2020 03 – Newsnotes

Notes On The News

by Gwydion M Williams

How Society Makes and Unmakes Individuals

Advertisers Saatchi & Saatchi tapped into deep feelings back in 1979.  They helped give Thatcher victory in 1979 with the famous poster of a long queue of unemployed.  The one that said ‘Labour isn’t Working’.[A]

The sensible consensus formed in the 1940s had broken down.  We in the Bevin Society said just that at the time.[B]  The best solution would have been Trade Unions accepting more power and responsibility.  The alternative right-wing solution would have been for their power to be cut back, but nothing else changed.

But Thatcher believed in ‘Free Market’ solutions.  She rejected everything that had been learned since the disasters of the 1930s, caused by uncontrolled speculation.

It didn’t work, except to give more money to the rich.  The economy didn’t grow any faster.[C]  But it was sold as a grand success by the media.  Media dominated by the very same rich people who were the only real gainers.

Tony Blair with New Labour made a disastrous adjustment – from one illusion to another.  Saw Thatcherite fantasies as an unwelcome truth that left-wingers must adjust to.  We said at the time that abandoning Clause 4 was foolish.[D]

Thatcher chose a radical overhaul of the economy, not realising that radicalism is always bad for right-wing causes.  Her replacement for the 1940s consensus worked much worse than a normalising right-wing government would have.

Thatcher was victim of an illusion.  Her belief that there was no such thing as society.

Her belief in ‘norms’ of human behaviour, existing without state action.  As unchangeable as the weather.

Only it is now clear we have changed the weather.

I see our social norms are just one of many variants of human nature.  Just as English is just one of many possible languages.  If you know a bit of French or German, say, you’ll have learned that it does things differently.  Globally, some languages are far more alien.

A German would cause confusion if they said ‘I understand train station.’ (I don’t understand a thing.)  Or ‘now you have the salad.’ (Now you’re in trouble.)[E]

There is no such thing as a human individual separate from the society that forms them.  Or societies, or society and subculture.

Conflicting demands on who you should be, makes for more interesting and less happy individuals.  Even the sudden emergence of Western Europe as the strongest global power may have been due to a confusion of belief.  The Christian Reformation and Counter-Reformation stalemated each other, so what was truth?

A book called ‘Genius and Anxiety: How Jews Changed the World, 1847-1947’ has a nice account of a host of creative and often very unhappy people.  But fails to notice that there were many similar people who were not Jews.  A host of highly creative Scots and Irish in Britain.  Members of majority communities who were marginalised by being homosexual.  Picasso as a Spaniard in Paris.  And so on.

It’s also interesting that Hungarian Jews outmatch other European Jews.  Hungary keeps a language and some culture from nomad invaders.

But if someone tried writing ‘How Jews Changed the World, 1747-1847, they would find very little.  Jews barely mattered to a fast-changing Europe that was nominally Christian, but struggling with ideas of Enlightenment and Democracy.  Jews had played no part in the scientific revolution that happened within Europe’s Christian majority from the 16th century.  Had no influence on literature, unless one accepts the disputed claim that the author of Don Quixote was descended from converted Jews.[F]

Jews were marginal within socialism and communism until the massive impact of Karl Marx.  Before Marx, the only significant socialist Jew I could find was Moses Hess.  He influenced Engels before Engels met Marx, and then was at odds with both of them.  Went on to be a pioneer of Zionism – but Zionism only became more than a marginal idea when it became clear that mindless hostility to Jews was a growing force, not a relic of the past.

Right-wingers attach huge significance to the Rothschild family, as do some left-wingers.  To me, they just filled a slot that someone else would have taken without them.  Had history gone otherwise and Christian Europe driven out all of its Jews, banking would still be there.  And no Jews had even a shadow of the influence of the Medici family, bankers who became rulers of Florence.  Who produced four popes and two Queens of France, and played a vast role in expanding the Renaissance.

Latin-Christian Europe transformed itself from the 16th century.  Large numbers of talented Jews were unexpectedly pulled into the process in the 19th century.  Also Slavonic-Orthodox Russians, with many amazing novels and some science.  Most notably Dmitri Mendeleev, whose Periodic Table was the first to successfully predict the properties of elements that others later discovered.

Only in the 20th century did the rest of humanity get drawn into the process.  Changed by Europe’s aggressive imperialism, vast numbers of interesting individuals popped up in places that had seen nothing new for centuries.  Quantum Mechanics included an unusual number of Jews – but Heisenberg with his undermining of reality was of Lutheran background, and flourished under the Nazis to an embarrassing degree.  There were also some significant Hindus, Japanese and Chinese.  And it is in China that the legacy of Karl Marx lives on most strongly.

Society makes us.  But this does not mean that individuals must yield their distinctive views.  They just need to respect majority opinion, and try to change it.

My generation, the Baby Boomers, changed the world by being Bad Boys, and in smaller numbers Bad Girls.  Did not appreciate that our parents had given us peace and a world of secure welfare.  Shamefully, those benefits were taken away for the later generations by the selfish majority of Baby Boomers.  Called ‘too expensive’, after many in my generation became holders of vast wealth and power.

Being Bad Boys is simply destructive, and some of my generation took it to extremes.  For instance  Pink Floyd in 1979 with the famous cry “We don’t need no education” in the song ‘Another Brick in the Wall’.

If you are not ‘Another Brick in the Wall’, then just what are you?

Humans live within social structures.  Humans would not be humans without them.  Humans can be turned into significantly different types of human if the structures shift.  And more of them become unhappy and destructive if social structures decided they should be left alone to swim or sink.

In fiction, when someone is required to ‘swim or sink’, they will gloriously flourish.

In real life, quite a lot of them will drown.  Or end up as ruined and unhappy people.  Some become Islamic or Far-Right Terrorists.

Rock musicians were mostly hostile to Thatcher.  But helped to create a mood in which many saw Thatcherism as the only coherent way forward.

The idea was, ‘remove controls and the True Individuals emerge’.

Being ‘cool’ was part of it.  So I have taken to calling them Coolhearts.  Insulting overtones are entirely intentional, but done from a wish to ease human suffering.  I have no wish to insult individuals who are often lost and unhappy and locked into a false world view.

Coolhearts remain certain that the True Individuals will in time emerge.  And are not bothered by wide differences about True Individuals.

Individual Liberation at one time veered toward tolerance of under-age sex.  In the 1950s, it was more accepted than homosexuality.  In Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the hero boasts of sex with an under-age girl – what would now be called Child Abuse, since she’s 15.  There is gross racism from the ‘hero’.  Homosexuals he will tolerate if they accept that they are entirely unworthy and should be quietly unclean out of sight of the Real Men.  And he speaks of ‘the juggernaut of modern matriarchy’, made uneasy by the very limited powers of Big Nurse in the book.  And finally the ‘liberated’ Native American is genuinely out of touch with reality and would probably starve and die after his escape.

The 1970s film version offended me enough to get the book for further checks.  I was amazed how much the film was cleaned up from the original.

In parallel with the rise of Thatcherism, and less hostile to it than most people suppose, there was a struggle for homosexual status.  First for toleration, then a sort of equality, and now in the west complete equality, including marriage.

The conventional view of this, and of the increasing normalisation of female equality, is that people suddenly discovering their real identity as True Individuals.  I see it seems a series of accidents.  And I broadly approve: but I am also a product of it.  I can think outside the standard framework far more than most people, but I am still a product.

The standard view is a set of contradictions:

  • I must not be supervised.
  • Preventing me doing anything is a violation of my human rights.
  • But also bad things must not be allowed.
  • Anything I don’t like, isn’t freedom.
  • Cheating is bad. But also good if the outcome is good.

In popular entertainment, people are mostly not shocked by rule-breaking and downright lying against ‘bad people’.  All of this is fragmented Coolheart thinking.

The Age of Coolhearts liberated those of us who were already fairly secure.  But damaged many others.  We need to restore the duty to care for the needy.

In the Age of Coolhearts, the New Right was the most coherent product.  It could justify rules as a path to an eventual Libertarian paradise.

And is falling apart, as it becomes obvious that the Libertarian paradise is not going to happen.  But opposition remains incoherent, mired in Coolheart thought.


Back to Economic Morality!

As I’ve just detailed, 1960s radicalism made a botched job of shifting from one form of sexual morality to another.  Better, certainly, than leaving a bad system in place.  But vast damage was done by the silly idea that all would be well if there was Individual Liberation.

Radicals who undermined existing values did not expect a revival of capitalist power.  But found it hard to explain why Free Markets were not a good idea.  They remain lukewarm-to-hostile about state power.  There were and are strong left-wing fears that we might be devoured by wicked Corporatism.[G]

They are also over-impressed by money power.

They fail to understand that where the money appears need not be where the real material wealth was created.

Science and speculative technology are the main sources of real material wealth.  The telegraph and later telephone arose from interested tinkerers discovering the existence of electricity, and the fact that it would run down metal wires.  This led first to Benjamin Franklin’s invention of the lightning conductor, though others perhaps were also close.[H]  From this, using small jolts of electricity to send messages followed naturally.

Radio was another matter, not arising naturally out of human experience.  James Clerk Maxwell did some deep thinking to sort out the complex way in which electricity and magnetism could generate each other.  Saw that an electromagnetic wave was possible, and must have been delighted to find that its speed was similar to the known speed of light.  (Which had been worked out by noting apparent timing errors in the orbits of the moons of Jupiter.)

This did not prove that light was an electromagnetic wave.  Indeed, physicists are now confident that gravitational waves move at just the same speed, which is a feature of space-time.  But well before space-time was understood, a physicist called Heinrich Hertz decided to generate electromagnetic waves of another sort.  The wavelength was much longer, but they were otherwise the same as light.  And if he noticed that they would pass through walls, he saw no significance in this.

Then along came Marconi, who noticed that these useful rays could be used to send messages without wires.  He made a fortune, and also became a supporter of Italian Fascism.  He joined the party in 1923, when others held back.  Rose high before dying in 1937.

But he was not the first.  A Bengali Hindu called Jagadish Chandra Bose worked it out at about the same time.  He even said:

“The invisible light can easily pass through brick walls, buildings etc. Therefore, messages can be transmitted by means of it without the mediation of wires.”[I]

Maxwell and Hertz did the essential work.  Bose saw how it could be useful.  But the money went to Marconi.  All too typical.

Of course the fascism that Marconi supported had its own Economic Morality.  Right-wing and hierarchical, but you were looked after if you counted as part of the White Race.  Jews did until the late 1930s, when the ideology switched and excluded them.

Classical Capitalism also had its own Economic Morality.  Free Markets were a slogan, but extensive regulation were the reality.  There was also a common habit of giving the better sort of middle-class jobs to married men, on the grounds that they had families to support.

Only the New Right thought they could manage without an Economic Morality.  And have failed massively.


Malignant Victims – the Far Right

Details of the racist German gunman who randomly killed nine innocents are still suppressed.  But I was struck by the fact that he then went on to kill his mother, and then himself.

Was he a victim who blamed the wrong people?  Blamed the very people whom the right-wing media have been encouraging the poor white population to blame?

I did get the following:

“According to federal prosecutor Peter Frank, Tobias R contacted the prosecutors in November, urging them to act against a big secret organisation, which he claimed was tapping into people’s brains in order to control world events. No action was taken in response.

“The Bild tabloid reports that Tobias R had a firearms licence, and that ammunition and gun magazines were found in his car.”[J]

Thinking that victims must be good people is another Coolheart error.  Suffering makes a few people nobler and better.  Many more are made worse.  It is another case of ‘swim or sink’ not working.  Expecting most people to become spontaneously good is not realistic.

Malignant victims are the most common outcome of suffering.  People who hurt others in much the same way they themselves were hurt.

Selfishness and fear have been cultivated by the New Right from the mid-1970s.  Now it is running out of anyone’s control.  Mostly because New Right promises of wealth for all were phoney.

In the real world, as distinct from the views of Adam Smith and his heirs, the places where money emerges are very different from those where real material wealth is created.

Science generates wealth and gambling destroys it.  Advertising mostly destroys it.  Financial speculation mostly destroys it.



China Virus

I have already blogged a protest at the way in which the tragic outbreak of Covid-19 was unfairly used to blame China’s highly successful Mixed Economy and One-Party State.[K]

Local regulators in Wuhan missed the very contagious nature of the virus, certainly.  But what they faced was very unusual: most viruses don’t easily spread from people who appear healthy.

Less excusable was the lightly-regulated growth in markets for wild animals, some of them raised by farmers for a luxury market that pays much for exotic animals.  It seems there will now be a crack-down on this legacy of the Deng Era.

But as I write – 27th February – the virus is running out of control in at least three places: South Korea, Iran and Italy.

It is unusually good at spreading:

“Covid-19 seems to spread like influenza, through the air, person to person. Unlike Ebola, SARS and MERS, individuals can transmit this coronavirus before the onset of symptoms or even if they don’t become ill. An infected person appears to spread the disease to an average of 2.6 people. After 10 generations of transmission, with each taking about five or six days, that one initial case has spawned more than 3,500, most with no or mild symptoms, yet probably infectious. The fact that mild cases are difficult to differentiate from colds or the flu only complicates the diagnosis.”[L]

Treating it as some special Chinese failure must have obscured the need for fast action.

[If I could see this at the end of February, why could so many heads of government not see it for several more weeks?

[Boris Johnson wasted several weeks before catching the virus himself.  The Tory government is still way below the average for rich countries.

[Worst of all is the USA, obviously.]


Freedom and Bigotry in Ukraine

“Coronavirus: Ukraine protesters attack buses carrying China evacuees

“Dozens of protesters in a Ukrainian town have attacked buses carrying evacuees from coronavirus-hit China.

“The evacuees were brought to a health spa … where they will be held in quarantine for 14 days.

“President Volodymyr Zelensky urged the protesters to show empathy.

“Ukraine’s security service (SBU) said a fake email claiming to be from the health ministry falsely said some evacuees had contracted the virus.

“SBU officials are now investigating the apparent hoax, a statement said.”[M]

That’s the flip-side of allowing free discussion of medical issues on the social media.

More exactly, one of the problems.

The West has an unhappy revival of measles and mumps, because of a foolish claim that a vaccine was causing autism.[N]  Wholly discredited, but the aggressive ignorance that the New Right cultivated for its own ends now does damage everywhere.


Shallow Cheats

“High-flying Citigroup banker, 31, earning £1 million a year is suspended for ‘stealing sandwiches from the staff canteen’…

“He would not be the first banker to land himself in hot water over allegations of personal misconduct.

“Japan’s Mizuho Bank sacked a London banker in 2016 after he was caught stealing a part worth £5 from a colleague’s bike.

“And in 2014 Jonathan Burrows, a former BlackRock executive, was found to have repeatedly dodged paying train fares for his commute.

“The Financial Conduct Authority banned the ex-fund manager from any future senior roles in the UK finance sector and Mr Burrows ended up paying £43,000 to Southeastern trains to settle the case.”[O]



Previous Newsnotes are at the Labour Affairs website, https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/past-issues/.  Also https://longrevolution.wordpress.com/newsnotes-historic/.  I blog every month or so at https://www.quora.com/q/pwgwxusqvnzzrlzm/stats.  I tweet at @GwydionMW.


[A] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Labour_Isn%27t_Working

[B] https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/very-old-issues-images/magazine-001-to-010/magazine-010/the-british-left-made-thatcher-possible/

[C] https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/problems-magazine-past-issues/problems-magazine-older-issues/p1-44/

[D] https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/very-old-issues-images/magazines-037-to-048/magazine-045-not-yet-scanned/

[E] https://www.quora.com/What-words-phrases-in-your-language-have-funny-beautiful-or-weird-direct-translations-into-English

[F] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miguel_de_Cervantes#Controversy_about_ethnic_and_religious_background

[G] https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/m-articles-by-topic/m99-topic-menus-from-long-revolution-website/48-economics/economics-is-about-people-not-money-2/how-we-are-still-paying-for-fear-of-corporatism-in-the-1970s/

[H] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lightning_rod#History

[I] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_radio#Hertzian_waves

[J] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-51586283

[K] https://www.quora.com/q/mrgwydionmwilliams/China-Viruses-Covid-19-and-Wuhan-400, https://www.quora.com/q/mrgwydionmwilliams/Rumours-Information-and-Covus-19

[L] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/24/opinion/coronavirus-pandemic.html

[M] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-51581805

[N] https://news.sky.com/story/why-are-we-still-having-the-anti-vax-debate-11710936

[O] https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-7963415/Banker-31-earning-1-million-year-suspended-stealing-sandwiches-staff-canteen.html