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>Wonky thinking

> The rich undergrowth of UK thinktanks, NGOs and policy wonkery yields yet another report of renewing British democracy, this time a report on political parties from the Young Foundation. Somewhat more realistic in seeing that parties are functional for democracy and need reforming (or re-forming), rather than bypassing, a quick skim read suggests, unlike the intellectually lightweight, politely populist and oh so 1980s Power Report, skillfully skewed by Tim Bale, Paul Taggart and Paul Webb in a recent article in Political Quarterly. The same territory is being currently exploted on Radio 4’s the Westminister Hour by Demos founder and ex-Blair sidekick Geoff Mulgan. Strange how the world of ‘practictioners’, thintanks etc is so far behind academic debates and generally make a pig’s ear of academic research when it does try to draw on it…

>Between Cameron and Chavez


David Cameron is certainly having a influence on me– why only today I bought my first fruit smoothie. In political terms, however, despite his, in principle, not unappealing combination of bourgeois liberalism and Green politics, I am, it seems, not subject to the Cameron effect, the acid test being an involuntary smile at Steve Bell’s acidic take on DC in today’s Guardian. For my money, however, the now somewhat obscure Czech philosopher Václav Bělohradský, who terrorized the Prague intelligentsia in the 1990s out of some of its complacent certainties, does a much better combination of liberalism, ecology and anti-capitalism.

Beverage-wise, however, it seems I am more Hugo Chavez (chain drinking of coffee) than Dave Cameron (single smoothie and the odd mineral water). There, however, the similarities end. Quite why this archetypical Latin American populist and loud mouthed purveryor of cheap oil is so lionized on the liberal-left – even suppying some material for the first issue of the (ever dull) house magazine of new Universities and Colleges Union – I’ll never know…

>Comrades and brothers

>An interesting reflection on the relationship of radical Islamism and the Marxist left by Fred Halliday, who argues that there are ‘ signs of a far more developed and politically articulated accommodation in many parts of the world between Islamism as a political force and many groups of the left’ that simply the opportunistic grasping for allies characteristic of the (far) left in the 1970s and 80s. The ‘many voices of resistance’ thesis of the post-Cold War anti-globalization movement – which in its broadest interpretation can include the post-fascist European New Right (Nouvelle droite) of Alain de Benoist and friends – and the shibboleth of Neo-Liberalism have added to this pattern. Indeed, as headbanging defences of the fag end of the nomenklatura (Miloševič, Lukasenka et al) and/or its ‘achievements’ under socialism by writers like Neil Clark (part of the bizarre intellectual diaspora spawned by the Revolutionary Communist Party sect of 1980s, naturally) show, this is a club anyone can join. Indeed, even the Chinese – surely beneficiary of globalization, although I guess with some claim to have pioneered a Third Way of sorts – seem to be getting in on the act, cosying up to Hugo Chavez and Iran, although energy supplies, rather than anti-imperialism seems the motive force here.

The declining Western socialist left, says Halliday, has misunderstood that radical Islam has simply gutted and recycling the basics of anti-imperialist thesis, rhetoric and organization forms of old style mass Communist parties for other ends. While ‘Islamo-fascism’ is probably a misnomer for anything but the crudest polemics, other authors have noted the intellectual roots of radical Islam also stretch back to the anti-Enlightenment thinking of the German interwar ‘Conservative Revolution’ , sketching out a Sonderweg, which saw Germany as a distinct culture from the West.

The bizarre logic of all this seems to be that if you don’t find this Hells Kitchen of radical forces remotely appealing you are corralled, rather like the Cold War liberals in an earlier ages, into a Defence of the West camp with US neo-cons as it (admittedly now rather battered) Praetorian guard. If, to paraphrase the placards seen at demonstrations against Israeli attacks on Lebanon, we are not ‘all Hezbollah’ then it seems we are all bourgeois liberals, working out how best to Westernize the rest of the world and which bits can’t (or don’t need to be) Westernized.

Karl Marx, one feels, who saw even small Central European nations such as the Czechs as so much ahistorical detritus, who should be swept away by the juggernaut of (German-speaking) modernity, would be with George Bush on this one.

>Warfare, welfare and politics by other means

>BBC Radio 4’s World Tonight reports from Beruit suggest that the widespread destruction of infrastructure and weakening of state structures will increase Hezbollah support, because they will be best placed to supply reconstruction assistance and welfare. Someone should do some research about the use of welfare and educational structures as means of building political power.

Some, for example, have seen a parallel between Islamicist movements’ strategy of building up social and education institutions – a common pattern across the Arab world – and the ‘new evolutionist’ strategy of bypassing the communist Party-state used (or at least theorized) by n dissidents in East Europe in 1980s. There, however, the parallels probably end. Sinn Fein’s strategy of building up republican advice centres and nationalist community organizations in West Belfast during 1980s is perhaps another point of reference. There are also echoes of the traditional European mass political parties of 19th century (Social Democrats, Christian Socials) ‘encapsulating’ their chosen social constituencies in a web of affiliated and cultural organizations

>Bit of culture, bit of politics…

>US academic Andrew Roberts, Assistant Professor of Political Science at North Western University in Chicago (not be confused with the right-wing British historian of the same name) not only writes some very decent political science analyses of democracy and policy reform in CEE, but has also written an excellent book on Czech popular culture, in fact, a usable and entertaining guide to all peculiarities of Czech life from pub menus and nursery rhymes to political terminology. Similar material by Roberts can be found in a couple of (infrequently updated) blogs, one a spin off from the book, one a feature on Seldom Asked Questions about the Czech Republic.

Most hard pressed British social scientists, alas, tend to be too buried by administration and teaching or caught too tightly in the jaws of the Research Assessment Exercise categorizations to show such breadth…

>Garton Ash on Muslims in the UK and France – sense but not political sensibility

>A prescient article by Timothy Garton Ash in today’s Guardian contrasting young British Muslims’ greater levels of disaffection, non-identification as citizens and sympathy for radical Islamicism with the situation in France. The reasons TGA briskly identified were: different religious traditions in historic regions of origin (Pakistan/Kashmir vs. the Maghreb); the war in Iraq and Bush-Blair axis vs. French scepticism; and absence of French style civic education in British school; and – moving into an uncharacteristically conservative riff for Garton Ash – the greater hedonism and self-indulgence of young Brits (lots of booze and soft drugs, not enough volleyball and sipping apéros in the local café). We need, says Garton Ash, to take Muslim disenchantment with Western majority lifestyles seriously as a legitimate conservative critique not a sign of backwardness or political disloyalty and be aware that young Muslims are often critical of aspects of Islamic culture found problematic by many in the West such as the position of women.

I found myself agreeing with this very sensible analysis – surely a sign of middle age when you find yourself fully agreeing with Timothy Garton Ash, but a welcome break on a day of rolling TV terror coverage– but I did wonder quite how one would going about turning a slowly fragmenting liberal UK into strong republican state like France and, indeed, whether riots in the banlieu and Jean-Marie Le Pen are not just a different kind of price for basically the same set of unresolved problems.

As usual, however, TGA was long on diagnosis and short on treatment. The only short-term political solution implied was to part company with the Bush White House and exit the Iraq imbroglio. Yes, but how Timbo? How?

>Tories’ new symbol resembles logo of defunct Czech party

>Interesting to note that the British Tories’ new proposed green and blue tree logo – intended no doubt to indicate a sense of rootedness and tradition, ecological sensibilities and a degree of Andrex style softness – closelly resembles that of the near defunct Czech Freedom Union (Unie svobody) party (below right), which crashed out of the Czech parliament in this June’s elections having desperately adopted anarchist symbols and screaming purple in a last ditch attempt to grab the youth vote and stay off their inevitable demise. An omen perhaps?

It aslo resembles the symbol of the Groupement de recherche et d’études pour la civilisation européenne(GRECE), the thinktank of the post-fascist French Nouvelle Droite, indicating its rootness in Indo-European pagan culture, so perhaps the paleo-Tory right could have some cause for hope

>Central and East European migration – the Guardian/UKIP axis

>A bizarre debate on BBC2’s Newsnight addressing what is now suddenly seen as the problem of migration from Central and Eastern Europe –the product of local authorities complaining they will have to put up council tax because of strains on local services due to large numbers (which no one can very clearly estimate, we are at best talking about a scenario). Newsnight duly obliged by filming an on the spot report from Slough as negative as its earlier report on Poles in the UK had been positive.

In the studio debate there was a very odd series of exchanges between the UKIP’s probable next leader Nigel Farrage and the Guardian’s Polly Toynbee. Awkwardly for both, they agreed with each other almost 100% in not very different versions of the pull-up-the-drawbridge-they’re-stealing-our-jobs argument. Farrage was blustering away that CEE migrants were doing the locals out of jobs and causing unemployment – perhaps thinking of the work that outgoing UKIP leader Roger Knapman had done on his house by East European decorators. Toynbee agreed with him right down the line from a sort of social-democratic protectionist standpoint saying that CEE migrants were driving down wages, stopping employers investing in training and and benefiting only the wealthy, by keeping prices in restaurants down.

The last remark sounded like an odd piece of middle class guilt, as I suspect she probably eats in London’s pricier restaurants more than most. Hope she’s a generous tipper. Personally, I didn’t feel too guilty today buying a cup of coffee on the train for £1.60 from an obviously Polish catering person called Danuta. No sign of prices being held down by migration on the Stansted Express then. (The train then promptly broke down for half an hour – perhaps we should get some Polish track maintaince staff?. )

Polly Toynbee’s comment that high levels of CEE migration ‘preventing the proper working of the market’ was also very odd. As a social democrat she should realize that it is for the state (if anyone) to regulate social standards and as a pro-European she should know that the market we live in is the European Single Market not a national one. Her position was that we should impose labour restrictions on Bulgaria and Romania was also odd and inconsistent, delaying the ‘problem’ for a few years.

Here UKIP’s ‘solution’ of national sovereignty and closed borders was at least more logically consistent, although Farrage still went through contortions, showing touching concern for an organization he wants to leave by pronouncing himself against Eastward expansion of the EU. He is , however, favour of ‘trading’ with other European states. I’m sure other EU countries – Poland in the forefront – will just jump at the chance of agreeing such terms with a newly ‘independent’ UKIP-run UK, which I guess would be like a giant version of Frimpton on Sea.

Only the IPPR spokesperson seemed to talked any sense at all, eclipsing a lacklustre performance from Labour MP Fiona McTaggart, who was floundering saying that CEE migration was, but also wasn’t a problem…. CEE nationals who have come to the UK, he explainde, are mostly employed, tax paying, childless and have no access to social housing or benefits and will in the long term be relatively to integrate – a very small, manageable challenge for our multi-cultural society.

>Timothy Garton Ash’s long and winding road

>Timothy Garton Ash argues in yesterday’s Guardian that, despite the rise of Islamicist parties through democratic elections, we should not give way to the siren voices of ‘realism’ emerging on both left and right. There should, says TGA, be no kneejerk reaction against democracy promotion in foreign policy just because it is now a favoured theme of the Bush White House or because in its ‘hard’ military imposed variant democracy promotion has failed in Iraq. We can, he says, engage with elected terrorist (supporting) regimes because there is always a social and politic element in the ruling parties in question, which can be cultivated and cajoled into peaceful politics as happened with Sinn Fein or Kosovo Liberation Army. The Balkan experience, argues TGA, shows that ethnic conflict and state building problems par for the course but can beseen as part of a long, winding and very rocky road to democratization.

It’s hard not to feel that Garton Ash is waging something of an intellectual rearguard action here. His arguments have a rather plaintive ring about them and come across – without wanting to sound too much like a cynical ‘realist’ as Panglossian. Like the neo-cons he is critical of, TGA does not quite seem to have grasped that the (South) East European experience is not a universal template that will sooner or later prove true everywhere, if the we just go on believing hard enough – a sort of 21st century geo-political version of the Czech maxim that “Truth Will Prevail”.

Hard to disagree with his proposition that “the growth of liberal democracies is the best hope for the wider Middle East….. the best hope of modernization” but it this is ultimately anodyne. There is no EU sitting on the edge of the Middle East able to leverage change with the incetnive of membership – and legitimate because it (sort of) embodies values and cultural identity that all the belligerents share. Hezbollah would, self-evidently, not sign up to European or liberal values even in theory. Can there be liberal democracy without liberals or some rooted traditions of liberalism?

As theorists of democratization stress, many outcomes – including new forms of authoritarian are possible or violent breakdowns of political order – can result from elections and democratic transition. These may, moreover, be long term outcomes perhaps best not seen steps on a long and winding road leading to democracy other than in most convoluted, long term historical perspective… In the Garton Ash view, for example, the collapse of Russia’s democratic experiment in 1917 and the establishment of Soviet Union are mere step on the road, not a defining historical period

Some form of tougher minded democratic realism would seem to be in order…

>Czech Republic: more political cat ‘n’ mouse

>A later edition of today’s LN shows a dispirited looking troika of Green and right-wing leaders presenting their latest counter offer in the agonising cat-and-mouse game of trying to agree a Czech government of some kind: so far they seem to be the mice. They would like to take office as temporary minority government to lead the Czech Republic for a year to ensure a budget is passed and agreements with the EU about structural funds are signed on time and then have early elections with a reformed electoral system f Here the ideas they are reportedly floating are: an odd number of deputies so they cannot be a 100: 100 split again; an Italian style bonus for the winning side to produce a clear majority and to quote Topolánek ‘a more proportional system’ although quite how the latter would lead to a majority government, I don’t know.

The Social Democrats still intransigently refused to have anything to do with the three party bloc, Paroubek coming up (reports MfD) with the throwaway racist line that negotiating through press conference may be the way they do things in Botswana (why Botswana?), but not in Prague. Nice to know he has such high democratic standards, but as Botswana – despite being one of Africa’s more successful democracies historically – has a dominant party system now verging on Russian style illiberal democracy, carefully crafted government-opposition negotiations about power sharing (by media or otherwise) are not , I suspect, not a prominent feature of that country’s politics…

To return to check politics, the Social Democrats were not keen on early elections or electoral reform – pointing out, not unreasonably, that we have been there and done that all before in 1999-2001. They are willing to talk about it. Next week they will meet for the sixth (!) time to try and elect a parliamentary speaker and at least get the lower house of parliament in session.