Archive | Uncategorized RSS for this section

>Paroubek: I have a cunning plan

>Today’s Lidové noviny reports that Czech Prime Minister Paroubek – still hanging on to office despite losing the elections in June – is to meet President Klaus to present a ‘wide-ranging plan’ (komplexní plan) to resolve the ongoing political deadlocks. Details are a secret, but he did make clear that it involves some kind of deal between the Social and Civic Democrats with any hint of a three party centre-right/Green coalition off the agenda. This re-run of political deals of 1996 and 1998 is an option that Klaus has been prepared to contemplate. Is the President about to help stitch up the hapless ODS leader Miroslav Topolánek, whom Klaus described on his election in a text message as ‘vacuous and phoney’?

>Beach politics

> Spent the morning with the kids on Shoreham beach. A rather odd hybrid kind of place: a shingle beach with some sandy patches with a rather bleached Mediterranean look because of the heat set between 1960s flats, expensive looking villas and bungalows set behind a rather stagnant looking lagoon (a few with English flags still out), Port Slade power station just visible on the skyline to the East and the Downs and the Adur valley in the background. Politically this equates to a safe Tory seat with a high UKIP vote and a sizeable left-liberal vote split evenly between Labour and Lib Dems.Between making sand castles and collecting seaweed, I intermittently thought over the importance of the collapse of the liberal ex-dissident Civic Movement party in 1992 for Czech politics (its ignominious collapse was a filip for the Right).

>1980s origins of Tory modernizers: libertarians and the SDP

> The Sunday Supplement mini-documentary that follows Radio 4’s the Westminster Hour carried an interesting aside of the origins of the Tories current modernizing project of social and economic liberalism in the politics of the 1980s in the Federation of Conservative Student (FCS), previously taken over by a libertarian faction wishing to legalize hard drugs, hard porn, open borders and the right to bear arms. They were best remembered aping the political style of the far left and juvenile politically incorrect antics supporting the Nicaraguan Contras and the Afghan Mujahadeen, neither exactly well known for their social liberalism or commitment to the rule of law, although the both exercised a right to bear arms

Another Sunday Supplement series charted the similar passage of refugees from the short-lived Social Democratic Party (SDP), such as Danny Finkelstein into the modernizing wing of a declining Thatcherite Tory party, coming from the opposite political direction, although united by interest in marketization and a shared discomfort with the poshness and paternalism of traditional Toryism. Despite the libertarians stress on their ‘intellectual robustness’ their politics seemed to echo a half-baked reading of Nozick and the SDP came across as the more serious, if more boring, political outfit. Other SDP refugees, made careers in the Liberal Democrats and New Labour.

Interestingly, the FCS also supplied some of the most determined opponents of the Tories ongoing modernizationthrough its lesser known authoritarian faction. This represents a political pedigree running through the Monday Club and projects such as Right Now! magazine, which supplied an aggressive platform for eugencist and paleo-conservative views usually considered beyond the pale in British politics.

>Post-communist transformation: did the cat get the cream?

> Over the past few days I have been reading and re-reading my daughter’s current favourite, Puss in Boots, to her

All great political discourses, they say, have an archetypical mythical structure also found in the most basic of narratives such as fairy tales. As the Czech sociologist Jiří Kabele has argued this is also true, indeed particularly true, of discourses of political transformation, which have been a feature of modern Czech political history as regimes have shifted abruptly – most recentlyin 1989. The favourite political tales since have been the Transition to Democracy, Return to Europe, the Tightening of Belts and the Magic of the Market, although as historians such as Jiří Rak and anthropologists such as the late Ladislav Holy have noted. like all good fairy stories, these ‘new’ post-communist tales tend to recycle and remake older narratives dating back to the Czech liberal nationalism of the 19th century.

I couldn’t, however, for the life of me work out the subtext of Puss in Boots, however,. You could read it as a fable of meritocratic social mobility– the cat’s guile gets the miller’s son the top job; or a kind of historic compromise between the popular classes and the monarchy – kings are never overthrown in fairy tales, are they? – rather like that made with some of the more palatable elites of communist regime in and after 1989 for the sake of peaceful transition; or you could see it as a metaphor of the little people (and animals) resisting an authoritarian regime; or an echo of the trickster capitalism of self-made ‘business’ men like Viktor Kožený making fortunes out of nothing because of the perception of wealth.

Happily, in the Czech (and Central European) context Viktor and other similar Czech captains of industry like Puss were basically contented with a bit of cream and didn’t swallow the whole kingdom in the manner of post-Soviet oligarchs. No wonder Russian fairy tales are grimmer.

>Just call me Aldous Husák – my life as a social engineer

>I’m a sucker for political simulation games, so I couldn’t resist signing up for the off-the-wall Nation States site run by science fiction author Max Barry, which lets you create your own utopia/dystopia based on a sign-up questionnaire about your values and a weekly policy choice questions as various issues like strikes, taxation, the rights of nudists arise. I had wanted to create a socially progressive liberal enclave with a dash of paternalistic social control (OK, I felt, on this occasion as provided by my good self), but have accidently engineered a society which is something between normalization Czechoslovakia and Brave New World.

I’m currently trying to pursue a liberal economic policy, so I can go from being Aldous Husák to Aldous Hayek.

>The Shia crescent

I read a short and illuminating article in the Times a few days ago about the balance of power in the Middle East and the politics of the ‘Shia crescent’. I hadn’t realized that Hezbollah was so much more politically formidable than Hamas, despite its politically weaker position in Lebanon, which still has all characteristic confessional and ethnic divides that made it a pretty unstable convocational democracy in the 1960s and 1970s. Iran also emerges as surprisingly powerful and well placed in the post-Saddam context. Developing nuclear capability is clearly an obvious option for them as neither the EU’s ‘soft power’ nor the US’s hard powers seem capable of intervening effectively. Perhaps post-Turkish enlargement the EU’s neighbourhood policy might just reach there, but that seems likely to be 20 years too late if it happens at all. Nationalism is a great solvent for an upcoming power, as I guess the China also shows. Coincidentally, I also received an email plug for book on Hezbollah from I B Tauris, – obviously an entrepreneurial academic publisher – now selling in paperback for a tenner.

>Short shrift

>Today’s Evening Argus reports that pupils at Brighton’s Catholic secondary school staged a one hour sit down protest demanding the right to wear shorts (not included in the school’s accepted uniform policy) during the current heatwave. The headteacher called an emergency school assembly and agreed their demand – later rubber stamped by a special meeting of the school governors. Difficult to know whether to despair or be impressed at the democratic culture of our schools.

>Our Kids: Putin’s future stormtroopers?

> For ‘democratic’ politics truly from another universe one needs to travel to Russia. Yesterday’s Newsnight on BBC2 carried a fascinating report about the Nashi youth movement. ‘Nashi’ means ‘Ours’. More idiomatic translations might be ‘Our people’, ‘Our youth’ – ‘Our kids’ even. The movement was apparently formed in early 2005 from ruins of the overly craven and hence discredited – pro-Putin ‘Walking Together’ Movement reports Radio Liberty and proved sufficiently successful to get 60, 000 on to the streets. Its shirts and flag – perhaps with a certain retro chic – echo the iconography of communist youth movements. Nashi supports Russian state power and pride, clean living and population growth. Apart from holding ‘demographic actions’ encouraging young Russians to meet and have children – its self-styled ‘commissars’ taking training courses to prepare themselves as the future elite, stage parades, run summer camps andoccasionally demonstrate against un-Russian practices, although anti-racist apparently. They are, of course, also are unqualified fans of President Putin, who has met the movement’s leaders on three occasions. Putin’s presidential apparatus– in the person its Deputy Head Surkov –co-ordinate and bankroll the movement.

Despite engaging a certain amount of genuine patriotic activism at grassroots level, the movement – along with other similar youth movements like the Yellow Shirts profiled more a community organization– appears a classic – ifvery interesting – example of what my SSEES colleague Andrew Wilson (in a book of the same name) has termed the ‘virtual politics’ of the post-Soviet world. ‘Virtual politics’ in the FSU involves the top down creation by oligarchical power structures of pseudo-parties to demobilise and split the opposition forces. This can including fake populist challengers, compliant ‘extremists’ to make ‘parties of power’ seem acceptable, youth, Green and women’s parties and manageable ‘opposition’ parties happy to lose elections by some distance. Cash, influence over electoral and party registration procedures and monopolistic control of media outlets are the key to creating such an illusion of democracy – a chess game with a very number of pieces, as Andrew’s book puts it – liberals, Communists and others get lost amid a fog of black PR, spin, kompromat and ‘political technology’. This is the reality of Putin’s ‘managed democracy’, which as the Russian original term upravlaemaya demoktatiya makes clear, is democracy that is being steered, rather than just a rather distant technocratic style of government.

The new youth movements constitute a ‘virtual civil society’. The Putin version of this seems not a million miles away from the elite Western sponsored NGO projects for which this term was coined. Indeed, in a grim reversal of the use of youth movements as foot soldiers against semi-authoritarian regimes in Serbia or Ukraine (also to some extent ‘managed’ processes) they seem to be destined to be shock troops in a future defence of the regime – as the heckling of the British ambassador at the Other Russia conference by other, more radical, Kremlin-friendly youth activists shows

Central European politics for all its slight other worldliness with its elite-dominated but unmanaged party landscapeseems positively boring . Indeed in the fact that it has a party landscape, not a politics of elite networks and ever shifting behind-the-scenes flows of ‘administrative resources’ makes it boring and ordinary

>Deadlock in Prague: early elections or a political penalty shootout?

> As Czech politicians prove unable even to elect temporary officers to parliament can start, Civic Democrat boss Miroslav Topolánek comes up with a novel idea to break the deadlock – a national poll to elect a single additional MP (LN 7 July). This, he claims, is a device that has been successfully used in Slovenia. Clearly, the Slovenians do make use of referenda and US style citizen initiatives, but this seems off-the-wall… It is, of course, a less than selfless proposal as the ‘right’ (that now includes the Greens in a Czech context) polled 4% more than the left, but surely a sign of desperation, the political equivalent of a penalty shoot out or flipping a coin. It would require a constitutional change, but then does the other likely way out, shortening the parliamentary tern and holding early elections…

>Terror seems close to home, but far from unusual

> The chances of being caught in a terrorist attack are probably considerably lower than being in a road accident, but I was still glad not to going to work on the first anniversary of 7/7. The previous few days there was a large and rather unnerving police presence in the streets around Euston and Kings Cross. More unnerving is the realisation of just how close to hand the events of 7/7 – as well as those of another seemingly foiled plot for a nightclub bombing like that in Bali – are to home and work.

I used to use Russell Square tube station pretty much every day when I travelled in from Middlesex, but always travelled North from Holborn, not South from Kings Cross. The site of the bus bombing is a stone’s throw from the new SSEES building – I walk close to in on my way to work, but turn off 200m before to take a shortcut down a side street. The no. 30 bus runs down the Euston Road from Kings Cross, but for me it’s too short a walk to be worth waiting for a bus.

Elsewhere – and with curiously little publicity – the trial of some alleged would-be Islamicist terrorists is taking place at the Old Bailey. Two of the accused come from down the road in Crawley. Another maladroitly tried to buy huge quantities of fertilizer a few miles in the other direction at an agricultural supplier in Burgess Hill – intended, say the prosecution, for an IRA-style fertilizer bomb. One was a student at Brunel University, where I used to teach, although he must have enrolled after I moved on and – at a guess – I imagine he was probably studying something vocational, commercial or technical, rather than anything in the humanities or social scientists (Real and would-be Al-Qaeda operatives seem to be mathematicians, engineers and lawyers by education, although the two leading 7/7 bombers failed in their aspirations to get higher education

In this connection, I had to laugh reading the New Statesman’s breathless account of the Aldgate bomber Shazid Tanweer ‘in his own words’, as these words were the personal statement from his UCAS form! Predictably consisted of the same meaningless prefabricated phrases – possibly supplied or edited by teachers – that anyone who regularly does admissions interviews sees with depressing familiarity. Rather than successful respectable young graduate turned terrorist mastermind of media cliché, the NS’s reports of plagiarism, bogus mitigating circumstances and an uncompleted degree suggest a struggling student ill-equipped to deal with university from day and perhaps always a likely drop out. Despite the dead eyes and the dead voice, his video ‘last will and testament’ – like that of Mohammed Sadique Khan – has the same forced, prefabricated quality, which undermines their effect on the listener. My reaction was less to be chilled than to want to blow a raspberry…

There are, of course, more intellectual Islamicist extremists about. I remember that there posters advertising meetings about a global Islamic Caliphate (Kalifah) competing for flyposting space on Brunel’s Uxbridge campus with those of Socialist Worker Student Society and other far left groups, which were pitched in quite a sophisticated language mixing anti-imperialist rhetoric with religious and cultural references that Muslim readers would pick up on – about 20% of Brunel’s student body was estimated to come from a Muslim background.

After 9/11 the posters suddenly disappeared – As I later discovered these were produced by the radical Islamicist group Hizb-ut-Tahir, which claims to be engaged in a form of intellectual Islamic anti-politics based on educational activities in the West, although committed to the revolutionary overthrow of governments in Muslim majority countries. Despite this it is widely seen as an intellectual conveyor belt to more overtly Jihadist groups and the type of internet assisted self-taught do-it yourself terrorism that small groups – I am tempted to use the anarchist phrase ‘affinity groups’ – within a radicalized, alienated sub-cultures can mount. For this reason it is one of the groups that Tony Blair said he would proscribe, but then fell curiously silent about – but how in a reasonably free society can you ban ideas?

As a brief post-script (written on 8 July), I note that Karen Armstrong has an interesting article in The Guardian, where she argues that fundamentalisms are radical, modern – even in their outward rejection of much of the modern world – and quite self-consciously heterodox movements. This she suggests makes he ridiculous to expect established Muslin communities and practitioners of mainstream forms of Islam to police and re-educate extremists, who identify themselves against the establishment. Another problem seems to be the fact that I imagine there is neat division between ‘moderates’ and ‘extremists’.

If one thinks that great world religion, socialism, which generated a less deadly by perhaps no less fanatic terrorist fringe in the 1970s – complete with the radicalization of nice middle class graduates into cold takers of others’ lives (Dostoevskii’s The Devils
explored the psychology of this a century before, of course – ironically seeing religion as part of the solution) – then there was a continuum from ‘moderate’ parliamentary socialists to militant and alienated ultra-left sub-culture revolutionary outlook, but not violent in practice to the ‘armed struggle’ of the Red Army Faction or the Red Brigades.

Like revolutionary Marxism – whose visions of World Revolution seem to share much of the same utopian millennial qualities as Khalifah – I suspect radical Islamism will rise and fall over a few decades, burning itself out over a few decades and retreating to the cultural and intellectual margins as a worn out set of ideas that no longer convince those who would like to believe them.

With some good luck, I hope to be around some time mid-century to see it.