of Luxembourg again when that is allowed once more.

On subjection

March 13, 2021

Warning: politics ahead

Currently enjoying the fun as media and royalty fight it out, but I do often mentally have to pinch myself and remember this is the twenty-first century we are living in. As I’m half-Polish, I’ve never felt any real sense of loyalty to the monarchy or the institution: there used to be a monarchy in Poland, and as someone with a name that used to be in the index of the nobility, I’d probably have been entitled to take part in the election of the king (yes, you read that correctly!)… but the country disappeared from the map for over a century and when it came back, it didn’t bring back the monarchy that had been part of the problem in the first place, and it abolished the nobility. No bloodshed involved.

The French disposed of their monarchy a couple of centuries ago; true, there were some attempts to reinstate it, but in the end the people derived a sense of their own rights and confidence in their nation without royalty. The Russians murdered the lot, and while there are some in that country who would like to have a tsar, when you’ve always had a strong and powerful autocrat at the helm, what does it matter whether he’s tsar, first secretary or president? A number of European nations have smaller, slimmed-down monarchies that are tolerated by their people. But the English… or is it the British?

Somehow we are permanently cowed by the monarchy, the aristocracy and such people’s self-proclaimed entitlement to power and worship. True, we beheaded a king in 1649 and had a republic for eleven whole years, but quickly welcomed the monarchy back. Similarly, we had a General Strike (just the one) in 1926, and backed off from that before anything was achieved; general strikes sometimes seem to be one of the French national pastimes…is there just something inherently conservative in us island folk? Is the island the problem?

If you ask the average Brit what advantage the monarchy has, chances are they will talk about tradition, pageantry, bringing in tourists: all pretty pathetic justifications for the current state of affairs. I will acknowledge the current monarch’s strong sense of service to the nation and people, before I note that she has been incredibly well rewarded for it all.

What has been brought home to me by the current media circus is just how damaged in various ways the different members of that family are and have been. Rub it with a fifty-pound note is my immediate response; what do you expect is another? It’s clear that privilege has its price: much unhappiness, and a dysfunctional family, many of whom haven’t a clue about their purpose or what to do with themselves and their lives, and certainly know nothing about the lives of most of their ‘subjects’.

But there is a wider price for the country, in its forelock-tugging subservience as subjects, not citizens, of ‘her Britannic majesty’ as our new bluish passports say. In so many ways we are living in the past, trying to live off what we imagine are our past glories (pretty dubious and dodgy when looked at closely), constitutionally – I use that word deliberately – incapable of looking forward and addressing the problems and issues of the century we are actually living in. I’d like to live in a republic, with an elected head of state, two elected chambers of Parliament, a written constitution, and a sensible electoral system. Too much to ask, in the twenty-first century. Funny how the Brits and the US managed to set this up in post-war West Germany…

Amin Maalouf: Adrift

January 21, 2021

         It’s not often I read a book and end up thinking, everyone really needs to read this! But this is one of those rarities, the reflections of a wise and thoughtful Lebanese writer and novelist on the current state of the world, and why it’s in such a dreadful mess. He professes to be haunted by the image of our species heading ineluctably for shipwreck. And, a rarity, the book has been translated from French into English.

There are plenty of pundits who offer relatively superficial and partisan analyses of the world’s woes: Maalouf isn’t one of those. He begins modestly reflecting on his origins and family background, at some length: they are Lebanese, with historical connections with Egypt, and so his exploration is firmly anchored in how the problems of the Middle East, and of Islamic nations, are at the heart of so much that has gone wrong, a microcosm of the world’s greater problems.

It is false to think that the homogeneity of nations is a good thing: Spain became weaker after expelling Muslims and Jews after 1492, France became weaker after the expulsion of the Huguenots in 1685. Often the benefits of minority groups to a nation are only perceived when they have gone. I obviously thought of Brexit here!

The failure and collapse of communism as an ideal has helped move the world into its current disastrous state. Communism didn’t just appeal to the working class but also to minorities as a way of transcending divisions; briefly, Jews Christians and Muslims worked alongside each other in communist movements worldwide. A liberating space, an inspirational space has disappeared. And Maalouf weeps no tears for Stalin, Mao or any of the other tyrants: the failure of dirigiste state ‘socialism’ tarnished anything and everything vaguely resembling it, allowing conservative forces to invalidate social democracy and the welfare state too.

The Six Day War of 1967 had a devastating effect on the Arab world from which it has never recovered, and allowed political Islam to come to the fore. Equally, victory in that war has been a trap for Israel. Maalouf then notes the calamitous effects of the oil price rises of the 1970s, which were a direct response by Arab nations to the debacle of the 1973 war, in which the USA had supported Israel.

In his more general analysis, Maalouf sees 1979 as a turning point: the year conservatism declared itself revolutionary, with the election of Thatcher in the UK, followed by that of Reagan in the US the following year: the only option for the left was to try and hang onto what it had painfully won over the decades. At that time, Khomeiny also came to power in Iran, Deng Xiao Ping took the reins in China and changed its political and economic direction, and the Catholic Church elected John Paul II as Pope. And the USA let the genie of radical Islam out of the bottle by deliberately drawing the Soviet Union into the quagmire of Afghanistan… Maalouf points out that until then, the Muslim world had been gradually moving in a progressive and tolerant direction, towards modernity and laicisation; the West wrecked all this. Conservatism has moved openly hand-in-hand with the perfidious forces of nationalism and racism.

And as the purpose of the Reagan/Thatcher revolution was a massive attack on state power, the work of states as unifying forces was seriously harmed; suspicion of big government has fed into our inability to tackle issues such as the climate emergency in our own time. Maalouf knows that the state can, and must have a role in creating and fostering social cohesion. Instead, widening social divides have been accepted, and public authorities are now mistrusted by many. It’s hard to do justice to the depth of his reflection, which is that of a lifetime, and his knowledge of history, and the interactions between nations.

Maalouf articulates, far better than I’ve ever been able to, a good number of the thoughts and ideas I’ve worked out about the state of the planet over the years. He has written the most profound, reasoned and intelligent analysis and commentary on our times that I’ve ever read; he does not proffer any simplistic solutions beyond helping understand where we have gone adrift, and sadly, he admits to a great pessimism about our future…

Rutger Bregman: Utopia for Realists

December 23, 2020

     Here was a really interesting and thought-provoking book that I also found really annoying. The author’s flippant tone and peppering of a would-be serious text with lots of throwaway facts, combined with the current habit or necessity for chopping everything up into short gobbets to fit with our reduced attention-spans, did not get me off to a good start.

He presents a series of perspectives on our world, all of which call for serious consideration. Things are so much better now than they were in the past (he says), but is the current situation the best we can do? Bregman finds today dystopian, and I have to agree; he’s shaping up his main argument, which is our lack of vision, and again, I find myself in agreement.

Universal Basic Income is quite thoroughly explored and documented, and would surely have been a considerable help during the current pandemic, had it already been in place. But more money for everyone will drive more growth and more consumption, with all the negative consequences. Similarly his deconstruction of the myth of GDP as a measure of progress is much-needed but again he reveals himself over-enamoured of the great technological leaps forward of recent years as if they are value and effect-free.

He does acknowledge that economic growth has resulted in more stuff, rather than more leisure time, but again the ecological destructiveness of this key point is glossed over, as is the major significance of the effect of women being drawn into the workforce over the past half-century. While I am fully in favour of the right of anyone and everyone to work and develop a career, the way in which the system has silently ensured that it now takes two working adults to keep a family going – yes I am aware of sweeping generalisation here, but the main idea is true – and we have mostly silently accepted this in exchange for extra shiny-shiny, the implications of this major transformation for the future of the planet merit some reflection, surely?

I liked it when he got on to the fact that the best-paid jobs don’t actually create anything of value, but merely shunt money around (whilst skimming off a sizeable percentage and trousering it, not that Bregman mentions this too loudly). Automation has created a surplus of labour at the bottom of the social pile, driving wages down: again, we have seen the effect of this all too clearly during the pandemic.

Bregman’s most astonishing assertion is that world poverty would be ended by the complete opening of all borders to people and migration. I am not in a position to challenge his data, which I’m sure is valid: again, the cost is more stuff, more consumption, more pollution…

My main gripes were the simplistic approach, in the pop-science and pop-philosophy mode currently fashionable, and Bregman’s almost total lack of recognition of the environmental and climate implications for any of his basically growth-based, ‘capitalism-taming’ approach. At the same time, I am forced to recognise my own intellectual snobbery here: all these ideas do need much wider dissemination and consideration. But the hectic pace of the book allows no real time for sober reflection.

I found Bregman’s analysis of issues very interesting. Many, if not most people would accept it and would probably welcome the changes he moots. But – and here is the crux – most people don’t have the time or the inclination to read such a book, modify their thinking and still less, act on it. So we are again in the position we often find ourselves in at the end of a utopian novel: the place is wonderful, I’d like to be there, live there, but how the hell do I actually get there? The transition is the issue to crack: how do you overcome the resistance of the powerful and murderous vested interests who would oppose change? In Ursula Le Guin’s marvellous novel The Dispossessed, the Annaresti have to leave their planet (conveniently there is a habitable moon close by) in order to build their alternative society…

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