Covid: You can’t always get what you want

Many years ago, I was at a seminar with a lady from a Famous Financial Publication, whose one topic of conversation was the need to leave everything to the private sector and the Market. These were the days when it was still just about possible to preserve a childlike faith of this kind. We were discussing security and resilience and she intervened to say, eyes shining with true belief, that “real security comes from being able to buy what you need in the market.”

Well, possibly, but in that case we don’t enjoy much security now. In those days, it’s true the process of rampant de-industrialisation hadn’t gone as far as it has now, jigsaw puzzles, hand soap and plastic spoons, for example, were still made in Europe, in some cases at least. And it must have seemed to national leaders that if you ever needed a few million surgical masks in a hurry, there would be a number to ring in China. I suppose it never occurred to them that one day we might need millions of surgical masks. Every day. In every country in the world. At the same time.

But whilst the shock and horror of elites on discovering that we had to ho begging to China for testing kits is all very grimly amusing, it’s only part of the story. Like a lot of other things, outsourcing production requires a nearly frictionless international system for it to work. And that, to put it mildly, cannot be guaranteed with Covid. Already deliveries of some products are starting to dry up. Electronics is the highest-profile example, but of course there are others: indeed, it’s the “others” that in the long run will be the most significant, as daily life’s interrupted for want of some gizmo produced in Bangladesh, shipped to Taiwan to be combined with another gizmo made in Vietnam to be wind up in a cheap supermarket somewhere in Portugal or Poland.

Perhaps real security comes from being able to produce what you need when you need it. There’s a thought.

Covid: What do you mean, together?

If you were born just after the end of World War 2, you grew up with one simple message from your parents and everyone of that generation. We were all in it together. And largely, this was true. Yes, there were defeatists; yes there were some inequalities, yes some were in more danger than others. But the last time Britain had confront a major, major crisis, we were all in it together.

Probably, no set of rhetorical tropes has ever been so misused and so soiled with mindless repetition as those from the year 1940. The sophisticated now mock, the unsophisticated are cynical, the ignorant are just ignorant. But guess what, for the first time in almost a century, it’s true again. We really all are in it together: not just in the UK, but, at least, in the whole of Europe.

There’s a small problem, though. We are a long way into the Age of Me. (I hope we’re coming out the other side, but that’s another issue). For decades now, the unofficial motto of the western world has been, It’s all about me. Hardly anyone now alive now remembers national leaders appealing for sacrifices. Hardly any national leaders would know how to do so without inwardly smirking, and asking if it will play well with focus groups. In the end, if this crisis deals a fatal blow to our current economic and social system (which not everyone would regret) it will be less because of technical, political or managerial failures, grave as they may be, but because of a failure of rhetoric. We no longer know how to talk about what need to be done. We struggle and make noises, but no coherent words come out. Think about that.

Covid: A new earth?

It’s hard to exaggerate how fundamental travel is to modern international politics. Today, for example, comes news of an agreement between the two main sides in the Libyan conflict, which may or may not hold, and this agreement resulted not from talks in Libya, but talks in Geneva. Behind the agreements, I’m sure, was a great deal of shuttling around, not just, or even mostly, by Libyans, but by internationals of various sorts from many countries.

In the current situation, the necessary travel must have seemed like an acceptable risk. Masked negotiators, often travelling in official transport and meeting in carefully controlled environments, are probably as safe as any of us at the moment. But the larger the meeting, the wider the geographical spread, the greater the risk. So far, there have been no outbreaks I’m aware of as a result of such meetings, but it can only be a question of time.

But as always, behind the things you hear about are the things you don’t hear about. To keep the world as it is requires a herculean effort of control and communication, supported by movements around the world on a scale most people can’t imagine. A new crisis in Lebanon, the DRC, Afghanistan or Nepal, and representatives of dozens of states and international organisations can be there the next day. Ambassadors shuttle back and forth, NGOs send people on mission financed by donors. Journalists jet off to cover the latest developments.

Not all of this will stop. But much of it will have to. A First Secretary attending a meeting in The Hague, passing through Amsterdam, being infected by some arriving From Brazil, infecting someone returning to Athens who has to travel via Rome and infecting someone travelling to Addis Ababa … well you get the picture. We will increasingly be moving back to the old model of delegation to players on the ground, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Local representatives will stay in post longer, more will be done in writing, missions abroad will be fewer and longer. Large-scale summits will be rare: the last UN General Assembly was virtual, and the next few are likely to be as well.

The results are hard to predict, but will include a reshuffling of the cards. Th reach of even major international actors is going to reduce, as will the degree of control and influence they can exercise. Regonalism will increase, and nations are likely have more freedom to act. The current plethora of consultants and NGO activists will reduce sharply, and states will have a greater freedom to manage their own affairs.

It’s not all good news, of course, but a lot of it is, and I think we’re going to see a new and disruptive fashion of managing the affairs of Planet Earth.

France: Macron grows up

Young Emanuel Macron, the teenage French President since 2017, has been presented this year with two career-defining problems – first the virus, then Friday’s terrible murder – which will make (or probably break) his presidency. A bland technocrat with an Excel spreadsheet under his pillow, Macron is the last person you would want to trust with the destiny of France in the present difficult situation.

And yet. Tonight’s speech at the Sorbonne , no matter how carefully written by his image consultants, did come over reasonably well. Something like emotion traversed his juvenile features from time to time; something like genuine feeling seemed to creep into some of the words he used. Something like a sick appreciation of the mess the country is in could be inferred from his body language. He may at last have begun to realise the nature of the job he conned his way into in 2017.

In the end, Macron may turn out to be a mildly tragic figure. Someone who realises now what need to be done but cannot do it. Someone who thought he was after the CEO position in a startup, but would up the President of a state in crisis. Cometh the hour, cometh not always the man. He still has some growing up to do.

France: An Atrocity and an Opportunity

During the Presidency of Valery Giscard d’Estaing (1974-81) a seemingly innocuous decision was taken, which was, unknowingly, to launch the largest social experiment in Western history.

There were a fair number of immigrant workers from the Maghreb in France at the time, generally working for a few years and returning home. The government decided, under a scheme known as regroupment familial to permit them to bring their families with them, once they had been granted temporary residence rights. Those who were nationalised could stay, with their families and bring more family members over. Forty yeas later the Muslim population is estimated at 5-6 million people, or about 10% of the population.

From the beginning, one political party sounded the alarm about this policy. I know what you’re thinking, but no, it wasn’t the National Front. It was the Communist Party, which saw very clearly that a cheap, disposable labour force was exactly what employers wanted, and would drive down wages and working conditions. And so it came to pass. In those days, religion was starting to be regarded as a relic of the past, and if someone had told the Communist Party that in forty years time there would be murders by jihadists, they would certainly have laughed.

The Communist Party is (pretty much) no more, but the problem is still with us. For decades, the extreme Right has been making all the running, but now, at last, there’s an opening for a serious, secular, republican Left to get a grip on the situation. Of course the Left’s ability to fumble the ball and stab itself in the back is proverbial: but here, surely, is an opportunity … isn’t there?

France: Atrocity and Incapacity

The ghastly murder of schoolteacher Samuel Paty on Friday has already had a fair number of consequences for French politics, now that the immediate shock and horror is being replaced by anger and demands that something serious should be done. No-one is worse placed to do what needs to be done than Emmanuel Macron.

Macron is now confronting the third crisis of his reign for which he is unprepared and inadequate. The first was the Gilets jaunes, which is partly in abeyance because of the second, Covid, and now we have a third, which goes beyond the immediate crime to a sordid and depressing story of two decades of ignoring and minimising a threat to the nation that has already claimed the best part of 300 lives. In each case, Macrons’s response has been fumbling and hesitant, speaking the words put in front of him but going no sense that he understands the issues, still less that he knows what to do about them.

In a way, it’s hard to blame him. Macron is a technocratic neoliberal manager, with little experience of anything outside banking and finance. He sees himself as the CEO of a “start-up nation”: his role model is less De Gaulle than Bezos. Frequently appearing ashamed of being French, his objective seems to be to construct a country without history or culture (“there is no French culture” he famously said), an indistinguishable, greyish part of some flavourless European bankers’ paradise. The best you can say is that it’s not working out very well.

And now he’s required to deal with an actual and serious threat to the country, supported from abroad and deeply dug into French society. And apart from making martial noises, he seems, as usual, to have no idea what to do. How, after all, does he reinvigorate and propagate traditional French Republican ideas to challenge the Islamists when he himself has publicly mocked these very ideas that people now demand should be defended?

More on that tomorrow.

Covid: The One Big One

I’ve always thought it a good principle that, when you have nothing of value to say, it’s better to say nothing. That is, of course, not the spirit of our times, in which much social media consists of stream-of-consciousness real-time hectoring about What I Think and How I Feel. Still less is it a good principle for blogging, where the expectation is that you will say something every day, and thus that you will have interesting and useful ideas to communicate al the time. But few of us have, and many of us have nothing interesting to say at all.

So I haven’t written anything during the Great Virus Emergency, because I’m not a doctor, and epidemiologist, a virologist or even somebody who studied biology after the age of 16. (OK, that didn’t stop millions of other pundits from weighing in, but it did stop me). But I think a couple of things are now clear which were not clear before, as the virus accelerates again, and nether of them require socialist medical knowledge. One is that we know very little about the virus even now, and that even the most basic facts about transmission and how to stop it are in dispute. No government really knows what it’s doing. The other is that the only real counter-measures that might be effective are probably impossible. It may be less a case of “living with” this virus than dying with it.

On which cheerful note, more tomorrow.

If it’s broken it’s broken Pt 5

Ultimately, the answer must lie in the distinction between the general, and the specific and personal. Take two contrasted examples.

If you believe that the political system in your country is broken beyond repair, then there are two things you can do when elections come round One is not to vote. If a large enough group of people refuse to vote, the system itself loses credibility. In several countries now, barely 50% of the population now vote even in the most important elections. A political system where less than 40% of the people voted would simply not be viable and would have to be replaced. The other thing you can do is to vote deliberately for parties that are going to crash the system more quickly than would otherwise be the case. They may be incompetent, they may be extremist, they may be completely out of their heads, but votes for them take away votes from the established parties, and so hasten the end of a system which is anyway doomed to disappear.

On the other hand, and in spite of Brecht’s thesis, we shouldn’t neglect our human duties. Giving food to the hungry or money to beggars doesn’t really perpetuate a system. Not doing so is often just a pretext to justify selfishness. There’s a big difference, in other words, between things we can directly influence, and those where our influence is only indirect.

But there are objections to this thesis aren’t there? Won’t it just make things worse?

 

If it’s broken it’s broken, Pt.4

OK, the system is broken, and nobody with the power to do so has an interest in fixing it. So what do the rest of us do, those who have no power beyond that which we can personally influence?

There are two approaches to this; the hardline and the squeamish. If you want an example of the first, go and read Brecht’s play¬†The Measures Taken. It relates how, in the context of the civil war in China, Communist party members decided not to give food to starving people, because their deaths would sharpen the revolutionary mood and so bring the revolution closer. Brecht actually gt into trouble with his own Communist Party for blurting out inconvenient truths.

The squeamish approach, which in many ways is admirable, says that we should do good deeds and help those in difficulty, even if the effect is to prop up the system and enable it to survive. We become complicit in evil through wanting to do good: but then, are you just going to leave them to die?

Is there a solution? I think there is.

If it’s broken it’s broken Pt.3

Our society will only be mended if elites think it is in their interests to mend it. So long as their interests and ours are aligned, or at least not opposed to each other, then there is some cause for hope.

This was the case in the past. Most western states realised in the nineteenth century that they would only survive if they built modern administrative systems, if they educated their people, and if they provided them with jobs and a measure of security. Asian states realised the same thing not long after. For about two hundred years from the time of the French Revolution, elites were sufficiently worried about the possibility of popular uprisings, and even revolutions, that they acted with a bit of circumspection, and threw the common people bones. In some countries – Britain in the nineteenth century, several European countries post-WW2 – religion was also a powerful moderating influence.

That’s all over now. Elites today do not need, or want, an educated workforce or a settled populace. They can buy or rent a workforce from abroad for the few jobs that still need doing, and they have succeeded in convincing most of the people that their ideology of unrestrained liberalism red in tooth and claw is the only one possible. You don’t need to put people in prison when you have convinced them that there’s no hope of a better system ever emerging, whatever their efforts, and so rebellion is pointless.

And if the elites don’t see the need for change, and the common people can’t imagine it, where’s the change going to come from?