2018: Peak Madness?

“Madness” is so much of a routine political insult that these days it means nothing much more than “something I disagree with.”

But I have begun to think over the last few weeks that very large numbers of the political, business, media and pontificating classes of the West have gone, quite literally, mad, or whatever is the current euphemism. That is to say that their behaviour, individually and collectively, shows symptoms which are typically described in studies of abnormal psychology. Put simply, the western ruling class is having a nervous breakdown, and no longer has much of a grip on reality. Ignorance is Strength, War (as of this week) is Peace. No doubt Freedom will soon be Slavery. The difference is that George Orwell saw these slogans as cynical attempts at manipulation by a Party which did not believe its own propaganda . The kind of people who see Russians under the bed or believe that peace in Syria is a bad idea do, in sense, believe what they say.

They believe what they say because they have become unhinged from reality. They live in a world made up of of fantasies and nightmares. They control nuclear weapons, unbelievable amounts of economic power, and the destiny of nations. God help the rest of us.

Merry Christmas.

Watch out: liberal democracy

A bit like a second-rate cover-band performing a version of an old  hit single, it was common not so long ago for your average bog-standard pundit to construct an entire presentation or article from the following couple of verses:

End of the Cold War, triumph of liberal democracy, that American guy with a Japanese name, Kantian Universal peace

Chorus, Something went wrong, something went wrong, nothing to do with us. 

Return of nationalism, conflict everywhere, ethnic cleansing, genocide, Islamic extremism, ISIS, guys whose name we can’t pronounce. 

Chorus: Something went wrong, something went wrong, nothing to do with us. 

Well, this isn’t entirely false (at least the second verse isn’t) although if you ever sang the first verse, you were an idiot. But of course it had everything to do with us, or at least those who claimed to act in our name. They encouraged nationalism and religious extremism as weapons against Communism and secular populist regimes in the Arab world, they cheered the fracturing of Yugoslavia, they made friends with anyone who claimed to dislike Putin. Oh, and they rotted up the international economic system with floating currencies, wildly gyrating raw material prices and abolition of trade “barriers”, all complemented by Structural Adjustment Programmes enforced by the IMF, which is the kind of organisation you would get if the Waffen SS had ever set up a satirical comedy troupe.

But the thing that always amazed me about these people was their failure to understand that conflict was not a bug, it was a feature. It’s not that liberal democracy was tried but unfortunately was sabotaged by malevolent foreigners. It’s that attempts to impose “liberal democracy” (as we called it, anyway) were more or less a guarantee of conflict. And not just conflict between others, caused by our own heavy-handed blundering either. What, after all, are the most violent and destructive wars of the last generation? Iraq (twice, plus the bombing throughout the 90s) Afghanistan, Libya….. In other words, wars launched by us. This is not a coincidence or an accident.

“Liberal democracy” (let’s keep the quotes) is normative ideology, and so must be adopted everywhere. It’s values are “universal” so they have to be applied everywhere, or they are not universal. Which makes it very uncomfortable if you don’t share these values, or don’t adopt them quickly enough. There’s a good argument, in fact, that liberal democracy is inherently aggressive, inherently violent, intolerant and hateful, and cannot abide difference. If you see it coming you should get out of the way. It doesn’t matter whether its ideas are attractive, or even sensible, but if a normative ideology is held by a bunch of rich and powerful states, determined to impose it on others, conflict is pretty much inevitable, and you are likely to come of worse.

I’ve noticed fewer cover versions of the song recently. maybe that’s not a coincidence.





Brussels: Over there is over here

And so it continues, the slow, sick realization of the end of Western impunity. What we did to Them, Over There, they can now do Us, Over Here. It doesn’t have to be fair, it doesn’t have to be right, it doesn’t have to seem justified if we don’t want to think it is. But it exists, and it’s the capacity of the Third World (as we used to call it) to export violence to the First, something not seen since the Ottoman Empire the seventeenth century.

Having carelessly laid waste to half the Middle East, we now discover that there are groups who resent that fact, and want to take the fight to us, and more importantly to our governments. Western political leaders, their officials and their media, have treated the rest of the world as a giant video game for a long time now. But the sprites are shooting back. One of these days, and it won’t be long, a bomb explosion will take out a senior European policy-maker, or a banker or a media pundit, and there will be screaming, and rending of Hugo Boss suits. But by then it will be too late. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

Saudi Arabia: Rights On

That curious sound you’ve been hearing recently is the sound of human rights groups and western governments throwing their teddies out of their prams at the news that Saudi Arabia has been elected chair of the UN Human Rights Commission. Whizz. Thump. There goes another one. Mumble, oppression of women, mumble public decapitation, mumble absolute monarchy. All the stuff we used to do, in fact, at a time when Britain was widely regarded as a beacon of liberty in a dark world.

The trouble with free elections, as Molotov, the Soviet Foreign Minister, once observed, is you can never tell who’s going to win. And they won, which tells you something about the rest of the world’s opinion of our human rights discourse. And we don’t like it. Whizz. Thump. There goes another one.

Islamic State: Nobody Likes Us, We Don’t Care

Small groups fighting national governments have sought foreign support and assistance for as long as such groups have existed. Except for the Islamic State, however, which stubbornly refuses to adhere to any stereotype, and has sown disbelief and panic in the West by refusing to do so.

The first main stereotype it spits on, is that of gallant rebels battling huge odds in pursuit of freedom. From Balkan countries throwing off Ottoman tyranny, to Gallant Little Belgium in 1914, and Gallant Not So Little Poland in 1939, this worked very well for nation states. It continues to pay dividends, but now also for anti-government movements as well. The opposition in Libya, and the “moderate” Syrian rebels both played this card to perfection, and were rewarded with guns, money and political patronage.

The second main stereotype it sneers at, is the cultivated appearance of weakness and defenselessness, aimed more at public opinion and a credulous media, in an attempt to pressure governments into military action. This was successfully trialled by the Croats and the Bosnian Muslims in the early 1990s, and has been successful in a number of later cases (such as Kosovo in 1999) in getting the West to do the fighting for the group concerned.

But the Islamic State refuses to abide by either of these stereotypes; It is anti-western, but has not sought help from other Arab states, or even Russia or China. It is fighting a government which the western world says is despicable and barbarous, but it doesn’t ask for an alliance, or even help. It makes tactical alliances and seems to be buying weapons, and its military wing is led by ex-Baathist officers, but in the last analysis, it doesn’t care what any other nation thinks. That’s what we can’t get our head around. OK, we say, if you’re not with us, you’re against us. Why should we care what you think? replies the Islamic State. The idea that there is an armed group, even a small one, in a strategic part of the world that does not define itself by what the West thinks of it, is too horrible for us to contemplate. And when the Islamic State appeals directly to our own populations and they go in their thousands, we feel helpless and lost, not to mention homicidally angry.

When I was a child there was a struggling local football team, Millwall FC, whose supporters were unpopular even with other supporters, which gives you an idea what they were like. But their slogan was “nobody likes us, we don’t care”. The Islamic State might well say the same. Nobody likes them. They don’t care.


France: Hello, is that the state?

Given the way the Internet is sagging already under the weight of posts about the Charlie Hebdo affair, I was going to avoid adding anything to the oversupply of instant analysis already on view. But there’s one dimension which I thought was interesting, and has not, as far as I know, been noted at all, so here goes.

On the whole, the French state system actually did OK in the aftermath of the attacks. Hollande actually sounded acceptably Presidential, and Valls sounded and acted like a real Prime Minister. Time alone will show whether that continues, and whether it affects the previously awful standing of the PS in the opinion polls, and whether Marine Le Pen has been able to extract any advantage from the situation.

But there’s a more important point. The services of the French state actually worked very well. The police and the gendarmerie did a quick and skilful job of tracking and taking down the killers, and the medical and emergency services did a good job as well. It’s hard to imagine any other country having done better .

So there’s at least one part of France that works very well. Not the private sector (for all that Manuel Valls loves it) and certainly not the catastrophic banking sector, or the very little that remains of French industry. So thank goodness there are some parts of the state that have not been sold off yet, or there would no doubt have been an assault by overweight retired US policemen with heavy machine guns and Rambo tattoos, under contract to G4S. Gulp.

This may – just may – be the beginning of a recognition, even by French elites, that you actually need a state when the chips are down. And if someone is going to protect the French people from the consequences of twenty years of catastrophic blundering around at home and in the Middle East, then it’s obviously not going to be some services company based in the Cayman islands and paying tax in Luxembourg. Maybe it’s this that has made Valls shut up, at least temporarily, about how the private sector can do everything. Maybe that’s why nothing has been heard from Emmanuel Macron, the teenage Budget Minister and former merchant banker, who must have suddenly realised that there are some problems in the world that even financial deregulation cannot solve. Maybe.

France: Pity the nation

I was looking for a short book to take on an aeroplane flight recently, and I picked up, more or less by chance, Catherine Graciet’s recent book Sarkozy/Khadafi. The book – well worth reading, by the way –  is a solid account of a whole range of alleged-but-likely scandals involving the Sarkozy “clan” with Libya over the last decade or so, culminating with a long discussion of the allegation that Sarkozy’s 2007 election campaign was funded, in part, by Libya.

But it’s actually not so much that allegation in the book which is so dispiriting, although if true it would cause a political earthquake in France, as the constant succession of well-founded stories showing how various members of the “clan” enriched themselves, often through their government positions, and sometimes as the public expense It seems that everyone who has ever been involved with Sarkozy had their fingers in the Libyan pie, and almost all managed to pull out a few choice plums. As a portrait of a political class consumed by greed and opportunism, it’s hard to imagine anything more devastating or depressing.

But French politics was always corrupt, you may argue. Indeed, and individual corruption certainly did not begin with Sarkozy. But this is institutionalized, and so much more dangerous. It has its origins in two things. One was the laudable desire under Mitterrand to decentralize the French state. However well-meant, this created local baronies, ruled by politico-business cliques, who often used the resources of the area for personal gain, as well as political advancement. The other was the massive privatization programme of the last twenty years, which created an oligarchy that moves effortlessly between political office, government service and personal enrichment, often managing to do at least two of these at the same time. Indeed, the key figure in Catherine Graciet’s book in some ways is not Sarkozy himself, but the frog-like Claude Guéant, who began as a high-flying civil servant, took on a quasi-political role as Sarkozy’s trusted advisor, and finished as a Minister, apparently managing to combine that with the pursuit of Sarkozy’s (and his) private business interests.

No wonder people in France are so disgusted with their elites (you can’t even call them “political” elites any more, because the line between politics and personal enrichment has effectively disappeared). No wonder the National Front is doing so well.

“Pity the nation” wrote the Lebanese poet and novelist Kahil Gibran

… that acclaims the bully as hero,
and that deems the glittering conqueror bountiful.

… whose statesman is a fox,
whose philosopher is a juggler,
and whose art is the art of patching and mimicking”

He was thinking of Lebanon, of course. But he might just as well have been describing France.