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.

Iraq: What comes after farce?

Any pundit writing about Iraq these days who is lost for an introductory paragraph, will  sooner or later, fall back Marx’s rewriting of Hegel’s famous formula, and remind us that history repeats itself first as tragedy, and then as farce.

There’s some truth in that, at least as applied to the current mess (others would use a stronger word) in Iraq and Syria since the latest round of dropping bombs on people began, a few days ago. But haven’t we gone rather beyond farce now? Haven’t we entered a new stage, where the posturings of western leaders have taken on a grotesque, surreal, hallucinatory quality, utterly independent of any reality? We could, I suppose, follow Ionesco, who described one of his plays as a “tragic farce”; certainly the reality will be tragic enough for those Iraqis and Syrians we blow to pieces, burn to death, and drive from their homes.

But in many ways the literary mode that best suits the current political chaos is that of post-modernism. Politicians no longer take action; they play at taking action. Commentators no longer comment; they ironically reference other writers or past events, themselves sometimes invented. It’s hard to read Mr Cameron’s speeches (at all, but let that pass) without seeing a man who is playing an actor, playing Tony Blair playing Margaret Thatcher playing an actor playing Winston Churchill. Likewise, Barack Obama’s decision to start bombing Iraq again is best understood as an ironic, knowing, commentary on the lethal actions of his predecessors, and perhaps an attempt to top even Bill Clinton’s tortured and incomprehensible rationale for bombing Kosovo in 1999 (that turned out well, didn’t it?)

One reason for this post-modernist approach is that the politicians realise that events are out of any control they once might have had, and that they have stumbled into a mess of their own making, which they do not understand, and from which there is no obvious exit. Thus, Cameron, Obama, Fabius and Co can only mumble incoherently about how because we have been hurting people for a very long time, they might now hurt us back, which means we have to hurt them even more. The political posturing now has now completely parted  company with the actual reality on the ground, and become an alternative reality, an intellectual video game in which any number can play. Listening to the solemn debates taking place in Britain, for example, you might think something really large-scale and serious was afoot, instead of the despatch of half a dozen elderly Tornados to drop bombs on the houses of people who are sympathetic to the Islamic State.

But perhaps I’m being too hard on our leaders, who are, after all, trapped in a process which they don’t control and can scarcely influence except for the worse. Deep down, I think most of them understand that their actions, insofar as they have any effect at all, will simply make the coming conflagration in the Middle East even more destructive than it might otherwise have been. They understand that weakening the IS means strengthening the Shia and the Kurds, and that we will have to defend and justify the atrocities sure to be committed by their own militias. They understand that the radical Islamic republicanism of the IS is attractive to people living under corrupt and brutal absolute monarchies. They understand that the West is likely to find itself in an alliance of convenience before long with Iran and Hezbollah. They (rightly) fear that we are on the brink of a political and religious conflict in the region which will resemble the Thirty Years War in Europe.

But the vocabulary and the concepts needed to discuss these issues sensibly don’t exist, or aren’t commonly accepted if they do. So we continue to discuss the new as though it were the old. Once, we could bend reality in the Middle East to our wishes. Now, that may no longer be the case.

Deathworld strikes again

A long long time ago, when I was an early teenager, I read more or less everything I could get my hands on which had the label “science fiction” attached to it. At that age, one doesn’t discriminate very much, and the books I remember most fondly are not necessarily classics of that era.

One book that I read relatively soon after its publication, in the usual cheap and grotty paperback format, was Deathworld, the first published novel of the American SF writer Harry Harrison. Like a lot of Harrison’s work, it conceals a serious message behind a light-hearted, well-written adventure story. As I dimly recall (and the novel is long out of print) it concerned a planet in which every plant and every animal was lethal to human beings, and seemed to have no purpose in life other than to kill them. Naturally, the humans on the planet had adapted themselves and developed weaponry to be able to survive in such a hostile environment, but that environment itself always seemed to become more hostile.  It became clear at the end of the novel that the problem was not actually the planet itself, whose flora and fauna had no particular feelings about humans one way or the other. Rather the problem was the humans themselves: in attempting to control and domesticate planet they were simply forcing it to evolve and fight back against them.

Although the book was published in 1960, it’s not hard to see some kind of foretaste of the thinking that led to the Vietnam war, nor to the present chaos which reigns throughout the Middle East. The book incorporates, in a light-hearted fashion, the simple idea that  that how others behave to you is dictated to a large extent by how you behave to them. The fact that Harrison was a political liberal, and went on to write a series of anti-militarist novels (notably Bill the Galactic Hero) rather suggests that he had seen at least elements of the future coming.  But then it’s surprising how often science-fiction, even when written with modest ambitions, is remarkably prescient about the future. I don’t think the current Endless War, in which our policy is to attempt to put out fires by drowning them in petrol, would have surprised Harrison, nor his hero Slippery Jim Di Griz one little bit.

Lawrence of Arabia, your time is up

For the last century or more, the dominant image of the Arab peoples in the West has been been of weak, almost effeminate natural victims. Not the victims in the sense of people you protect, of course, but rather the traditional playground victim whom everybody terrorizes in the sure knowledge that he can never hit them back. Indeed it’s a settled norm of Western policy towards the Middle East that Arabs can’t actually fight; at least not unless they are led by charismatic Westerners like TE Lawrence.

There have been some exceptions to this rule, of course. The Jordanians put up a decent performance against Israel in 1967, although as commentators were quick to point out they had been trained by the British. More significantly, the Egyptians and Syrians mounted a well-planned and co-ordinated attack in 1973 to recover the territory they had lost in the previous war. They did well militarily, and would have done better had it not been for massive support provided by the United States for Israel. And of course they recovered their national territory, which was the point of the exercise

But these examples have not impinged upon the Western strategic consciousness very much. For much of the last 70 years, the Middle East has been a gigantic video game parlor, where both the West and Israel have stamped up and down on vastly inferior forces, winning a succession of easy and one-sided victories. But in the last decade there have been signs that things have begun to change. Surprisingly perhaps, this has had little or nothing to do with enormous Western efforts to arm, train and finance militaries from the Maghreb to Iraq. Indeed, such initiatives seem actually to have made things worse. The Egyptian Army, for example, no longer has the military capability to mount the operation it mounted in 1973, in spite of massive assistance from the United States.

The difference, unfortunately, turns out to be religion. What I mean by that is that the effective fighting forces in the Middle East have turned their backs on nationalism, liberal democracy and professionalism, and all the other things that the West has been trying to inculcate, and gone back to their own warrior traditions. There is no doubt that the effective resistance put up by Hezbollah to the 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon came as a real shock to an army used to taking on defenseless women and children. But as the experts began to pick over the fighting, they realised that Hezbollah was actually quite well trained, reasonably well-equipped and highly motivated. Religion in their case acted as a solidifying element, something that gave them purpose, identity  and direction, which had been so much lacking in the armies of the region before.

Of course, it was possible to say that Hezbollah was the creation of  Iran, and to some extent that was true. But it is not possible to say the same thing about the military forces of the new Islamic State. Although their early victories owed more to the weakness of the Iraqi Army, so expensively trained and equipped by the West, it is clear that they have been rapidly acquiring conventional military expertise. They now seem capable of operating weapons and equipment captured from the Iraqi Army itself, which also suggests the presence of former professional soldiers in their ranks. Moreover, like Hezbollah, they seem to be well trained and disciplined and well motivated in what they do. They also seem to be much more efficient than the nominal Iraqi government in administering the areas that they have captured. Their political strategy seems equally well-considered. Brutality can be an effective military weapon, especially against forces that outnumber you but have poor morale and leadership. And beheading unfortunate American journalists on video sends a clear message: mess with us, and we’ll mess with you.

We will have to see how this develops. It is quite possible that the Islamic State will fall apart because of internal contradictions. And as long as it does not have airpower it will be limited in what it can do. But among the rather hysterical western ideas that it represents some kind of a “threat” to us, is the very real and undeniable fact that in a few months a capable and effective political and military structure has been put together entirely without Western aid or Western ideas. This, more than anything else, is what puts the fear of God (or something) into Western strategists. In a few months, the Islamic state has succeeded where the West has failed for decades. Who can say where this might lead?