Monday, March 8, 2010


There is a story that Bertrand Russell was once giving a public lecture on astronomy, at the conclusion of which an old lady buttonholed him and said that she’s found his lecture very interesting, but did he not realise that actually the earth was a flat disk resting on the back of a giant turtle. Russell then gently asked what the turtle could be resting upon. ‘Don’t you try to be clever with me, young man’, she retorted. ‘It’s turtles all the way down’.

This is what I’m reminded of every time I hear a ‘Thought for the Day’ speaker twisting logic in order to insist on divine beneficence in human affairs in the face of unmistakable evidence to the contrary, even someone normally as sensible as ex-bishop Richard Harries. Fundamentalist notions are easily dismissed, but I’ve sometimes amused myself by imagining how I might devise a convincing defence for Christianity if I happened to be one of the faithful and was trying to avert temptation to disbelief. I always fail, for no matter how I twist the theology and the evidence around each other any such defence always produces contradictory incompatibilities.

Another favourite clerical trope is to insist that humans are naturally attuned to a religious sensibility. Now, in a sense that actually happens to be true, depending on how you interpret ‘naturally’. Humans, for good evolutionary reasons, are intrinsically pattern-seeking, and consequently very prone to ‘false positives’, ie seeing patterns where none actually exist. In a non-scientific universe supernatural beliefs are indeed perfectly natural – they provide ready explanations for natural phenomena, both physical ones and instances like dreams. They also, when socially shared, as is always the case, promote social cohesion and adherence to tradition, and above all they answer the eternal question, ‘Why me’? The true answer – ‘no reason other than the law of averages’, is neither very welcome nor very comforting. The promise of life beyond death is more ambiguous – all historic cultures have assumed an afterlife of some sort, but for most, prior to the emergence of what Michael Mann has termed the ‘salvation religions’, it was normally believed to be drearily unpleasant.

The present danger
For some time recently it was possible to assume that a developing secularisation process would steadily eliminate religion, and in the meantime increasingly marginalised believers could be left to their own devices. To be sure, in Western Europe at least, orthodox Christianity continues to decline numerically, but throughout the globe the reality has turned out to be very different – as one enthusiast declared ‘God is back’! Unfortunately this is not just an intriguing sociological reality, but constitutes a serious menace.

To refer again to Bertrand Russell, he once remarked that the problem with religion arises when it gets hold of power or authority of any sort – or rather its representatives do. At best that situation allows them to levy tribute upon everybody at large and not only their own adherents, but more often they cause the state which they dominate to enforce their superstitions in its law codes – obvious enough in Europe before the twentieth century or in much of the Muslim world today. Paradoxically, it has also, and to a degree still is, true of the United States though its constitution specifically forbids the establishment of any particular religion.

It must be admitted that religious organisations have in the past and continue in the present to promote welfare activities among the victims of unequal societies. Indeed in this respect they often put secularists to shame. That is how Hamas established its standing among the Palestinians. One of the most admirable people I ever was acquainted with was the minister of an obscure Christian sect in Lerwick, Shetland. Apart from his religious duties he spent all his time visiting hospitals, old people’s homes and suchlike, with small gifts and comforting conversation without ever parading his faith. He was loved by everyone, and deservedly so. On one occasion, when his barely furnished cottage (he lived on his own) was burgled, spontaneous donations poured in making him wealthier than he had ever been – of course he gave it all away. When he died the municipal flag was flown at half mast.

Instances of people such as him who are better than their faith are certainly not hard to find. Notable contemporary ones who come to mind are Bishop Tutu or Bruce Kent, Bishop Harries or the late Cardinal Hume. But they are not typical of organised religion. In this context it is Lord Acton’s famous observation about power and absolute power which comes to mind. The Church of England (in England) though still the established religion, is no longer the ferocious beast it was in the days of its power, but it is a different story in Uganda, where the Anglican church is among the lobbies pressing hard to make gay activities a capital offence. Nor, even in Western Europe, and the USA more so, have the churches given up trying to intrude their dogmas into the legal system, such as forcing people to stay alive who for good reason no longer wish to do so.

Atheists such as Richard Dawkins are frequently criticised less for their arguments than for being too strident about them, but this is a misconception. Atheists in the recent past tended to disregard religion rather than attack it – only the aggressive and vocal promotion of all manner of supernatural obscurantism has provoked their response. There is, regrettably, still plenty of work for secularists to do.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Bankers are back

The bankers are back, along with their bonuses, and as arrogant as ever. Fred the Shred is not left behind – he has again achieved profitable employment, this time as financial advisor to an architectural establishment, interestingly enough, the very same as designed and built the Scottish Parliament building – at ten times the original costing …

Meantime RBS chief Sephen Hester, running a bank that was rescued from collapse with public money, has refused to tell MPs size of staff bonuses
‘It is my duty to protect shareholder interests and pay the minimum bonuses that out group can get away with …’ he proclaimed. The insolence passes all understanding. The British executives at Goldman Sachs appear to believe that they are putting on a hair shirt when they limit their individual loot for the year to £1 million per looter.

Commenting on Radio 4 about the latter report, the writer Sebastian Faulks remarked how infuriating it was to see these people strutting about as though they owned the world – all the more so since they do own it, he noted. He might have added that they also own us. Even Gordon Brown is expressing dismay that government appeals for restraint are shrugged aside, though no-one (apart from Thatcher herself) has done more to create the climate in which these things have become possible.

Even now the British government is not prepared to follow Obama’s modest proposal to reinstitute, as used to be the case, the compulsory separation of everyday commercial banking from investment banking. As Faulks also pointed out, the term investment banking is itself very much a misnomer – it has little to do with either banking or investment, but means instead gambling on the financial markets with depositors’ money; and does so with financial instruments and packages so complex that not even their originators can understand them.

It was J M Keynes who back in the thirties expressed regret that the creation of values, material and otherwise, should be ‘the by-product of a casino’. He spoke whereof he knew, for, having lost one fortune in the 1929 stock market crash, his financial expertise enable him to speedily make a replacement one.

What the present crisis has mad clear is that the controllers of the banks and the stock markets, ‘too big to fail’, regard any limitation of their right to plunder as the height of impertinence and no government throughout the Western world is able to stand up to them even if they wanted to and with massive public approval. Unelected, irresponsible and malignant, they nevertheless control not only financial institutions but all our destinies as well.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Copenhagen Summit and the Last Tree

For all the mighty hopes that were pinned on it and the massive demonstrations that took place in connection with it, nothing substantial except disaster emerged from the Copenhagen summit. A token agreement of a very minimal sort, with no targets and no binding force, quite inadequate to address an accelerating environmental crisis, was hastily cobbled together as a last resort while the delegates fell to screaming at each other, barely avoiding physical assaults.

If this is the best that our leading statespersons could do, it doesn’t leave much hope for the planet. The amour propre of the Chinese and the witless complacent greed of the US Senate appear to have been the prime obstacles. According to report there are some background elements in the Chinese political class who believe that global warming is a myth manufactured by the Americans to retard Chinese economic growth. In the West the Daily Express, most toxic of the toxic tabloids, similarly informs its readers in shrieking headlines that though global warming may be a reality it has nothing to do with human activity.

During past centuries of human history for all but the most fortunate minority (and even they had little protection against devastating disease) life was precarious in the extreme and generally short – filled with toil, pain, discomfort, sorrow and superstitious terrors. Not surprisingly there has also been a constant struggle to alleviate such conditions through technological advance, social struggle and cultural enlightenment.

In the last 150 years and especially in the twentieth century, for the majority populations in the industrially and technically advanced countries that objective is at last achieved. For those, including our fortunate selves, food supply is unproblematic, the wastes we generate both through our bodies and our activities, are smoothly disposed of; the flick of a switch or turn of a tap provide us with levels of comfort and stimulation unimaginable to past generations – and unavailable to our contemporaries who cannot access them. Our lives are significantly extended and with them our opportunity to enjoy those benefits. In previous eras one was fortunate to survive past fifty; now one is unfortunate not to.

It all seems too good to be true and indeed it is. There being no such thing as a free lunch, a price has to be paid and we are paying it now. Irreplaceable natural resources are rapidly being exhausted, the rainforest lungs of the planet are in process of extermination, and pollution generated to a degree which is acidifying the oceans and threatens life on earth. If the present level of global warming, serious enough on its own account, unlocks the methane frozen under the arctic permafrost then what we are experiencing now will look like child’s play in comparison. The consumer society is consuming the planet.

We would not be the first culture to have self-destroyed its environment. The inhabitants of Easter Island are a notorious historical example. When the Polynesian settlers arrived the island was heavily forested. They used the wood to construct the fishing boats on which their food supply depended, but also plundered the forests for timber to move and erect the monumental ancestral statues for which the island is renowned. Social competition is believed to have stimulated the frenzy of construction. In the end the island was deforested and no further fishing boats could be made. One wonders how those watching felt as the last tree was being cut down. The islanders did survive, but at a decidedly lower level of population, comfort and culture.

Perhaps that is the best that we too can hope for, with the collapse of civilisation being among the more optimistic scenarios. Certainly, and Copenhagen underlines this all too vividly, there is no sign whatsoever that the will can be found for the drastic measures that would be necessary to avert the threatened environmental catastrophe. Only a massive but not wholly irrecoverable calamity seems to have any hope of generating that degree of commitment. Otherwise, if things continue as at present, the world will gradually slide downhill until it is much too late. At least that’s how it looks.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Monty Python

Earlier this month an anonymous MP (words spoken by an actor) appeared on the Today radio programme to complain bitterly about the proposals in the Chris Kelly report to curb MPs’ greed. The fact that anonymity was regarded as necessary tells us a lot about the nature of today’s politics. Was it not dreadful, this parliamentarian lamented, that MPs, with all their responsibilities, should be paid so much less than persons in high-grade employments elsewhere? How would we be able to get adequate representatives if talented individuals could earn so much more elsewhere?

Without too much difficulty, one presumes, since there is never any shortage of people willing to offer themselves for election and it is doubtful whether the curtailment of expenses claims will affect this reality all that much. Nobody, after all, is compelled to become an MP. It is not by any means as though all parliamentary expenses are to be abolished, and on top of a not ungenerous salary they should, even in a curtailed form, be sufficient to satisfy any honest legislator. Moreover, a large number of these have other sources of income in addition.

The demand for salaries commensurate with those of top civil servants or top executives in the private or public sectors is wholly unreasonable. MPs may be subject to special restrictions and regulation, but a representative of the people is not in the same situation as a private citizen, and anybody who aspires to occupy the former role should be prepared to make appropriate sacrifices. If they are not it says something about their commitment. The legislature in the USA may be a pork barrel and a gravy train, but that is hardly a reason for the UK to adopt similar standards.

The political scene in general increasingly comes to resemble a Monty Python script. Recently the question of the Premier’s handwriting has erupted as a major issue. A crucial rail franchise, the North East line, collapses and the government is compelled to take it over. Far from seizing on this as an opportunity to restore the franchise to public ownership, the person put in charge boasts on the radio of how the line will be improved and upgraded ready for return to another set of fat cats. She sounded delighted at the prospect.

It is the same story with another North East facility, the Tyne and Wear Metro. This light railway has worked extremely well as a publicly-owned enterprise and has an excellent record. At the same time, its infrastructure needs rejuvenation and funding for this has been made conditional on privatisation. What is clear is that this government does not regard privatisation as an unwelcome necessity but is dogmatically convinced that private ownership of public assets is the preferable option. This regardless of the fact that whatever questionable advantages private capital may have in manufacture and retail, when it comes to public services it is profoundly bad news for workforces and consumers. That was predicted in advance and that is how it has worked out.

Gordon Brown is reported to be about to apologise to the people who as kids were sent to suffer abuse in Australia in previous decades. One wonders how long it will be before the same is done for refugees nowadays being deported back to torture dungeons or their deaths.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Hard choices?

Oh, why don’t you work, bum, like other men do?
How the hell can I work when there’s no work to do?

Joe Hill

A year after the great credit crunch it is becoming increasingly clear that so far as the bankers responsible for it are concerned, despite having been saved by the state at enormous cost from total perdition, things are to go on pretty much as before with no more than a few cosmetic regulatory improvements. The insatiable and sometimes suicidal greed exhibited by the masters of the universe truly stretches the imagination. Such reversion to perilous practice and mega-bonuses is being justified too with the old rhetoric – they are necessary to keep the system running, reward risk-taking and attract the highest quality of executive (presumably of the same sort who achieved such a magnificent results last time round).

Instead, it is no less clear that it is the public at large who are going to be made to endure the price of the colossal bailout figures that proved necessary to keep the financial centres, and through them the economy in general afloat. That was made apparent at the autumn conferences of all three factions of the Thatcherite party, each striving to outbid the other in the pain of inflictions they mean to inflict on the workforce in terms of cutting their incomes and social entitlements.

Hard choices
The rhetoric of ‘hard choices’ was much in vogue. It is especially infuriating to hear that phrase being used by individuals sitting in their comfort, security and large incomes when the hardness is to be imposed upon the most vulnerable and defenceless. Unemployment, already more persistent than at any time since 1940 will take off like a rocket and unemployment and disabled benefits will be cut to the bone and into the bone. Before long, no doubt, you’ll be expected to be ‘genuinely seeking work’ (to use an interwar governmental phrase) even if you should be ninety years old, blind, deaf and paraplegic (okay, I made up that last bit, but nowadays it sounds all too plausible).

Mark Perry in his Bread and Work: The Experience of Unemployment 1918-39, (published nine years ago) wrote that, ‘Much of what is offered by way of reform and innovation is clearly a regression to the situation pre-1945. The means testing of benefits, the rhetoric of the irresponsible growth of social services, the scare stories of dole abuse … are repeated now as then’. – and nearly a decade later it remains as true as ever. His quote from an American newspaper editorial of the thirties no doubt still represents the secret thoughts of some in high places, ‘Can’t let the utterly worthless starve? Maybe not, but if some plague were to come along … and wipe them all out, that would not be a tragedy but a big relief’.

Long term considerations
The establishment attitude to unemployment still remains in the Victorian era. According to this work is always available to anyone who searches for it diligently enough. According to classical economic theory genuine unemployment is impossible, what is required is willingness to accept reduced wages (an update in relation to Britain is that minimum wage legislation eliminates the threat of real starvation wages and removes any excuse for being workless). In the real world no doubt work always is available – in drug dealing, robbery, prostitution, pornography and suchlike, but these occupations are probably not what the proponents of this notion have in mind.

It seems all too probable that there will never be any real recovery from the current global depression, to give it its real name, (and if there were it would most likely only accelerate the approaching environmental catastrophe). In that case an implicit bargain in the developed between capitalism and its workforce will have decisively broken down – the promise that wage labour, whatever its disagreeable aspects, offers a long term future of security and tolerable living standards with the continuing prospect of further material improvement.

What that might mean in political terms is quite unforeseeable at present, but there is little to suggest that it is likely to be a very welcome prospect.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

A Splendid Triumph for Western Values

Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi will be dead very shortly. Nevertheless his recent release from a Scottish prison as a dying man continues to reverberate. Even today we hear that the firm marketing Harris Tweed in the USA has had to issue a denial that it was planning to remove the word ‘Scottish’ from its publicity in response to a campaign (abortive in any case) for a boycott of Scottish products in that country.

The Scottish Executive showed great courage and principle in undertaking the release, though its justice minister, Kenny MacAskill had to refrain from stating the actual truth, that the Lockerbie trial was a travesty and the verdict manifestly perverse. To satisfy American diplomatic requirements an innocent individual was effectively deprived of the last eight years of his life. The idea that the government in London had anything to do with it is laughable – anybody who imagines that the Nationalist government in Holyrood would jump to do the bidding of its enemies Downing Street must be a very believing kind of person.

The outlines are well known. The Americans’ first suspicions were directed (probably accurately) at a Palestinian terrorist group operating from Syria, but when Syrian compliance was sought over the first Gulf War in 1991, accusation was switched against Libya, then a pariah state as far as the Western powers were concerned, and it’s regime forced to accept responsibility as the price of being received into the ‘international community’ – ie states acceptable to the USA, what used to be known as the ‘free world’. In the course of the trial vital evidence was withheld on the usual specious pretext of ‘national security’ and the witness on whom the conviction depended was a notorious liar who had received large quantities of dollars from government US sources.

More Middle East
The other day a commentator on Radio 4, an Iranian oppositionist, was pointing out that despite the bitter and often lethal divisions in Iranian society, all too clearly displayed around the recent presidential election, all Iranians are united in determination to assert the country’s sovereignty in face of threats and blackmail, particularly in regard to the country’s nuclear programme (which, its government insists, does not include nuclear weapon ambitions). This latter point is brusquely dismissed by US spokespeople in a manner which would never be applied to any state (apart from George Bush II’s ‘axis of evil’) and is diplomatically insulting in the extreme. The Iranians might well ask the US government and public how they would feel if a foreign power tried to instruct them on what they might or might not do on their own territory. To be sure, the current Iranian regime is a seriously repressive one, but a lot less so than the Saudi, and its presidential election undoubtedly fraudulent – but no more than the one that NATO has just promoted in Afghanistan at enormous cost in blood and treasure.

Meantime ethnic cleansing continues on the West Bank, the Saudi tyranny proceeds unabated, energetically spreading its superstition wherever it can, and NATO gets bogged down in an unwinnable war in Afghanistan. A splendid triumph for Western values.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Crimes and Metaacrimes – part 2

In the summer of 1990, by which time the Soviet bloc had collapsed and the Soviet Union itself was in its death-throes, Saddam Hussein’s forces invaded and quickly overran the adjacent southern micro-state of Kuwait, mainly composed of desert but with lots of oil under its sand. By this time too Soviet forces had been pressured into withdrawing from Afghanistan (their losses had contributed to the Soviet unravelling) though the civil war there continued until 1996 when Kabul fell to the Taliban.

During the eighties Saddam had been a close Middle East ally of the United States, despite the aggressiveness of his rhetoric against her even more important ally, Israel, a state which like Ba’ahist Iraq invaded its neighbours and seized their territory, defied UN resolutions, cruelly persecuted populations under its control and possessed weapons of mass destruction (even more devastating ones).

He had been willingly sold weaponry light and heavy by the USA, supplied with intelligence, protected at the UN (and readily forgiven for mistakenly attacking a US warship and killing 37 personnel) for he was at that time engaged in an all-out military assault on the Iranian Islamic Republic, an American bĂȘte noire ever since the 1979 revolution which had destroyed Western influence and compromised oil access in a very strategically important area – and was also a sponsor of the Lebanese Hezbollah, Israel’s most effective enemy. The war was immensely destructive both in life and materially, yet Saddam (and the US) failed in their objective and Iraq was counter-invaded, the war eventually ending in stalemate.

Saddam thereafter was a busted flush. The Iranian regime remained in place and no less a source of annoyance to Washington. The Iraqi dictator by now was an embarrassment to his sponsors for his abominable human rights record, but refused to tone down his anti-Israel rhetoric and continued threatening to use force against it as well as the USA’s other Middle East client, Saudi Arabia.

Iraq had suffered grievously from the war, its economy was in a mess, its oil revenues insufficient. Not surprisingly the regime’s attention turned to Kuwait, slopping with oil and effectively defenceless. There was some justice in the argument (so far as these things are ever a subject of justice) that it should have been part of Iraq from the start. There is certainly evidence that the US hinted to Saddam that it would have no objection if he repaired his fortunes by seizing it, knowing well what this would mean and the opportunity it would open up. It is a plausible scenario. In any case, Saddam fell into the trap, whether or not it was deliberately set. He could not then meet the demand for withdrawal without hopelessly losing face.

In early 1991, having annihilated the Iraqi forces in Kuwait, a ‘turkey shoot ‘ as one US officer described it, the elder George Bush failed to follow up by moving on Baghdad, or by supporting the Kurdish uprising in the north or the Shia insurgency in the south. The reason was that the Americans reckoned that popular overthrow of the regime would result in Iraq being dominated by forces friendly to Iran or, in the north, hostile to its Turkish NATO ally. What Washington were hoping for was that Saddam, disgraced by defeat, would be removed in a coup by more accommodating elements in his military. When that failed to occur, the pressure was continued by a regime of economic sanctions and occasional ariel attack, occasioning over the years civilian deaths running into the hundreds of thousands. Meantime an enormous US military base appeared in Kuwait.

The same kind of thing happened in Kosovo, where Slobodan Milosevic’s persecution of the ethnic Albanian community under Serbian rule supplied the pretext for military intervention. The humanitarian justification would look more convincing and less opportunist if another massive US military base had not subsequently been established in Kosovo, on the border of Macedonia.

US success in Afghanistan at first appeared to be comprehensive when Islamist clients it had armed and funded throughout the war destroyed the modernising communist regime. The success was greatly compromised however when these in their turn were replaced by the hyper-Islamist Taliban, sponsored by another US client government, that of Pakistan, or more specifically by its security service, the ISI. The Taliban had their own agendas, and moreover gave sanctuary to the Al-Qaeda network of the Saudi Osama bin Laden, which though also a US creation had turned against its sponsor because of the presence of the latter’s infidel troops in the holy Saudi state.

Then came 9/11. Without any suggestion that the US state itself engineered the atrocity it is nevertheless true that it did for the Bush presidency what the Reichstag Fire did for Hitler, enabling it, under the ‘war on terror’ pretext, to launch a furious attack upon civil liberties in the USA itself, extend the powers of the secret state and generate the public momentum for war in Afghanistan – and Iraq as well, though there was of course absolutely no connection except hostility between Saddam and Al-Qaeda. However the subjugation of Iraq, resulting in a few more hundred thousand deaths, was central to the neoconservatives’ ‘Project for a New American Century’ as well as the Israeli lobby, and they had been advocating it since 1997.

Tariq Ali as long ago as 2002 quoted a former Washington insider, who asserted that ‘Blowback is shorthand for saying that a nation reaps what it sows, even if it does not fully know or understand what it has sown’. Whether the outcome of the 2008 Presidential election will lead to any substantial reorientation is still too early to say, though the signs are not particularly hopeful – but what can be assumed with certainty is that the world financial meltdown of that year marks the end of the ‘end of History’.