Sunday, 29 May 2016

1984: A critique


George Orwell's 1984 has a good claim to be one of the most famous books of all time. It is certainly one of the most famous books about politics, and has given us terms such as Thought Police, Big Brother and Orwellian. 1984 is frequently referenced in political discourse, but I am curious as to how many people who quote the infamous line about ‘a boot stamping on a human face – forever’ have actually read the rest of the book. Until recently, I had not read 1984; I knew the story, set up and characters, and I have read many of Orwell's non-fiction books, but I had never actually read his seminal text. So I decided to read the often-referenced indictment of tyranny and oppression.

1984 lived up to the hype. As well as being a terrifying vision of the future of humanity, where individualism, free thought and emotions are crushed by a cruel one-party super-state, I found it to be brilliantly written. I also found the book to be strangely old-fashioned in its thinking. Not conservative or even suffering from having an outdated vision of the future, many of Orwell's ideas about constant surveillance, entertainment machines that monitor you, and a fearful population constantly policing each other have come true. The key difference is that it is Google and Facebook who are constantly watching us, not the government. It is not a political party that wants to crush any dissenting thought, but hundreds of angry middle aged men on Twitter sending abuse to any woman who dares to question patriarchy. 1984 brilliant predicts 21st century life, but behind the scrutiny is not a not a shadowy political elite but large companies and ordinary human beings.

Our political debate has moved on from 1984. On the surface, Orwell's novel is an argument against the power of the state and for individual freedom. Orwell lived through the rise of Fascism and Stalinism in the 1930s and saw the USSR stretch its influence across Europe after the Second World War. He joined a Trotskyist brigade in the Spanish Civil War and fought against Fascism, but was appalled at how Stalinism was crushing alternative political movements on the left. Orwell believed in democratic socialism and individual freedom, and was against the naked tyranny of Stalinism. He wrote 1984 as a left-wing criticism of Stalinism, and not as a blanket condemnation of Communism - which unthinking readers often assume that it is.

Today, the threat of a specifically Stalinist dictatorship conquering the world through its subversion of the worker's struggle for emancipation is a distant memory. However, individual freedom does not reign worldwide. We are still watched over by a unknown elite, but now it is the masters of big data, not big government. Our thoughts and actions are still policed, not by political officers but by each other. Stalinism is dead, but we are still as frightened and as alienated as we were during Orwell's lifetime.

From our contemporary point of view, 1984 reads like a vision of the future from the past. It seem as a strange as the view in 1975 that we would be living on the moon in 1999. As I was reading the book, I kept asking myself, who supports this system? Who passionately believes in it, in the way that men on Twitter defend patriarchy and capitalism? Does everyone only support it out of terror? The political system of 1984 is so mercilessly awful that I felt that someone needs to gain from it or feel more secure through its existence to create the social cohesion that holds the system together. There are a few inner-party people who gain from the system, but what does the majority of the population get from it? Neoliberal capitalism benefits mainly a tiny group of the ultra-rich and oppresses billions worldwide, however the power of the ultra-rich is built on a comfortable middle class, who are supportive of the system because of their fear and superiority over the poor. The middle class lose out under neoliberalism (how many middle class people can afford to buy a property in London any more?), but they support it because they benefit enough from it not to cause a fuss.

In 1984, everyone suffers but no one questions. I do not see a political system like this surviving today, not with our ability to self-organise through social networks. Look at the Arab Spring and how the cruel dictatorships were swept aside by popular resentment (unfortunately to be replaced by war, chaos and more dictatorships). A system like that shown in 1984 could have conceivably existed the 1940s, 1950s or 1960s, but not today. Social control still exists, but not in such as an aggressive and heavy-handed way.

Orwell was a member of a Trotskyist Party in the Spanish Civil War and a Marxist critique of class and capitalism runs through his writing. However, 1984 does not take into account the work of the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci on cultural hegemony. The totalitarianism of 1984 is heavy-handed and unstable. Culture is used to protect the party's power; the character of Julia works writing novels for the Ministry of Truth, but these are also blunt instruments of state control. Today social control still exists, but without taking away our individual freedom. It exists through subtly convincing us all that an artificial economic system - which only really benefits the very rich - is natural, inevitable and in all our best interests. If Orwell was writing 1984 today, it would reflect a similarly bleak future, but it would also reflect how individual freedom is co-opted by cultural hegemony to suppress dissent against the economic and political elites. The nature of Marxist critiques of society have changed.

One of the most positive things that happened during the second half of the 20th century was the decline of totalitarianism and the expansion of democracy. The Berlin Wall fell and the dictatorships of Eastern Europe transitioned to democracy. China has liberalised, apartheid has ended in South Africa, and totalitarian in regimes in Chile, Argentina, Indonesia, Burma and many other countries have ended or are currently embracing democracy. The Arab Spring showed how the oppressed people of the world hunger for freedom and democracy. However, we are still not free. We are not free from class when social mobility is declining, we are not free from patriarchy when 1 in 4 women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime, we are not free from racism when Donald Trump can glide his way to the Republican nomination on a platform of Islamophobia and anti-Hispanic racism. Russia transitioned from a communist dictatorship to a capitalist one. The far right and neo-Nazi parties are growing in popularity across Europe and Fundamentalist Islam is spreading in the Middle East across Iraq and Syria. With the fall of Communism, it looked like freedom had won, but freedom is as much under threat today as it looked when Stalin might roll his tanks from Berlin to Lisbon.

Tyranny is still real, but it's face has changed since Orwell wrote 1984. It has become subtler and more appealing to our fears and insecurities. In the 1930s and 1940s, Stalinism and Fascism wanted aggressively to take away our rights and suppress our individualism; now, it is our rights and our individualism that is used to police us. There is no Big Brother, no Party, no Thought Police, but we are constantly watching each other and any deviation from the dominant ideology is swiftly punished - ask anyone who stands up for women's rights on Twitter. The ways in which a shadowy elite control society and politics for their own interest have become much subtler since 1984 was written, but they are still just as present. If you want a vision of the future, just imagine a voice whispering that this is natural and in our best interest into your ear, forever.

Thursday, 12 May 2016

Labour need a better strategy

Jeremy Corbyn

Now that the dust has settled on "Super Thursday" we can critically examine Jeremy Corbyn’s first big electoral test as leader of the Labour Party. The results are very mixed. The Labour Party had some successes, most notably Sadiq Khan’s election as Mayor of London ending the Tories’ eight-year occupation of that office. Elsewhere Labour did not fare so well, losing overall control of the Welsh Assembly and slipping to third place in the Scottish elections.

The severe trouble that Scottish Labour finds itself in predates Corbyn’s election as Labour leader; he cannot take much blame for it. However the real problem comes from the wider test of Corbyn's electability, the council elections. Last Thursday the Labour Party became the first opposition party to lose council seats in mid-term local elections since 1985. The Labour Party picked up fewer councilors than Ed Miliband's Labour in 2012 or William Hague’s Conservatives in 1998 - both of which went on to electoral defeats.

This does not necessarily mean Labour is doomed to a landslide defeat in 2020. It is almost impossible to accurately predict the outcome of an election four years in the future. However with Tories, Lib Dems and UKIP eating into Labour’s support and no clear path back to electability in Scotland, the outlook for Labour is not so good.

In many ways the Corbyn leadership is going badly. There have been a series of unprofessional disasters including John McDonnell waving around Chairman Mao's Little Red Book and Ken Livingston opening on Hitler a week before a critical election. The Conservatives are maneuvering on the centre ground of British politics and increasing their electoral support. At the same time, accusations of rising anti-Semitism are proving difficult to refute.

The ultimate question for Labour is what alternative is there? Corbyn's three leadership rivals were dismissed by party members not because of sudden love of socialism, but because they offered no chance of winning an election. The simple truth is that there is currently no alternative plan to get Labour back into government. Moderates talk about Dan Jarvis as a replacement leader, however, I do not understand what happens after Jarvis (or any other moderate) replaces Corbyn. What is the moderates' strategy for winning back voters and getting Labour into power?

In order for Labour to win the 2020 general election the party needs a platform that is radically different to what Gordon Brown offered in 2010, Miliband offered in 2015 and what the Tories are offering now. Repeating the failed 2010 or 2015 approach will not work in 2020. I do not see a direction that the moderates would take Labour in that would be different enough from the mistakes of the past and the current Tory government.

Those who argue for a return to Blair’s triangulation strategy miss the point. Rather than a cohesive coalition between working and middle class voters, the 1997 landslide relied on chasing ‘aspirational’ Middle England, safe in the knowledge that working class core voters could be relied on to vote Labour anyway. Endemic political alienation since then, along with the financial crash, means re-running New Labour is not the answer either.

Labour is under attack from all sides. Centrist middle class voters are defecting to the Tories; working class and northern voters are being wooed by UKIP. Scotland is off the table, for now. The strategy that the moderates would adopt to win back centrist, middle class voters is likely to drive working class voters to UKIP, and left leaning, metropolitan liberals to the Greens. There no is guarantee that Labour would fare any better under a different leader.

It is not enough to simply write off victory in 2020, as I fear both Corbyn and the Labour moderates have done. Labour needs a plan to return it to government. This criticism applies to both Corbyn, and to the moderates: fighting over control of the party does not matter if the party loses 100 seats in the next election. There has to be a clear strategy to win, and "make Dan Jarvis party leader” is not a plan, it is barely even the beginning of one.

Labour cannot spend the next 4 years squabbling and hand the Tories a landslide victory in 2020. Labour needs a clear, workable strategy to win the general election. Now is not the time for complacency. Now is the time for action.

Sunday, 8 May 2016

Hillary Clinton cannot save America

Hillary Clinton

Hot take: Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders are reinvigorating politics and shaking up the left wing establishment. It's a cliche of political blogging, drawing out the obvious comparisons between old white men, both veteran socialist campaigners who are enjoying an unlikely period of success despite many people writing off their ideology in the early 90s.

It shows how complacent the centre left in Britain and America have become. Before the UK general election, and when the American Presidential election had only been going on for 6 months (why does it last 2 years?), no one would have imagined that Jeremy Corbyn would win a landslide victory to lead the Labour Party and that Bernie Sanders would give Hillary Clinton a run for her money. Then again, a year ago we were told that Donald Trump could never be the Republican Nominee.

The centre left (the Clintons, Coopers and Burnhams of this world) have been startled by a surge in support for the far left, mainly amongst younger and more disenfranchised party members. Their only response has been scare tactics. The conversation has been remarkably similar on both sides of the Atlantic: "he'll alienate moderates, he's unelectable, look at that awful right wing guy with freaky hair who will get power if we choose him".

If Sanders and Corbyn are so completely unelectable, then how come professional centre left politicians with years of experience, huge amounts of money, massive popular recognition and opinions that (apparently) everyone agrees with cannot beat them? Could it be because the centre left has completely lost its way and has nothing to offer anymore? Does anyone seriously think that electing Hillary Clinton as President will change much?

When Barack Obama was elected President back in 2008 I was hopefully for change. Eight long, painful years of George Bush Jr's presidency was coming to an end. A young, energetic, exciting politician was sweeping his way to victory. Surely after the disastrous wars and economic collapse of previous Republican government, things were going to be different this time.

For a while that hope lasted, Obama said he would close the prison in Guantanamo Bay, end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and deliver healthcare for millions of uninsured poor Americans. Then the Republicans took back the House of Representatives and the rest of the Obama presidency became a slow war of attrition between the Democratic White House and the Republican Congress. The pettiness reached its height in Autumn 2013 when the Republican shutdown the entire US government simply because they could.

I do not think Clinton will tackle the deep rooted problems of America: the huge economic inequality, the systematic unemployment, the criminalisation and intense poverty of African Americans, the openly xenophobic politics, the systematic assault on women's rights, the hollowing out of worker's rights, the sense of hopelessness and powerlessness that gives rise to extremism. I had more confidence that Obama would tackle these problems when he was re-elected in 2012 (despite four years of painfully slow struggle) than I do in a future Clinton presidency. What does Clinton have to offer to tackle America’s problems? Not much that is particularly inspiring.

The issue in Britain and America is that the centre left has nothing to offer to fix the problems of society (a lot of which were caused by their past periods of power, i.e. Blair and Clinton I). The centre left has run out of things to offer other than being opposed to the centre right, which they look quite similar to. The only reason why the centre left is in less of a crisis in America than in Britain is because the right is in thrall to the far right, which is scaring moderate voters. Trump is a gift to Clinton; I do not think she could have beaten Jed Bush or Marco Rubio.

Obama has achieved a lot in his 8 years, he did provide the healthcare he promised and stopped the Republican Congress from defunding it. He did pull America out of Afghanistan and Iraq (after a while). He brought Iran in from the cold and avoided the worst effects of the stagnating global economy. He did not close Guantanamo and he has taken America into wars in Libya and Syria. Clinton does not fill me with the confidence that she can even achieve this much. Her centre left politics do not seem capable of responding to the more complex and frightening world of the 21st century. They seem more appropriate to the mid 1990s when we thought the good times will never stop rolling. A slightly more compassionate neoliberalism is not what the world needs now. The world's needs change, now more than ever.

Bernie Sanders offers the change that America needs. Unfortunately his campaign was doomed from the start. His poll ratings among ethnic minorities are very low and he cannot win the democratic nomination without the support of black and Hispanic democrats. The current delegates spit is 2,228 to Clinton and 1,454 to Sanders, with 2,383 being the magic number to win the race. It looks like it will be Hillary Clinton.

Clinton will most likely defeat Trump to become the next President. I am sure she will be a good liberal President. She is unlikely to ban Muslims from entering the country or pass a national ban on abortions. However, I do not think she will tackle the deep rooted structural problems in American society. Oppression, hopelessness and feelings of powerlessness are rising and this breeds extremism of all flavours. America needs the type of change that Sanders promises and it needs it soon.

Sunday, 1 May 2016

Will Britain leave the EU?

Will Britain leave the EU?

Britain's EU membership is divisive on the left and the right. In conversations recently, I have been told on separate occasions that there are no valid arguments for staying in or leaving the EU. I believe there is a case for both remaining in the EU and for leaving it. Leaving aside which way you should vote, can we predict what the result is likely to be?

The polls are currently predicting a narrow win for the remain camp, but after last year's surprise general election result, faith in polling is low. All polls should be taken with a pinch of salt at this point.

The majority of the electorate has not made up their mind. Very few people engage with politics outside of a general election, and the looming implications of the referendum are yet to dawn on most people. The majority of voters will decide 2 weeks or less beforehand, around the time they realise that their vote matters because referendum results are more proportional than a general election.

The way a voter makes up their mind is important when considering the outcome of any vote. In the EU referendum the argument for leaving is mainly an emotional one. It hinges on the belief that the EU is crushing British identity and pushing the country in a direction the people do not want to go in. If you on the right this is epitomised by uncontrolled migration; on the left it is a corporate assault on the NHS. Voters who make up their mind based on emotional arguments are more likely to do this immediately before the election itself. Emotional decisions are quick ones, they feel instantly right.

The remain argument is a more logical one. It is simply that Britain will be better off as a member of the EU than outside it. It comes down to jobs and money. It is not inspiring, it is cold and rational. Voters who make decisions based on logic tend to make them further in advance. This is why polls taken further out from an election will generally return a result that follows an argument based on logic. Polls taken nearer to an election will show a greater degree of voters influenced by their emotions.

With most voters likely to make up their minds only in the final few weeks, the emotional resonance of the leave argument is yet to have an impact. This makes it difficult to predict what the result will be this far in advance.

A case in point is the Scottish Independence referendum. Similarly, remain was a logical decision, based on jobs and money, and leave was an emotional decision, based on freedom and national identity. Polls taken far in advance showed a clear majority for remain, whereas polls taken immediately before the vote showed a majority in favour of leaving. Remain started strong and slowly declined as emotional voters moved from the undecided to the leave camp.

On the day, more voters were influenced by the logical arguments based around the money in their banks accounts than an emotional appeal to their national identity. However the emotional argument still resonated and that has translated into continuing success for the SNP.

There is clearly a lot of dissatisfaction with the EU. The left have found it hard to articulate their support in a concrete way. There are lots of problems with the EU - how undemocratic it is, how secretive it is, and how it pushes a neoliberal agenda on its members. I get the feeling that many on the left support the remain campaign because the leaders of the leave campaign are so repulsive. There is very little willingness to agree with Michael Gove, Chris Grayling, Nigel Farage or George Galloway (regardless of how the latter sees himself as the saviour of the left).

I always thought of myself as intrinsically pro EU membership. But when I tried to articulate my reasons for this in a positive way, I found it hard to build a concrete argument. A lot of things I like about EU membership - visa free travel and the diversity of London - are unlikely to disappear if we leave. We currently do not need visas to visit Iceland, Norway, Switzerland or Israel, and London will always be a cultural melting pot.

The argument for remaining is mainly the frightening thought that if we leave, there will be job losses and the Tories will be free to do whatever they want to the people of Britain. This negative argument makes me doubt my own support for EU membership.

My own experience seems to be symptomatic. There is a lack of a positive pro-EU vision coming from the left, and without this, many of those who support EU membership do so grudgingly.

If this shortage of enthusiasm on Election Day results in low turnout from left wing voters then Brexit will become more likely - those who are passionately anti-EU will be guaranteed to vote. If the left cannot find a positive and inspiring argument for EU membership then Britain will leave the EU.

The polls may indicate that Britain is staying in the EU, but I think the question of whether Britain will leave is still wide open. This far out it is too difficult to take an accurate reading. If I had to make a prediction, it would be that whichever sides wins, it will be by the narrowest of margins.

Sunday, 24 April 2016

What should Greece do? Part 2

Aelxis Tsipras Prime Minister of Greece

In my last post I looked at political problems of Greece’s national debt and the argument against Greece paying the debt. Now I will address the implications of Greece leaving the Euro.

From the interviews with many Syriza supporters in Theopi Skarlatos and Paul Mason’s film #ThisIsACoup, I got the impression that this is what Syriza’s supporters want them to do. They feel that Greece has been humiliated by its creditors and they want Syriza to stand up for Greece. Whenever Syriza make a deal to with Greece’s creditors, Syriza supporters say they feel betrayed by the party they voted for.

The reason why Greece cannot default on its debt is because its economy would collapse. As has been said before, the majority of the Greek national debt is propping up Greek banks. If Greece defaults on its debt it would have to leave the Euro, and if it left the Euro then the EU would stop lending to Greek banks. This will cause them to collapse. In today’s finance based neo-liberal economy no country can survive the collapse of its banking sector, people would lose all their savings and their homes. So defaulting on its debts would mean economic armageddon for the Greek people. Understandably this is something Syriza want to avoid.

One of the points that Theopi Skarlatos and Paul Mason’s film makes is that Syriza’s mistake was playing for time. They argue for an extension on Greece’s debt while they renegotiate their position. During this time Greek banks have become more dependent on EU lending. Syriza could have got out of the debt if they had defaulted earlier, perhaps as soon as they had taken power, but by the time the negotiations were concluded it was clear that defaulting on Greece’s debt was not an option.

Another reason for Greece to not default on its debt is that it would take around 12 months for Greece to set up a new national currency to replace the Euro. If Greece started to lay plans to leave the Euro in 12 months time, it would be discovered and would mean announcing that Greece planned to default on its debts. This would create a panic, all assets would be removed from Greece by investors and creditors and the economy would collapse sooner. Leaving the Euro and/or defaulting on its debt would ruin the Greek economy and is not an option.

If paying the debt, or defaulting, are not options then a compromise will have to be reached. A compromise where Greece pays some of its debt but not all of it. After watching the film I think this is the solution that Syriza want and is the most sensible.

The only problem with this approach is that the EU does not want to compromise. Throughout the film the EU refuse to allow any amount of Greece’s crippling debt to be written off. After Syriza’s first debt extension, the EU demands that Greece pass a law saying the EU could veto any future Greek laws, which only increases their power over Greece. Later Syriza wanted to give free food to the poor and the old, but the EU used their power veto this. Clearly the EU were only interested in putting as much pressure onto Greece as possible so that they would pay the debt back. However, as discussed above this debt was illegal and practically cannot be paid back.

In the absence of a compromise, and faced with two impossible options, the negotiations between Syriza and Greece’s creditors do not lead to a resolution. The film shows Greek Prime Minister and Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras looking increasingly tired as he tries to find a way out of this impossible bind, even resorting to calling a referendum and a snap election to give the Greek people as much say as possible in the future of their country.

The film ends after the second general election victory for Syriza in September 2015. Since then there has been no clear solution to the problem of Greece’s debt. The film ends with the gloomy implication that if Syriza fail to resolve the problem in a way that is satisfactory to the Greek people then we do not know where the anger that drove Syriza to power will go next. If it becomes support for neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn, then the implications for the whole of Europe are terrifying.

From watching this film I initially thought that Greece should default on its debt because it was crippling its economy and the EU had no interest in compromising. After thinking about issues and listening to the Q&A with Theopi Skarlatos and Paul Mason, I realised that this was not possible. A compromise between the EU and Syriza is the only viable resolution to this situation, which has grown worse with the arrival of hundreds of thousands of migrants and the possibility of a Nazi takeover in Greece. Surely the EU does not want to see a Nazi government in control of so many vulnerable immigrants, so they will have to compromise with Syriza. The Greek national debt is still a live issue and we need to remember the possibility of a fascist regime with a million non-White immigrants is a real possibility and should be avoided at all costs.

Syriza are up against forces much more powerful than themselves and they are hampered by the fact that their own supporters are not always in favour of what they do - although so far their electoral support remains strong. I have a lot of respect for Alexis Tsipras and the other leaders of Syriza who are faced with such a mammoth task. I believe they do have the best interests of the Greek people at heart and are trying to work towards a realistic and workable compromise. Hopefully they can succeed, because I am very frightened of the implications if they fail.

Sunday, 17 April 2016

Safe Spaces? Censorship on Campus


‘Well I am just a student sir, and I only want to learn / but it’s hard to read through the rising smoke of the books that you like to burn’.

These lines from a mid-sixties protest song by Phil Ochs convey the same message as many of the era: cultural and political conservatives had, for years, tried and succeeded in policing what students could read, watch or listen to, but it was time to challenge old authorities.

More recently, there has been a trend which can be seen as an inversion of this model. Student campaigns, considered broadly left-wing, have been advocating, with some success, various forms of modern day censorship. The chances are you’ve heard of some of them – the removal of (often seemingly benign) texts from syllabuses, or the addition of misrepresentative ‘trigger warnings’, the cancellation of speakers, or the removal of items such as building names or statues from university campuses.

The general aim has been to create and protect ‘Safe Spaces’ for those often marginalised or discriminated against. No doubt well-intentioned, the trend is nonetheless disconcerting.

It’s an emotive topic, and it seems wise first of all to explain what this article is not. It is not an argument against the concept of Safe Spaces, the idea that universities should take into account the sensibilities of an increasingly diverse student population.

I will not be arguing that white, male, straight people are the real victims of discrimination nowadays. They aren’t. Neither is it an argument in favour of untrammelled free speech. There have always been laws and customs limiting free speech, and rightly so. I will, instead, argue in favour of open, honest, challenging academic debate. This cannot always, or perhaps shouldn’t always, be comfortable. To use a word well-worn by the advocates of Safe Space, censoring things that might offend is, in the least, problematic.

There is a precedent of left-wing censorship at universities, including for less-than-honourable ends, as any reader of Malcolm Bradbury’s satirical campus novel, The History Man, can attest. But in general, forces of the Right were the ones (usually not literally) burning the books. On the Left, the obvious antecedent is the longstanding NUS No Platform policy on racist parties like the BNP. As a student, I supported this, but now, I’m not so sure.

What were we afraid of – that impressionable students would be converted into fascists by one of Nick Griffin’s half-wits? No, we don’t want them goose-stepping all over campus beating up ethnic minorities, but letting them have their say is a different matter. Racism is easy to defeat in open debate, and we shouldn’t have been afraid to do so.

No Platform has now been extended, on different campuses, to all sorts of speakers from feminists to UKIPers. But whatever their views, is it justifiable? In a university of all places? It makes us look frightened, like we don’t trust people with certain arguments. Let’s treat people as rational adults who can make up their own minds. I don’t like Germaine Greer’s views on transsexual people (or her views on men for that matter) but I don’t see any inherent harm, as students at Cardiff evidently did, in letting her have her say.

The now well-known Rhodes Must Fall campaign to remove colonialist Cecil Rhodes’s statue from Oriel College, Oxford, is symptomatic of the movement. It seems like a good idea at first glance, proposed by people whose motivations are understandable. But Britain’s troubling colonial history is surely addressed best head-on, not swept under the carpet.

Contextualisation, not deletion, might help: a plaque describing, in soberly factual terms, what Rhodes actually did. This view is hardly tantamount to colonial apologism, as some would have it.

The problem with censorship, or even the perception that it is being pushed for, is that it encourages taboos. Taboos become cool and subversive to defy, giving rise to a narrative of ‘political correctness gone mad’ and ‘snowflake’ (i.e. hypersensitive) students.

I instinctively dislike the tendency to pile-on, mob-like, to decry an individual or book as racist or misogynistic; there’s something of the witch hunt about it. It looks closed-minded and reactionary, and it feeds this narrative. The Left shouldn’t end up as a mirror image of the Right’s moralising censorship, setting itself up for challenge by daring convention-breakers.

There’s another problem inherent to this type of identity politics: it can lead to competitive, sometimes directly contradictory, grievance raising. One group’s affirmation of safe space may be the violation of another’s, as was the case in the odd events involving the ex-Muslim Iranian human-rights activist Maryam Namazie at Warwick and Goldsmiths universities, recounted here.

The criticism of those arguing against censorship is often that it’s easy for privileged people (white, male, straight etc) to denigrate Safe Space; we’re not the ones who need it. For people like me, they say, the presence of a particular speaker is merely a philosophical issue, whereas for minority groups, it’s an act of aggression.

I don’t agree. I’m not telling any less privileged group what they’re allowed to be offended by, although I appreciate it may sound worryingly close to that. If words hurt, then the best way to counter is to argue back. Education should thicken the skin and broaden the mind. This ought to apply to those demanding Rhodes’s removal, as well as those who cannot countenance any questioning of his existence without crying ‘political correctness gone mad’.

Universities must, first and foremost, be centres of febrile and fearless discussion. So, by all means, protest, counter-argue and demonstrate. Campaign for syllabuses to recognise different perspectives or be less Eurocentric. But censorship of academic work or political speakers is an apparently easy fix that’s more likely to foment opposition than solve structural prejudice.

Perhaps the trend is just a side effect of the marketization of higher education; students, paying exorbitant tuition fees, see themselves as customers and therefore entitled to complain. This may well be true, but as a society that aims, however falteringly, towards multicultural integration, we need to find ways of balancing respecting the sensibilities of others with free and open debate.

Universities, often a microcosm of, and trendsetters to, the wider world, are the perfect place to work out how.

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

What should Greece do? Part 1

Aelxis Tsipras Prime Minister of Greece

What should Greece do? It is a complicated question with a complicated answer. The ruling party, Syriza, has been in power since January 2015 and the pressure is on to solve the problem of the enormous amount of debt that Greece owes, which is 320 billions Euros or 177% of Greece’s GDP (figures as of 10 July 2015, source).

Recently I went to see a film by Theopi Skarlatos and Paul Mason called #ThisIsACoup, which covers the period between Syriza’s first and second electoral victory. I highly recommend this film, made as events unfolded, as I felt much more informed about the Greek debt crisis after watching now it. Based on this film, a Q&A with its makers and my wider reading around the topic, I am going to see if I can answer the question of what Greece should do.

The simplest answer that has been put forward is that Greece should just pay off its national debt. This is the argument favoured by middle class British columnists, writing from the comfort of their cottages in Surrey. This is the argument favoured by people who believes that politics begins and ends with personal responsibility. This is the argument that assumes that the Greek debt is exactly the same as the credit card debt of a student who partied a bit too hard during freshers week. Cut back on the craft larger and pulled pork. Show some self-control.

As you can tell I do not have much for time argument, but I will give it a fair hearing. The argument for Greece paying its debts, is that Greece is spending too much on welfare, pensions, its military (which is massive) and propping up stated owned enterprises. The solution is for Greece to embrace austerity as well as reforming its economy to make to make it more competitive; the process that Britain went through during the 1980s. This will allow the Greek economy to reduce its debt and return to growth.

The main flaw with this argument is that it is clearly not what the Greek people want and democracy means that people get what they want, for better or worse. Greece's main creditors are other EU nations and the people of these countries do want Greece to pay the debt, which is a thorny issue. Whose democracy is more important, the debtor or the creditor? EU law does say that Greece should pay the debt. However, I find it strange that people in Britain argue that Greece should be subject to EU law no matter what its people want, but the cries the British people to be liberated from crushing yoke of EU technocrats must be answer.

Theopi Skarlatos and Paul Mason’s film makes the point that only 11% of Greek it went directly to the Greek people, i.e. for spending on Greece's apparently lavish welfare state and overstuffed state owned enterprises. The majority of the money went into propping up Greek banks hit by the global financial crisis, which certainly was not caused by Greece (or the Labour Party) spending too much on welfare or pensions or public health.

If the Greek government does embrace austerity, then the debt will be repaid over the next 50 years. Theopi Skarlatos and Paul Mason raise the question of whether the Euro, the EU or the current global financial system still be here in 50 years? The odds are stacked against it. The wider EU financial crisis and refugee crisis mean that it is very unlikely that the EU and the Euro in its current form will be around in 50 years. Perhaps a plan based on Euro longevity is a bad idea.

Austerity is not simply a case of make do with less; even when less is healthcare, support for the poorest in society and pensions. Austerity has other effects, as well as closing Sure Start Centres and raising child poverty. It creates Financial Melancholia, which is a sense that the future is only about paying for the past. This saps the creativity from the present because it is consumed by one thing: passing for decisions taken in the past.

Theopi Skarlatos and Paul Mason said that young people are leaving Greece in huge numbers because they believe there is no future. The youth unemployment rate is at 50%, which is encouraging them to leave. This will have long term economic consequences. Who will look after the old people? Who will do all the low level work? Who will start new businesses? Austerity does not create economic dynamism; it stifles it through Financial Melancholia.

The main problem with the Greece paying its debts is the question of how the economy returns to growth after going through an austerity regime that is more severe than anything else that has been seen in Europe. The debt repayment ideas requires that economic liberalisation also take place at the same time. Greece is different to most other European countries in that large global brands (McDonald's and Superdrug where the two examples that Paul Mason cited during the Q&A after the film) are not present in Greece. Greece is not a socialist utopia, they have their own large brands owned by ultra-wealthy oligarchs just like every other capitalist country, and these oligarchs have enormous political and social power. They also stand to lose the most if the Greek economy is opened up to international competition.

It is because of this that the liberalisation phase of the pay your debts plan will never happen. What will happen is heavy austerity (which punishes the poor for being poor) and the liberalisation will never actually occurs. This will continue until either the debt is repaid (which will not happen because growth will not return and tax revenue will not grow) or the Euro collapses for some other reason. This means that even if Greece tries to pay its debt, it will eventually be forced to take its other option: default and leave the Euro.

In my next post I will look at the problems with Greece leaving the Euro.