If it’s broken it’s broken Pt.2

When we say a system is broken, we mean it’s not working properly. There are two, connected, ways in which this might be the case and both are true in the modern world.

The first way is internal and technical, which is to say that the actual processes that should make the system work are functioning badly, or not at all. The system may manage, more or less, to produce outputs, but not as easily and as well as in the past. Universities, for example, still just about manage to produce graduates, but with much more waste, conflict and bureaucracy than in the past. Hospitals still, as far as they can, heal people, but they are being strangled by management and private sector involvement and drowning under massively increased demand. Perhaps the totemic example of process failure is Brexit: whatever you think about it, the UK should never, ever, have got into the situation it’s now in, and if the system had functioned properly it wouldn’t have done.

The second is teleological and outcome-based, which is to say that the system is unwilling to, or incapable of, producing the necessary outputs. Schools in a number of major countries are scarcely capable of producing school-leavers who can read and write: in France, once renowned for its education system, about 20% of 11-Year-olds are functionally illiterate. But nobody cares because they are largely from the poor and immigrant communities. Sometimes the system doesn’t even try: today’s private sector, for example, no longer even pretends to deliver jobs and investment. It’s become a mechanism for allowing a cabal of managers to loot the assets of the company, the economy and often the state as well, in the form of subsidies and tax-breaks.

OK, then: before we go on, is there any hope for the future?

If it’s broken it’s broken, Pt 1

The chances are that if you speak to a  random stranger in most western countries today they’ll give you a variant of « the system is broken. » 

They may be talking about the organisation or company they work for, their children’s’ school or university,  the health system, or the whole government of the country. The older among them will also say, truthfully, that it wasn’t always like that and that things generally worked better in the past. Younger people, having grown up in a society where nothing worked, have lower expectations, and often a more fatalistic attitude. 

But if the system is broken, what are we going to do? Well, when something is broken, you usually try to fix it. But after forty years during which the system has been deliberately and continuously broken for political and financial profit, it’s now too late. Attempts to rescue the system will only create more problems.

So the system, in all its manifestations, is broken beyond repair. Now what? 

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.

Russia: Dissonance and Dissidence.

I’m not going to comment on the so-called “Russiagate” affair, since there is nothing to comment on. But there are two questions that are actually worth asking. First, how could a political class lose its mind so quickly and completely, and second, is this the end of the US party system as we know it?

The answer to the first is clear enough: it’s the phenomenon known to psychologists as Cognitive Dissonance, where people try to hold two conflicting truths in their mind at the same time, and this causes stress which has to be resolved by manipulating one or both of the truths. In this case, the truth that has to be manipulated is that Trump won the election. He can’t have done, therefore he didn’t, therefore somebody must have “interfered” with the elections.

The other truth, perhaps more interesting, comes from the overwhelming self-regard and arrogance of the Clinton camp, for whom the idea that they could actually lose did not seem real. This was not a mundane question of policies, strategies or turnouts, but an absolute belief in their own righteous nature, and an assumption that the universe would provide the result they anticipated, and that Clinton had been pursuing for decades. Clinton was leading a fragmented and argumentative set of single-issue identity cliques, whose dislike for each other was only exceeded by their self-righteousness and their desire for power. Those who disagreed were hunted down and destroyed if they were within the circle. If they were outside it, they were mocked and despised and treated as irrelevant. Well, we know what happened. But they don’t: the belief in their absolute entitlement to rule had come up against the brute reality of electoral loss. Something had to give, and it was obviously going to be reality.

That said, this may not have been a wise move even for a desperate political clique. Because there are signs that, having been used originally to explain away the unexplainable, the narrative has escaped the grasp of its authors, and is now being used to crush dissent all across the political spectrum. How long before it rebounds against the very people who started it?  (After all, if the Russians really wanted to damage the US political system, wouldn’t they start hares running just like this, and then stand back and watch as the system fell apart?)  Perhaps Hilary Clinton is a Russian agent. I mean, is there any proof she’s not?

 

Fear and loathing (and other things) at the FBI

I don’t normally write about American politics, partly out of boredom, partly because the blogosphere is full of little else these days.

But my eye was caught yesterday by the release of a Top Secret memo on the surveillance of a Trump supporter in 2016, issued by a House of Representatives Committee which is supposed to oversee the intelligence community. Like most people who have worked in government, I know what  Top Secret document looks like, and this is nothing like a Top Secret document.

All it records is that the FBI applied to special secret court for permission to spy on a US citizen on the basis of allegations made in a dossier paid for by opponents of Trump, and supported by a Yahoo News story which ultimately turned out to be from the same source. This is pretty incompetent practice at the best of times, and worrying, if true, for anyone who still believed that the intelligence agencies in the US were under any kind of control at all. But why Top Secret – unless there was an actual operation to stop getting Trump elected? But that couldn’t possible be true, could it?

Brexit: The road to victimism

The history of British engagement with Europe has oscillated  between tragedy and farce for the whole of my adult life: tragedy that Britain was not involved from the beginning, building a better and more sensible Europe than the one we have; farce in the domestic political “debate” on Europe, if debate is not too kind a word. But now we seem to have entered a new register entirely: that of the victim.

It’s unusual for politicians not to take credit for their successes, but that’s what’s happening here. The Brexiters, having got what they want, are now mortified by the complexity and devastation that are the likely results, and are starting, slowly but surely, to transition to a rhetoric which presents Britain as a victim of European manipulation, rather than the author of the problem itself. Don’t ask me how this can be justified logically, because it can’t, but it does have a certain twisted logic of its own if you are familiar with victim cultures.

In victim cultures, your country has suffered, helplessly, from the evil machinations of others. These might be other countries,  multinational corporations, the world financial system, or even small groups capable of letting off explosions. Pretty much every country in the world today considers itself wronged, humiliated, a victim of something or other, whether it’s because of today’s events, or because of a past hundreds of years ago. the competition, within and between states, is to be the biggest victim, because being a victim means never having to say you’re sorry. If you are familiar with Africa and the Middle east you will have seen this culture in its purest form.

That’s what’s going on now; The struggle is not to succeed with Brexit or to stop it; the struggle is to take ownership of the victim status that will be claimed as a result of the inevitable chaos. Who would ever have thought a political system could undergo a moral and ideological collapse as quickly as this?

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.

Brexit: Clowns to the Right of me…..

It’s common enough in politics to call your enemies or people you disagree with idiots, and it’s not always an exaggeration. But the staggering level of incompetence and insouciance displayed by the UK’s current government towards the Brexit negotiations actually puts us into entirely new territory for malevolent stupidity and a complete inability to see past the political advantage that might accrue this week.

Of course, as Harold Wilson famously said, a week is a long time in politics. Of course every major political actor will be calculating how to get out of the Brexit débacle with a whole skin. Of course there will be very few figures thoughtfully contemplating the consequences of their actions in a decade’s time, ready to sacrifice their political careers for the greater good if necessary. That’s politics, and the rules don’t change very much.

But the British people have, in general, been entitled to expect a minimum level of sheer competence from their politicians, even if they don’t agree with them. You don’t aspire to be Prime Minister if you lack even the most rudimentary political skills, any more than you expect to be a champion footballer if you have two left feet. But the general level of total uselessness on display in the present government is quite unprecedented. In earlier times, it would have been safe to say that the British government machine (once the envy of the world, remember?) was capable and efficient enough to deal with Ministers who were complete idiots – and there were quite a few. No longer: the machine has been vandalized and sabotaged to the point where it simply cannot cope any more.

At the moment, ordinary people don’t see this. The realization will dawn when things start to go seriously wrong, when imports don’t come, when exports don’t go, when planes don’t fly and holidays are cancelled, because the government has frittered away time when it should have been negotiating, striking political poses and stabbing each other in the back. Then, I think, the wrath of the British people will be terrible to behold.

It’s already clear that the Tory line will be “it’s all the fault of Brussels” and it’s true as well that Brussels has played its hand badly from a PR point of view. But governments are in the end responsible, and I don’t think that’s going to work as an excuse. If I were Theresa May I’d start running well befog 2019. Now would be a good time.

Dunkirk: They don’t make them like that any more.

I remember being mildly amused at the reception given to Stephen Spielberg’s 1998 blockbuster Saving Private Ryan, where critics fell over each other to praise the “realism” of the opening scenes. How, I wondered, could they tell? Had they been there? Had they served in the military at some point? In fact, Spielberg does seem to have made an attempt to portray the landings reasonably realistically, but that’s not the issue. “Realism” in this context means that those scenes coincided exactly with the common perception of war at the time (large scale senseless massacres) which critics who had never handled anything more lethal than a cooking knife had grown up with, and so expected. And as any literary critic will tell you, “realism” is one of the most artificial of all artistic modes.

Watching Dunkirk, or rather Dunkerque, in a cinema in France (where the film has been well received) made me understand why even the critics who praised the film extravagantly had trouble with its lack of “realism”. Not enough soldiers, not enough aircraft, too much emphasis on the “little boats” and so forth. This is fair enough (and partly reflects Nolan’s conscious decision not to use CGI effects) but ignores the fact that the film is a symbolic treatment of a myth. the symbolism is centered around the elements (earth, water, air and fire) and starts with earth (the sandbag barricade) and ends with fire (the destruction of the aircraft, not coincidentally a Spitfire). It moves, obviously, and cyclically, through these four elements, all in their own way dangerous and treacherous. (Here we recall that the name of the boat featured in the film is the Moonfleet, the name of a popular novel about smuggling and shipwreck which I read at school in the 1960s).

In some mundane ways, you could argue that the film is realistic enough: death is random and omnipresent, people are frightened, selfish, cold and soaked to the skin, pilots worry about how much fuel they have left. But the film works best if we understand that it is cast in a mode that we have little experience of today: the heroic. By heroic, I don’t mean Brad Pitt gunning down fifty terrorists with a single machine-gun burst. I mean the attitude of heroism, of ordinary people rising to extraordinary heights, and doing what has to be done. Hardly any of the British characters in the film fire a shot, apart from the pilots, all three of whom eventually fall from the air onto the elements of water and earth, accompanied each time by fire. Many of the characters (including the nurses who die in the hospital ship) are civilians. Mark Rylance, as the weekend sailor, calm and assured, taking his unarmed boat where it’s most needed, is a mythical figure of everyday heroism, probably unimaginable in today’s society drenched in cynicism and consumerism, and the kind of man that probably every boy born in the 1950s would have wanted as a father. Indeed, in its stoicism and quiet heroism, as well as its lack of special effects, the film is partly a homage to the black and white films of the 1950s on which I grew up.

In a whole lot of ways, they don’t make them like that any more.

France: Apocalypse in about a month.

With only three weeks to go before the first round of the French Presidential election, the media are in full politics-as-horse-race frenzy. Who’s up, who’s down, who’s in, who’s out, which grinning face will give the victory speech after the second round, and that’s pretty much it.

Lost in all this is the terrible, lamentable, really not very good, performance of the two major parties. Hamon (Socialist of a sort) and Fillon (official candidate of the Right) can barely muster thirty per cent of the vote between them. Can you imagine it, what has become of the two major parties of one of the most powerful nations in the world? Think Labour and the Conservatives, or Republicans and Democrats, with thirty per cent of the votes between them.

Now of course these are not the parliamentary elections: they come a few weeks later, and the party machines should be capable of turning out a higher vote. But we’re looking here not just at a rough patch politically, but at the end of an entire political system. It’s going to get a lot rougher between now and May, and even rougher thereafter. This is big news, probably the end of the Fifth Republic as we know it, and the media and the political class have no idea how short a time the current system has to live.