Newsnotes 2015 07

Notes On The News

by Gwydion M Williams


Austerity – Working Well for the More-Than-Millionaire Class

“Capitalism is the extraordinary belief that the nastiest of men, for the nastiest of reasons, will somehow work for the benefit of us all.”[1]

That’s what Keynes once said, reflecting what most of the British ruling class believed when they dominated the world.  Capitalism was a useful source of new wealth, but always viewed with suspicion.  The ruling class was consisted mostly of landowners, lawyers, senior civil servants and military men: actual working capitalists were rare.

Socialists believe in socialism as an abstract ideal.  But there is no reason why actual working capitalists should believe in the abstractions dreamt up by Adam Smith and other economists.  Mostly they take a pragmatic view: often an unprincipled view.  Theories that dogmatically reject state intervention are useful for arguing against regulations and spending that get in the way of some particular capitalist’s business.  But a lot of the regulations suit them, as do many state subsidies.

The US Republicans depend heavily on the votes of rural areas that receive enormous state hand-outs for their crops.  (Or sometimes for not growing particular crops – the sequence about a farmer’s success at ‘not growing alfalfa’ in Catch-22 is based on hard facts.)  The supposed logic of the Free Market is violated, but why not?  The real motivation has always been to give the More-Than-Millionaire class as much money as possible.  Subsidies tend to be based on output, so the biggest and least needy farmers get the lion’s share.  But the rest are needed for their votes, and so get something.

The almost-forgotten stock market crash of 1987 was handled by a surge in state spending, carried through by the Thatcher government in Britain and the Reagan administration in the USA.  For that matter, Reagan’s success involved a lot of state spending, but it was spending on the military.  He pumped up the Military-Industrial Complex, the system that President Eisenhower viewed with suspicion but lacked the power to curb.  In my view, it was the Military-Industrial Complex that allowed the USA to win the Cold War without becoming overtly socialist.  Military research shows an interest in new possibilities without concern for whether they might be profitable in the short term, or ever.  Right-wingers support such spending because it is military and they like the military.  Left-wingers fail to say that it proves the usefulness of research and development that ignores costs and immediate profits.  One could sensibly cut out the actual spending on new weapons, but it’s better that the research and development be done under military sponsorship than that it not be done at all.

(Microchips were developed first for military use.  So was the Internet.  The World Wide Web – different from the Internet, a system that runs on the internet – was developed at CERN as one of the side projects allowed for researchers like Tim Berners-Lee, even though it had no obvious link to high-energy physics.)

It’s also a mistake for the left to simply say ‘austerity isn’t working’.  The economic pain is undeniable, but right-wingers are able to present the pain as necessary.  The left-wing argument should be that the pain has fallen mostly on the middling and poor.  Overall government spending has continued much as before, but vast amounts have gone to ‘quantitative easing’, a confusing name for giving money to banks with bad debts, meaning that the value of speculative investments are maintained.  It works for the rich, even though it is painful for everyone else.

Actual believers in the Free Market would have allowed a huge number of financial institutions and hedge funds to crash in the financial crisis of 2008.  Most countries have guarantees for individual savers: up to £85,000 per account in the UK.  A crash would only have hurt the More-Than-Millionaire class, almost all of whom had dabbled in high-risk, high-return investments.  But in practice they were in charge and opposition was incoherent.  The rich were looked after and have suffered very little.  Ordinary people were much too trusting and have suffered a great deal.

This comes on top of a long-term trend of paying increasingly large salaries to people at the top of the system: people within or near to the More-Than-Millionaire class.

“Until the 1980s, corporate CEOs were paid, on average, 30 times what their typical worker was paid. Since then, CEO pay has skyrocketed to 280 times the pay of a typical worker; in big companies, to 354 times.”[2]

Thirty-five years of New Right policies haven’t really reduced the size of the state.  Nor have they increased the average rate of growth in the West.  All that’s happened is that the rich got an unfair share.


Don’t Call Them the 1%

Why do I speak of a More-Than-Millionaire class?  Because many people have trouble with numbers.  And because people often place themselves much higher in the social hierarchy than they actually are.  And because having somewhere between one and two millions is entry level for this elite group.

A survey in the USA found that a fifth of the population think they are part of the richest 1%.  Another fifth thought they would get there eventually.  Twenty times too many to be possible: forty times too many if you include those who think they are candidates.  But no one can suppose they are a millionaire when in fact they are not.

Not that all millionaires would qualify.  Not if it’s based on the value of a house: something that has happened to a few middle-income people with the explosion of London property prices.  And within the More-Than-Millionaire class, it’s safe to assume that those with only one million would count for much less than the really rich.

The term means less than it used to.  A million dollars in 1920 would be maybe 65 million today, in terms of economic status.[3]  The first recorded usage of ‘millionaire’ was by Disraeli in 1826,[4] when a million pounds sterling was 75 million by purchasing power, but more than a thousand million in terms of economic status.[5]

Regardless, the More-Than-Millionaire class is large enough to dominate, for as long as voters are persuaded that socialist ideals are outdated.  Members or potential members stand at the top of many organisations, with those below them aspiring to such status.  And they tend to look after their own class at the expense of the rest of us:

“Christine Lagarde, the IMF boss who caused international outrage after she suggested in an interview with the Guardian on Friday that beleaguered Greeks might do well to pay their taxes, pays no taxes, it has emerged.

“As an official of an international institution, her salary of $467,940 (£298,675) a year plus $83,760 additional allowance a year is not subject to any taxes.”[6]

That’s equivalent to half a million for someone in pounds paying normal British tax.[7]  Members of international organisations being exempt from tax makes a certain amount of sense; but the rates of pay are ludicrous.  Or would be ludicrous if the intention was to have people who’d look after the interests of ordinary people rather than the elite, which is presumably why rates were set so high.  Keynes commented on this as well:

“During the 1944 economic conference at Bretton Woods, where the IMF was created, American and British politicians disagreed over salaries for the bureaucrats. British delegates, including the economist John Maynard Keynes, considered the American proposals for salaries to be ‘monstrous’, but lost the argument.

“Officials from the various organisations have long maintained that the high salaries are a way of attracting talent from the private sector. In fact, most senior employees are recruited from government posts.”[8]

But the weakness of this class is that they know how to work the system, but don’t know how the system works.  Worse, they are filled with illusions about the merits of ‘capitalist democracy’ – not that the actual system is either solidly capitalist or straightforwardly democratic.  Britain was not even loosely democratic until the 1880s, when a majority of adult males in the British Isles got the vote.  The British Empire was never democratic and never intended to be, or not until the late attempt to convert it into a Commonwealth when the Empire was clearly in decline after World War Two.  The Western system would not have won the Cold War if it hadn’t imported a lot of socialist ideas in the 1940s, and most of these have not so far been purged by the best efforts of the New Right.


Greece –Compromise and IMF Sabotage

Global finance does not want a left-wing government to succeed.  And within Europe, there is a strong left-wing challenge likely to be expressed in the Spanish General Election, which must be held by 20th December.  (Likely to be held at the end of November, but the date is not yet decided.[9])

For this reason, it’s not surprising that the Eurozone when confronting Greece has insisted not just on balance, but on austerity, or rather ‘Feed the Rich’.

In the same spirit, no penalties are being applied to the experts who fiddled the books to make Greece look suitable for Euro membership, which should not have happened:

“If you thought the Goldman Sachs banker who did the deal to get Greece into the euro might have been chased out of the City of London, think again.

“Antigone Loudiadis, more widely known as ‘Addy’, has been richly rewarded by the bank for her dealmaking prowess and now sits atop one of Europe’s fastest growing insurance companies, Rothesay Life.”[10]

Greece needs fixing, but New Right methods will not fix it.  They haven’t really fixed anything.  The fairly successful Westernisation of the Arab and Muslim world went into reverse when they used Western power to enforce their own ‘wisdom’.  They wrecked Yugoslavia and are currently wrecking Ukraine.  They alienated Russia when Russia had been very keen to Westernise in the 1990s.  Their only real success has been getting ordinary people to go on voting for ‘Feed the Rich’ policies.  And this has been made easy by the strong left-wing fear of ‘corporatism’, which became fear of any efficient government action.

The left wouldn’t take ‘yes’ for an answer in the 1970s, when ideas of Incomes Policy and Workers Control were popular.  They wanted an immediate transition to some ideal system, rather than accepting the messy compromises that real-world politics almost always require.

In Greece, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has accepted the messy compromises, which do give him the chance to make left-wing reforms in the long run.  Meantime Varoufakis has resigned as Finance Minister, presumably to avoid having to make such a deal.  This is unrealistic, though one can understand how he feels.  The whole situation is messed up:

“On our way back from Berlin on Tuesday, Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis remarked to me that current usage of the word ‘reform’ has its origins in the middle period of the Soviet Union, notably under Khrushchev, when modernizing academics sought to introduce elements of decentralization and market process into a sclerotic planning system. In those years when the American struggle was for rights and some young Europeans still dreamed of revolution, ‘reform’ was not much used in the West. Today, in an odd twist of convergence, it has become the watchword of the ruling class.

“The word, reform, has now become central to the tug of war between Greece and its creditors. New debt relief might be possible—but only if the Greeks agree to ‘reforms.’ But what reforms and to what end? The press has generally tossed around the word, reform, in the Greek context, as if there were broad agreement on its meaning.

“The specific reforms demanded by Greece’s creditors today are a peculiar blend. They aim to reduce the state; in this sense they are ‘market-oriented’. Yet they are the furthest thing from promoting decentralization and diversity. On the contrary they work to destroy local institutions and to impose a single policy model across Europe, with Greece not at the trailing edge but actually in the vanguard.”[11]

But they’ve got the power.  Iceland was able to defy International Finance,[12] but they had their own currency.  Likewise Malaysia in the 1997 Asian financial crisis.  Greece should have stayed out of the Euro, but things have gone too far now.  Greece had to take what was on offer.

Remarkable, no sooner had the deal been painfully made than the IMF denounced it.[13]  It doesn’t mean that they are going to offer anything better: just that they want to make everyone discontent with what is actually available.  My belief is that this was deliberate sabotage: it makes no sense unless they reckon the deal isn’t optimal for global finance.  Unless they would prefer chaos and the probable break-up of the Euro, reaping vast profits for speculators and producing short-term gains for the Anglosphere.  (And if anyone says this would be short-sighted, it may indeed prove so.  But they have been amazingly foolish before and are unlikely to have learned anything.)

Syriza were elected to resist austerity, but not to take Greece out of the Eurozone or European Union.  Tsipras has showed his quality by accepting the best available deal – and one which gives him time to make some solid achievements.[14]  When it came to the showdown, Europe’s leaders must have been well aware that the only people protesting vigorously against a harsh line with Greece were people who’d never vote for them anyway.  Whereas there were a lot of votes that might have been lost if the deal could have been presented as ‘too soft’, even if the harshness were actually self-defeating.  That’s democracy for you.


Foolishness in China

The Wall Street Crash of 1929 was a unique event.  The only occasion when a sudden collapse in share prices triggered a general economic slump.  And most economists agree that the initial crisis was mishandled, though they disagree about which policies were errors.

Subsequent stock market crashes have been handled much better.  The Crash of 1987 is almost forgotten, and the bursting of the Dotcom bubble did not cause major problems.  What happened in 2008 was different: the global financial system was at risk.  But it has not led to another depression, though there has been much economic pain.  Governments have gone on spending, though they’ve used it as an excuse to spend less on the needs of ordinary people and give most of their handouts to dodgy banks that hold the wealth of the very rich.

In China, I’d see it as the government going too far in a pro-market direction over the past few years.  It is generally agreed that easier borrowing allowed a bubble:

“China’s stock market tumble has presented the government of President Xi Jinping with a searing test of its commitment to overhaul the country’s financial system and open up the state-controlled economy.

“Building off the work of his predecessors in the last three decades, Mr. Xi has been introducing competition into the banking industry, overhauling state-owned companies and making it easier for foreign investors to buy Chinese stocks. But the pace of reform may slow if the stock market slump persists, or even accelerates.

“The stock market represents the swirl of social, political and economic forces at play in the reform efforts…

“The government had encouraged the stock market rally, since strong demand for shares would have made it much easier to sell their shares of state-controlled businesses. Now, their efforts to shore up the stock market are actually reinforcing the dominance of state-owned enterprises.

“With the new lending initiatives, those state-owned companies, viewed as too big to fail, are actually performing well, as the shares of smaller, private sector business take a major hit. Shanghai-listed shares of PetroChina, the state-controlled oil giant that has some of the closest links to the Chinese Communist Party of any company, have surged 28.8 percent since the start of last week. The company’s New York-listed shares, where no special financing is available, have fallen 5.3 percent in the same period.”[15]

The Economist regards the position as not very serious:

“The first mistake—often made by China pessimists—is to think that the market crash presages an economic collapse. That is most unlikely. True, the stockmarket is down by a third in a few weeks, but it has fallen back only to March levels; it is still up by 75% in a year.

“Lost in the drama is the fact that the stockmarket still plays a small role in China. The free-float value of Chinese markets—the amount available for trading—is just about a third of GDP, compared with more than 100% in developed economies. Less than 15% of household financial assets are invested in the stockmarket, which is why soaring shares did little to boost consumption and their crash should do little to hurt it. Many stocks were bought with debt, and the unwinding of these loans helps explain why the government has been unable to stop the rout. But such financing is not a systemic risk; the loans are about 1.5% of total assets in the banking system. The economy is solid. Growth, though slowing, has stabilised. The property market, long becalmed, is picking up. Money-market rates are low and steady, suggesting banks are stable.”[16]

A lot of the Western media were thinking that here at last was the crisis that would end China’s inconvenient rise.  But The Economist is there to give sound advice to investors, so it sings  a different tune.

Almost all commentators including The Economist are worried that economic ‘reforms’ may get hit.  They should be.  The Chinese government relaxed controls on buying shares with borrowed money.  This produced a bubble, with people paying more than the underlying value of the shares in the belief that they would go higher.  As of 14th July, it seems to have been brought under control.  China is now imposing much tougher regulation, forbidding major investors to sell their shares.

“The Shanghai Composite closed up 2.4% to 3,970.39, rebounding nearly 20% from the four-month low hit on Thursday.

“The latest measures from regulators involved cracking down on ‘grey-market’ margin lending, which is flooding the market with leveraged stock bets.

“They will also clamp down on investors creating fake trading accounts.”[17]

What’s surprising is that it was allowed in the first place.


A Triple Whammy in the USA

The USA is finally coming into line with European values.  First, the Supreme Court rejected a legal challenge that would have undermined ‘Obamacare’.[18]  Then it declared that Gay Marriage was a part of Human Rights, meaning that individual states will no longer be allowed to forbid it.[19]  And separately from this, South Carolina hauled down the Confederate Battle Flag that has for decades been a visible symbol of White Supremacy.

The flag is actually the Battle Flag of the Army of Northern Virginia.[20]  There are a number of other Confederate flags without the same racist overtones.  They had the problem of looking rather similar to the regular US flag, which is why the Battle Flag was chosen.

Don’t listen to arguments that it was about the Southern heritage or State Rights.  Former Confederates reacted sensibly to their crushing military defeat: they abandoned any serious notion of separatism in favour of racism.  Even the Klu Klux Klan were in practice sullen unionists, they did not challenge the system but served as violent enforcers for segregation.  This was acceptable because most of the north was also racist, as I have detailed elsewhere.[21]

Booker T. Washington was spot on when he said “You can’t hold a man down without staying down with him “[22]  Sadly, the bulk of the South was happy to stay down just so long as they could maintain White Supremacy.  When the ruling elite decided that open racism had to be abolished for the USA to win the Cold War, they deserted a Democratic Party that looked after their economic interests in favour of a Republican Party that looked after the rich and was not serious about opposing multiracialism: it wanted their votes, not their values.  Rather pathetic, really – except that a pathetic fellow with a firearm can very easily become a mass murderer.

In the modern USA, notions of an agreed and legal secession by Texas or any other state are marginal.  The South showed that its main reason for secession had been racism by settling down so readily when slavery was ended, when it found that racism and segregation were accepted.  It settled down when it found that Southern politicians could dominate the government, just so long as they respected the predominant power of the North.

As for Gay Rights, the USA has experienced the same sort of shift that led the Irish to vote overwhelmingly for Gay Marriage in their recent referendum.  People nowadays have decided it is indeed a human right.  As recently as 1999, US citizens would have been two to one against it: but now they are for it by 55% to 42%.[23]  It all fits with Marx’s notion of ‘bourgeois capitalism’ undermining its own values with its greed: but society has unexpectedly been able to generate a new form of corporatist capitalism in which bourgeois values are being junked.

Which leaves unresolved problems with surrogate mothers.  Lots of people think ‘selling a child’ is a bad idea: but outside of China, I don’t think anyone is ready to get tough enough to actually prevent it.  Even Chinese controls have not stopped it, but are strict enough that we now have wealthy Chinese hiring women in the USA to serve as surrogates for their children.[24]  Mostly, though, the market is uncontrolled and there are certainly abuses.  My solution would be regular agencies, large and regulated and non-profit-making.


How Arab Secular Nationalism Was Sabotaged

“You can speak about the ideology of the Baath, which was secular and socialist in outlook with a centralized state and wanting to modernize. In other ways it was just being pragmatic. It was responding to the situation on the ground and decided that it had human resources and it should take advantage of them. Lots of Iraqi women, even those who were in opposition to the regime and who might have suffered under the regime, who I have talked to think with nostalgia about the 70s when there was an expanding economy, social-economic rights, and the state was quite generous. In my mind, it is not true that Saddam Hussein and the Baath Party lasted so long just because they brutally repressed the population. I think they also bought off the expanding middle class. In terms of social-economic rights, in terms of access to education, health care, having a house, a freezer, a car, people could do quite well if they didn’t open up their mouths. This was all in the 1970s.

“Then in the 1980s there was the Iran-Iraq War. During that period things changed drastically. Lots of the state funding, instead of channelling it into education, health care, and child care, it got channelled into the military, and that’s when things started to shift…

“What really had a devastating affect upon Iraqi women was not the Gulf War in 1991, but the 13 years of economic sanctions. To my mind I feel that part of history should not be forgotten. You can’t actually understand contemporary Iraq without understanding the impact that the sanctions had on society. Lots has been written and talked about the humanitarian crisis that occurred during that period in terms of health care and education. When it came to women it really triggered a shift to greater social conservatism. That had different causes. One was that when people are fighting and struggling over resources and over jobs there is often a call for women to go back home and look after the children. That happened in Iraq where in some parts you had up to 70% unemployment…

“This shift towards greater social conservatism in the 90s is an important background in order to understand what happened after 2003. Also, lots of people had left by 2003 including many secular, educated, and middle class people, and this has had an impact on what’s going on today.”[25]

As I said earlier, the weakness of the current ‘Overclass’ is that they know how to work the system, but don’t know how their own system works.  Are filled with illusions about the strengths and merits of ‘capitalist democracy’, so that they are genuinely surprised that dumping such a system on Iraq was a pathetic failure.

In real terms, Iraq no longer exists: Iraqi Kurds and Shia Arabs each have their own state, while Sunni Arabs have merged with similar people in Syria to form ISIS.  The US weakened or destroyed the elements that might have worked with them, wanting only believers in their own nonsense about ‘capitalist democracy’.

Exactly the same happened in Libya.  Having made a sensible deal with Gaddafi that would have allowed for gradual incorporation, the West ratted on it when the ‘Arab Spring’ started:

“The Congressional harrying of former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton over emails concerning the 2012 death of an American Ambassador and three staff members in Benghazi, Libya, has become a sort of running joke, with Republicans claiming ‘cover-up’ and Democrats dismissing the whole matter as nothing more than election year politics. But there is indeed a story embedded in the emails, one that is deeply damning of American and French actions in the Libyan civil war…

“While the emails do raise questions about Hilary Clinton’s veracity, the real story is how French intelligence plotted to overthrow the Libyan leader in order to claim a hefty slice of Libya’s oil production and “favorable consideration” for French businesses.

“The courier in this cynical undertaking was journalist and rightwing philosopher Bernard Henri-Levy, a man who has yet to see a civil war that he doesn’t advocate intervening in, from Yugoslavia to Syria.”[26]

There was a plot to destroy Gaddafi, in the belief they could create a docile government to replace him.  It was never realistic.  Those who wanted such an outcome were not tough enough or numerous enough or popular enough.  A lot of them were anyway insincere, playing the West for what it was worth but with no intention of dying for their supposed beliefs.  Some of them were honest and some did indeed die for the deal the West was offering.  But not enough to transform a society where Western ideas were alien and mostly seen as hostile.

I said at the start of the Arab Spring that Tunisia, with its relatively strong survival of socialism, was the one place where the process might work.  But as the recent killing of Western tourists has shown, even Tunisia is far from safe.


Why Hilaire Belloc Reverenced Mussolini

“Society in Italy had to reach the point of acute peril before that reaction took place which saved the country; but what a fine reaction it was, not only in its virtues, but, what is more important, in its spirit”  What a strong critical sense Italy has shown!  What intelligence in rejection of sophistry, and what virility in execution!  May it last!  But will it last?  Even in Italy?

“Everything good in this world is doomed to perish, and I cannot tell how long this excellent experiment will stand, or whether it will take firm root, and make Italy all that it desires to be, and all that Italy should be…

“I made a sort of pilgrimage to see Mussolini, the head of the movement, and I wrote about him for the Americans. I had the honor of a long conversation with him alone, discovering and receiving his judgments. What a contrast with the sly and shifty talk of your parliamentarian!”[27]

Belloc was in his time a major writer in Britain.  Nowadays he is mostly viewed as part of a charming vanished world.  I did find one exception:

“The Belloc of The Cruise of the Nona is a very different figure – a genuinely dangerous character. The book begins softly enough, in the language of romantic escapism, but by the time it has run its course it has laid down a seductive program for the regeneration of England. The program is explicitly Fascist, and the real hero of this story is Mussolini, who had come to power in Italy in 1922, three years before Belloc’s Cruise was first published’…

“Belloc doesn’t make a secret of his support for dictatorship and the abolition of the representative corps of States:

“‘The Italian [Parliament] was contemptible, and the Spanish a joke. They have both been happily kicked into the street, and I trust we shall hear of them no more.'”[28]

Belloc also says “No one in France, for instance, regards the Parliament as necessary”.[29]  And his 1922 book The Jews is widely viewed as anti-Semitic.  But like many other Britons, he managed to distance himself from fascism when fascism became an enemy of the British Empire.  Had Hitler avoided a war with Britain, or had the Fall of France been followed by the compromise peace that many Britons wanted, things might have been very different.



Pope Francis Being Serious

“What makes this encyclical controversial is its reading of contested questions of science, economics, and politics. What makes it radical — in the sense of going to the root — is the pope’s reading of the profound human crisis that he sees underlying our modern world. Abuse of our environment isn’t the only problem facing humanity. In fact, Pope Francis sees the ecological crisis as a symptom of a deeper crisis — a human crisis. These two problems are related and interdependent.”[30]

Among other things, he said:

“These problems are closely linked to a throwaway culture which affects the excluded just as it quickly reduces things to rubbish. To cite one example, most of the paper we produce is thrown away and not recycled. It is hard for us to accept that the way natural ecosystems work is exemplary: plants synthesize nutrients which feed herbivores; these in turn become food for carnivores, which produce significant quantities of organic waste which give rise to new generations of plants. But our industrial system, at the end of its cycle of production and consumption, has not developed the capacity to absorb and reuse waste and by-products. We have not yet managed to adopt a circular model of production capable of preserving resources for present and future generations, while limiting as much as possible the use of non-renewable resources, moderating their consumption, maximizing their efficient use, reusing and recycling them. A serious consideration of this issue would be one way of counteracting the throwaway culture which affects the entire planet, but it must be said that only limited progress has been made in this regard.”[31]

Naturally there are left-wing complaints, in the fine old tradition of “don’t take ‘yes’ for an answer“.  People not noticing that this pope has more or less abandoned the attempt to impose traditional rules about sex on the membership, which increasingly ignores such rules.  Ignores the advantages of such a big section of global opinion opposing the dominant neo-liberal values.


Israel and the Druze

“Over the last two years, Israel has provided medical care to hundreds of Syrians, including fighters, usually transferred from the ceasefire line with the Golan Heights in military ambulances to mainly two hospitals in the north.

“The Druze accuse rebels of committing atrocities against their community in Syria and have called on Israel to stop treating injured fighters. Instead they call on the government to protect Syrian Druze and some even want Israel to provide them with weapons and air support against the advances of al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria, the Nusra Front…

“Syria’s Druze minority has largely remained loyal to President Bashar al-Assad since the war began in 2011…

“In a statement, Kara said Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon had told him Israel would not admit fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) or the Nusra Front. Israeli officials have said they did not make treatment conditional on casualties’ affiliations.

“Officials say there are 110,000 Druze in northern Israel, and another 20,000 in the Israeli-held Golan.”[32]

“The Druze are an Arab minority that practice an offshoot of Islam and whose adherents in Syria, long loyal to the ruling Assad family, are beset by jihadi insurgents. Israeli Druze, some of whom wield clout in Netanyahu’s government and the military, have been urging intervention.

“In the absence of such action, many Druze in Israel and the Golan Heights are angry at the admission of casualties from rival Sunni Muslim communities in Syria, anti-Assad fighters among them, for medical treatment.”[33]

Israel seems to be alienating some of its last friends.  Israeli Druze had mostly supported Israel.  Most Muslims do not recognise Druze as Muslims.  Assad’s secular state had a place for them.  The West, encouraged by Israel, had stirred up forces likely to eventually destroy yet another minority community in the Middle East.


Islands of the South China Sea

“In 1974 the Chinese seized the Paracels from Vietnam, killing more than 70 Vietnamese troops.”[34]

That’s from a BBC summary of the dispute over the Spratly and Paracel islands, which the Philippines is trying to get the UN involved in.[35]

Half of what I quoted from the BBC is a half-truth.  The other half is a sheer untruth.

The half-truth is which Vietnamese these were.  The untruth is failing to mention that half of the islands had been occupied by Chinese since 1945.

“China (PRC) took over the Amphitrite Group in 1950 from Taiwan (ROC) during the Chinese Civil War, and the Crescent Group from South Vietnam in the Battle of the Paracel Islands in January 1974. South Vietnam’s claim to the islands was inherited by the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, which has ruled all of Vietnam since 1976. In July 2012, China (PRC) established the city of Sansha, under Hainan Province, to administer the area.”[36]

The BBC also says:

“Vietnam hotly disputes China’s historical account, saying China had never claimed sovereignty over the islands before the 1940s. Vietnam says it has actively ruled over both the Paracels and the Spratlys since the 17th Century – and has the documents to prove it.”

Actually China had vaguely claimed the islands for a very long time, and placed the uninhabited islands under the authority of Chinese provinces.  Chinese fishermen were found there by European visitors.[37]  Contradictory claims were made by both Vietnam and China across the centuries.  Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines make claims on the basis of geographical nearness, which is irrelevant when the islands in question already had two rival owners.

What the UN will make of this is anyone’s guess.  Much more likely to be decided on the basis of power politics than abstract justice.  The USA destroyed the possibility of the UN becoming a real world authority with their sabotage of the 1960s intervention in the Congo, when they helped depose Lumumba, who had naively supposed that the UN would uphold his right to rule after being democratically elected.


Disloyal History at the BBC

While BBC News is getting increasingly nationalist, the opposite seems to be happening with BBC history programs.  I notices this with recent programs about Queen Elizabeth Tudor, Napoleon and Winston Churchill.  A forthcoming program about British slave-owners looks like more of the same.

Armada: 12 Days to Save England was inaccurate about the context, not mentioning that the key event was the execution of Mary Queen of Scots.  Spain would not have wanted to put her on the throne of England, because rivalry with France was maybe more important than rivalry with England, even though France was Roman Catholic.  Indeed, France under Louis 14th was later to end Spain’s imperial and counter-reformation project.  Killing her made King Phillip a plausible claimant, from earlier intermarriage between the dynasties of Spain and England.

What was remarkable, though, was the debunking of Elizabeth.  She was shown as old, bald and weak.  Elizabeth was 55 and badly preserved by modern standards.  Cate Blanchett was under 40 when she played her in Elizabeth: The Golden Age, which is entertaining but full of inaccuracies.[38]  To show the Virgin Queen as a frail elderly lady is a big departure from the standard image.

A three-part program about Napoleon was surprisingly sensible about how the attempt at Representative Democracy in France had failed, while Napoleon was fighting for values that are nowadays standard.  But which were contested at the time, suffered a relapse after his fall and might not have won out without him

Churchill: When Britain Said No gave an excellent account of how Churchill was rejected and Labour elected in the 1945 election.  Correctly explaining how the man was part of a party that Britons rejected, despite his contribution to winning the war.


Sudan: Justice Intermittently Done

The Guardian was outraged when one of the Anglosphere’s enemies managed to avoid International Justice:

“When Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir was allowed to escape the country in a private jet – in defiance of a domestic court order and international law – Nelson Mandela’s democracy stood in solidarity with the Big Men of the African Union, who have declared the international criminal court (ICC) a racist organisation that targets Africans for trial.”[39]

The problem is not so much that it is racist, as that it never targets people within the Anglosphere.  Lots of people might be targets if justice was being applied impartially, including Henry Kissinger and Tony Blair.  There is no real chance of this ever happening.

Given the lack of real justice, there are reasons for accepting Mr Bashir.  The Guardian did allow this opinion to be expressed:

“Bashir, 67, has run Sudan since the day in June 1989 when he seized control in a bloodless coup. Since then he has survived internal unrest, a long-running civil war with the separatist south, US air strikes in 1998, and a bloody rebellion in Darfur – whose violent suppression earned him the bitter condemnation of much of the western world.

“For human rights pressure groups, some southern Sudanese and Darfuri separatists, American Christian evangelicals, and US and European neocons, Bashir is nothing less than a monster, a ruthless dictator wedded to repression and terror – a sort of African Stalin who presided over a modern-day genocide and now defies the righteous will of the UN’s international criminal court (ICC).

“But for many northern Sudanese, and many Africans and Arabs, Bashir is a popularly elected president, the statesman who signed the landmark 2005 comprehensive peace agreement (CPA) ending the 22-year war with the south, the leader who broke the power of Sudan’s Islamists (who once harboured Osama bin Laden), and a man unfairly maligned and traduced by western powers locked in the old colonial mindset and covetous of Sudan’s vast mineral wealth…

“Asked repeatedly why he has not surrendered to the court, and whether he regrets any of his actions or would do anything differently in Darfur if he had his time again, Bashir falls back on his standard condemnation of the legal process in general and the chief prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, in particular.

“‘It is a political issue and double standards, because there are obvious crimes like Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan, but they did not find their way to the international criminal court,’ he complains. As for Moreno-Ocampo, he is behaving more like a political activist than a member of the legal profession, Bashir says. ‘He is now working on a big campaign to add more lies,’ he adds.

“On the question of whether the Sudanese people might join neighbouring Egypt and other Arab nations in rising up against their government, Bashir is again both complacent and defensive. National elections had been held last year and he was returned to office with 69% of the vote, he says.”[40]

A lot of the trouble stemmed from the US demand for independence for South Sudan, an issue promoted by some influential Afro-American politicians.   But creating South Sudan has solved nothing.  The place has failed to jell and suffers from interminable civil wars.[41]


Mock-Racists and Mockingbirds

I saw the film, I read the book, and I never saw why To Kill A Mockingbird  had such a high reputation.  Mind you, I never much liked Huckleberry Finn either.  I felt that both books massaged US vanity, while giving the appearance of being realistic.  And I wasn’t surprised to find some much darker and nastier views in other works by Twain.[42]

Now we’re told that Harper Lee originally had something more serious to say, in a book which would have featured the events of Mockingbird as flashbacks.  She was persuaded to make this an entire book, and it was an enormous success.  The original novel was abandoned, but a copy survived and has just been published.

And will shock fans of Mockingbird:

“We remember Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s 1960 classic, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ as that novel’s moral conscience: kind, wise, honorable, an avatar of integrity who used his gifts as a lawyer to defend a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman in a small Alabama town filled with prejudice and hatred in the 1930s. As indelibly played by Gregory Peck in the 1962 movie, he was the perfect man — the ideal father and a principled idealist, an enlightened, almost saintly believer in justice and fairness. In real life, people named their children after Atticus. People went to law school and became lawyers because of Atticus.

“Shockingly, in Ms. Lee’s long-awaited novel, ‘Go Set a Watchman‘ (due out Tuesday), Atticus is a racist who once attended a Klan meeting, who says things like ‘The Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people.’ Or asks his daughter: ‘Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?'”[43]

I’m not surprised.  It always seemed to me that Mockingbird evaded the key issues of equality and asked just for fairness within an unfair system.  Nor am I surprised that the lady left it there.  Life in the US South must be very comfortable if you are white, rich and don’t say anything to upset people.

I also always had a suspicion that her close friend Truman Capote might have re-written a lot of Mockingbird and improved its quality.  Close study of this new book might throw more light on that


Milk-Drinking Supermen

Europe is a continent inhabited by immigrants, arriving in various waves.  First hunters, who displaced the Neanderthals, though perhaps interbreeding a little.[44]  Then farmers from West Asia.  And finally the original speakers of Indo-European languages, who had the wheel and probably chariots and began in what is now Russia.[45]

Europe became distinctive by people adapting to drink milk:

“The ability in adulthood to break down lactose is rare or absent in most parts of the world. Those without the mutation can experience unpleasant side effects if they consume substantial amounts of milk.

“”The ability to drink milk is a very unique European feature – you also find it in a few African groups, but there it is due to different mutations,” said Prof Willerslev…

“Milk is just good for you – it’s a ‘superfood’… a good source of uncontaminated fluid.”[46]


Gravity Saves Schrodinger’s Cat

Everyone seems to have heard of the puzzle of a cat that is either dead or alive due to quantum uncertainty.  But now the puzzle may have been answered.

There have been various suggestions over the years that gravity might be the key.  Gravity is much weaker than subatomic forces.  But at the scale where we actually see the world, gravity matters.  This might prevent the quantum ambiguities that have been confirmed to exist for individual particles.  Richard Feynman suggested this might be the answer.  Now the idea has been developed systematically.

“One of Einstein’s predictions is that gravity slows down time. For massive objects, the effect can be extreme, as shown in the film Interstellar, where an hour on a planet orbiting a black hole is equivalent to seven years on Earth.

“But it also affects you. Lab experiments with atomic clocks have revealed that your head ages slightly faster than your feet, because of the tiny differences in gravitational field strength.

“Pikovski’s calculations show that molecules placed in a superposition should also experience this time difference, and it can disrupt their quantum state. This happens because the bonds between atoms in a molecule act like springs and constantly vibrate. If a molecule is in a superposition of two states that are at different heights from the ground, each state will vibrate at a different rate, destroying the superposition.”[47]

Incidentally, when I looked into the matter it occurred to me that Schrodinger might have been influenced by the enigmatic Cheshire Cat in Lewis Carroll’s Alice In Wonderland.  The man was in Oxford at the time, a refugee from the Nazis.


Physics Mysteries

While worries about Schrodinger’s Cat are part of popular culture, people mostly don’t stop to wonder why it is that unstable isotopes decay at a wholly predictable rate.  Every atom in an isotope is an identical mix of protons and neutrons.  The decay of any one atom is wholly unpredictable.  Yet for a mass of atoms, the rate of decay is standard and predictable.

It may be down to what’s going on inside the protons and neutrons themselves.  What’s happening inside of them is far from simple:

“We’ve known for half a century that protons and neutrons are not fundamental particles, but made of smaller constituents called quarks. There are six types of quark: up, down, strange, charm, bottom and top. The proton has a composition of up-up-down, while the neutron is up-down-down.

“Down quarks are slightly heavier than up quarks, but don’t expect that to explain the neutron’s sliver of extra mass: both quark masses are tiny. It’s hard to tell exactly how tiny, because quarks are never seen singly (see “Quark quirks”), but the up quark has a mass of something like 2 or 3 MeV, and the down quark maybe double that – just a tiny fraction of the total proton or neutron mass…

“Electrically charged particles can bind together by exchanging massless photons. Similarly, colour-charged quarks bind together to form matter such as protons and neutrons by exchanging particles known as gluons. Although gluons have no mass, they do have energy. What’s more, thanks to Einstein’s famous E = mc2, that energy can be converted into a froth of quarks (and their antimatter equivalents) beyond the three normally said to reside in a proton or neutron. According to the uncertainty principle of quantum physics, these extra particles are constantly popping up and disappearing again.”[48]

Could the particular configurations of the ‘froth’ of quarks and gluons within protons and neutrons be the ‘hidden variables’ that explain quantum uncertainty, at least for particles composed of quarks?  The explanation as to why seemingly identical free neutrons will have different lifetimes, yet all conform to a general rule about their half-life?  The decay might be hitting one of more unstable configuration within the froth, or one that can generate an electron that is then ejected.  (And likewise for the variable behaviour of individual atoms of unstable isotopes.)  It would be like the Butterfly Effect in weather forecasting: arising from definite causes but in practice unpredictable.

I’m aware that uncertainty also applies to electrons.  But the fact that quarks have very exact fractions of the charge of the electron suggest that electrons too are composed of something more basic.  (Even though no one has yet produced a detailed theory that convinced many other people.)


Hello, Pluto, Goodbye[49]

Concorde flew faster than all but a few military aircraft, yet its speed was less than one kilometre per second.  The New Horizons probe flew past Pluto at nearly fourteen kilometres per second, so there was time for only a brief glimpse.  But what it found was fascinating.

(As I write, the data is still being analysed.  But I was fascinated by the photo of Pluto and its big moon Charon, shown in exaggerated colours.[50]  I noticed that the blue and pink terrain looks remarkably similar on the two bodies.  It may be just an artefact of the processing, of course.

Pluto was previously demoted from being a planet: it is one of a vast class of similar small worlds.  But it also seemed to be part of what is now being called the Third Zone.  As NASA astronomers put it:

“Our solar system contains three zones: the inner, rocky planets; the gas giant planets; and the Kuiper Belt. Pluto is one of the largest bodies of the icy, “third zone” of our solar system. In the early 2000s, the National Academy of Sciences placed the exploration of the third zone in general – and Pluto-Charon in particular – among its highest priority planetary mission rankings for the coming decade. New Horizons is NASA’s mission to fulfill this objective.

“In those zones, our solar system has three classes of planets: worlds of rock and metal (Earth, Venus, Mercury and Mars); the gas and ice giants (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune); and the ice dwarfs of the Kuiper Belt. There are far more ice dwarf planets than rocky and gas giant worlds combined – yet, no spacecraft has been sent to a planet in this class.”[51]

Nor will it end there.  The Kuiper Belt is enormous, so there is no chance of the probe flying on to one of the other interesting large planetoids, some of which are further from Pluto than we are.  But there are some decent targets that it can be steered to with the small amounts of fuel it has left:

“The preferred flyby target is PT1, a 40–70 km object, but PT3, a slightly bigger object, could also be targeted for a flyby, with the decision to be made in August. PT2 is no longer under consideration.”[52]



The deal is good news, obviously.  But the scandal is that it didn’t happen much sooner.


Dictatorship of the Idle & Cynical

The crushing victory of the Tories at the last General election was based on 36.9% of the vote and less than a quarter of the electorate.  (23.9%, to be exact.)  Yet they seek the power to nullify strike ballots unless those in favour can reach an improbable 40 percent of the membership.  Logical?



Previous Newsnotes can be found at the Labour Affairs website,  And at my own website,