The old order is dying, but refuses to go quietly

Originally posted on OpenDemocracy by Adam Ramsey under Creative Commons 3.0

In 2010, 56.7% of people voted for parties who, at the time, were arguing against austerity. Back then, both Labour and the Lib Dems said they were against spending cuts for at least a year. As Nick Clegg put it in his 2010 Spring Conference speech, little over a month before the election:

“We think that merrily slashing now is an act of economic masochism. If anyone had to rely on our support, and we were involved in government, of course we would say no.”

101 days after making that speech, Clegg broke his promise to the British people. He led his party through the lobbies in support of George Osborne’s emergency budget: committing the very act of economic masochism he had warned against.

The consequences of his decision were brutal. The fledgling economic recovery was stifled at birth, setting it back by years and, according to one study, costing the average person in the UK £1,500. It triggered a 36% increase in the number of people sleeping rough. The suicide rate shot up. In 2012 alone, more than 200 libraries were shut, and tens of thousands of young people had the confidence knocked out of them at the start of their careers.

As Clegg had predicted, this plan failed utterly on its own terms. The government is tens of billions away from its own targets, and only achieved the meagre deficit reduction it now claims by including vast asset sales like the Royal Mail and 4G spectrum in its revenue account: an act of dodgy accounting I wouldn’t put up with in the small charities I’m a trustee of, never mind the national balance sheet. Perhaps most damning of all, given their rhetoric about borrowing, is the OBR prediction that household debt in Britain will increase back to 170% of disposable income by 2020. Unsecured personal borrowing has already reached its 2008 peak. It’s not so much that we’re borrowing less as a country, just that the state has shifted the debt onto individuals.

The fact that Nick Clegg predicted all of this isn’t really the point though. What’s important is that British voters did. In 2010, we overwhelmingly backed parties who said that cutting public spending that year would be the act of economic butchery it turned out to be: like trying to reduce the amount of weight we’re carrying in a marathon by amputating a leg. Perhaps even more extraordinary is that we never talk about this simple fact: an overwhelming majority of us voted for one approach to the biggest question at that election. We got the opposite.

The astounding democratic deficit displayed in that fact is partly explained by the Lib Dems capitulation. They traded away things they had implied were red lines in exchange for details of their manifesto that few had noticed because, deep down, their leader was always an Orange Book neoliberal at the helm of a ship which up till then had mostly shown the public its port rather than starboard side. But another reason that this has been allowed is the utter failure of the press to hold anyone to account over this vast change of position.

The uselessness of British reporting on this matter is so astonishing that it’s been noticed on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. New York Times columnist and Nobel winning economist Paul Krugman recently asked “why is British economic discourse so bad?”. I’d like to tie that question to one I’ve been asking people for a while now: almost every opinion poll for the last 4 years has shown that Ed Miliband is by far the most likely next Prime Minister. Whatever might happen in the next few weeks, the collection of parties likely to help the Labour leader into Downing Street has so far had a consistent majority when attitude surveys are translated into hypothetical seats. In recent polls, that majority has grown: a fact which, again, was barely reported in the Tory press.

Likewise, I don’t see any particular reason that a swing to the Tories is any more plausible than a shift to Labour. There is a credible case that either will happen, but we are only ever told about the likelihood of the former. Will the revelation that Ed Miliband isn’t as bad as the media caricature (how could he be?) make people more likely to vote for him? Will a closer examination of the Conservatives remind people that they have breached almost all of their major promises and missed most of their major targets? Or will people move towards the status quo as the big day approaches? There’s a debate to be had, but we’ve only really heard one half of it in most of the press. It’s worth noting that, so far, where pundits largely told us that polls would shift away from Labour in England and the SNP in Scotland, in that far off land called reality, if anything, the opposite has happened (though only a little).

Despite all this, almost none of the newspapers or broadcasters has told anyone that simple fact: polls have always shown the collection of left leaning parties ahead. This media blackout was only broken this week week, when the FT produced the below graphic, calculating that on current polls, there’s a higher chance of the Green Party having some role in government than the Conservatives. It’s notable that this is also the paper who have been most vocal in criticising George Osborne and Danny Alexander’s austerity. As Chomsky has said, the Financial Times is telling, because when the elite is talking to itself, it’s more likely to tell the truth.

With these things in mind, I think its worth considering three more facts.

First, during the Scottish referendum, it was widely reported that Scotland is in fact not much more left wing than England. Whether or not this is true is disputable, but leave that aside for a moment. Every article I saw about this assumed that this meant that Scotland was really a conservative country, more right wing than its politicians will let on. I never saw anyone in a mainstream paper make the case for a position which I think is much more justifiable if you look at polling on attitudes towards anything from whether the government should ‘do more’ or ‘do less’ to the nationalisation of everything from energy companies to banks; from price controls to austerity to decriminalisation of drugs to increasing taxes on the rich to wind farms: it’s not that Scotland isn’t as left wing as people make out, it’s that on a huge range of issues, England is a lot more socialist, socially liberal and environmentalist than its political class. And voters know it – most see themselves as centre-left.

Second, consider this. You have to be in your forties to have voted in a general election in the UK in which the Conservatives got a majority. There is significant evidence that most who backed the Lib Dems in 2010 did so in the hope of a Lib/Lab pact. Certainly, that’s what 54% of them want now, vs 34% who prefer a deal with the Tories. In other words, it seems likely that in every election since the first children of the baby boomers came of age, most people in the UK have voted against having a Tory government.

Third, polls of young people consistently show Labour far ahead, with the Tories and Greens scrabbling for second place. The average age of the 150,000 Tory members is said to be 68. Greens across the UK will likely pass 70,000 members next week. Of those, around 17,000 are under the age of 30. This means it’s extremely likely that there are significantly more under-30s signed up to the Green Party than the traditional party of government in the UK – and possibly more under-40s.

I say all of this because for the last week, my co-editor Olly Huitson and I have been reading and monitoring the quartet of powerful right-wing papers: the Telegraph, the Times, the Daily Mail and the Sun. One of the things which I find utterly extraordinary is the extent to which they are delusional about public attitudes. In one column (behind a paywall), the Sun’s Trevor Kavanagh says that he simply doesn’t believe opinion polls showing Labour neck-and-neck with the Tories: an extraordinary claim for a major political commentator to make unless he’s willing to back it up with some evidence (which he doesn’t). All of them screamed blue murder about Labour’s position on non-doms: a policy which, it turns out, 77% of the public back. His paper has declared itself the voice of the nation, and they struggle to come to terms with the idea that most people disagree with them on most major issues.

There is, I suppose, another word for this delusion: entitlement. Despite all of the evidence, the people who are accustomed to governing this country just assume that everyone else thinks they should be in charge too. It’s an attitude that’s written across almost everything they say: when the slightly more left Ed ran as well as his more Blairite brother David, it was Ed who ‘stabbed David in the back’: the right wing sibling apparently had a divine right to rule. When the right make announcements of policies, they give little evidence that they will work: their assertion is usually sufficient. For the left to get traction, it is required to produce vast piles of data (think “The Spirit Level”, or “Capital in the 21st Century”). Again and again, the government utterly misses any of its own targets, does the opposite of what they promise the electorate, or declares black to be white. Again and again, this is dismissed as though it is nothing. They aren’t in power to deliver a programme as agreed with the people. They are in power because that is their right and proper place.

It seems to me that there are are a number of simple reasons that no paper but the FT and to an extent the Guardian has reported that Ed Miliband has long been the most likely Prime Minister according to opinion polls. First, they are trying to create a false sense of momentum behind the Tories. Second, as I wrote about a few days ago, they will do everything they can to avoid legitimising Miliband as the democratic choice for Prime Minister. Third, it’s easier for old journalists to report a Labour/Tory horse-race than the new-ish complexities of multiparty politics. Fourth, they haven’t come to terms with a simple fact. Britain’s politics now matches its geology: it leans to the left. The South and East aren’t a barometer of public opinion. They are the fringe on the right, with Clacton at its tip.

The old order is staring death in the face, and refusing to go gracefully. It is, of course, possible that its screams of disbelief will frighten voters into delaying its departure for a further half decade; that polls will tip back to the Tories. But this will only be a postponement of the inevitable: no matter how much they claim to be the voices of the people, the Tories and the right wing press don’t speak for us anymore. They are yesterday’s men.

Tomorrow, austerity will get a punch-up in Greece

Tomorrow Greece will, most likely, elect a rag-tag collection of Marxists, Maoists, Greens and Social Democrats who all work on the broad banner of Syriza. After, the capitals in the rest of Europe will be eager to start drawing parallels with the election of Francois Hollande and Syriza, particularly parallels that would prove that any sort of leftist ideal is unworkable and impractical.

At the moment of writing this on the day before the election, the polls give Syriza a lead of 35 per cent ahead of the closest competitor New Democracy at 26. It probably won’t be enough for an outright majority, but close enough that Syriza will form the government. On Monday, we could have a Marxist Prime Minister of Greece, and it will be the first time such a one has been elected in Europe.

It is very easy to sit here in a western country, in an affluent town, after having eaten a nice midday meal to pontificate over the situation in Greece – particularly for the people who are hungry and who sleep rough. I also have to confront the fact that I’m probably too young to have a realistic opinion. I don’t understand, but I want to understand, because I think understanding is vital.

But what I think I understand, and I think that I’ve always understood it even if it was not articulated, is that the recipe that neo-liberalism promotes in these kinds of situations is irrational, or mendacious, or both. Prescribing the solution that to build up wealth, you have to destroy your income, is insane. And that is what austerity is, in this country and in Greece.

If you want to pay back a loan, you need an income to do so. To destroy the income to be able to pay back the loan is plain impossible. The same principle can be applied to a population scale, both here in the UK and in Greece. If you want to pay back a national debt, destroying the population’s ability to earn is insane.

What I am not to sure about is whether Syriza will succeed. If this is a chess game, then Syriza is a pawn arrayed between powerful forces. Ahead, on the other side of the board, are the forces of neoliberalism on this continent, who wants Syriza to fail so that it, along with Francois Hollande’s attempt, can be written into the ledger of ‘warning examples’. But behind Syriza are other forces, more primal forces, that could very well lead to the generals coming back into Greek politics. If Syriza fails, then there could be a revolution, and who knows who might ride that violent wave.

Where I declare for the Greens, for mundane and boring reasons

Last time the Greens stood a candidate in my constituency, they got 800 votes. That is 800 votes out of something like 75 thousand. This was in 2005, and in 2010 they didn’t bother. In contrast the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives got about 22 thousand votes each, with a few hundred more for the Conservatives.

With the Liberal Democrat vote expected to collapse, it looks like my constituency has become a Conservative bastion. When the Greens stand a candidate in 2015, I don’t expect them to suddenly capture the disaffected Liberal Democrats and storm the seat.

I think this is why I’ve decided to join up and do some little work for them here, because they don’t have a chance of winning. My vote will go to a party which I, to an extent of about fifty per cent, agree with. But they won’t get the chance to carry out the rest of the policies I sharply disagree with.

So, on the morning of May 8th, the losing candidate in this constituency, the Liberal one, won’t be able to go to the media and claim my vote against the Tories as proof of support for the loser.

Since the only reason I would conceivably vote for a Liberal Democrat would be to deny the Conservatives a win, I feel that it would be rich if the Liberal Democrats came in strong and claimed “unquestioned support” for the Liberals. I don’t want to be so abused.

So my vote in 2015 will go to the Greens. Not because I expect them to win. Not at all. But I don’t mind my vote being used to bolster the Greens for 2020. If the Greens make a dramatic charge ahead, I won’t mind if the Greens take my vote as proof that a green future is coming.

Then in 2020 we’ll see what happens. I think the next parliament is going to be “interesting”, in that the main parties will be trounced and none of them will be able to form a government without the support of the smaller parties.

How does a SNP/PC/Green block pulling on the Labour parliamentarians sound? Sounds good to me, it does. Oh, the Labour MPs will whine and complain and whimper. But they deserve nothing more than that. Maybe, just maybe, they’ll be able to find a back-bone then.

“Don’t think – just vote like we tell you to vote”

“Don’t think. Don’t bother with the details. You don’t have time to research the arguments; you are too busy, and there’s not enough time, and there are more important things for you to do. Don’t worry your head about anything. Just give us your vote, and we’ll take care of things. Vote no in the independence referendum in Scotland.”

In essence this is the case for the union delivered by the Better Together campaign in Scotland. I have followed it, more or less disinterestedly over the last few weeks or months. Days go by without me thinking about it because, let’s face it, it is far away from me and I don’t have a vote. Then I realise that the effects of the vote will impact me, and I binge for a few hours and try to catch up.

Both The Times, The Sun and The Daily Mail now scream that the Union hangs in the balance. The polls have narrowed so much that they are, basically, operating within the margin or error territory that can be called ‘the statistical dead-heat’. Today, YouGov published that there was a six per cent gap between Yes and No in the referendum. With a 3 per cent margin or error, the polls can land anywhere. It is the third poll which shows a large movement from No and Undecided toward Yes. So maybe these newspapers are right, and the Union does hang in the balance.

But would not the reason for that arise from the main angle of the Better Together campaign? They have not made a case for the union. Their vision is that politics is too difficult and too exhausting, and the voters should just vote No and leave political thought to the politicians. Is this not the reason there is such voter apathy in the electorate, because the voters have believed this?

If I were Scots, this message would be deeply offensive to me. At least when stated so clearly in an actual campaign. But is this not the unstated message in all campaigns? Is this not the default statement of any election within the United Kingdom? It tends to be more wrapped in a positivity provided by competent ad agencies, but it is still: Don’t think. We know what we’re doing. Don’t look around in your life and aspire for something better. You’re too busy. Just vote for us. But don’t think.

Where a god grows in the gaps of decreasing science literacy

Two days ago the old show ‘Cosmos’ by Carl Sagan got a reboot with a new host and somewhat new style. I’ve read the reviews of the television, and it struck me how much things have changed. The common theme of the reviews were… how the show related to religion.

God of the Gaps, Nordin Gallery, Stockholm, 2009

God of the Gaps, Nordin Gallery, Stockholm, 2009 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There is a logical fallacy specific to religious people, in that if they see something where there is no scientific explanation, they will point to that thing and claim that ‘it is because of god!’. This is called God-of-the-gaps. Gaps in scientific knowledge is taken as proof of the existence of a god.

Of course, it is a logical fallacy because science will, eventually, know what that thing is, and for that reason the deity will always be retreating from the world. If God can only live in the gaps, then when the gaps are filled by knowledge, there would be no god.

The only recourse religion has is to abstract from literalism to interpretation. Does science say that it took far longer than the six days of Genesis to create the world and the universe? Okay, then we have to read Genesis figuratively instead of literally, but it’s still true. Right?

Will the stars fall down on earth before Armageddon? Science says that stars are suns which are impossibly far away and there’s no way they can fall down on Earth. Okay, obviously we have to reinterpret that then, but it’s still true. Figuratively speaking.

And so it goes. We go from literalism to abstraction. God is removed from the gaps, and his supposed direct communication with us is more and more open to interpretation, again and again and again. There is, increasingly, no place for a god in the modern world. Which is why Europe, these days, is mainly atheist with a mere token nod to its Christian past.

But what if you have a situation where the gaps are growing again, and where scientific knowledge is being lost, or abandoned? Does this mean that god is approaching and growing? It is, of course, still a logical fallacy because the knowledge is not being lost as such; it is just being purposefully hidden from people.

Particularly in America we have seen science as an endeavour grow, then pause, and these days retreat. Gone are the days of the space program; the Big science projects are being done in Europe or Asia. Increasingly in education irrationality is promoted on an equal footing with science. You can have a sort of repeat of the Scopes trial where a creationist like Ken Ham is given equal footing in a debate with scientist Bill Nye.

There are parts of the country where creationism is being taught as science now. You have avowed anti-scientists like Paul Broun in charge of the scientific committees of Congress. He who is a member of that committee which controls spending of all non-military Federal research said that ‘evolution was a lie from the pit of hell’.

This situation affects funding, it affects prospects, and it affects the respect for science. And thus, you have the curious thing, which leaves a bad taste in my mouth, that when Cosmos, the seminal science-soul-teaching series is rebooted, most of the media concerns itself with whether it kicked religion or not. A good half of the reviews were about that, and the rest had more or less strands within the articles about science versus religion.

It also affects the political climate, because it normalises disrespect for science. This means that groups on both sides of the political spectrum don’t have a science focus, and even have a suspicion of science. On the left, mainly, it means that anti-vaccination campaigns are normalised and accepted. On the right, creationism and such is propagated. It devalues science on the whole, throughout politics.

So, when I’ve yet to find an article where a reviewer came down unambiguously on the side of science and only talked about Neil Degrasse Tyson’s ability to communicate the grandeur and awe of science to the audience, I despair a bit about it. It seems like America is sliding backwards on science, regardless of what metric or prism you use to observe the phenomena with.

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So, the strong will do what they want, and the weak will suffer what they must?

The Melian Dialogue by Thucydides is a very moral dialogue that seems proper to read these days, with the things going on in Ukraine, and with what’s been happening in the west over the last decade or so. It is a dialogue about might, and whether it is right.

English: Map of the Delian League ("Athen...

Map of the Delian League (“Athenian Empire”) in 431 B.C.E., just prior to the Peloponnesian War. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The dialogue is from the Peloponnesian war between Athens and Sparta, and the main protagonists are Athens and the Spartan colony Melos, who are neutral in the war. Athens sends emissaries to the city-state and demands its submission, but the Melians want to continue to be neutral.

One could draw parallels between the lofty Athens, who did send emissaries to deliver the ultimatum and not just start to siege the city, with the Europeans or the Americans who do tend to do the same. At least our threats are delivered in packages with pretty ribbons.

But even so, the most famous line from that dialogue is that “the strong will do what they want, and the weak will suffer what they must”. That is the essence, and the morality, of Athens in the dialogue. And, obviously, it’s not very moral at all, even if it’s packaged in a pretty envelope of dialogue and diplomacy.

Keep that in mind as you read the frothing rhetoric of the middle-aged men at newspaper desks who have never been confronted with conflict and strife. They who are the ones who, like Rudyard Kipling wrote after his son died: “If any question why we died, tell them because our fathers lied”. It is not the pundits’ children who will go and die for the glory of the country, it someone else’s. They certainly will not be anywhere near the front, and would be appaled and outraged by one hundredth of the loss of comfort that their ideas would actually bring.

Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori, is as much a lie now as when Wilfred Owen wrote about it.

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The anti-humanism of libertarianism

The most troublesome thing about libertarianism as preached by Ayn Rand is not that the ideology is illogical and irrational. The most annoying thing is that it is anti-human and anti-scientific. It is the mirror image of communism in terms of denying the nature of man.

Atlas sculpture, New York City, by sculptor Le...

Atlas sculpture, New York City, by sculptor Lee Lawrie. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Human beings belong to a larger family of great apes called ‘Hominidae‘. In this grouping you will find quite a diversity of traits and behaviours. Hominids can be divided into two subgroups: homininae and ponginae. Ponginae contains the Orangutan, and the homininae contain Bonobos, Chimpanzees, Gorillas and humans.

One could say that gorillas, bonobos and chimpanzees are the control group in the study of humans, and it is clear that there are a number of traits which span the whole group. Chief among them is that all homininae form clans and communities. Another thing that the way the homininae form their clans and communities is universal. All communities have a hierarchy with an alpha leader on top, and individuals with lesser status below that.

The idea of individualism as practised by the libertarians is antithetical to the way all the homininae structure their societies, and for this reason the ideology is quite anti-human. Communism wants to rework man to remove the ego; libertarianism wants to rework man to remove the community. Both are as extreme as the other, and both are as anti-human.

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