Archive | November, 2006

>The end of the world – news?

>Sat up late watching programmes in BBC 4’s Science Fiction Britannia/the Martians and Us series hoping for a bit of entertainment and ended up instead getting a joltingly interesting watch which led me straight back to politics.

Science fiction has, of course, always been less a means reflecting about the future and other planets than the condition of society in the here and now. What I had never realized was how British SF had a dystopian and pessimistic streak which tracked (anxieties about) the decline of the British Empire and our post-imperial condition. A conservative preoccupation with the fragility of modern civilization not present in more optimistic, technology oriented SF (think Star Trek).


Interestingly, current debates about the political and social impact of climate change (after alien invasion, always a favoured mechanism for destroying the world the catastrophist ‘day after’ genre of British SF and US disaster movies) seem closely to echo this preoccupation.
According to The Times James Lovelock, the originator of the Gaia thesis, predicts a parched earth by 2100 capable of supporting only 500 million people in which one of the few habitable places is… Yes, very much a la John Wyndham, the British Isles, a target for millions of migrating climate refugees – says Lovelock – likely to be much more overcrowded island than ever before, filled with high rise estates and an government rationing precious food resources very carefully (shades of 1960s Sci Fci classic When the Grass Died).

So, are such concerns just drawing on the well established paradigms of Sci Fi and a deeper vein of cultural pessimism, as various born again anti-ecological ex-Trotskyists such as Frank Furudi, Claire Fox and others from the Revolutionary Communist Party diaspora like to tell us? I suppose you could say that fears of social collapse are some kind of ancestral memory. As Jared Diamond’s book Collapse shows numerous pre-modern societies succumbed to ecological self-destruction and we could probably find many examples of more directly politically or economically induced breakdowns – decline and fall of the Roman Empire etc.

On the other hand, even if he may unconsciously draw on some literary archetypes, Lovelock, is a reasonably serious thinker, whose advocacy of nuclear power as a response to global warming (‘global heating’ as he calls it) show a tough mindedness I admired, even if I was sceptical of his rather sweeping conclusions.

Deep seated preoccupation with civilizational breakdown – or at least the breakdown of liberal institutions – probably reflects the fact we have the capacity to fulfil all the grimmest presentiments of SF writers. And occasionally, of course, we actually do… There was little demand for catastrophist or dystopian science fantasy during Somme, high Stalinism or shattered post-war Europe – because it was already (briefly) a social reality.

>Headlining Russia’s poisoned democracy

> As the unfortunate Alexander Litvinenko fights for his life a few streets away at University College Hospital, it’s interesting to note how his attempted assassination has also finally poisoned the British media’s view of Vladimir Putin . The vocabulary is an entirely Cold War one of ‘defectors’, ‘dissidents’ and the KGB. The assumption, reasonably accurately, is that Russia is an authoritarian state, not some rather rough and ready new capitalist democracy suffering from too much freedom. Political scientists and NGOs have tended to classify Russia as ‘semi-authoritarian’, an ‘illiberal democracy’ or ‘semi-free’, as authoritarian ends are used by democratic forms and a form of ultra-manipulative stage managed politics that my SSEES colleague Andy Wilson has explored in his eye opening book Virtual Politics. Ironically, informed academic observers of Russian politics, seem to have a low opinion of Litvinenko and the Boris Berezovsky, whose London based network he forms part of, seeing the ex-oligarch and ex-FSB officer as part of the problems, rather than part of the solution. Neither has the moral integrity or political credibility of the late Anna Politovskaya.

>What do want? Sensible moderation!

> A walk throught UCL’s main Bloomsbury site offers an interesting cross section of political flyposting : the Socialist Workers Party summer school, still going after 40 years; the more obscure and exotic Internation Bolshevik Tendency urging cash machine users to ‘Defend, Extend the Gains of the Chinese Revolution’ while they get out ten quid for lunch; a Maoist-oriented meeting in SOAS to support of the ‘People’s War in Nepal’; an anarchist sticker to ‘Sack Parliament and End of All Wars’ and some posters protesting UCL investment in the arms trade.

So, I was pleased to see a handmade poster on a phone box moderately asking the world to “Use Our Oil Resources Wisely”. Impressive moderation.

Even academics, although themselves not usually politically that radical, have an obsession with radicalism and radicals. Far right and far left exercise a truly hypnotic fascination as far as academic artilce and research outputs are concerned. There be a small mountain of literature on the (basically marginal) far right in Europe. As colleague and I at Sussex wondered, only half in jest, should we perhaps supplent the Political Studies Association specialist group on Extremism and Democracy with a specialist group Jolly Moderate and Reasonable Parties or Inoffensive Centrist Politics…. The Czech satirist Jaroslav Hasek, author of that anarchic masterpiece of Czech literature, the Good Solider Svejk, however, got about a centruy before us by founding aParty for Moderate Progress Within the Bounds of the Law.

>Voting a waste of time? No, not quite Whyte

>Former Cambridge philosopher lecturer and Times columnist Jamie Whyte offers a trenchant and provocative piece explaining why voting is a waste of time and we should ‘vote’ with out wallet, rather the usual pencil-on-a-string at the church hall. As citizens what we want, he says, is basically good political management plus civil and political rights as an insurance policy that we can use them as needed to check those in power as. The solutions to political problems are he says basically known and agreed in any case. Politics, he claims, only matters in times of crisis and societies where an overweening, authoritarian state dominates social and economic life.

None of his arguments are very original – Olson’s Logic of Collective Action highlighted the irrationality of voting forty years from a logical individual perspective and he also echoes an influential recent line of academic research puncturing the neo-Toquevillian mantra that Participation-is-a-Good-Thing and disengagement from public affairs automatically Bad. However, ironically his piece is more of a convincer – even for someone like me fed up to the back teeth with ritual invocations of civil society and civic engagement a nostrum for all social ills in both Eastern and Western Europe as– that there are some serious flaws in some of the these types of arguments.

Rather anti-politically, Whye sees economic participation and power as kind a substitute for political participation. In many ways, I guess it is. But political participation – or at least the right to participate – is a kind of countervailing power to the very unequal distribution of economic power. If we junk or downgrade politics too much economic equal translates ever more rip roaringly into inequalities of political power.

Here it is interesting to note how fact political rights are incommensurate with economic rights – i.e. you can sell shares and options, but you cannot (legally) directly buy up or sell off votes, as some more utopian neo-liberals have seriously suggested (after all just about everything else is saleable, right? And I’m sure there would be plenty of happy sellers queuing round the block at Tesco or logging on to www.sellyourvote.com)

I guess Whyte might shrug his shoulders as this – “Inequality, who cares, that’s the price of freedom”. His assumption – again very anti-political this time in a technocratic and managerial sense – that all solutions are agreed and known is also rather blown apart, by the example he gives of marketizing healthcare. There are plenty of choices and conflicts of interests here which require political choices – and as far as I’m concerned even the basic direction he suggests is the no brainer he seems to think.

>Slovenia: In praise of …. Janez Drnovsek (but not the Guardian)

>The Guardian (17 November) carries the following leader about Slovene President Janez Drnovsek

“As the only vegan new-age mystic who is also a head of state, Slovenia’s president, Janez Drnovsek, would stand out from his fellow heads of state even if he had not decided to live alone with his dog in a remote village rather than use the presidential palace. A former communist, and then a grey-suited banker who guided his country to independence and into the EU, Mr Drnovsek underwent an extraordinary conversion after being diagnosed with cancer.
Shunning political convention, he has launched himself into a new existence, living off organic fruit and vegetables while baking his own bread. He has set out his ecological philosophy in bestselling books, the latest of which was launched this week. His thinking is anything but clear, a fuzzy mix of aspirations and ideals drawn from many sources.

He says he supports the gentle treatment of animals and the environment, taking a stand against materialism and poverty. He has attacked the common agricultural policy as wasteful, to the dismay of Slovenia’s much more conventional government, which has restricted the presidential budget after he used the office to launch a series of campaigns, including a personal peace initiative in Darfur.

He has also given up conventional medicine, to the horror of his doctors. His ideas are hopeful rather than practical – some would say simplistic and wrongheaded. But he is also a cheering example of human unpredictability and a great boost to the diversity of European democracy.”

The Washington Post has a version of the same story which adds in a few details about wearing a cloak of leaves and greeting trees. Hard not to feel that, however, the papers are really in search of good journalistic fairy story.Neither the Slovene presidential website nor as far as I can tell his recently founded party-cum-NGO Movement for Justice and Development contains anything very batty, although admittedly it does have a slightly kooky logo and seems to have inadvertantly borrowed the name of a (moderate) Turkish Islamicist party (similar shared spiritual and communitarian concerns, I guess).
Having had problems with various forms of cancer for five years, Drnovsek does not look a well man and I can’t say I find it totally surprising that, probably thinking about death at a rather young age (he is 56), he’s done a few tried to improve the quality of his life and started to muse big global issues. He is, it seems, also working fairly hard as president, which seems more admirable or interesting than the lifestyle changes or belief in alternative medicine. Maybe in effect he is choosing to die younger and happier, than eke out a longer existence half poisoned by chemotherapy, a choice quite a few people make.

To judge from the photos of the Drnovsek working in his office in a cardigan and walking in the woods, Slovenians don’t do pomp and circumstances anyway. The style and content, rather reminder me of the Václav Havel in the 1990s, although Drnovsek’s technocratic (if communist) background is more reminiscent of that of Václav Klaus or Aleksander Kwasniewski. All in all it convinces me once again that despite a dash of provincial Central European insularity – the erasure of citizens of other ex-Yugoslav republics from official records and a referendum vote to keep it that way come to mind – the Slovenes really are some of the sanest people around.

So do we really need the Guardian to provide a patronizing endorsement?

>Communism as light relief

>Interesting how communism – or what remains of it – has become a human interest story to cheer us up as we ponder the terrorist networks apparently burgeoning in the suburbs and backstreets.

Markus “Misha” Wolf the former head of the East German foreign intelligence service, who has just died, is depicted in today’s papers and media as a rather interesting old gent and subtle spymaster immortalized in popular culture by John LeCarré, whose professional achievements during the Cold War are to be respectfully admired. His memoirs – which I read in the days before I became a full time slave to academic books and articles – tries hard to live up to the image of a honourable (if ideological) man of culture and intellect out of place amongst the brutal and philistine GDR nomenklatura. Although he clearly was an interesting character, the book tries too hard and his account is flat, self-conscious and not very convincing even as exercise in self-reinvention and self-justification. He also wrote a cookbook and made chat show appearence in the early 1990s.

Today’s Guardian also reports that the chair of the Communist Party of Britain (CPB) has inherited a painting worth £20 million through restitution. The CPB as far as I know is descendent of the pro-Soviet ‘tankie’ faction of the now defunct Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), which resisted the CPGB’s turn to Eurocommunism in the 1970s and 80s. These days it is relieved of the burden of defending the USSR – although still feels the need to slavishly defend Castro’s Cuba – and so can play around with the usual far-left playpen equipment far happily.

Like a good comrade, she is it seems, going to hang on to the dosh, so the CPB will not be regaling us James Goldsmith style with a multi-million pound election campaign in 2008. A pity. These days we need a bit of political light entertainment and a nostalgic and odd takes on the detritus of the Cold War is as good as source as any. Somehow I don’t think Bin Laden will be sharing his favourite recipies with us on Jonathan Ross any time soon….

>Higher education: futureschlock

>Never let it be said that British universities aren’t innovative. I had to do a double take to check it wasn’t 1st April today when I saw the front page of this week’s Time’s Higher Education Supplement. Reports that a scientist is being punished for falsifying research findings about whether sheep can recognize each other (they can’t really) and a plan to train university cleaners as student counsellors, so they can deal with students’ emotional problems between hoovering the corridors halls of residence.

A pressing issue in the study of animal behaviour and an inventive form of pastoral care, I guess. Let’s hope personal tutors aren’t required to fill with the vacuum cleaner during quieter office hours. Suddenly, the suggestions for dystopian university futures we facetiously making in the break between exam boards last week – university staff in Man Utd or Tesco style uniforms emblazoned with sponsors logos or academics individually ‘privatized’ with CelebDaq (AcadDaq?) style ratings – don’t seem so far fetched.

>Liberal democracy: the heat is on

>A thought provoking article by Stephen King (the HSBC economist and columnist, not the horror writer) in a The Independent (6 November) about green taxation and the prospects of averting catastrophic climate change. Taking the liberal/economic view of climate changes as an externality that has be factored into individual economic decisions, he points out that taxation does work, but very slowly and not on the scale required for climate change to be addressed in time (as set out in the Stern Report). Smoking has been reduced by half over about 40 years as taxes have crept up, but there the individual has a direct personal interest in not becoming ill – whereas climate change really only bites 2-3 generations on – and the reduction achieved is still less than the 80% cut in global carbon emissions required.


The real issues, as the article, bleakly highlights, is that climate changes is a giant collective action problem – the tragedy of the commons writ very large indeed – which requires states and individual voters/consumers to subordinate their immediate interests to those of future generations and the global population as a whole. The chances of this happening, King convincing suggests, seem minimal, so we are likely to be heading for a bad global scenario in 50-100 years time. As in many collective action problems, some actors (US, China, India) count a whole lot more than others because they (will) emit more. US votes in elections – mainly in a few swing states and districts – have disproportionate weight in deciding about us all.

And the political consequences? Diminishing economic growth and social disruption implies conflict, radicalisation and perhaps resort to authoritarian solutions. Although Green politics in Europe is libertarian, anti-statist and generally politically right on, the political logic of coping with climate change (or its consequences) seems to imply a strengthening of political authority, growing inequality (green taxes on consumption are, after all, flat – hence regressive; development in poorer countries may add to climate change etc) and – as George Monbiot has spotted – the Wellsian prospect of a kind of world government, more likely perhaps to take the form of world governance, as bigger states imposing their will on smaller, taking action on climate change but at the price of entrenching their dominance and privilege.

The Pentagon, of course, got there before me in a widely publicized 2003 report focused on US security needs, but I guess the message is that eco-liberals might need to be as worried about the growth of state power and the future political environment as they do about the physical environment. On the other hand, Liberals from Mill to Hayek have cultivated a professional pessimism about global trends driving the rise of new forms of authoritarian and usually been only half right… Indeed, perhaps the late 21st century will just be the same as the late 19th or the late 20th – a few wealthy fortress like islands of political liberalism in an otherwise poor and illiberal world.

>Czeching out the Senate elections

>I’ve been musing over the results of the Senate elections – that’s the Czech Senate elections of 13-14 and 20-21 October, of course, not the bigger more important contest going on over the Pond. As in the US the Czechs re-elect 1/3 of their Senate ever couple of years on a staggered basis. Unlike the Yanks, however, they use a French style two round system of voting with run-off elections between the top two candidates a week after the first ballot if no candidate gets an absolute majority. This has the effect of opening the system to third parties, tempering the tendency of the first-past-the-post system to create two horse races and two party systems somewhat.

The headline result is that the Civic Democrats, having got through the second round in 26/27 contests, won 14 seats and made gains sizeable enough to gain a majority in the upper house (41/81 seats). This is the first time a single party has managed this feat – although the Quad-Coalition alliance of four parties managed pretty much the same thing in 2000 – and fits in with the shift in public opinion towards the party after its Pyrrhic victory in parliamentary elections this June (big gains; weak coalition partners; no majority). Below the radar, however, the real winners may again be the Social Democrats, who won 6 Senators, gaining five and beating ODS in a straight fight in five of eleven contests, managing to push out sitting ODS Senators in Ostrava (Topolánek’s home town) and Mlada Boleslav (home of Škoda cars andfor many years had the district with highest average wages in the country) .

As Social Democrat leader Paroubek astutely hammered home to win these contests you need hard campaigning local politicians not intellectuals with Olympian ideas.

This was discovered to his cost by Christian Democratic Senator, ex-Senate Chairman and ex-Czech PM Petr Pithart, one of the few dissidents still active in politics, whose long running career almost came crashing down (again) when he came within 25 votes of losing to an energetic ODS mayoress. The Czech Senate is increasingly a collection of ex-mayors and independents with local power bases –equivalent in a weird kind of way to the German Bundesrat , although the CR is not a federal state – rather than the Hayekian institution of high-minded liberal gents imagined by the Civic Democrat Alliance when they helped push through the idea of a second chamber in the early 1990s.

The Christian Democrats lost a couple of seats but didn’t fare too badly. Their most impressive victory was in Vsetín – real historic Christian Democrat country down near the Slovak border in the so-called ‘Moravian Slovakia’ region – but helped rather motr, I suspect, by their candidate’s record as mayor in shipping local Roma families who had big rent arrears for out of municipally owned housing in the centre of town into prefabs out in the middle of nowhere to create a Slovak style shanty town. What will the European People’s Party have to say about that, I wonder?

The real losers were the liberal Freedom Union who retained none of their five Senators up for re-election – no real surprise since the party has been poliitcally dead since about 2002.
Liberal voices are, however, represented in the Senate in the form of a plethora of micro-parties with one Senator – the logic seemingly being that independents with strong local electoral appeal hook up with some non-parliamentary group registered as party and save themselves the effort of gathering 1000 signatures, while the party gets some state funding. There are 16 Senators for small liberal parties and local independent groups in the 81 member Senate, although the European Democrats, the only real strong extra-parliamentary party, do have three.

Czech media and politicians have been predictably banging on about low turnout (30% in the first round, around 15% in the second) – Klaus spoke of an erosion of liberal values – but although indeed low like most electoral non-participation it is totally rational. The Senate has very weak powers and other than for electoral or constitutional legislation, it veto is easily overturnable by the lower house. Not a lot is at stake. The ultra-low second round turnouts also reflect the fact that Czechs just do not do tactical voting and on the whole only supporters of the top two candidates bother to vote. Interestingly, only local mayors and locally well known independents seem able to pile on additional votes in the second round. An unknown local surgeon romped home with 75% of the vote in one district – he was always nice to his patients apparently. Several ODS candidates, by contrast, who had topped the first ballot actually lost votes and were pipped at the post.

And the political consequences? Well, ODS can block any changes to the constitution or the electoral system it doesn’t like. The Christian Democrats and Civic Democrats now have enough votes across both chambers to re-elect President Klaus next February (just) and the Social and Civic Democrats together have a constitutional majority (60% in both house) and could remake the country’s entire political system, if they could actually agree on anything.

Likely outcomes – either very little change in the electoral system (an odd, rather than even number of deputies) or fairly big changes squeezing out minor parties even more if the Civic and Social Democrats reach a big deal. Either way four more years of Klaus in Prague Castle (unless the Christian Democrats go into meltdown which having re-electing the conservative Jan Kasal as leader, I suspect they will not).

>(Red and) black humour

>Political joke of the week…

Q Why do anarchists drink Earl Grey?
A Because proper tea is theft.

I’m sure Proudhon and Bakhunin would have appreciated that one….