Thoughts on remembrance, war and humanity

I posted this last year on Facebook but I think it bears repetition on Remembrance Sunday. I’ve always been interested by our fascination, as a society, with the poetry of the First World War. Especially when contrasted with the almost complete anonymity of the Second World War poets. Of whom Hamish Henderson was one of the most significant.

It’s Remembrance Day, so I thought I’d share an extract from Hamish Henderson’s Elegies for the Dead in Cyrenaica. It was written during, after and about the Allied campaign in North Africa in the Second World War. We all know the war poets of the First World War, few of us know poets of the Second World War.

This extract from the First Elegy does something wonderful and difficult. It values the enemy. Living and dead. For many the Second World War is the archetype of the just war. A war of good against evil. Is it that a just war provides less scope for poetry?

Or is it that we have lost sense of the humanity of our enemies?

Hamish Henderson, Jan 1942 from “End of a Campaign”

There are many dead in the brutish desert,
who lie uneasy
among the scrub in this landscape of half-wit
stunted ill-will. For the dead land is insatiate
and necrophilous. The sand is blowing about still.
Many who for various reasons, or because
of mere unanswerable compulsion, came here
and fought among the clutching gravestones,
shivered and sweated,
cried out, suffered thirst, were stoically silent, cursed
the spittering machine-guns, were homesick for Europe
and fast embedded in quicksand of Africa
agonized and died.
And sleep now. Sleep here the sleep of dust.

There were our own, there were the others.
Their deaths were like their lives, human and animal.
There were no gods and precious few heroes.
What they regretted when they died had nothing to do with
race and leader, realm indivisible,
laboured Augustan speeches or vague imperial heritage.
(They saw through that guff before the axe fell.)
Their longing turned to
the lost world glimpsed in the memory of letters:
an evening at the pictures in the friendly dark,
two knowing conspirators smiling and whispering secrets;
or else
a family gathering in the homely kitchen
with Mum so proud of her boys in uniform:
their thoughts trembled
between moments of estrangement, and ecstatic moments
of reconciliation: and their desire
crucified itself against the unutterable shadow of someone
whose photo was in their wallets.
Their death made his incision.

There were our own, there were the others.
Therefore, minding the great word of Glencoe’s
son, that we should not disfigure ourselves
with villany of hatred; and seeing that all
have gone down like curs into anonymous silence,
I will bear witness for I knew the others.
Seeing that littoral and interior are alike indifferent
and the birds are drawn again to our welcoming north
why should I not sing them, the dead, the innocent?”

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Local elections: mass movements and agenda for change

Thoughts on the English local election results:

Expectation management and the mass party

Poor expectation management may be the biggest problem for Labour in communicating the results. Since the 1990s brought the era of media-focused campaigning we have become used to parties playing down their chances. This move was based on parties raising much more money from wealthy donors.

Parties could campaign in this way because their campaigns were delivered by paid staff supplemented with small numbers of very committed activists. Those staff and activists didn’t need to be energised by the possibility of big wins.

The need to energise campaigners can leave you with an expectation management problem. But it means that you can run campaigns that don’t rely on big donors, and the corporate capture that so often accompanies the need to do big fundraising.

Much of the current confusion in politics originates in the tensions around this approach. It’s much messier having big campaigns that excite people. But it is a necessary corrective to the sort of elite politics that divides ‘strivers’ from ‘skivers’ or cynically denies people housing or – maybe worse – cancer treatment to pander to racists.

Turnout and an agenda for radical local government

Local elections are never going to be as easy for mass movement parties, who require big ideas to motivate their voters. The enthusiasm gap will always be bigger for local elections.

These elections took place in a context where there was no national campaign. That makes it more difficult for parties making a big offer. Labour did well in 2017 with polarising policies on issues like student funding and housing. Greens did well in 2015 with issues like rail renationalisation and moving politics to the left. Local elections don’t give scope for that sort of approach so easily.

We need to build strong ideas of what voting for a radical party in local government can achieve. The right can point to lower taxes and the punitive removal of services from the ‘undeserving poor’ as a reason to elect them. Since the era of new municipal socialism in the 1980s, it’s not been clear what a radical council would do. The councils of the 80s made public transport more affordable (Fares Fair), pioneered anti-discrimination on race and sexuality and campaigned on issues like apartheid. We need that spirit back.

Some thoughts on the failure of the Sinn Féin-DUP deal

Here are some brief thoughts on the failure of the Sìnn Fein-DUP deal yesterday. At every stage of this process Sinn Féin have driven the agenda. At every stage the DUP have played into their hands. Sìnn Fein collapsed the Assembly and have set terms for agreement that Unionists would find it very difficult to agree.

1. It is partly a function of the limited devolution allowed in the nations of the UK. The job of any NI Executive would have been the administration of London-imposed austerity. It’s easy to understand why Sinn Féin were unenthusiastic about this.

Theresa May’s call for a ‘red, white and blue Brexit’ compounded Sìnn Fein’s antipathy to her government. Brexit looks very much like an attempt to reinvigorate exactly the British Imperial sentiments that repel Irish republicans.

2. Brexit brings the prospect of a united Ireland back onto the table in a serious way. There are only 3 solutions to the Irish border problem. Ireland leaving the EU and joining the UK – which (despite the DUP’s fantasies) can’t and won’t happen. Brexit failing – which might happen. And Irish reunification.

With Sinn Féin sensing the possibilities for a united Ireland they hold the whip hand in any negotiation.

This is why they’ve played so hard on marriage equality and the Irish language. The worst they could hope for was a humiliation of the DUP.

3. The imposition of direct rule from Westminster on the north of Ireland will trigger a great deal of pressure on the Irish government to defend minority interests in the north. With a veto over any deal for the UK over Brexit this is a perilous position for unionists.

It seems likely the Irish government will ask for joint authority. With the UK government’s capacity to actually govern deeply impaired by Brexit this may mean a gradual absorption of the north into an Irish political system and demos. This is the republican strategy and gets to a united Ireland without the need for a border poll.

4. This is an almost inevitable outcome of the Northern Irish electorate’s decision to polarise politics. Both unionists and nationalists gambled that they would win the peace – having concluded that they couldn’t win the war.

The era that started with the Civil Rights movement and ended with the power-sharing agreement had no clear winner. Both sides felt they had lost. This meant the political centre was ripped apart. The more moderate Ulster Unionist party and SDLP lost out to the DUP and Sinn Féin. That was a gamble for each side.

It looks like a gamble the unionists have lost.

How hard Brexit will play out

Today’s announcement that the UK will leave the EU Customs Union begins to crystallise the reality that will face us after Brexit.

Of course, there’s a real possibility that the contradictions with the agreement reached over the Irish border and the chaotic approach to Brexit will mean the UK doesn’t leave.

The aim of the right-wing Brexiters has always been to use Brexit to force a total renegotiation of the role of the state. That renegotiation will mean the removal of almost all protections for workers, for the environment and from corporate tyranny. Our society will become one run by a wealthy elite for their own enrichment.

There are other possible Brexit scenarios, but while the Tories remain in power, this will be the reality. Once we move from the ‘Goldilocks period’ of customs union access and an export-competitive currency onto WTO terms to trade with the rest of the world, there will be an immediate crash in our economy. Tariffs on exports will mean UK goods and services are undesirable, the tax receipts from manufacturing the City of London will collapse and there will be a crisis.

It is telling that at a time when UK goods are cheaper than in decades, and with single market access, there has been little rise in manufacturing exports to the rest of the EU.

Because trade deals can’t be negotiated quickly, the period between leaving the single market and having any trade deals in place will be used to asset strip the UK, and put the country in a position where it is desperate for access to other markets. This will mean any trade deal comes with the requirement to meet the lowest possible standards for workers, consumers and the environment.

The response could be a reorientation of the UK economy to meet domestic needs, while trade deals are negotiated. But it is more likely that the response will be the abolition of all working-age benefits, curtailment of pensioner benefits and a fire-sale of the remaining public assets. The NHS will be privatised, and become a fee-charging service. Schools will become a paid-for service, and charging will be introduced for all previously public services.

In order to rebuild the economy, all consumer protections will be removed, Trade Unions will be banned, and all workers rights repealed. The only way the UK will be able to compete internationally will be to remove all vestiges of a civilised society and effectively enslave the population. This is what the right Brexiters have always wanted.

Everyone with access to citizenship of other countries will leave the country.

It’s a nightmare scenario – but a Tory government that has always wanted to immiserate the population, and a scenario that makes this the easiest path, it seems inevitable that this is how Brexit will materialise.

Zimbabwe: the securocrat, not the kleptocrat

Over the past 3 months, the power struggle within Zimbabwe’s ruling ZANU-PF party has come to a head. On one hand. there was long-time lieutenant of Robert Mugabe, Emerson Mnangagwa, who has been vice-president since late 2014. On the other was Robert Mugabe’s second wife, and the mother of his living children, Grace Mugabe.

With Robert Mugabe approaching his 94th birthday and needing to go regularly to Singapore for medical treatment it was clear that this struggle couldn’t run for much longer. Since the poisoning of Mnangagwa at a ZANU-PF youth rally in August, it’s been clear that the end was near. On the 6th November Mugabe fired Mnangagwa. who fled the country. It looked like Grace had won.

On Monday the 13th November the head of the military Constantine Chiwenga (thought to be a long-term Mnangagwa ally) gave a press conference against Mugabe’s orders. He said that the military would act to stop a purge of veterans of the liberation struggle from the government. Last night the military put Mugabe under house arrest, while claiming that it wasn’t a coup. Mnangagwa re-entered the country.

It now seems that the succession in Zimbabwe will have Emmerson Mnangagwa become the next President, possibly initially as a de facto leader, but after next years election, almost certainly as President. I am assuming that ZANU=PF, the party from which Mnangagwa was recently expelled

This is a bad thing. From the massacre in Matabeleland in the 1980s (the Gukurahundi) to the economic collapse of the late 2000s, Mnangagwa has been at the heart of everything that has gone wrong with post-liberation Zimbabwe.
It is, though, a relief that this situation appears to have come to a head. The uncertainty has been catastrophic, and that damage multiplies the longer the uncertainty continues.

From the suspicious death of Josiah Tongogara in 1979 to the equally suspicious death of Solomon Mujuru in 2011 challengers to both Robert Mugabe and Emmerson Mnangagwa have often ended up dead. It’s not clear whether their deaths were murder, and if they were if it was Mugabe or Mnangagwa that ordered them.

But there was a thing that would have been worse than a Mnangagwa ascendency and that would have been the only realistic alternative: Grace Mugabe.

Where Mnangagwa is a securocrat, Grace Mugabe is a kleptocrat. It was clear that the state would move, under Grace, into a phase of unprecedented looting.
The military, the South Africans and the Chinese obviously decided that they couldn’t countenance a Grace presidency.

What we can hope is that Mnangagwa’s experience gives him an appreciation of the need for a focus on development and a consensus about the importance of investment in basic human services in Zimbabwe. We must hope that Mnangagwa’s experiences of the end of Mugabe’s time open him to such an approach.

I’m apprehensive about the future, but that apprehension is tinged with relief that it seems Grace Mugabe won’t become President. I hope the next chapter can be a better one for Zimbabwe.

The end of a long-running succession battle within ZANU-PF should resolve the uncertainty that has haunted Zimbabwe since the early 2000s. The question is what comes next?

Neoliberalism began on the 11th of September. Now it’s time to end it.

People love stories that have a beginning, a middle and an ending. On this day, the 11th of September, in 1973 the CIA backed a coup that overthrew the democratically elected Popular Unity government of Chile.
 
It wasn’t new for the US to overthrow governments in what it saw as its ‘sphere of influence’ – in which it wished to prevent the election of leftist governments. Chile had one such government. It had a manifesto to tackle inequality through agrarian reform and by nationalising industries.
 
This was intolerable to the US government who backed a coup. The coup was bloody and brought a military dictator, Augusto Pinochet to power. His notoriously murderous regime governed well into the 1980s.
 
But the story that begins here isn’t that of US imperialism. It’s the story of neoliberalism. For the first time, the US government provided Chicago University trained economic advisors to a country who pursued a policy programme of privatising state monopolies, introducing the market into previously social relationships, removing protections from workers, driving down wages, reducing social security and allowing vast accumulation of riches by the wealthy.
 
For all that the state was a dictatorship, the neoliberal ideologues claimed it was a democracy because the market determined more and more of how society worked.
 
This way of working came to dominate Chile, and after the fall of the Soviet Union, it came to dominate the world. For a decade neoliberalism came to be the way the world worked. Progress meant privatisation, removal of social and environmental protections and the introduction of the market to places where it doesn’t belong: health, education and social protection.
 
And the more the wealthy accumulated money, the more they sought new places to make money. They captured governments. The market extended its tentacles ever further. Innovation became harnessed by big finance. Politics became a choice between different approaches to managing the exhaust fumes of the free market, in which new ideas all too often suffocated.
 
The middle of this story also starts on the 11th of September. In 2001 the well-documented attack on the World Trade Centre in New York. This attack was carried out by a terror group based in Afghanistan. The US again toppled a regime. But with a President backed heavily by the interests of the oil industry, Afghanistan was only a prelude.
 
In 2003 the US, backed by the UK, invaded Iraq. And the invasion of Iraq marked the peak of neoliberal power. It was an utter failure, bought at the expense of authority and trust in government. When, in 2008, the financialised world economy suffered a shuddering credit crunch, neoliberalism’s decline began.
 
Everything that has happened since then has been a symptom of neoliberalism’s crisis. The old certainties have melted into air. Establishment politicians have been beaten by insurgents in election-after-election. Space has opened for new ideas and new politics.
 
The end of this story is yet to come. But it will surely come soon. As Salvador Allende, the Chilean President killed by the CIA, famously said: “history is ours and history is made by the people.” Neoliberalism will be finally overthrown, and we will overthrow it.

It is time for Civil Society to seize the opportunities technology offers to transform society

I wrote this for the Independent Inquiry into Civil Society Futures, and it first appeared on their blog here

In the late 19th century, as the industrial revolution came to maturity, an extraordinary system emerged to address the health needs of industrial workers. In Tredegar, south Wales, a hospital sick pay and insurance system was so effective that Nye Bevan took it as the model for the NHS.

Scotland became the first society in the world to have mass literacy as a result of the Church of Scotland’s universal parish school system, created by order of the Privy Council in 1616. The Carnegie Fund for the Universities of Scotland meant that this extended to higher education in the early 20th century. The slightly hyperbolic claim that Scots invented the modern world has its basis in a string of inventions, from the pneumatic tyre to television, that emerged organically from a society that was better educated than any other.

Just as the Tredegar medical model was the prototype for the NHS at its creation in the 1940s, the Scottish Parish schools were signed over wholesale to the state in the 1870s, forming the basis of the Scottish education system.

Civil society, the voluntary sector, and public institutions outside government have created the conditions within which we are born, educated and die. As the world changed, so government took on many of these functions. But it was not government that pioneered social change during the industrial revolution and the 20th century.

And on the cusp of a new industrial revolution, it is disappointing that it’s difficult to point to similar innovation from civil society. As we reach a digital frontier there are few examples of institutional civil society using the new tools to transform the world in the way universal education or free health did in previous eras. There are some examples, and Nesta has been bringing together some of the best through itsDigital Social Innovation programme. Possibly most notable is Cancer Research UK’s crowdsourcing of cancer data analysis through its Citizen Science programme.

This matters because the ideological underpinning of much of digital innovation is totally at odds with the values of civil society. Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron have usefully characterised this as the Californian Ideology – a mix of individualism, techno-utopianism, libertarianism and neoliberalism. In his film “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace”, Adam Curtis points to the links between Silicon Valley capitalism and Ayn Rand’s ultra-libertarianism. So far, so far away from the communitarian and liberal aims of most civil society organisations. And that is reflected in the ‘real world’ manifestations of digital society – companies like Airbnb and Uber, who have business models that are a long way from those of civil society organisations and their attempts to build a fairer world.

There are a few examples of older not-for-profit organisations really reinventing how they do things in the context of modern tech: if we count Universities as Civil Society, then we we could look to how Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) may be the foundation of tertiary education in future. The Guardian, which is run by a not-for-profit trust, has also been at the forefront of digital development. The BBC iPlayer is also a leading innovation in the digital space.

And there are some significant not-for-profit digital organisations. Wikipedia has perhaps been the most successful, almost totally dominating the encyclopaedia business, and displacing a range of traditional, for-profit, organisations. Mozilla, which produces the Firefox web browser, is another digital leader. It is important to acknowledge that the open source software community operates very much within a civil society model, but while this is both important and has made huge impact, it is the creation of a new community. But these examples all stand out as exceptions. And what is most concerning is the gap created by civil society organisations not grasping the opportunities of the sharing economy.

But it is very difficult to identify any of the civil society actors that have historically used digital innovation, mobile apps and other opportunities to change the way we live our lives. Uber has changed how people travel, Airbnb how they holiday, and Facebook has profoundly reconstituted our social relationships. I would challenge readers to name a single civil society organisation which has made that sort of difference using technology.

This is important because technology offers massive opportunities that align perfectly with the values of civil society. Social networks used to be mediated through civil society. Now they are mediated by Silicon Valley corporations with a somewhat shaky understanding of privacy.

The core values of the internet are very close to the core values of civil society. Universal, free and open access to information, and the ability to connect to people around the world on the basis of shared values and interests are at the heart of the world civil society has always sought to bring into being.

To take a specific example, the voluntary sector came up with the idea for community transport. Using shared non-commercial buses, or private cars to help people get to the shops, hospital appointments or other services is a core activity for many voluntary organisations. It is a life-saver for many older people. But all too often it remains a person sitting at a phone coordinating lifts. Why wasn’t it a community transport provider that prototyped mobile-led lift sharing – rather than leaving it to Uber? Why didn’t the cooperative movement support taxi drivers to create their own app-led service, as the New Economic Foundation and Nesta are now doing in Bradford and Leeds?

I do not have the answers. But I do know that we need to start thinking about this – I suspect that digital ideas are all-too-often dismissed by civil society leaders as being peripheral to core business activities. There are access issues – not everyone has a smartphone – but these issues are receding rapidly as smart technology becomes cheaper. It needs to stop being a barrier to digital service delivery.

It’s interesting that those civil society institutions that have produced digital innovations are those that have financial security. The BBC has the license fee, paid by most viewers, which allowed time and resource to develop iPlayer. Universities have substantial reserves, and the capacity to produce MOOCs on their existing resources. The Guardian invested substantial amounts of its reserves in becoming a leader in online journalism. Voluntary organisations subsisting on donations and year-to-year grant funding from government will find it very much more difficult to be strategic.

If you wanted to organise a meeting about an issue in the past, you would have gone to a civil society organisation. These days, you use social networks. Many of the activities that campaign organisations used to coordinate have been disintermediated by Facebook and other social networks. There are opportunities here. The ease with which millennials used to join Facebook groups has transferred into a new enthusiasm for joining political parties – transforming the outcome of the UK’s 2017 general election on the way.

Leaders in civil society need to be more open to digital ideas. There needs to be investment available for those ideas – investing in the technology to make sure your organisation delivers on its objectives should be a priority. Most importantly, civil society has a vital role to play in shaping the values of a tech-rich society.

Civil society has the creativity, connections, and trust to transform our world. But we need to use the tools that can best achieve that task. And that will require really serious changes – not just in how we approach, appropriate and develop digital technologies, but in how civil society sees its role in the world. Imagine if the world’s dominant social network was committed to civil society values. Imagine if the deployment of civilian drones was to create social value, by transporting organs or blood rather than delivering books and CDs. Just think of the difference a genuine lift-sharing service could make to congestion and air pollution. It is time for the organisations with the position and resources to make these things happen to act.