If the free market is so great why don’t you go and live there?

Anyone advocating alternatives to free-market capitalism will soon find themselves challenged to back their beliefs by moving to a socialist country. When I was younger it was East Germany, I think it’s now North Korea. “If socialism is so great, why don’t you go and live in East Germany” articulates two things, firstly the failure of actually existing 20th century ‘socialism’, and the perceived hypocrisy of those advocating alternatives to the free market as a way of organising society.

But interestingly those who argue for the free market as a the way of organising society are strikingly reluctant to run their own businesses in these ways. When they do try to run companies on the principles of the free market, they fail.

This is exacerbated by the erasure of ways of talking about the world that aren’t about the free market. When we discuss how the world could work in different ways we have no vocabulary at either conceptual or linguistic level to describe alternatives to the free market.

But the fascinating thing about the free market is that it isn’t really the guiding principle of any of the big organisations whose leaders are its greatest cheerleaders. Almost every big corporation operates through information-rich planning processes.

Most don’t operate internal free markets, because they’re wasteful, inhibit innovation and promote damaging competition. In almost every circumstance they’ve been tried they result in gaming the system, rather than improved results.

It used to be the case that our economy was incredibly information-poor. When Chile tried economic planning in the 1970s they used telex in a fascinating experiment called Cybersyn. It didn’t really work.

But information technology is totally unrecognisable today, and could easily be deployed in developing economic plans in a way that was unimaginable in the 1970s. In fact, it’s this form of ‘information capitalism’ that made Google a trillion dollar company.

Sears, the US supermarket company, is probably the most notable corporate attempt at internal free markets. Sears filed for bankruptcy last year.

Yet we continue to use the free market as the sole guiding principle for our society. Time to think again.

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On doing referendums well – the way forward for Brexit?

For historical reasons we need not go into, Ireland requires agreement through a referendum every time the government signs a treaty. In 2008 Ireland rejected the Lisbon Treaty in a referendum. The Lisbon Treaty was a complex arrangement that changed the nature of the EU in a number of subtle ways. The referendum campaign was a farce. The then Taoiseach, Brian Cowan, admitted he hadn’t read the Treaty.

In the vote there was a narrow (53%-47%) victory for the “No” side. Which was embarrassing, and resulted in a second referendum (which resulted in a clear victory for the Yes side).

When Irish Labour became junior coalition partners in 2011, they wanted to change the constitution to create equal marriage. In a country that had been hostile to gay rights until the mid-1990s this was seen as difficult and controversial. A change to the constitution required a referendum, which was an even greater barrier than existed in other countries.

More out of fear than optimism the conservative Fine Gael-led government allowed the creation of a Citizens’ Assembly, which drew a roughly geographically and demographically balanced section of the Irish citizenry. These 100 people were charged with considering how equal marriage could be implemented.

The result was a national conversation about the changes that led to an extremely successful referendum. And successful not just because the right decision was reached. Successful because it received almost complete “losers’ consent” – those who lost haven’t sought to undermine the result.

Ireland isn’t good at referendums because its political culture is better than the UK’s. Ireland has simply worked out how to have a good referendum. We should learn from them.

A similar Citizens’ Assembly led to the legalisation of abortion last year in another referendum. And again there was almost universal losers’ consent.

The reason this works is that it allows thorough consideration of the proposal at hand, that isn’t susceptible to the sort of misunderstandings that so often dog public debate. And the creation of a consensus around the way forward offered by the Citizens’ Assembly paves the way for a successful referendum.

So now may be the time to have a Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit (like the one already undertaken by UCL Constitution Unit. It should be on a statutory footing and should consider the various ways forward, suggesting 2 or 3 to be put to a referendum (or preferendum) that might just gain the losers’ consent we need to get out of this mess.

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?”

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?