Saturday, November 7, 2009

Drug Nutts

Some years ago, I attended a celebration dinner at a well-known British university. A head of department had just been nominated to the position of vice-chancellor of another equally prestigious seat of learning, and we were gathered to celebrate his achievement. The food was more than acceptable and the wine both drinkable and in copious supply - so that when, over coffee, the speeches began, we were all in good humour. First in line to speak was the guest of honour himself and, as usual, he gave a brilliant and witty oration. After that, however, matters went rapidly downhill as a succession of mediocre wits - all heads of department - rose to their feet. Listening to one especially dull contribution, the Dean of Studies, next to whom I was seated, whispered "...there are professors and professors (pause) unfortunately".
Many years later the spat (November 2009) between the UK's Home Secretary Alan Johnson and Professor David Nutt - recently sacked as head of the Drugs Misuse Advisory Council - brought that Dean of Studies' pithy aside back to mind. The good Professor Nutt had claimed that the drug Ecstasy was no more harmful - perhaps less so - than horse-riding. Since he appeared to have most of the press and a handsome proportion of the pundits on his side, I decided to throw in a protest - choosing for my target a gruffly strident anti-Johnson polemic in Open Democracy.
Please understand, I'm no defender of any of the major UK political parties - but still less am I ready to be bludgeoned into intellectual submission by professors like Nutt who prefer to be believed (and even obeyed) because they are professors rather than because they are learned.
Here are my two submissions; the second in response to a suggestion by another contributor that I might not have understood the professor's use of statistics.

Submission One

The chattering classes are having a ball with this one - with everyone who thinks they are on the progressive wing of political correctness lambasting Alan Johnson for his sacking of Professor Nutt. Although I am cautiously in favour of legalization - and therefore probably on the professor's side with respect to policy, I find the widespread belief that a professor's advice should be taken as gospel to be no more credible than the fantasy of papal infallibility. When the professor demonstrates evidentially that alcohol and tobacco cause more harm (to health?) than ecstasy and cannabis, I assume he knows his stuff; but when he moves from there to speculating about the different effects of government policy, he seems to me to be laying claim to a level of authority and wisdom that exceed his professional qualifications. I even wonder if he has truly evaluated - scientifically - the evidence for his statement that ecstasy (also crack? Heroin? skunk? LSD?) and horse-riding are about equal in the degree of harm they cause. If so, I would be interested in seeing that evidence and would be mightily impressed - and astonished - if it proved to be watertight. Statements of this kind are a form of playing to the gallery: unnecessary if the audience consists of fellow scientists, but otherwise merely provocative.

Nor are they illustrative of anything. Lots of things can be said to cause harm. It might just as easily be shown, for example, that walking at night, or jogging are as dangerous as horse-riding. The argument rests on the fallacy of assuming that a comparison of two dissimilar elements sheds light on either of them. And if the professor truly thinks that banning horse-riding would be easy, one wonders what he's been smoking.The statement itself could not be more revealing of professorial naivety.

History shows that scientists frequently get things wrong. But even if Professor Nutt is entirely correct in his analysis, this doesn't mean his advice is equally correct. Politicians have to consider a great deal more than their scientific advisers: international treaties and understandings on the issue in question (the drugs trade), public opinion, the tabloids, the welfare of vulnerable members of society, and not least the opinions of other advisers (or are we to assume that professors always agree with each other?) etc.

Advisers merely give advice. They should not expect their advice always to be taken, still less expect ministers in effect to obey them. Nor should they conflate the right to freedom of speech with throwing a tantrum if their advice is rejected. If they want to influence policy, they should stand for office. They might then learn something about how difficult these issues are to deal with politically, however straightforward they may seem in the white-coated confines of the campus laboratory.

Submission Two

Okay. Let's have some fun.

The use of the word ecstasy in this context presumably means the practice of ecstasy consumption. The data obtained on its harmfulness are derived from the population of ecstasy consumers (NOT the proportion of the total population that consumes the drug).

Similarly the data on harm caused by horse-riding are derived from the population of horse riders.

Statistical data are, of course, taken from population samples.

In order for a comparison to be valid, the two samples have to be derived from the same (or at least very similar) populations. A simple random sample of the UK population will not work because it could not be guaranteed that it would contain any ecstasy consumers or horse riders. So in order to conduct a comparative analysis of "harm", we need a sample of ecstasy consumers and a sample of horse riders.

The population of horse riders in the UK includes:

1. Adults who ride horses as part of their profession: jockeys,
police officers, cavalry etc.

2. Adults who ride purely for recreation.

3. Hunters (or cross-country animal chasers)

4. Sports men and women, some of whom participate in national and international competitions.

5. Children

6. Circus and other performers.

The population of ecstasy consumers is...well no doubt Professor Nutt can tell us who consumes ecstasy and under what circumstances.

It's a fair bet that Professor Nutt's ecstasy population sample is different from that of horse-riders (if he ever used one). Children are unlikely to be represented among the drug-takers. Nor sports riders for that matter. Nor professional consumers - i.e. people who get paid for taking ecstasy.

You may think that if you remove professional horse-riders and children from your "rider" population and, say, restrict it to adults who ride for recreation, you can select ecstasy consumers of the same age range and thereby get comparable samples. The problem here is that the two samples would be selected differently and not randomly, which would invalidate the comparison.

Now let us look at how you define each activity. By ecstasy consumers do we mean anyone who consumes the drug once, or regular consumers. If the latter, what constitutes a regular consumer? How many acts of consumption qualify an individual for inclusion in the data sample?

We ask the same kind of questions of horse-riding. How many person-hours of riding per unit of time (say per year) qualify someone as a rider?

And once we have defined our sample populations, we still have to work out how to make one activity equivalent to the other (how many person-units of ecstasy consumption equal a person-unit of horse-riding or vice versa). This is necessary in order to be sure of a roughly equal chance a priori (i.e. before conducting the analysis) of finding "harmful effect" in each sample.

We then have to identify degrees of harm and its victims (the self and other parties). Do we choose, say, admissions to hospital, as our benchmark? Should we also include benefits (i.e. negative harm) as well as positive harm to health, happiness and long-term success or failure? In the case of horse-riding we can probably limit the definition of harm to injury suffered by the rider and the horse (okay there will be some third party injuries too).
Harm from drug-taking, however, is much less straightforward since the relationship of cause and effect may be less easy to establish and might only reveal itself in the long term. Harm to others may be significant - although we would have to be sure that ecstasy was involved (say a drug-induced driving accident), and this, of course, may be a matter of opinion unless we restrict ourselves to the decisions of a court of law following a trial.

All statistics derived from population samples are based on assumptions, but the assumptions themselves have to be reasonable, credible, defensible. The point I am making is that you can't simply take national statistics on aggregate horse-riding injuries, put them against figures (derived from where?) of harm caused by ecstasy consumption and say that one is more or less harmful than the other. To give an extreme example, breathing oxygen - something we all do - is 100% fatal. But it would be meaningless to say that breathing is more dangerous than warfare.

The chances of Professor Nutt having conducted a valid comparative statistical analysis between ecstasy and horse riding are - in my view - vanishingly small; and by making such a comparison he was, therefore, grandstanding. In other words, given that he was a government adviser, he was not making a scientific point but a political one.


PS The above assumes a direct relationship between 'use' and 'harm' (i.e. the more you do the more you are likely to suffer or cause harm). For ecstasy, this is probably a safe assumption. In the case of horse-riding, however, the relationship could be inverse, i.e. harm may be more common among neophytes than experienced riders. If this is so, then Professor Nutt's comparison could be more accurately described as being between ecstasy and inexperience - which would render it even more nonsensical.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Chavez - a Response

Enrique Krauze's anti-Bolivarian diatribe against Hugo Chavez is a typical product of the right-wing Mexican intelligentsia.

Like so many of the species, Krauze establishes his credentials in the eyes of readers with 'learned' references to European currents of thought (although the learning seems to me superficial). Even on the subject of Bolivar he defers to a single European source - John Lynch (with whom I studied at London's Institute of Latin American studies). Although Krauze omits to say so, Professor Lynch's biography is clearly in sympathy with its subject and admiring of the Liberator's achievements, as are most of the other manifold biographies (the literature both by and on Bolívar is immense). Salvador de Madariaga's "Bolívar" (1949) is an exception - the embittered, rather nasty account by an unsympathetic gachupín (Spaniard). But in case there should be any doubt about Professor Lynch's position, here is how he summarizes Bolivar's contribution to the struggle for independence: Bolivar
....showed the mental determination and physical skills required by the situation. He was the intellectual leader of the Spanish American revolution, the prime source of its ideas, the theorist of liberation whose arguments clarified and legitimized independence during and after the war.

Let us take as given that Krauze has read the relevant pages of Marx, Plekhanov and Carlyle and more or less understood them. To claim, however, that these Europeans are fundamental to interpreting Bolívar and Chavez is an astonishing leap of imaginative effrontery. And it leads Krauze to conclusions about them that are widely at variance with reality. This is not surprising when one considers that another familiar characteristic of Latin American intellectuals of the Krauze variety is that their knowledge of Latin America beyond their own country is often flimsy and tends to rest, at best, on a narrow range of sources supplemented by rather too much armchair reflection. For inspiration and content, they look first to Europe and the United States, and only secondarily, if at all, to the countries whose language they share and with whose history they have so much in common. Hence why almost everything that Krauze says about Bolívar is factually incorrect (one wonders, indeed, if he actually read Lynch's biography or merely skipped through it).

On that point, at least, he resembles Marx - whose virulent attack on the Liberator was based on little more than hearsay, since the history of the Latin American wars of independence and Bolivar's role in them had yet to be written. But facts didn't detain Marx any more than Krauze. What Marx detested in Bolivar was, above all, the idea of the great man, the charismatic leader, whose existence was ideologically repugnant if not inconceivable because it ran counter to historical materialism and the "inevitable" triumph of the proletariat. I think it possible to argue that it was not so much Bolivar's person that Marx reviled, but his reputation, the legend that had grown round him.

Krauze nevertheless quotes Marx's views on Bolivar at length, allowing to go unchallenged the canard that the Liberator wrote his Bolivian Constitution with the aim of awarding himself the position of Dictator for Life. In fact, Bolivar's attempt at writing a constitution was an honourable failure and Sucre - not Bolivar - became, with the latter's endorsement, the first effective (though short-lived) president of the country.

Bolivar may well have drawn his inspiration for the idea of a life presidency from the British system which he much admired, even though he would not countenance the idea of hereditary monarchy. Hence why the position of "President for Life" outlined in his Bolivian Constitution expressly states that
The President may not deprive any Bolivian citizen of his Liberty nor impose any sentence....he cannot prevent elections nor any other institution decreed by law...
An elected vice-president was to be the real head of government.

Throughout his political and military life, Bolivar struggled (unlike Marx) with the practical as well as the theoretical complexities of establishing a viable political system in the vast regions whose independence he had done so much to bring about. He saw that without a strong central government, regionalism and factionalism would tear the region apart and pave the way for the military coups and caudillismo that, in effect, have characterised so much of its post-independence history.

Bolivar himself complained that his name used in Colombia for good and evil and many people quote it in support of their stupidity.
Nevertheless, his views on government are well known and documented. And nowhere, perhaps, were they better articulated than in his famous speech to Congress at Angostura:
Repeated elections are essential...because nothing is more dangerous than allowing the same citizen to remain in power over a long period. The people become accustomed to obedience, and he becomes accustomed to command. A republican government, that is what Venezuela ... should have. Its principles should be the sovereignty of the people, division of powers, civil liberty, prohibition of slavery, and the abolition of monarchy and privileges. We need equality to recast, so to speak, into a single whole, the classes of men, political opinions, and public custom.

Despite these views, and his frequent attempts to turn them into policy, be began to despair of achieving them in the short term. Throughout his life as a public figure, he struggled with the issue of implementation in a region where most of the population was uneducated, while few among the tiny, ambitious elite were interested in anything other than a continuation of their privileged status. How far, Bolivar wondered, should democracy go without defeating itself? It is a question central to any effort to find a balance between liberty and equality, and one that continues to perplex philosophers and historians of ideas, and to exercise social scientists. To characterise Bolivar's struggle to shape and democratize the region as the blind ambition of a self-centred dictator is both ludicrous and disingenuous. Bolivar is not a South-American hero because the people are deluded - as Krauze implies with patrician disdain - but because he symbolizes and embodies ideals of justice and equality that have eluded - and continue to elude the vast majority of Latin Americans.

Krauze's virulent assault on Chavez is similarly riddled with distortions and inaccuracies. Perhaps the most unpleasant accusation, and arguably the most serious, is that the Venezuelan leader is anti-semitic and engaged in orchestrating a campaign against the Jewish community. I have looked long and hard for evidence of this - so far without success. All I have found are expressions by Chavez of disgust and disquiet about Israel's behaviour towards the Palestinians - a view many people share - including, it seems, the United Nations. The conflation of criticism of Israel with anti-semitism is, of course, a commonplace and should not detain us in the absence of more convincing evidence. If Chavez is anti-semitic - that is unacceptable and unforgivable; but I have yet to be convinced that the accusation has any foundation, and Krauze doesn't offer any. Anyone inclined to add this accusation to the many others directed at Chavez by the western media might do well first to listen to the Venezuelan government's response to the assault on the Mariperez Synagogue.

Right-wing attacks on Chavez invariably include - indeed often begin - with attempts to smear him with the rubric of dictator. The word occurs 22 times in Krauze's article; dictatorship 10 times. In fact, Chavez is a democratically-elected head of state who has survived at least one highly undemocratic attempt to unseat him, as well as a recall referendum. He has won and retained power in elections that all international observers agree to have been free and fair. Anti-chavista claims that the government controls the media also conflict with the evidence; as do the hysterical condemnations of the Venezuelan government's decision not to renew RCTV's licence. In truth, Venezuela has vigorous, independent media and - as Krauze admits (perhaps without quite understanding the implications) - a powerful, vociferous, well-financed and extremely muscular opposition. These would appear to be characteristics of a democracy.

Among Enrique Krauze's distinctions is that he sits on the board of Televisa - Latin-America's largest purveyor of mindless trash. He is a middle class intellectual in a country with one of the poorest and most disgraceful public education systems in the middle-income developing world. He is an intellectual fellow-traveller not of Bolivar - which would do him honour - but of Santander - the Liberator's duplicitous lieutenant, of Chile's Carrera Brothers, or more accurately (since Krauze is Mexican) of Iturbide the would-be emperor, of Porfirio Diaz and - post revolution - of Aleman, Echeverria, Lopez Portillo and Salinas de Gortari, all skilled at adopting the language of revolution and social justice while embedding privilege and sanctioning corruption.

One conclusion a casual reader might be tempted to draw from Krauze's account is that the Venezuelan people vote for Chavez because they're stupid and uneducated (perhaps like those who voted for AMLO in Mexico's stolen election), something that Krauze doubtless believes he understands a fondo because Televisa helps to keep them entertained (and no one with half a mind would pay attention to the pap it produces). Here Krauze (though he does not say so) joins Bolivar in acknowledging public ignorance and low educational attainment. But while Bolivar deplored this, saw it as a fundamental weakness, and did what he could to address it (including building schools and universities at state expense and paying the salaries of teachers); Krauze, 180 years later, earns money from it while excoriating figures like Castro and Chavez who have made public education a prime motif of government policy.

If there is an outrage perpetrated on the people of Latin America it is not the governments of Cuba, Venezuela and Bolivia, but the centuries of impoverishment and exploitation visited on the populace by successive generations of feckless leaders and the middle class elites that have sustained them. Bolivar at the end of his life was painfully aware that he had found no solution:
They will say of me that I liberated the New World, but they will not say that I have improved the happiness or stability of one single nation in America.
The condition of the poor in Latin America has changed far too little since Bolivar wrote those valedictory words. Latin-America's middle and upper classes have had a long run and they have manifestly failed the people they were supposedly in power to represent. Castro, Chavez, and Morales are not unfortunate aberrations but a direct consequence of the refusal of elites - ever since the Conquest - to address the savage inequalities that disfigure the continent.

Let us turn now to Krauze's view (such as it is) of Venezuela's economy. No one who has given the issue more than cursory attention disputes that Chavez has targeted the poor since he came into office - not just with rhetoric but with action aimed at improving their standard of living. Since the government gained control of the national oil company in 2003, Venezuela's GDP has almost doubled and - contrary to Krauze's account - most of the growth has been in the non-oil sector of the economy and in the private sector. Over the same period, the overall poverty rate has halved and extreme poverty has fallen by over 70 per cent. Between 1998 and 2008 social spending tripled in real terms, the number of primary health care physicians grew by a factor of 12, and infant mortality fell by a third. By any standards, these are remarkable achievements. Readers interested in understanding some of the real reasons why Chavez is repeatedly successful at the polls might wish to consult the study recently published by the Center for Economic and Policy Research (from which the data referred to above are sourced). To borrow the words of a famous American lawyer, Krauze's economic case against Chavez amounts to "ten pounds of hogwash in a five pound bag."

Assuming that Krauze is not merely grandstanding and that he actually believes what he writes, the only possible conclusion is that he simply hasn't bothered to ascertain the facts. This, more than anything, shows him up as an intellectual poseur, concerned not with exposing truth but disguising it with fake erudition in the service of a drearily familiar set of fatuous upper middle-class prejudices. And those who know something of Latin American history may well read the last sentence of his essay less as a prediction than as a threat. For it is couched in precisely the kind of inflammatory language that all-too-often has proved to be the prolegomenon of violent intervention.

Bibliographical note for English-language readers: An excellent brief account of Bolívar's thought can be found in J.L. Salcedo-Bastardo: Bolívar - A continent and its Destiny. The English translation (1978) is abridged - but contains most of the essentials. Of the biographies in English, the two best are those by John Lynch (2006), and Gerhard Masur (1948) - the former easily obtainable, the latter only in libraries. A fascinating contemporary narrative by Bolívar's aide-de-camp, Daniel Florence O'Leary seems to have been written in English, but it has only been published in Spanish as part of a multi-volume collection of papers that O'Leary assembled during and after the War of Independence. Bolívar's own writings were vast, but there is a good representative selection in Bushnell (ed): El Libertador: Writings of Simon Bolivar.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Financial Crisis, Protectionism and Bullshit

Katinka Barysch's recent article in Open Democracy on the current financial crisis and the G20 neatly summarises the conventional view of how to retrieve the situation. She could have managed an even neater summary by simply writing "more of the same - but with a little closer regulation". That, effectively, is the spartan recipe that Gordon Brown and many, if not all, economic soothsayers are trying to thrust down the gullet of a bewildered public both in the West and elsewhere. What has to be avoided they tell us - in dutiful obedience to received opinion - is a new round of protectionism, like the "disastrous" one of the 1930s. Nicolas Sarkozy has come in for special criticism for reportedly "tying" financial support for French car-makers to the employment of French workers.
In the new world order of global capitalism, governments can't be allowed to use national funds to protect national economies. International treaties on free trade and globalization oblige them to ignore the problems and, indeed, the wishes, of their own electorates if these conflict with the prevailing orthodoxy. Unfortunately, it is hard to see how this constraint is anything other than fundamentally undemocratic.
Such is the dilemma that Sarkozy is confronting in France where a highly politicized citizenry expects the President to be first in line to protect them in times of economic difficulty. Assertions that they will be better off losing their jobs now so that " in the long run" they can earn a little more later cut no ice with the French. Nor should they with any other electorate. Do we have to keep reminding ourselves of Keynes's warning about what the long run means?

Anti-protectionist rhetoric is misleading in many respects - too many for the compass of a short note such as this. I will briefly touch on just two that seem to me of particular importance.
First, if the free-traders are to be believed, we have been living - at least up to the onset of the crisis - in a world of largely free and unfettered commercial exchange. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth. All western countries routinely provide a variety of overt and covert types of support for nationally-based industries, examples of which are export marketing assistance, investment incentives, tax holidays, infrastructural projects related to plant location, special utility rates, farm subsidies, manipulation of exchange rates and so on. In the United States, a great deal of assistance to US corporations is provided at state and municipal levels, and through regional agencies such as the Tennessee Valley Authority Economic Development Division, and it passes below the visible horizon of foreign onlookers. In fact, the range of protectionist devices is limited only by the ingenuity of the economists and bureaucrats who are paid to invent them. While most political leaders in the West pay lip service to free trade, many governments beaver away behind the scenes to evade its implications - as the French President appears to be doing; and so too the President of the United States. Where the working population is in trouble is if they find themselves governed by leaders who really believe in the free trade nostrum - like Gordon Brown and Peter Mandelson.

Here we come to our second point. The vast sums being ploughed into economic recovery by western governments is to be paid for by - you guessed it - western taxpayers. So what an obsessive adherence to open commercial borders may mean is that a good proportion of the £billions and rising that Gordon Brown and co. are putting into circulation could be going straight into productive activities in some other part of the world, leaving the UK's unemployed scarcely better off than if the sums had not been spent at all; worse off, in fact, when the increased indebtedness is taken into account. The question that Obama and Sarkozy are trying to tackle, but that no UK politician or commentator appears to acknowledge is this: why should national taxpayers foot the bill for an economic stimulus package that is not aimed primarily and fundamentally at employment creation in their own country? Put more simply, why should I pay for someone in Slovenia to make cars? Or someone in China to make t-shirts? Are the Slovenian cars and the Chinese t-shirts truly cheaper? In an era of full employment, they might be; but in conditions of unemployment, their prices rise exponentially. They rise first because I am financing the production, and second because I am financing my own unemployment. In this light, free trade, in the version foisted on the world by the West, is fundamentally unstable. It works most efficiently for countries with full employment; but. as unemployment increases, its efficiency decreases. For developing countries with high unemployment it is plainly nonsensical. And it is not the way any of the developed countries achieved their privileged status, as Cambridge University 's Ha-Joon Chang convincingly demonstrates. See also his recent interview with Democracy Now.

As I write this, the UK car industry is reportedly fighting for survival. Trade theory has it that industries that falter should be left to die, while their workers should retrain for some other - unspecified - activity in which the country enjoys an equally unspecified comparative advantage. In reality, it is not lack of competitiveness that is hitting the UK car industry, but the severity of the recession. It is also hitting the industry in many other countries. Car manufacturing plants that survive will not be the most competitive but the ones receiving enough state aid to nurse them back to health.
In the current conditions of crisis, competition is not taking place between semi-comatose companies, but between politicians. The smartest (Obama and Sarkozy among them) will ensure one way or another that their key industries live to fight another day; those who are wedded to extremes of free trade ideology can be assured of one thing: they will lose the next election.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Free Speech, Wilders and Fire Alarms

Judge Oliver Wendell Holmes’s overrated example of the impermissible was falsely to shout ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre. What he was referring to was the likelihood that the people in the theatre would react in a way that would prove injurious. Note that there is nothing intrinsically subversive about the language of such a false warning. Its impact would depend on the audience’s inclination to panic and a belief that it was a genuine fire alarm and not part of the drama taking place on stage. Even then, it is perfectly possible to envisage circumstances in which, in the absence of any corroboration that the fire exists,the warning would be ignored. It happens all the time in hotels and offices when an errant alarm bell rings. Mostly our response is to stay put and carry on with what we were doing until and unless we hear otherwise. In other words, even when confronted with a warning, we use our own judgement about whether the warning is valid. And if the alarm proves false and no harm is done, we don’t ask for the janitor to be jailed.
In the case of Wilders, he was being invited to shout “fire” in the house of lords to an invited audience. Any assumption about the damning nature of his film is an assumption about the reaction of those who see it; namely that they would be incited to feelings of hatred that they did not already entertain. Such an assumption is likely to be made only by those who consider themselves exempt from the contamination they fear in others. It’s the same old prejudice once used to justify the theatre censorship role of the Lord Chamberlain’s office, and that still sustains the Obscene Publications Act.
Banning acts of expression before they have been made or can be shown to have caused harm seems to me a dangerous path to tread. It is the path traveled by authorities that, no matter how benign their intentions, believe they know what’s good for us better than we do.
Wilders’ film has been widely seen already. Many have undoubtedly found it offensive. I thought it simply nonsensical: unpersuasive, poorly argued, misleading, crass, technically inept, and in summary worthless. Has it incited me to violence or to break the law? No chance. Has it had such an effect on anyone? There appears to be no evidence that it has.
The most offensive language imaginable can have no impact if it merely evokes ridicule or indifference, or indignation, or revulsion. We may feel, rightly, that children should be shielded from it until they are old enough to form an opinion on its validity. But unless speech can be shown to have incited violence or mischief, there is no good case for banning it. Unless, that is, we are content to be treated forever as children - too immature and credulous to make informed judgements of our own - or even maybe to vote.

Originally written for Open Democracy

Sunday, February 22, 2009


Generic word for plants and animals that have been genetically altered to permit their survival in unfamiliar or hostile environments. Climagen Palm Trees, for example, have been modified to allow them to thrive in temperate climates, which is why they are to be seen growing on northern European beaches, and round the Great Lakes of North America. Similarly, a Russian billionaire has recently stocked his estate in the Urals with woolly-haired climagen elephants in honour of the extinct mammoths who once roamed there
During the last decade, the word appears to have extended its meaning to denote any kind of accommodation of one thing or person to another. People of gentle disposition are being referred to as “climagens”, as are politicians who change their mind.
A compound of “genetic” and “acclimatise”, the expression was originally coined by scientists at the University of Newfoundland who were working on a project to replenish the Grand Banks - once the world’s largest source of the now extinct northern cod - with several species of fast-breeding fish of tropical origin. The original project failed, not for want of technology, but because as soon as the new breeds settled to their northern environment, the fishing industry scooped them up and left the region as bereft of edible marine life as before.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The Convention on Modern Liberty - 28 February 2009

I believe we need to approach the question of Liberty in the modern state more broadly and deeply than is suggested by the initial comments of Convention participants.
The tendency of all three main UK parties - and notably the two largest - to converge in the centre of the political spectrum means that in respect of many, if not most, of the significant issues of the day, the electorate has no effective choice. If we were to conduct a national poll, for example, on whether the people want private sector involvement in the NHS, or in state schools, or running the railways, or taking over the London Underground, or a third runway at Heathrow, it’s a safe bet that the answer would be a resounding “no”. Yet most of our parliamentarians think otherwise.
Despite the enormous weight of government and opposition propaganda, did the people of these islands agree with the Iraq War, the introduction of fees for university students, the draconian measures embedded in omnibus legislation such as the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Bill, ID cards, pervasive street cameras, the madness of the Private Finance Initiative, the organization of our economic life on neo-liberal principles?
According to the polls, they didn't. But most of our parliamentarians did.
Government and Parliament alike appear to have sailed away on a trajectory of their own leaving a disarmed and bewildered electorate watching from the shore.
These issues are fundamentally about democracy. They are the apparel in which Liberty shows herself. If we have no voice in what happens to us, our freedom remains theoretical, an empress with no clothes.
Equally critical is the international dimension. European unity may be a wonderful thing, but the EU's unelected officials wield substantial powers and the people of Europe have no direct means of influencing their decisions or removing them from office. Beyond Europe, our government's political posturing and military ventures in other parts of the world are inextricably linked to the imposition of intrusive and authoritarian legislation at home. Is it feasible any longer to think of our freedom as just a national matter, capable of being addressed in isolation from our international alliances and commitments, from global warming, migratory movements, our apparent subservience to transnational capital and the world market?
I do not believe the government's assault on democratic freedoms is solely circumstantial - a reaction to real or imaginary threats; nor that the problem is this government and that its removal would bring the nightmare to an end. Rather it reflects a sclerotic and probably outmoded political and economic system, one that rests on extreme levels of inequality and disempowerment both within our country and internationally. Attempting to reverse repressive policies may achieve some limited success in the short term, but it is unlikely to change the prevailing imbalance between government power and the rights of the citizen, between our image of who we are and the reality of power relations in this country and beyond, between our commitment to neo-liberal capitalism and the multitudes who remain in abject poverty, between cheap imported goods in our local high street and child labour in the back streets of Dhaka, between the unemployed on the picket line in North Killingholme, Lincolnshire and the unimaginable profits of multinational corporations.
My ambition for the Convention on Modern Liberty is twofold: that it will signal the beginning of a root-and-branch examination of the way we are governed, and that it will lead to an exploration of political alternatives that more closely reflect the democratic aspirations of the people who live here.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Israel and Gaza

My grandfather - whom I never knew - was Jewish, and I married into a Jewish-Israeli family, but I belong neither to the race nor the faith. I have always disliked organized religion and any form of tribalism, both of which tend to inspire their adherents with feelings of exclusivity and superiority over those who do not share the same allegiances. I see myself, romantically, as a citizen of the world; though if anyone thinks this an easy option they have not truly experienced the loneliness and isolation such a position involves. To have no tribe, to join in no faith too often leaves one standing at the periphery of human warmth, drawn in, if at all, as a guest, and looked upon as a stranger - a word whose significance Jews as much as anyone will recognize.

This sense of being an outsider, coupled with the personal baggage of being a scion of an impoverished, English working-class family has no doubt spurred my hatred of the class system, of racism and of neo-liberal capitalism - all forms of oppression against the weak and the disadvantaged.

The Holocaust stands out as one of the most extreme examples of such oppression, but I have long questioned whether it's true significance - not just to the Jewish people but to Humanity - has been adequately understood. Some time ago, I wrote an essay in reaction to Claude Lanzmann's Holocaust documentary in which I tried to grasp the meaning of that horrific event for all of us. Here is an extract:

There is a sense in which we are indeed all guilty. However much the Nazi atrocities may repel us, they were committed by people; the same people who write poetry and music, who can speak to us in language of sumptuous beauty; the same people as we ourselves are. Somehow, along the road of human development, we reached a fork and were led in a direction of unspeakable criminality, of which the Holocaust is simply a recent and terrible example. We have all been forced along that road; and the experience has left an indelible stain on our skin. No serious definition of what it means to be human can avoid that stain. Our free will, of which we are so proud, has been shown to be a freedom to create hell. The Nazis made one such hell; but they are not alone. Wherever the diseases of blind prejudice, unthinking xenophobia, or just petty racial arrogance lead us to see other men and women as essentially different from ourselves, inferior, less intelligent, alien, evil perhaps and threatening, then we offer ourselves a licence to treat them as disposable items, creatures to be coerced or, if necessary, extinguished. None of us is immune to such spiritual infections.
It would be easy and comfortable to blame circumstances, or the evil play of chance, for this state of affairs. But it is not life or circumstances that are evil, only we who make them so. And we will continue to do so so long as we believe that we alone are glorious in the sight of God; so long as we visit hatred and contempt upon the children of others; so long as we cannot see that all of us are Nazis just as much as we are Jews.

In this context, I offer here a series of images of the 2008 Israeli attack on Gaza. All but one of the collages were sent to me by a friend. The quotations accompanying each image were added by me. I don't own the copyright to any of the photographs and, in the absence of any information to the contrary, I am assuming they're in the public domain.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Greed, Privatization and the Financial Crisis

News clips of shoppers fighting each other to reach the bargains at post Christmas sales remind us that greed is not confined to financial wheeler dealers. Our annual end-of-year shopping frenzy is not a consequence of shortages, as might have been the case in post-war Germany or communist Russia, but of surpluses. Stores are laden with unsold goods for one reason alone: because no one really needs them. That, in a nutshell, is how our economic system works: namely by inducing people to buy things they don't need.

Few better examples exist than New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani's post 9/11 plea for people to return to New York and shop. Commerce, in the end, was more critical to the city's health than the loss of a couple of iconic buildings and a few thousand lives. Shopping - constant, unremitting acquisition of material goods - fuels our way of life. If our lust for new cars, new clothes, new refrigerators, new houses, falters - capitalism falters too. Wall Street's recent scandals - greed written large - are merely a wide-screen version of a soap opera played out daily in every high street in the hemisphere.

If our political leaders are to be believed, the way to resolve the current crisis is to inject a few billion dollars into failing corporations, throw some ne'er-do-well hot-shots into jail, and tinker with the financial regulations. Then we can all go back to buying and selling, and all will be fine in the best of all possible worlds. Right?

Well, maybe not.

For the first time in decades, dissenting voices are beginning to question the consensus. Doubts are being raised about the long-term viability of our economic system. Marx is finding new advocates and not without reason.

Marxist theory tells us that for the system to work, most of us must spend our lives enriching the owners of capital. This seems to be precisely what has occurred.

Those hundreds of thousands, maybe millions who took out mortgages that were beyond their means are a direct reflection of increasing inequality and - yes - poverty. People were promised the dream of home ownership and then found - too late - that carpet-baggers, corporate directors, and feckless politicians had placed it beyond their reach.

Hence why the response of Western governments to the current crisis gives cause for alarm. Effectively, the corporate sector that got us into this mess is now proposed as the only viable means of getting us out of it.

A more bizarre solution could hardly be imagined. If we turn from the current crisis to a more fundamental one, like global warming, the absurdity stands out, perhaps, more clearly. Without "incentives", industry will do little or nothing to help clean up our environment: such is the message from Washington and Westminster. Yet expecting global warming to be resolved through the same greed that created the problem - and that creates periodical economic crises too - is like inviting a thief who's just stolen your purse to burglarize your house as well. Capitalism isn't concerned with social welfare - and the notion so beloved of neo-liberals that individual selfishness promotes the general good is almost too easy to refute. That it continues to hold sway over Western governments and their economic soothsayers probably reflects the familiar human difficulty of owning up to error.

Though government trust in the private sector to do things better remains unswerving, like gospel it rests less on fact than on faith. Let's take the UK as an example. In addition to building the National Health Service and an education system that has produced more than our fair share of Nobel prize winners, the state runs military, police and fire services, and has developed almost all our transportation infrastructure. It created most of our utilities and ran them superbly until they were practically given away to the private sector. Along with allies, it helped to orchestrate the defeat of fascism in WWII. In the past 100 years, the state's achievements on behalf of the citizenry have been nothing short of spectacular.

Still, we are told that if most public services were subject to market discipline, they would be more efficient and cost-effective. It is a baseless argument. In the commercial sector, the consequences of inefficiency are bankruptcy or closure -- and there are no public service obligations such as delivering mail to remote "unprofitable" areas or treating impoverished patients. Unfortunately, water and electricity supplies, rail schedules and rubbish collection can't be closed down if the companies that run these services are poorly managed or unprofitable. Instead, they go cap-in-hand to the government for subsidies or price increases. In place of market discipline, we get licensed extortion -- often accompanied by a net reduction in the quality of service. My water, gas and electricity supplies have not improved since privatization, they have simply become more expensive.

This does not mean, of course, that the public sector always gets things right. Incompetency is a human failing - and an ubiquitous one. But the idea that it is, by definition, blundering, inefficient, and unresponsive is not based on evidence but on ideology riding on a cloud of woolly thinking.

Deaf both to the lessons of history and to the cries of public unease, ministers nevertheless continue to shed state assets and the responsibilities that go with them. In the UK, the latest divestiture has been of our remaining participation in the Aldermaston Atomic Weapons establishment. Next to go will be a handsome share of Royal Mail. Details of such transactions, of course, remain secret, in order - so we are told - to protect "commercial confidentiality". This repellent phrase now stands on a par with the Official Secrets Act as one of the UK government's prime tools for evading public scrutiny. And this despite the obvious - and obviously inconvenient - fact that publicly-owned facilities belong to the tax payer (a.k.a. you and me) and that, as shareholders, we should have a right to know what deals are being struck on our behalf.

Kropotkin pointed out that the price of a house in Paris, which only a rich man could afford, lay not only in the bricks and mortar and the patch of earth on which it stood, but also in the city itself with its roads and sewers, theatres and museums, schools and hospitals all constructed - just like the house - with the sweat and toil of labourers too poor to rent the meanest of its rooms. Public investment in social infrastructure constitutes the bedrock of economic activity without which private enterprise could not function. Taxpayers are by definition investors in private enterprise, and privatization is, therefore, largely a transfer into private hands of the means of producing what Marx called "surplus value" - publicly-generated profits.

If, as I suspect, our current economic arrangements are inadequate to meet the future needs of humanity and of the planet - then our first question must be to decide whether or not we care.

Assuming we do, then the challenge that faces us - and that sooner or later we will have to confront - is how to develop an alternative economic model geared to the general welfare rather than individual enrichment, to meeting need rather than stimulating greed, to preservation of the environment rather than its exploitation. Exactly how such a model could work is open to debate; but it's a sure bet that greed, superfluous consumption, and privatization of public assets won't be in the plan.