Priorities

The USA has announced its intention to exploit the unrest in Iran to impose further sanctions.

I’m not expert but this seems likely to undermine the prospect of positive developments in Iran. It’s easier to rally people in defense of the status quo when the constant refrain “dissidents are playing into our enemy’s hands” has actually been confirmed by said enemy.

To my mind, it looks almost as though the USA is more interested in the balance of power in the Middle East, and exploiting every opportunity to weaken, contain, and undermine a strategic rival, than is democracy, personal liberties, etc. But that can’t be right…

Meanwhile the Iranian government is continuing with arrests, torture, and killings. Apparently, on TV they are making references to the 80s, a period in which the Islamic Republic solidified its hold on power by killing thousands of political opponents – almost all of whom had been their allies in the ’79 elections. (there’s probably a joke one could make here about the song “it was acceptable in the 80s” but how bad would one’s taste have to be to even think of that?)

Some Stuff, which is Random

There’s stuff everywhere.

Stuff that is a cruel joke:

The 5th International! has been declared at long last by…Hugo Chavez. This will unite the forces of revolutionary socialism world-wide. In Chavez’s view, of course, the forces of revolutionary socialism include…Mugabe. And Ahmadinejad. And the Chinese Communist Party. And…wait, what?

Thing is, I could sort of understand these sort of vile endorsements before – though I’m not too motivated to insist on a charitable reading of Chavez’s words, such a reading was available: he’s kissing ass because he wants/needs international allies. He wants a bit more security against threats from the US and its allies. It’s not what you’d expect of an ‘internationalist’ in the genuine sense but then, why would we expect such things from Chavez? The point is, it’s entirely standard and expected from a government. It’s exactly what every other government does.

But actually proclaiming a Socialist International, and then sending your people to receive ideological training in China, is…well, a cruel joke.

Stuff that is also a cruel joke:

Pardoning turkeys. So there’s a special day on which millions of turkeys are to be killed and ritually eaten. You get one or two of these turkeys and, with great publicity, and great fanfare, decline to kill them. This provokes hearty laughter. After all, you can’t spell slaughter, without laughter!

Stuff that is hardly even funny anymore:

In Nepal, there has been a grand religious festival of death, in which a few hundred thousand animals of various sorts have been killed by pious God-fearing folks from all over the country and beyond.

Quote: “I slaughtered around 20 buffalo in 2004. This time I managed to behead about 70. I wish the sacrifice has not ended.”

And: “I do it for spiritual satisfaction.”

Note: roughly the same number of animals have been slaughtered in the world for food since you started reading this post. With the precision of ‘roughly’ tied to how fast a reader you are.

Question: is it more disturbing that people do this sort of thing for spiritual satisfaction, or that they do it with complete casual indifference?

More Cruel Jokes:

You remember the world’s biggest war? Yeah, still going on. Currently some people are expressing concern that the peace-keepers are actually keeping war, and troops sent to protect civilians are actually protecting people who are massacring civilians. The Congolese government has said “That’s really what we can call an exaggeration”. Well then. Thanks for that.

In fact, it looks suspiciously like the actual international response is largely a series of actions to prop up and support the government, and take no action against the companies funding violence for resource access, surrounded by high-pitched humanitarian trills and whistles.

And Thanksgiving, which itself is a somewhat cruel joke. We exterminated you, but there was a brief period of amiability early on! Let’s celebrate that!

What lesson can we draw from all this? From the jovial celebrations, ironic mercy, grand revolutionary pronouncements, grand humanitarian pronouncements, and perhaps most of all from the ‘spiritual satisfaction’ – what they seem to illustrate is that humans have a striking ability to take violence and cruelty and destruction and give it pretty much every positive emotional spin you can think of.

Afghanistan is a Modern Society

Several months ago, I blogged a bit about the changeover of power in Guinea – at the death of a long-running ruler, the ‘official’ group of kleptocrats and authoritarians was suddenly swept aside by a new, up-and-coming group of kleptocrats and authoritarians, promising ‘democracy’ around the end of the year.

At the time I was cautious about writing off the new lot out of hand – though it was always likely that they would be indistinguishable from the previous group, it wasn’t impossible that from some anomalous personal scruple or (more likely) the continued pressure of the popular groups who had been struggling against the old government, there might be some change worth noticing – no prospect of a substantially non-shitty arrangement, but perhaps better, insofar as I’d rather live in a representative democracy with civil rights than not.

Turns out my caution was misplaced: protests banned, more than 150 shot, and the head of the military junta planning to stand for election.

Of course, any unwarranted glimmer of hope in my analysis is quite different from the sort of messianic optimism that so many people have displayed over these latest elections in Afghanistan: manifestly rigged, and besides run between rival coalitions of warlords, drug barons, fundamentalists and ultra-conservatives, who seem quite able to defy western pressure when it comes to enshrining the rights of rapists in law, but not when it comes to stopping Americans from setting off bombs in civilian areas.

Here’s an interesting thing though. There’s a certain reflex that I think many Western observers make, a mental knee-jerk which involves saying “of course, it’s terrible that these countries, like Guinea and Afghanistan, are so enmired in instability and corruption – but that’s because they are ‘less evolved’, more ‘primitive’, and over time they will build up the sorts of institutions and culture needed for democracy, like we have.”

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Forks, Coffee and Communism

Some thoughts on communism, sparked by buying coffee. I’m not an expert on the food and/or beverages industries, so I may have missed something important, but even if so the discussion will hopefully be suggestive of thoughts.

The various establishments that give freshly-prepard food (and hot drinks etc.) to people, who then take it away and eat it, do so by putting it into a container, of styrofoam or cardboard or foil, that cannot be effectively washed and re-used and thus gets thrown away. And end up somewhere like the Great Pacific Trash Continent (or whatever it’s called).

An individual or family who ate all of their food from containers which they then destroyed would surely be considered wasteful. Why does such waste happen with these food-giving-away establishments?

What would happen if they gave away food in re-usable containers, with metal forks, ceramic mugs, plastic tubs, etc? The immediate answer is, they would spend far more money on giving away these endless ‘proper’ implements, and their customers would swiftly acquire a needless glut of the same, and no doubt would simply throw them away. This would be an even more wasteful situation!

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Are People Getting Stupider?

In a comment on a recent post, it was claimed that:

“We are moving into a socio-economic system characterised by Keynesian economics, general licentiousness and mass rootless ignorance.”

The Keynesian economics could certainly be disputed, but I won’t focus on that. The relative ‘licentiousness’ is clearly true for certain sorts of activities, with the dispute being over the value or otherwise of such a development. But what does interest me is the ‘mass ignorance’.

It’s a sentiment you can observe quite widely; castigations of the mass media and popular culture, frenzied lamentations of the shocking ignorance of the average person. The same commenter links this point to “Jerry Springer”.

Now, I have no objection to cultural critique, but this sort of claim strongly implies that this ignorance is ‘new’ – we are ‘moving into’ rather than ’emerging out of’ mass ignorance. At some presumed point in the past, we are to understand, the overall state of human learning was more respectable.

This strikes me as very implausible. A few reasons include:

  • Global literacy is higher than at any time in history;
  • Average IQs have been rising steadily for some time;
  • The quantity of information available in pretty much every discipline is greater than ever, often radically;
  • The average person’s technical ability to access this information is greater than ever, often radically.

Now this sort of a question is incredibly hard to get precision on – what exactly is ‘ignorance’? How is it to be measured? But these are four of the things that would come to mind, if I were to ask myself what the most reliably and easily-measured indicators might be. I don’t really see any contrary indicators – that is, any remotely reliable ways to measure some important component of ‘ignorance’ and ‘knowledge’ that gives a different impression.

So given this, I can only see the sort of sentiments mentioned earlier as unfounded gripes without proper perspective.

But I’m no expert on the data or the techniques of measurement. Are there any rigorous ways to show (or even suggest – because yes, a rigorous suggestion is quite possible. For instance, literacy can be fairly reliably known to have increased, but this only suggests, and doesn’t prove, a greater diffusion of knowledge) a decline in the knowledge – or even wisdom – of ‘people’?

Discussing Future Societies

So yesterday’s post somewhat bemoaned the widespread reluctance of socialists to talk positively about socialism, and explained part of why I thought it was a bad thing. But obviously it would be one-sided to not discuss some of the good reasons for this phenomenon.

1) It’s really hard. More moderate political positions can easily describe what they’re after because it’s so much closer to what exists – and even the extreme right have a slightly easier time in that they can happily declare an intention to force society into a certain mould. Bot socialists have to describe something which is both a very radical change, and also supposedly freedom-maximising, with hyper-democracy and so forth. So it’s quite likely that any substantive description will be very hard to give.

But that seems like a fairly weak reason to avoid the whole endeavour. “If something’s hard to do, it’s not worth doing” is a maxim of Homer Simpson, not of the world-historic vanguard of the proletariat. But a more developed version of this argument says

2) We’ll be wrong most of the time, and

3) It will lead to a lot of time wasted in pointless arguments – ten people will have ten visions, of which 9 will be wrong, and they will take so long debating which one is right that nothing will get done.

I think this argument rests on the assumption that talking positively about socialism means talking about what socialism will definitely be like, or even about what it must be like.

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What the Left Does and Doesn’t Do, and why Perhaps it should Do what it Doesn’t

Continuing some of the themes of yesterday’s post (perhaps?) it occurred to me that it’s quite common to hear socialists and sundry radicals arguing in the following styles:
1. Defensive: no, we don’t love Stalin. No, we don’t want to have everyone living in caves. No, we don’t want to give more power to Gordon Brown. No, we don’t want…
2. Critical: you see this piece of right-wing or centrist ideology here? It’s bullshit, for reasons A, B, and C, as follows…
3. Lamenting: Doesn’t it suck how many people are being blown up or are malnourished? Look how bad the existing system makes things…
4. Illuminating: see, the reason why such-and-such happens is that capitalism is constrained by the drive for profit to do X, and the political elite have to respond by doing Y…

But there’s much less of the

5. Constructive: see, if everything were run by federated workers’ councils, then large-scale economic decisions would be made by…

Now, obviously the first four are very important, but I’m still somewhat concerned about the relative lack of point 5. It’s not that there’s no discussion of it at all (I recently came across this good piece) but it tends to be occasional, and often written by socialists for socialists.

If you look at what the public tends to hear, the ‘soundbytes’ that socialists throw out, I think there’s a tendency (at least in my experience) to refrain from talking much about what ‘socialism’ is, beyond a certain collection of vague aspirations (co-operative, solidarity, rational planning, economic democracy).

Is this a bad thing? A few reasons why we might think so:

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Healthcare, safety regulation, and incentives

To take a break from high theory, I thought I’d formulate a few thoughts on the current hot topic in Anglophone Blogtopia, the NHS and socialised healthcare.

It rather seems that there are two sorts of things going on. One is a nuanced, complex, open-ended discussion on the best ways of organising healthcare, and one is a shouting match. The sort of approaches that make sense in one are inappropriate in the other. And the fact that one is happening can get in the way of the other.

I certainly wouldn’t say one is better or more noble – it might be nice if politics was entirely a matter of calm and reflective discussions but in the sort of world we inhabit (in particular, a world of class conflict) it isn’t, and when one side is shouting there’s no point in the other side not shouting, or shouting less loudly than they can.

And when one side is loudly proclaiming that Stephen Hawking, in a socialised healthcare system such as the one he is in, would not be kept alive as he has been, in precisely such a system, it’s clear that shouting is in order.

And I have no doubts about which side of that shouting match I’m on. Yay socialised medicine, boo private health insurance. To put it another way, given that healthcare does need to be rationed (being scarce), how rich people are is not a rational factor by which to ration it. So yay and boo.

So having said that, I had some random thoughts about institutional design which shouldn’t be taken as implying anything about the yays and boos.

The observation, which is based partly on personal experience, and partly on an argument put to me by a prominent right-libertarian, concerns the approval of new treatments by safety regulators, and their subsequent use while still risky and untested.

There are two sorts of mistake that you can make – over-caution and over-confidence. You might hold back or not use a treatment which would be safe and save lives (error A), or you might go ahead and use a treatment which turns out to cause serious problems and cost lives (error B).

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Mao, the Japanese, and the Imperialists: which bastards to back

Who was fighting in the 2nd World War? And which side was the right one, and which wrong? In this post I want to explore these questions (not entirely conclusively) with focus on China/East Asia, and in light of the reflections I reflected a couple of days ago.

The second world war is often presented as being between two sides – the Axis and the Allies (perhaps with the latter split into the Western and Soviet camps). But I think it makes more sense to see it as a three-way conflict, because in many, perhaps most, of the countries invaded by the Axis powers’ expansion, those who fought against them were just as opposed to, and opposed by, the Allies.

The most obvious and prominent example is the Chinese Communist Party, who were the main resistance to the Japanese in China but had to also fight against the Nationalists who were supported by the Allies. Similar things occurred to a lesser extent in many other countries, such as the Philippines, Greece, France and Yugoslavia. But let’s take China as an example. Mao fights the Allies and the Japanese, the Japanese fight Mao and the Allies, the Allies fight Mao and the Japanese.

If we tried to evaluate any of these three forces according to elementary standards of human decency, they would all fail. The Japanese demonstrated this best in their treatment of captive and conquered populations during the war itself; the ‘popular’ forces under the CCP demonstrated this best when they conquered China after the war and established a brutal tyranny and history’s largest famine; and the Allies demonstrated it best a couple of decades later when they flattened Vietnam and Cambodia in order to retain the imperial control that the French had been unable to hang onto. But in no case was this a surprise, if we look attentively at their methods before and after.

(Looking back I see how long this post has gotten, so those after the short summary should scroll down to the bottom, starting from where I repeat the word ‘so’ three times…)

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Justifying War Crimes Against the Japanese

The American nuclear bombing is argued over. It’s said by some that incinerating the few hundred thousand civilians involved was necessary, wise, and just; it’s said by others that it was a colossal crime, perhaps a genocide, perhaps comparable to the more famous atrocities of the Axis powers.

Now I’m not an expert on history, and I don’t have the time to become one. But I’d like to hold an opinion here. But it’s very easy to either 1) get drawn into the endless going-over of various details, estimates and counter-estimates, and so forth, or 2) avoid that simply by adopting an overall interpretation of all these events which fits with your other views, at the cost of making assumptions or judgements that others can simply reject.

So I want to see if there’s a way to reach a confident and well-supported view without being an expert, both for me and for any readers. My goal is that after reading this post it will be extremely hard for anyone of good faith not to condemn the bombings.

(I will note in passing that there’s actually something rather queasy about treating these two bombs in isolation – hundreds of thousands of civilians were deliberately killed with conventional bombs in Japan and in other countries. So if in doubt, assume that whatever I say here applies to those as well – but I shall not try so strenuously to prove this)

So my intention is basically to lay out, tentatively, a few things which, to the best of my very patchy knowledge, aren’t subject to dispute – which don’t depend on any contentious inferences, but just on obvious facts.

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