Newsnotes 2011 10

Notes On The News

by Gwydion M Williams

Why the Euro crisis is superficial

A Feral Elite

The Decline and Fall of Russian Liberalism

Births in China

Libyan End-Game

Afghan Failure

Goodness and choice [Utilitarians]


Why the Euro crisis is superficial

The only thing worse for Core-Europe than staying in the Euro would be leaving the Euro, or letting it break up. By ‘Core-Europe’, I mean the original six members of the European Union: France, Germany, Italy, Luxemburg, the Netherlands and Belgium. With hindsight, it might have been wiser for them to have formed a Euro Area based just on those six, or even without Italy. The other current members (Austria, Cyprus, Estonia, Finland, Greece, Ireland, Malta, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Spain) include the main sources of crisis. Telling them to wait a decade or two might have been wiser: the absence of the well-performing members might not have mattered any more than the fact that Sweden and the Czech Republic have so far stayed out. But having let them in, the long-term cost of letting them leave again would far exceed any possible benefit.

Economic liberalism means that the rich can get their money out of an economy quickly and easily, leaving behind financial voids that ordinary people would have to fill. Greece might have been wiser to stay out of the Euro, but any attempt to leave would wreck their economy. And not just the economy.

People seem to have forgotten why the European Union was originally created. It resolved the long-standing quarrel between France and Germany by largely merging their interests. Britain’s rise to global dominance in the late-18th and 19th centuries was aided by a long-term patters of France and the larger Germany states balancing and frustrating each other. This continued till as late as the rise of Hitler: there were many in the British ruling class who felt that the Great War had left France too strong. Germany after the Great War might have been split back into the different elements that Prussia had forcibly united in 1870. France wanted this but Britain prevented it, showing that the ruling class, at least, knew that what they’d said about Prussian Militarism was nonsense.

Hitler was able to overturn the Versailles limits on German power because he knew that Britain was not going to act and France would not act alone. How he knew this is an interesting question: logically he must have been told by British ‘insiders’ who were high enough up to be able to speak with confidence and be believed. But the British ruling class has proved very good at keeping its most important secrets.

The original European Economic Community and its later expansions were allowed because of the Cold War. West Germany and East Germany were there as rivals, and one Anglo fear was that they might reunify as a neutralist state. This was a fear even though it would have ended any possibility of a Soviet invasion of Western Europe: it would have created a solid line of neutral or non-aligned states between the two main blocks. It’s moot if a Soviet invasion of Western Europe was ever a real possibility, but the threat let the USA push in everywhere and break down every tradition that stood in the way of its commerce.

Britain was let into the European Union against the far-sighted concerns of de Gaulle. Britain was let in under Edward Heath, who was a mix of Traditional Tory and European Christian Democrat. As leader of the Tory Party, Heath was willing to speak of the ‘unacceptable face of capitalism’ and was ready to share power with the Trade Unions. Sadly, his path wasn’t the one that Britain followed. He believed in social harmony, and asked that the Trade Unions help restore it. Cheered on by most of the left, the Trade Unions said no and defended Free Collective Bargaining. They also refused to opt for Workers Control when it was offered to them by the Labour government that followed Heath’s defeat. They were utterly unready for Thatcher undermining the post-1945 norms by appealing to a mix of selfishness and a desire for national unity among the bulk of the working class. To this day, they have not really learned this lesson. Britain’s best hope may be that the USA will decline enough and get extreme enough to rupture the strong bonds of Anglo culture that currently keep us tied to them as a weak little back-up.

The European Union might have developed more smoothly had Britain never joined, or had Thatcher taken Britain out of it, which was always Thatcher’s impulse. Instead the European Union was seduced by Economic Liberalism. Most of the European Union also chose after the ending of the Cold War to become back-up in the USA’s bid for global hegemony. The massive financial bubble that built up and the crisis created by its bursting in 2008 has not so far shifted this view very much.

The current crisis has little to do with the productive economy. Deficits in state spending are the proper way to copy with an economic downturn. The problem is caused by a stratum of radical-rich who shift their money freely and try to avoid sharing in the economic pain that was caused by them in the first place.

The Atlantic countries are currently suffering from an overdose of Economic Liberalism. Non-Communist East Asia suffered something similar in 1997, and has maybe learned its lesson. China meantime saw how Russia was humiliated and suffered economic decline after surrendering to Western values after 1991. The USA remains dominated by Plutophile Libertarianism, with most Democrats including Obama accepting its basic beliefs. But maybe Core-Europe is reacting against, with a Tobin Tax at last on the agenda.

Cameron has spoken against a Tobin Tax. If Ed Miliband really takes seriously the left-wing noises he has been making – he probably does not, but there is always a chance – if he believed his own words he should come out as champion of a Tobin Tax, demand to take the UK out of the whole global mess of speculative and parasitic finance. Threats by financiers to quit to UK would be meaningless if the rest of Europe were no more congenial, and if tax havens were boycotted as parasites on productive industry.

Labour needs to strongly assert that the era 1950-1975 was indeed a ‘Golden Quarter-Century’, at least economically and in terms of providing a decent living to anyone willing to do an honest day’s work. Reforms in the 1980s should have been primarily aimed at restoring and updating it. Instead the New Right decided that pre-1914 capitalism was the ideal system that we should strive to return to.

The following table shows GDP per head for seven very different countries, as a percentage of the 1950 level. [A]

France WestGermany UK USA China India Japan
1955 120 149 113 114 131 110 144
1960 143 199 125 118 153 122 207
1965 178 237 141 140 161 125 309
1970 221 279 155 157 178 141 506
1975 251 310 171 170 199 146 590

The big successes were France, West Germany, China and Japan. The most remarkable of these was China, which had failed to grow at all in the 110 years since it was opened up to global capitalism by the Opium Wars. Mao tripled the economy, but the population also grew, so it was just under a doubling of wealth per head for his period of rule. But this was managed with very little outside aid, none at all after the Soviet Union pulled out in 1959. It was also managed with the ever-present threat of an invasion by either the Soviet Union or else by the USA fronted by Taiwan. Allowing for this, China under Mao was the star performer of the Golden Quarter-Century. It is absurd that Westerners now believe it to have been an era of failure.

Showing GDP per head also gives a more accurate picture of the performance of the USA, which has lots of fairly empty land to fill and could afford to let in immigrants, nearly doubling its population between 1950 and 2000, from 152 million to 282 million. With strict immigration controls and a high standard of living, the USA has also been able to attract vast numbers of skilled and well-educated immigrants, whereas in Europe it has mostly been cheap and unskilled workers. Despite which, the USA has been constantly losing its relative advantage.

Now let’s look at the dismal quarter-century of New Right dominance. Showing the same countries (apart from Germany re-united from 1990) and GDP per head as a percentage of the 1975 level, the figures are:

France Germany UK USA China India Japan
1980 115 118 109 114 122 105 118
1985 120 126 120 127 174 120 135
1990 136 132 139 142 213 146 166
1995 140 142 147 150 304 171 175
2000 157 154 167 173 392 214 186

Both Japan and the Atlantic countries are suffering a New Right Blight. France, Germany and Japan are no longer overtaking the Anglo powers, but only because they are doing much worse. All of them suffering from an overdose of Economic Liberalism, though politicians use each successive crisis as an excuse for further doses.

You could say that China and India gained economically from a dose of Economic Liberalism – though the social costs have been considerable. Of course China and India before the 1980s were much more state-dominated than Western Europe ever was, and this remains the case in China. Whatever about that, the figures show that France, Germany and Japan were badly hurt by economic liberalism, while the UK and USA suffered a definite slowing in growth.

Of course those GPD per Head figures are what it means for the society as a whole. In each of those countries, the richest 1% has made much bigger gains. It would be very interesting to see these charts by ‘decile’ within each country from 1950 to 2000, from the poorest 10th to the richest 10th. This is something the TUC could do, or any Trade Union with a decent research department. I think you’d find that the poorest deciles in China were making steady progress since 1975, and so had little reason to be discontented with the central government. And that the position of the lower deciles in the West were shockingly low, with the Top Decile in the West achieving Japanese-style increase for themselves alone. I suspect that Japan would appear as mostly messed up, intimidated into damaging economic policies and having also let financial speculation and property speculation run out of control when they were at the height of their success.


A Feral Elite

A lot of Western protest at New Right policies seems to credit the elite with being a coherent body of Superior Persons with some well-worked-out plan for global domination. This gives them far too much credit for breadth of vision. Each is smart on his or her own little area. When it comes to the wider world, they are a pack of fools. The disastrous involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan shows them up as fools. The decline and fall of Russian Liberalism – and the consequent ruin of whatever prospects existed for political liberalism in People’s China – shows just how shallow and narrow they are. The economic explosion of 2008 shows that each of them prefers to play the game for personal advantage, with little interest in defending a common class interest.

John Major in his unexpectedly successful campaign that won him the 1992 General Election make a ‘classless society’ one of his slogans. The left reaction was inept – they should have pointed out that this particular slogan came from the Communist Manifesto, and that it had also the aim of Moderate Socialists for many decades in the face of Tory defence of privilege. But it was in many ways a true promise: the privilege nowadays act as a bunch of disconnected individuals, not a class with a strong interest in keeping the society stable and contented.

A proper elite would take steps to make the discontented content, rather than devising arguments to prove that the losers in a fast-changing society should be content with failure as a fair reflection of their inferiority. Keynes in his day was much smarter, seeing that a ruling class had to be seen to look after everyone if it was to survive. He didn’t like the working class as such, saying after a visit to the Soviet Union:

“How can I adopt a creed which, preferring the mud to the fish, exalts the boorish proletariat above the bourgeois and the intelligentsia who, with whatever faults, are the quality in life and surely carry the seeds of all human advancement?…

“I can be influenced by what seems to me to be justice and good sense; but the class war will find me on the side of the educated bourgeoisie.” (A Short View of Russia, written in 1925)

Despite not liking the working class and wishing them to stay docile, Keynes could read the lessons of what happened in the 1920s and 1930s. The mass of the population in Europe was disorientated by new politics that had emerged from the Great War. In the 1930s, they were justly angered when they found that their welfare was not being looked after. Understandably, they turned to radicalism of the right or left, as did many intellectuals.

The intelligent reaction, the reaction chosen by Keynes and others, was to make sure that ordinary people’s welfare was looked after within the existing system. A minority went the other way, insist that ‘economic failures’ had no rights at all, and should reverence their Natural Superiors. This was broadly the view of Hayek, Milton Friedman and Ayn Rand, with Ayn Rang being the teacher of Alan Greenspan, the man who steered the USA into the 2008 crisis. Some version of this doctrine – that Inferior Persons should be treated severely and forced to face up to their own hopeless lack of worth – is believed by many of the current crop of managers. They push the politicians, who have to sugar-coat the message to get elected but seem also to see this as the correct answer. It began within Toryism, but under Blair it also captured the Labour Party.

A study of history should tell you that people neglected by a society will damage that society, even at the cost of their immediate economic advantage. But the New Right has produced a mass of flatterers who re-work history to boost the nonsense, and then treat outbreaks of nihilism and rioting as utterly unexpected. Find nothing alarming in the fact – noted by many British employers – that the product of Late Leninism make much better workers than the generation that grew up under Thatcher and New Labour.

The New Right doctrine pushes the idea of the Manager as Superman. My own observation is that they are generally fools outside of their own narrow area of expertise, where they are undoubtedly skilled. A broad thinker mostly won’t be any good at managing, and nor will anyone who is easily distracted by things outside of their immediate area of concern. Business managers and mostly skilled at controlling and shuffling known elements. The best of them are also good at guessing the right answer from unclear facts. The process has elements similar to both chess and bridge, but is probably more like bridge. With certainty, the whole process is much more complex. Very few managers can succeed outside the area they were raised in. None have much of an understanding of the wider world and how to keep it in being.

Managers after 1945 were scared and kept a low profile. Global Communism was a threat, so they were happy to be modest. In the 1980s they stopped being modest, but this is increasingly appearing as an error.

What has developed since the 1980s is a mess. Ordinary people are not empowered or looked after, but are given grossly inflated expectations and encouraged to blame the state for anything that goes wrong. The poor are privately classified as worthless by the rulers, especially if honest. Criminals are sometimes romanticised, though not if they get too close and are disrespectful. And when the whole mess blows up, as it did in this year’s riots, that is a wholly unexpected outbreak of evil.

The two most radical forces in the world are money and warfare. They are mostly used for selfish ends by people who are not radical at all. People who complain bitterly about the predictable results of their own actions. Of course they can always shift blame. There are always plenty of journalists and historians attracted to visible power and inclined to praise it mindlessly rather than examine it critically.


The Decline and Fall of Russian Liberalism

If you blunder, lie about it and try to blame someone else. This is current business morality, and is great for individual careers. It also explains the substandard performance of the West after the big social shifts of the 1970s and 1980s. And it is very relevant to the West’s loss of Russia, which was very keen to be a partner after the Soviet collapse.

Keen to be a partner, not content to be a victim or subordinate. The West ratted on most of its deals, including pushing NATO right up to the Russian Republic’s borders when there was no need for NATO even to still exist. Bad economic advice led to a shrinkage of the Russian economy and a sharp rise in the death-rate. Sudden vast fortunes were made, but most of them by some sort of trickery and without benefit for the rest of the society.

Yeltsin allowed all this, but realised eventually that he had been cheated. So he stepped down and put Putin in charge, after which a recovery began. Now it seems that Putin is going to get elected President once again:

“Russian President Dmitry Medvedev says he decided not to run for a second term because Vladimir Putin is both more popular and more authoritative.

“It did not mean next year’s election result was predetermined, he said in a first interview since Prime Minister Putin revealed their plan to swap jobs.

“Mr Putin’s bid to return to the top post he held between 2000 and 2008 has angered the country’s weak opposition.

“But Mr Medvedev told Russian TV new faces would ‘renew’ the government.

“‘It will be a pivotal renewal of the government – a government consisting of new people. This is fundamentally important,’ he said.

“Mr Medvedev had previously criticised ‘stagnation’ in the Russian political arena, which is heavily dominated by the pro-Kremlin United Russia party, saying it is damaging to both ruling and opposition forces.

“But United Russia has approved Mr Putin’s proposal that Mr Medvedev heads the party list for December’s parliamentary elections and become prime minister after the presidential poll…

“The country’s small liberal opposition has greeted the prospect with dismay, while Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin – who had hoped to take up the prime ministerial role – resigned after a public row with Mr Medvedev.

“Critics have included former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who warned that Russia risked ‘wasting six years’ with Mr Putin in charge.” [B]

The West is still fond of quoting Gorbachev, the man who inherited a sickly superpower and left behind a massive failure. Putin is liked because things haven’t got any worse under his rule. And the small liberal opposition is small because it had its turn in power and produced nothing except weakness. It seems likely that it will remain split, something that is being blamed on Kremlin machinations, but it has always been a weak and fragmented movement.

At least one Western commentator has more or less seen this:

“As Russians see it, their country faces the Catch-22 of all emerging markets, only more so. Russia needs to modernise and yet all the tools of modernisation are in the hands of those who want to boss it around. It thus gets offered a choice between backwardness and the position in the world Brussels and Washington deem appropriate.

“It is in this light that the cynical reshuffle revealed at the United Russia party conference last weekend is so significant. President Dmitry Medvedev and prime minister Vladimir Putin will swap jobs. Mr Medvedev will lead the legislative ticket in December. Mr Putin will run next March to reclaim the presidency that he handed over in 2008 in order to dodge term limits.

“While the manoeuvre is legal, it is not how successions are supposed to work in advanced democracies. That, in fact, is its big selling point. Mr Putin wanted it understood that ‘an agreement over what to do in the future was reached between us several years ago.’ Flouting western norms has made Mr Putin by far the most popular politician in his country, as similar actions have for Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez.

Le Monde calls the United Russia arrangement ‘a new stage in the fossilisation of the regime’. This too condescending. The Putin-Medvedev deal is a sobering sign not just of what has gone wrong with Russia, but of what has gone wrong in the west.

“Mr Putin’s poll ratings are roughly twice as high as his party’s, and he has won them by addressing real problems. Some of these are internal, such as epidemic alcoholism or the ever festering insurgency in Chechnya.

“But Europe and the US are not without blame for Mr Putin’s rise. A botched, my-way-or-the-highway programme of privatisation left the country with a corrupt plutocracy. Nato’s moralistic adventure in Kosovo humiliated Russia and its Serbian allies unnecessarily. The western resentment of Mr Putin’s regime has something in common with the European resentment of Israel: he is a living, breathing monument to their historical culpability.

“The means by which Mr Putin solved these problems were rough. He broke the oligarchs by locking up the most eloquent and independent among them, Mikhail Khodorkovsky. He re-established a Russian sphere of influence by reducing Grozny to rubble and invading Georgia. His government is suspected in the murders of crusading journalist Anna Politkovskaya in Moscow and of dissident former FSB agent Aleksandr Litvinenko in London.

“The west can deplore these things, but it cannot ignore the reality of Russian sentiment. Even many of those who dislike Mr Putin believe he saved the country from the dismemberment and servility that the west had planned for it. ‘Putin is more liberal in his views than 80 per cent of the Russian population’, the Russian novelist Victor Erofeyev wrote this week. ‘The liberal resources of Russia are laughably small and get smaller all the time.’

“These resources are getting smaller because the engine that generates them, western prosperity and prestige, is functioning poorly. Distrust of democratic capitalism tends to happen not when people get mean or impatient, but when democratic capitalism produces lousy results. There is nothing specifically Russian about this. It is happening in the west, too. Peter Orszag, former White House budget director, recently treated readers of the New Republic to a complaint about ‘legislative inertia’ and suggested that Americans ‘jettison the Civics 101 fairy tale about pure representative democracy’. In a recent essay on the excellent Eurointelligence website, the Euro-MP Sylvie Goulard called for replacing José Manuel Durão Barroso with someone less distracted by national prerogatives. ‘We do not need 17 national ‘golden rules’,’ wrote Ms Goulard, ‘but one impartial iron fist to ensure that commitments already undertaken by all the member states are respected.’

“We should not assume that Russia is doomed to isolation and reaction. If Mr Medvedev has been a mere stalking horse for Mr Putin, then his feints towards the west – not vetoing Nato’s Libya operation in the UN Security Council, for instance – take on more significance. There may be liberalising tendencies in Mr Putin’s camp. His speech last week provided hints about diversifying Russia’s natural-resource-dependent economy. President Barack Obama’s US-Russian ‘reset’ assumes greater trade with Russia. So does German chancellor Angela Merkel’s renunciation of nuclear power, making her country more dependent on Russian natural gas. Mr Putin has put his country on a separate path. Whether this is something to credit him for or accuse him of, it has exposed his country to fewer costs, fewer dangers and less embarrassment than his detractors think. [C]


Births in China

“A campaign encouraging women in China to give birth in hospital has cut newborn deaths by half, says a study in The Lancet.

“Researchers from Beijing and London found that babies born in hospital were two to three times less likely to die in their first month than those born at home.

“The study analysed 1.5 million births between 1996 and 2008 in China.

“Some experts said other factors could have played a part in the findings.

“Since 2000, China has been promoting hospital delivery, and nearly all babies are now born in hospital except in the poorest regions.

“A team from Peking University and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine used data from China’s Maternal and Mortality Surveillance System to examine trends in neonatal mortality by cause and socioeconomic region.

“The results showed that deaths in neonates (within the first month of life) fell by 62% over 12 years up to 2008.” [D]

That’s fine in itself. But falling infant mortality is a continuation of what happened under Mao, who inherited a poor and stagnant and unhealthy country. According to the official UN figures, all of Asia has made progress since World War Two and the end of colonialism. But China has been the biggest success. Infant deaths per 1,000 live births went as follows

China India Indonesia Philippines
1950-1955 195 164 201 134
1955-1960 179 152 183 114
1960-1965 121 141 166 96
1965-1970 81 130 144 88
1970-1975 61 120 126 80
1975-1980 52 108 106 70
1980-1985 40 98 89 61
1985-1990 31 88 70 52
1990-1995 30 79 58 43
1995-2000 28 70 45 34


Libyan End-Game

After a successful military operation, Britain offers a dole-queue fit for heroes for many of those who took part in the NATO intervention. Cuts have become such an article of faith that the military can not be exempted. Yet what Britons may suffer will be mild compared to what may await the ordinary people of Libya. One visitor reported how ethnic differences that were contained under Gaddafi have now become lethal:

“I had wanted to travel south from Tripoli to meet old friends from a desert expedition years before.

“I had also wanted to look into stories I had been hearing about conflict breaking out in Ghadames between the town’s mixed Arab-Berber population and the Tuareg.

“The two populations have lived together, sometimes uneasily, for centuries.

“Gaddafi’s use of the Tuareg as local enforcers during the revolution had stirred up these divisions. Now that the town had risen up and expelled them, reprisals were in the air.

“‘The Tuareg can never come back here,’ one Ghadamsi told me in Tripoli. ‘Not after what they have done in the last six months.’

“Our car was forced off the road just outside the oasis by 16 Tuareg armed with Kalashnikovs.

“They hauled us out of the car, forced us onto the ground, tied our arms behind our backs, blindfolded us and drove us into the Sahara.

“The following morning, they told us we were going to be killed unless Tuareg prisoners held in the town were released by noon.

“The deadline came and went.

“While I was being questioned, they said the Ghadamsis had robbed, set fire to and bulldozed their houses, killed the sheikh of the Tuareg and slaughtered all their animals.

“Twenty-four hours after we were taken, Taher’s wife and two-year-old son – together with an old man kidnapped two days earlier – were released with me. They kept hold of Taher…

“According to the local town council, our 20-something kidnappers were the remnants of the Tuareg Kataib. This was a local militia used by Gaddafi to suppress the uprising in Ghadames, which began on 20 February, three days after the revolution kicked off in Benghazi.

“They had taken to their task, we were told, with gusto, rounding up suspected rebels, imprisoning them and beating them severely with electrical cables.

“Bloodshed had been limited compared with the fighting in other Libyan towns and cities – a total of four people had been killed – but the abuse of power by a minority of the town’s Tuareg had shattered relations between the two populations.

“Abdul Wahab, a former prisoner, showed me photos of his back, a mass of pink welts.

“‘I’m really sorry about what’s happened with the Tuareg,’ he said. ‘We were born together, we lived together and worked together. Everything’s changed now.’…

“This ancient heart of the oasis – somewhere between 2,000 and 4,000 years old – was once one of the great centres of Saharan trade…

“The Tuareg were an integral part of this age-old desert commerce.

“They ran what today would be called a protection racket, offering their services as guides and armed escorts to caravans passing through areas under their control. Any merchant who declined the offer ran a real risk of having his caravans plundered by Tuareg.

“A small part of the Ghadamsi Touareg, diehard Gaddafi loyalists, have returned to armed banditry again.

“The consequences of this aggression are potentially catastrophic for this small desert town of 12,000.

“Many Tuareg who had nothing whatsoever to do with their fellow tribesmen’s brutality, intimidated by the backlash, have already fled their homes.” [E]

Blame Gaddafi? Even without the bitter civil war, it seems likely that multi-party politics would have split apart ethnic groups that had lived together fairly peacefully. It’s happened in many parts of Africa, and also in Sri Lanka, with political parties flourishing by specialising in the grievances of one group against their neighbours. The worse things get, the better for those particular political parties. That is also what happened in Former Yugoslavia, and the whole of Middle-Europe has seen a rise in prejudice against minorities, especially Jews and Gypsies. A global problem, really.

There is also probably a tribal element in the fierce resistance by Sirte. The supposed humanitarian aspects of Western aid are being ignored when it comes to crushing the last resistance:

“Fierce fighting for the besieged Libyan city of Sirte has left people there in desperate need of medical aid, says the International Red Cross.

“People are dying in the main hospital because of a shortage of oxygen and fuel, the ICRC said.

“Libya’s transitional authorities called a two-day truce on Friday to let civilians leave, but the ICRC team said fighting was continuing…

“‘Several rockets landed within the hospital buildings while we were there,’ the leader of the ICRC team, Hichem Khadhraoui, told AFP news agency.

“‘We saw a lot of indiscriminate fire. I don’t know where it was coming from,’ Mr Khadhraoui said.

“Staff at the hospital told the Red Cross that people were dying because of a lack of oxygen and fuel for the generator, he said.

“Gaddafi loyalists have been putting up stiff resistance in Sirte since the troops supporting the National Transitional Council (NTC) began their assault several weeks ago.

“On Friday, the NTC troops captured the airport. Forces from the east and west of the country are moving against the city and are trying to launch co-ordinated attacks against the Gaddafi loyalists in the city centre.

“But they are reluctant to mount a full scale assault to avoid civilian casualties.” [F]

It is also odd that there are two separate and uncoordinated attacks on the two strongholds of Sirte and Bani Walid. Some doubt as to whether the anti-Gaddafi forces will hold together once they’ve destroyed the last strongholds of their common foe. A major elements has been Islamist, people that the West had used Gaddafi to keep down, before the sudden decision to back the ‘Arab Spring’ without thought for the consequences:

“Libya’s Islamist groups ‘will not allow’ secular politicians to exclude or marginalise them in the intensifying battle for power in the post-Gaddafi era, the country’s most powerful Islamist leader has said.

“Abdel Hakim Belhaj, head of the Tripoli Military Council and founder of a jihadi group that was later disbanded, appears to be firing a shot across the bows of liberal, western-backed rivals after negotiations over broadening the rebel administration foundered.

“‘We must resist attempts by some Libyan politicians to exclude some of the participants in the revolution,’ Belhaj writes in the Guardian. ‘Their political myopia renders them unable to see the huge risks of such exclusion, or the serious … reaction of the parties that are excluded.’

“More than a month since Tripoli fell to rebel brigades backed by Nato, the National Transitional Council (NTC) has failed to expand to be more representative, generating a sense of division and drift about the future that western diplomats and many Libyans admit is worrying.

“It is now clear there will be no deal before the liberation of the whole country is formally declared. That requires the defeat of Gaddafi loyalists in the deposed leader’s coastal hometown of Sirte, where heavy fighting continued on Tuesday. In Bani Walid, south of Tripoli, there is a stalemate. ‘Consultations have led to a decision to postpone the formation of a government until after liberation,’ NTC member Mustafa el-Huni said in Benghazi. The scale of the political challenge ahead is enormous in a country that has not held an election since 1952 and is just emerging from 41 years of dictatorship.” [G]

That sounds like stalling. It would be quite easy to broaden the membership of the National Transitional Council to reflect the range of people who did the fighting. But would that perhaps make the Islamists too strong? Or allow them to advance as the only people with a coherent idea in the current muddle?

I don’t know if there’s an Islamic equivalent for turkeys voting for an early Christmas. But it seems to me that the secularist and feminist elements involved in the Arab Spring will turn out to be just that.


Afghan Failure

“The top Afghan official in charge of seeking peace with the Taliban, ex-president Burhanuddin Rabbani, has been killed in an attack on his home in Kabul, an intelligence source said.

“The assassination on Tuesday was the latest in a series of high-profile killings of prominent Afghans and complicates the government’s attempts to negotiate with insurgent leaders.

“A source in Afghanistan’s NDS intelligence service said Mr Rabbani had been killed while meeting members of the Taliban who had joined reconciliation talks.

“The source said it appeared that one of the Taliban figures had managed to smuggle explosives into the gathering.” [H]

At the time, I took it as a hint that the Taliban expected to win without the need to negotiate. Things have since got more complex, with everyone denying the killing was theirs. Still, it does look like there will be no deal before the West is scheduled to leave.

Meantime Jonathan Steele has been taking a wider view, asking what is and is not possible in Afghanistan:

“Armed opposition to the government in Kabul long pre-dated the arrival of Soviet troops in December 1979. Every one of the Pakistan-based Afghan mujahideen leaders who became famous during the 1980s as the Peshawar Seven and were helped by the United States, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and China had gone into exile and taken up arms before December 1979, many of them years earlier. As Islamists, they opposed the secular and modernising tendencies of Daoud Khan, [the Afghan PM] who toppled his cousin, King Zahir Shah, in 1973.

“Western backing for these rebels had also begun before Soviet troops arrived. It served western propaganda to say the Russians had no justification for entering Afghanistan in what the west called an aggressive land grab. In fact, US officials saw an advantage in the mujahedin rebellion which grew after a pro-Moscow government toppled Daoud in April 1978. In his memoirs, Robert Gates, then a CIA official and later defence secretary under Presidents Bush and Obama, recounts a staff meeting in March 1979 where CIA officials asked whether they should keep the mujahideen going, thereby ‘sucking the Soviets into a Vietnamese quagmire’. The meeting agreed to fund them to buy weapons….

“The reality is the Afghan mujahideen did not defeat the Soviets on the battlefield. They won some important encounters, notably in the Panjshir valley, but lost others. In sum, neither side defeated the other. The Soviets could have remained in Afghanistan for several more years but they decided to leave when Gorbachev calculated that the war had become a stalemate and was no longer worth the high price in men, money and international prestige. In private, US officials came to the same conclusion about Soviet strength, although they only admitted it publicly later. Morton Abramowitz, who directed the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research at the time, said in 1997: ‘In 1985, there was a real concern that the [mujahideen] were losing, that they were sort of being diminished, falling apart. Losses were high and their impact on the Soviets was not great.’….

“One of the most common promises western politicians made after they toppled the Taliban in 2001 was that ‘this time’ the west would not walk away, ‘as we did after the Russians pulled out’. Afghans were surprised to hear these promises. They remembered history in rather a different way. Far from forgetting about Afghanistan in February 1989, the US showed no let-up in its close involvement with the mujahideen. Washington blocked the Soviet-installed President Mohammad Najibullah’s offers of concessions and negotiations and continued to arm the rebels and jihadis in the hope they would quickly overthrow his Moscow-backed regime.

“This was one of the most damaging periods in recent Afghan history when the west and Pakistan, along with mujahideen intransigence, undermined the best chance of ending the country’s civil war. The overall effect of these policies was to prolong and deepen Afghanistan’s destruction, as Charles Cogan, CIA director of operations for the Middle East and south Asia, 1979–1984, later recognised. ‘I question whether we should have continued on this momentum, this inertia of aiding the mujahideen after the Soviets had left. I think that was probably, in retrospect, a mistake,’ he said…

“The key factor that undermined Najibullah was an announcement made in Moscow in September 1991, shortly after a coup mounted against Gorbachev by Soviet hard-liners collapsed. His longtime rival, Boris Yeltsin, who headed the Russian government, emerged in a dominant position. Yeltsin was determined to cut back on the country’s international commitments and his government announced that from 1 January 1992, no more arms would be delivered to Kabul. Supplies of petrol, food and all other aid would also cease.

“The decision was catastrophic for the morale of Najibullah’s supporters. The regime had survived the departure of Soviet troops for more than two years but now would truly be alone. So, in one of the great ironies of history, it was Moscow that toppled the Afghan government that Moscow had sacrificed so many lives to keep in place.

“The dramatic policy switch became evident when Professor Burhanuddin Rabbani, head of one of the mujahideen groups, was invited to Moscow in November 1991. In a statement after the meeting, Boris Pankin, the Soviet foreign minister, ‘confirmed the necessity for a complete transfer of state power to an interim Islamic government’. In today’s context, the announcement could be compared to an invitation by Hillary Clinton to Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar to come to Washington and a declaration the US wanted power transferred from Karzai to the Taliban.

“The move led to a wave of defections as several of Najibullah’s army commanders and political allies switched sides and joined the mujahideen. Najibullah’s army was not defeated. It just melted away”. [J]

What’s puzzling is that the West didn’t try turning Najibullah’s government into its own agent of modernisation in Afghanistan, perhaps with a few extras to make it look like a broad coalition. They were the only people serious about introducing Western values, initially in their Soviet version, but after Russia abandoned them they would have been flexible. It happened in some Middle-European countries that ex-Communists became the most effective reformers. But I suppose it was beyond the capacity of the US imagination to realise that the local Communists and radicals might be the least alien element in a very alien society.

As things were, the welfare of women was ignored until it became convenient to cite as a reason for a new intervention:

“A year after the Taliban seized power, I interviewed UN staff, foreign aid workers and Afghans in Kabul. The Taliban had softened their ban on girls’ education and were turning a blind eye to the expansion of informal ‘home schools’ in which thousands of girls were being taught in private flats. The medical faculty was about to re-open for women to teach midwives, nurses, and doctors since women patients could not be treated by men. The ban on women working outside the home was also lifted for war widows and other needy women.

“Afghans recalled the first curbs on liberty were imposed by the mujahideen before the Taliban. From 1992, cinemas were closed and TV films were shortened so as to remove any scene in which women and men walked or talked together, let alone touched each other. Women announcers were banned from TV.

“The burqa was not compulsory, as it was to become under the Taliban, but all women had to wear the head-scarf, or hijab, unlike in the years of Soviet occupation and the Najibullah regime that followed. The mujahideen refused to allow women to attend the UN’s fourth world conference on women in Beijing in 1995. Crime was met with the harshest punishment. A wooden gallows was erected in a park near the main bazaar in Kabul where convicts were hanged in public. Above all, Afghans liked the security provided by the Taliban in contrast to the chaos between 1992 and 1996 when mujahideen groups fought over the capital, launching shells and rockets indiscriminately. Some 50,000 Kabulis were killed…

“Underage marriage is common across Afghanistan, and among all ethnic groups. According to Unifem (the United Nations Development Fund for Women) and the Afghan independent human rights commission, 57% of Afghan marriages are child marriages – where one partner is under the age of 16. In a study of 200 underage wives, 40% had been married between the ages of 10 and 13, 32.5% at 14, and 27.5% at 15. In many communities, women are banned from leaving the house or family compound. This leads to a host of other disabilities. Women are not allowed to take jobs. Girls are prevented from going to school. In the minds of western politicians and the media, these prohibitions are often associated exclusively with the Taliban. Yet the forced isolation of women by keeping them confined is a deep-seated part of Afghan rural culture. It is also found in poorer parts of the major cities.” [J]


Goodness and choice [Utilitarians]

“In the grand scheme of things Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill are normally thought of as good guys. Between them, they came up with the ethical theory known as utilitarianism. The goal of this theory is encapsulated in Bentham’s aphorism that ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number is the foundation of morals and legislation.’

“Which all sounds fine and dandy until you start applying it to particular cases. A utilitarian, for example, might approve of the occasional torture of suspected terrorists—for the greater happiness of everyone else, you understand. That type of observation has led Daniel Bartels at Columbia University and David Pizarro at Cornell to ask what sort of people actually do have a utilitarian outlook on life. Their answers, just published in Cognition, are not comfortable.

“One of the classic techniques used to measure a person’s willingness to behave in a utilitarian way is known as trolleyology. The subject of the study is challenged with thought experiments involving a runaway railway trolley or train carriage. All involve choices, each of which leads to people’s deaths. For example: there are five railway workmen in the path of a runaway carriage. The men will surely be killed unless the subject of the experiment, a bystander in the story, does something. The subject is told he is on a bridge over the tracks. Next to him is a big, heavy stranger. The subject is informed that his own body would be too light to stop the train, but that if he pushes the stranger onto the tracks, the stranger’s large body will stop the train and save the five lives. That, unfortunately, would kill the stranger.

“Dr Bartels and Dr Pizarro knew from previous research that around 90% of people refuse the utilitarian act of killing one individual to save five. What no one had previously inquired about, though, was the nature of the remaining 10%.

“To find out, the two researchers gave 208 undergraduates a battery of trolleyological tests and measured, on a four-point scale, how utilitarian their responses were. Participants were also asked to respond to a series of statements intended to get a sense of their individual psychologies. These statements included, ‘I like to see fist fights’, ‘The best way to handle people is to tell them what they want to hear’, and ‘When you really think about it, life is not worth the effort of getting up in the morning’. Each was asked to indicate, for each statement, where his views lay on a continuum that had ‘strongly agree’ at one end and ‘strongly disagree’ at the other. These statements, and others like them, were designed to measure, respectively, psychopathy, Machiavellianism and a person’s sense of how meaningful life is.

“Dr Bartels and Dr Pizarro then correlated the results from the trolleyology with those from the personality tests. They found a strong link between utilitarian answers to moral dilemmas (push the fat guy off the bridge) and personalities that were psychopathic, Machiavellian or tended to view life as meaningless. Utilitarians, this suggests, may add to the sum of human happiness, but they are not very happy people themselves.” [K]

The answer to the ‘Trolley Problem’ should be that killing an innocent is quite a bit worse that allowing five innocents to die. People are not ‘gain-beasts’, calculating everything by its usefulness or its commercial price. People are more willing to sacrifice one for five when it is a questions of switching a set of points so that the trolley hits one rather than five. This is not seen as murder, and the notion that it is not murder is defensible, unlike the case of throwing someone off of a bridge.

Incidentally, once you decide that ‘utilitarianism’ is only a pale reflection of reality and not some deeper truth, it is perfectly possible to imagine a situation in which an entirely sane and normal individual might switch the points so that the trolley hits five rather than one. In fact a whole cluster of situations, with the choice rousing various degrees of sympathy or condemnation. I’ll explain this later on, if you can’t work it out for yourself.

Before that, what are the factors controlling violence in a real society? Are things getting better or worse?

“On July 22, 2011, a 32-year-old Norwegian named Anders Behring Breivik opened fire on participants in a Labour Party youth camp on the island of Utoya after exploding a bomb in Oslo, resulting in 77 dead, the worst tragedy in Norway since World War II.

“English philosopher Thomas Hobbes famously argued in his 1651 book, Leviathan, that such acts of violence would be commonplace without a strong state to enforce the rule of law. But aren’t they? What about 9/11 and 7/7, Auschwitz and Rwanda, Columbine and Fort Hood? What about all the murders, rapes and child molestation cases we hear about so often? Can anyone seriously argue that violence is in decline? They can, and they do—and they have data, compellingly compiled in a massive 832-page tome by Harvard University social scientist Steven Pinker entitled The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (Viking, 2011). The problem with anecdotes about single events is that they obscure long-term trends. Breivik and his ilk make front-page news for the very reason that they are now unusual. It was not always so.

“Take homicide. Using old court and county records in England, scholars calculate that rates have plummeted by a factor of 10, 50 and, in some cases, 100—for example, from 110 homicides per 100,000 people per year in 14th-century Oxford to fewer than one homicide per 100,000 in mid-20th-century London. Similar patterns have been documented in Italy, Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Scandinavia. The longer-term trend is even more dramatic, Pinker told me in an interview: ‘Violent deaths of all kinds have declined, from around 500 per 100,000 people per year in prestate societies to around 50 in the Middle Ages, to around six to eight today worldwide, and fewer than one in most of Europe.’ What about gun-toting Americans and our inordinate rate of homicides (currently around five per 100,000 per year) compared with other Western democracies? In 2005, Pinker computes, just eight tenths of 1 percent of all Americans died of domestic homicides and in two foreign wars combined.

“As for wars, prehistoric peoples were far more murderous than states in percentages of the population killed in combat, Pinker told me: ‘On average, nonstate societies kill around 15 percent of their people in wars, whereas today’s states kill a few hundredths of a percent.’ Pinker calculates that even in the murderous 20th century, about 40 million people died in war out of the approximately six billion people who lived, or 0.7 percent. Even if we include war-related deaths of citizens from disease, famine and genocide, that brings the death toll up to 180 million deaths, or about 3 percent.

“Why has violence declined? Hobbes was only partially right in advocating top-down state controls to keep the worse demons of our nature in check. A bottom-up civilizing process has also been under way for centuries, Pinker explained: ‘Beginning in the 11th or 12th [century] and maturing in the 17th and 18th, Europeans increasingly inhibited their impulses, anticipated the long-term consequences of their actions, and took other people’s thoughts and feelings into consideration. A culture of honor—the readiness to take revenge—gave way to a culture of dignity—the readiness to control one’s emotions. These ideals originated in explicit instructions that cultural arbiters gave to aristocrats and noblemen, allowing them to differentiate themselves from the villains and boors. But they were then absorbed into the socialization of younger and younger children until they became second nature.’” [L]

I’d say the argument on homicide is more solid than the one about war. Modern societies can field much bigger armies than used to be possible – even send most men of military age off to war. Still, the influence of civilisation remains valuable.

And sacrificing five for one? A mother saving her child might well do that. Or a man or woman for their beloved. And in racist societies, it would be acceptable and even admirable to save one person of a superior race for five lesser persons. Or in an isolated community struggling for survival, you might save the only trained doctor at the expense of five individuals without special skills. All of these are the complexities of real life.



[A] These figures are my own calculations using the figures from The World Economy: Historical Statistics, by Angus Maddison.  I go into more details in an article at this site.

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[L] []. This is subscribers-only, though there is also an option to purchase individual articles.

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