Afghanistan: the obligatory post, the inevitable defeat.

I suppose I have to say something about the fall of Kabul if only because it’s a contractual condition that I have to write about topical affairs from time to time. So let’s just make a couple of simple points.,

This is not an intelligence failure, but rather what I call a failure to be intelligent. Western estimates of how long the Kabul regime would last were based on the calculation that the Taliban would launch major conventional attacks on cities, and the Afghan Security Forces would resist. If that’s the question, the the answer – months – was reasonable enough. But the Taliban didn’t do that. They opted for a political strategy involving bribery and intimidation, and they had everything prepared well in advance. The strategy actually succeeded even better than the Taliban had expected, since they seemed to have assumed at least some resistance. The “failure,” if you like, was to understand what the tactics of the Taliban would actually be.

Second, this is a religious regime. It’s made up of people who believe in the literal truth of their religion, and think that people who don’t agree with them are heretics or apostates. They do what they think their religion commands them to do. To say they are “savage” or “mediaeval” or “misogynist” or whatever is to apply 21st century liberal standards to people who probably are unaware of them and wouldn’t take any notice anyway if you explained such things. Their God tells them otherwise. Who are you to argue with God?

Covid: the end of the (air)line

Some of the consequences of the Covid virus are more obvious than others. Let’s start with them.

If you have travelled a bit internationally (and I don’t mean just to the country next door) you’ll be familiar with what airlines call the “hub and spoke” model of travel. Essentially, you fly from where you are to the airline’s central hub (or that of one of their partners) and then on to your destination. This may not be ideal for you, unless you like hanging around duty-free shops and drinking expensive coffee, but it’s good for airlines, who can use smaller planes making shorter flights, and simplify their logistics.

But more than the (in)convenience, what’s interesting here is the model of interaction. Say I am an NGO worker in South Sudan, going home to Copenhagen. I catch a plane from Juba to Addis Ababa, a major hub for the region, then catch a plane to Munich, another major hub, then on home. At Addis, I bump into someone who is coming from Khartoum, and going to Dubai, to take a plane to Islamabad. In Munich, it’s someone from El Salvador, who’s arrived via Mexico City and Washington, and is going on to Warsaw. You get the picture.

But a lot of airlines don’t. And this is the problem with the”back to normal” idea. So long as the virus exists anywhere in the world, there is a measurable chance that air travel will spread it everywhere, without a level of control and testing that isn’t possible now, and may never be.

So long, international air travel. You were (occasionally) fun.

If it’s broken it’s broken Pt 6

In the short term, the argument that by voting for this party rather than that party you will make things worse is often true. It’s also sometimes true that by voting for that party rather than this party, things will get worse more slowly. But that may not be the point.

“If you think we’re bad, look at the other guys” isn’t, and never has been, an acceptable argument. As I said earlier, if a system is broken, it’s broken, and it needs to be replaced as quickly as possible. History suggests that the longer a major change is delayed, and the more it is resisted, the more violent and the more traumatic is the change when it comes. Voting for a party because they are “less bad” than the others, sounds sensible, but only if the situation is actually recoverable in some form. If it isn’t, then it’s a false, and possibly dangerous, tactic.

But what do we mean in this context when we talk about “change”?

Syria: The end of unrealpolitik

I have just finished reading Frédéric Pichon’s new book on Syria , Une guerre pour rien, which I bought, logically enough, in Beirut. Pichon comes out swinging against some of the inanities of western policy on Syria, but he coins a word I rather like to describe the general attitude of the West to crisis management for the last generation now: iréelpolitik. The politics of unreality, if you like, or in its English form “unrealpolitik”.

The term basically describes the self-deluding and ultimately disastrous approach to crisis resolution that the West (sometimes trading as “the International Community”) has pursued since Bosnia and Rwanda in the 1990s, the in the DRC, Afghanistan, numerous African conflicts, Iraq, Libya and now Syria. It’s the belief in the ease of liberal state building, the creation or encouragement of “moderate” political parties, the choice and defence of “pro-western” leaders and regimes, the rapid introduction of modern western social and economic theories, and not least the complete inability to understand the real causes and stakes in the conflicts. There’s more, of course but that will do for now.

But Syria does not seem to be turning out like that. The solution looks like being built around the re-establishment of the state, if not exactly as it was before. Western NGOs are not packing their bags to go and conduct security sector reform initiatives, western governments have not yet identified their preferred figure for Prime Minister, election consultants have not yet disembarked in Damascus, and the IMF, thankfully, is nowhere to be seen. Indeed, it’s quite likely that post-crisis Syria will be managed by the Russians, the Chinese the Turks and the Iranians, with the “International Community” watching in stunned disbelief from the sidelines.

So there’s still hope.

RIP Mark Fisher

Perhaps you’ve never heard of Mark Fisher, or if you have, you haven’t read any of his (few) books. And now there won’t be any more, because he committed suicide a few days ago at the age of 48.

To call Fisher a writer on cultural issues is to do him a disservice. He was a political commentator in the widest sense of that term as well, and write trenchantly about both politics and culture in clear and jargon-free prose. His short book Capitalist Realism and his collection of essays Ghosts of My Life, should be compulsory reading for anyone trying to understand our confused, conflicted and deceived era. He published a new book just before he died, The Weird and the Eerie which I’ll be reading as soon as I can get my hands on it.

Looking back on his writing, the revelation in the obituaries that he struggled for years with depression isn’t surprising, but that makes him sound like a gloomy writer, which he really isn’t. His writing is fiercely intelligent, clear and elegant, in a field where obfuscation and pretension are generally part of the job description. Go and buy one of his books and do his family some good. You’ll learn something as well.


Posted on  Medium

So a few months ago, I was reading Loehr and Schwatrz’s book The Power of Full Engagement, which you find extravagantly praised in management and personal development blogs and podcasts.


If you don’t know it, it’s a perfectly sensible, if not ground-breaking, book, aimed at helping people to discover what’s important in their life and to devote their energy to it, rather than to some generic, imposed to-do list. The modest but useful advice it contains has apparently been taught to Wall Street Titans, CEOs of international companies and heads of public institutions as well. It even comes with a recommendation from a senior manager at MacDonald’s.


And then I looked at the date of publication – it was 2003, and apparently these sensible, if not revolutionary, ideas had been widely taught for a decade before that. This started me looking through my small but select library of books on similar subjects, and at the Internet sites on management, productivity and personal development that I occasionally visit. It turns out that, over the last twenty years, a flood of sensible, practical, evidence-based advice on management has been provided to Very Significant People in Very Large Organisations all over the world. They pay fabulous amounts of money to attend seminars and training courses, and write enthusiastic blurbs for the covers of new books advising managers to treat their staff like human beings, and to avoid being obsessed with short-term financial gains. Revolutionary stuff like that.


And what effect has all this had on the way organisations are actually run? Approximately none at all. Over the last twenty years, a lot of organisations have gone from being simply mediocre to dysfunctional to being downright evil, and from just ignoring their staff to actively treating them like dirt. I ask people quite frequently whether they know of an organisation – theirs or another they deal with – that actually functions well. The answer is always “no”.


It wasn’t always like that, of course. Thirty or forty years ago, organisations were, in general, well enough run, and most managers treated their staff like fellow humans. Management itself was seen basically as the mechanics of getting people to work together towards a common objective, and its procedures were generally quite simple. Yet organisations have evolved not simply to ignore all the research done, then and since, on what motivates people and makes organisations function well, but to have deliberately rushed off in the other direction. All sorts of ideas that were known to be dumb to begin with (open-plan offices, stack-ranking, management by objectives, mission statements – need I go on?) have been embraced in a death-grip by large organisations around the world, in spite of being comprehensively rubbished by practical experience and by any number of pragmatic studies.


So what’s gone wrong? Are senior managers today just evil? You might reasonably think that they keep copies of Management Secrets of the Waffen-SS and Seven Habits of Highly Successful Pirates in their desk drawers, underneath their well-thumbed copies of How to Make Enemies and Destroy People. But it’s a bit more complicated than that, even if some studies have shown that a disturbing proportion of people in senior positions in large organisations have psychopathic tendencies.


In any organisation, there are two sorts of people: those who are good at the job, and those who are good at getting promoted. In theory, the people best at the job should be promoted, and the closer the two categories are aligned, the better the organisation will perform. But in recent decades, and for several different reasons, organisations have allowed, or even encouraged, these two categories to diverge. So, many of the people at the top of large organisations today are good at getting there, and staying there, but aren’t actually any good at, you know, managing. They are, in effect, amateurs. (Ambition and ruthlessness are not management tools, after all.) Since they are usually afraid of being replaced by somebody else even more ruthless and ambitious than they are, their management style, such as it is, is based on paranoia and control-freakery. If the organisation suffers, well, there’s always another job, or even another organisation. And so these ideas spread like a stain, even into areas like the public sector, into which ruthless and ambitious people have not traditionally gone in search of lots of money.


In such a situation, the people who work for you are at best a nuisance, at worse a hostile force. They need to be recruited, paid, and somehow motivated (or at least frightened) into working, whilst being kept from threatening your position. This is why the ideal Anglo-Saxon organisation, at least in the private sector, would have no staff at all: just a bunch of Very Senior People with automated systems taking in money, creaming off a percentage and spitting it out again. And it does actually look as if banks might start to move in that direction in a few years.


So good luck to all those people writing sensible, pragmatic, evidenced-based books on effective management. Nobody in positions of importance is listening. “Against stupidity” wrote Schiller “the gods themselves contend in vain”. If you add in amateurism and short-term financial gain, it’s doubtful that, in this case, the gods would even bother to make the effort.

Clinton: Let’s have another civil war

I’m getting increasingly worried that part of the US opinion-making system that supports Clinton (or at least hates Trump) is becoming genuinely unhinged. This is an example of the kind of thing I mean.  Constitutional scholars are now seriously arguing that some states Clinton expects to win should refuse to accept a Trump victory and secede from the United States.

The point of course is that a Trump victory is unacceptable, whatever happens, because he is Not One of Us. Therefore, it is increasingly being argued, a Trump victory would be illegitimate, because we don’t like him. Now there might be some practical problems associated with that attitude (the electorate, for example) but sophisticated arguments could be deployed to argue that the people had been deluded, the system rigged, the candidate was unacceptable or had cheated and so forth. If you think this is reminiscent of the US (and western) approach to elections in countries where it blatantly favours one side, then, well, you’d be right. In fact, there’s a good chance that some kind of constitutional coup or secession engineered by Clinton would be accepted and applauded by Right-thinking People in the political system and the media, not only in the US but around most of the world.

Whether actual, you know, voters, would accept such an outcome is unclear. I’ve thought for some time that the violent disintegration of America was likely, and not far away at that, but I always thought the initiative would come from the Right. It’s beginning to seem possible, at least, that it might come from whatever the other direction calls itself these days. What an irony it would be if, after devastating so many other countries, Clinton were to finish by destroying her own.

Brexit: The fire next time, or maybe the time after that.

I don’t know how I would have voted in the UK Referendum on Europe if I had a vote there, but I suspect it might have been reluctantly to Remain on the basis that whilst reform of Europe was not at all likely, it wasn’t totally impossible, either. If the Remain campaign had actually recognised that there were significant flaws in the present system, and promised to try to do something about them, I suspect the result might even have been different.

But instead the chose the politics of fear, the default setting for every political campaign in recent memory. Ironically, it was the Leavers who actually projected some positive vision, even if it was flawed and dishonest. Of course, there’s nothing new about the use of fear as a political weapon – just think of all those elections in the 1960s and 1970s where the return of a mildly left-wing government was going to bring an invasion by the Red Army the next day. But what’s new is the reliance on effectively nothing but fear as a political argument. This goes even beyond the “if you think we’re bad look at the opposition” tactics used by vaguely leftish political parties since the 1990s; In the case of Brexit, as in the current US elections, one side offers absolutely no reason to vote their way at all, other than fear and hatred of the opposition.

This can’t work, and there are already signs that it’s backfiring. Not only have the economic disasters prophesied after a Leave vote not materialized, but the latest economic indicators suggest that they probably won’t. This summary, albeit by a confirmed Brexiter, makes a pretty overwhelming case.

But for a western political class for which has nothing to offer but fear itself as a policy this is, to put it mildly, a problem. I very much doubt that they are capable of understanding, let alone dealing with it.


Brexit? Come back after the holidays.

You may remember the great Euro panic of 2012 (and 2011 for that matter), where in June of that year headlines were screaming “One week to save the Euro!” And after that? Well, nothing very much at all. And the Euro was still there, last time I looked, albeit a bit the worse for wear.

So what happened, How was the crisis solved? It wasn’t actually, it’s just that by July the Eurocracy, the punditocracy and their associated hangers-on had all left their offices and were reading the latest Harry Potter novel on the beach. There was no-one to say there was a crisis, so there was no crisis.

The point, of course, has a wider application. It’s like the old tree-falling-in-a-forest question. If there’s no-one around to say it’s a crisis, then in fact there really is no crisis, since political crises, and these days economic crises as well, are essentially subjective rather than objective.

Which brings us naturally to Brexit. Anyone who transfers sterling to Euros will tell you that the current situation is uncomfortable, although that has nothing to do with what economists call “fundamentals.” It’s about how people who buy and sell currencies for a living think they can make money: in this case, by betting that the Pound will fall, which means of course that it does. But otherwise, and in spite of the apocalyptic predictions, nothing much has actually happened, and Brexit is sliding down the scale of media interest already. Crisis? Don’t call us, we’ll call you. Now where did I put that book……?

Vote Trump: Break system

The argument of the “lesser evil” is one of the oldest and tiredest of all political ideas. As Hilaire Belloc once  said:

“Always keep a-hold of Nurse
For fear of finding something worse.”

If you look at politics as a kind of team sport, as you’re encouraged to in a Liberal state, then indeed you tend to follow this logic, and you vote in the end for  whoever seems less offensive and less dangerous. In Liberal politics, parties and candidates are essentially like varieties of breakfast cereal, and their promises are like advertising, so if in the end they don’t keep their promises, well, it’s your fault for being taken in by the advertising. Caveat emptor. On that basis there’s a certain logic in the argument that Hilary Clinton may be a lying, corrupt psychopathic warmonger, but at least she’s a known quantity, and, if she’s elected, the world will go on much as before.

The alternative way of looking at politics is that it’s not about teams and personalities, but about outcomes. The question is not “which of these candidates frightens me least?” but rather “what is it that I want?” At its simplest, this leads to the kind of tactical voting that puts the fear of God into professional politicians. But it goes rather beyond that. If you want the system to change, then the current one has to be dismantled. There’s nothing particularly frightening or unusual about that: political systems appear and disappear all the time. Liberal indirect democracy, conducted exclusively by professionals, has had a decent run, but it’s obviously time for something else now.

So in many countries at the moment, it makes sense to vote in such a way as to undermine the existing system and preferably hasten its disappearance. Which is why Americans who want change should vote for Trump. Not because he’s a nice man (I have no idea about that) but because through him the system can be broken and re-made. Otherwise, there is no hope, except clinging even tighter to Nurse.