On Tolerance

I like to describe myself as a tolerant person. Not tolerant in terms of being patient with incompetence or having a high pain threshold, I tolerate difference. I have no problem with people thinking differently, looking differently or acting differently to the way I would (or at least the way I’d like to think I would). I think that tolerance of the differences between people is a fundamental part of any modern, humane society. I think many of the world’s problems could be solved if the starting point was tolerance and the next step was discussion. I’d like others to be tolerant of me in the same way that I am tolerant of them. Many are not.

“Conventional people are roused to fury by departure from convention, largely because they regard such departure as a criticism of themselves” – Bertrand Russell

It is not just religion that breeds intolerance and bigotry (although that is the largest driving force behind it in the modern world), uninformed ideology can also contribute, although many of the features of religion are present in fascism and communism and some would describe them as secular religions. There is an underlying force behind all of this, when people become divided on any grounds and the two sides become somehow ‘other’, it becomes all to easy for those in authority driving the divide to dehumanize the two sides, separating them still further. Humans are tribal by nature and putting people into boxes which suffice to summarise their entire character without any direct contact happens without any conscious effort. There are clear evolutionary benefits from this tribalism, being more wary of people who have less genetically in common with you is an obvious way of keeping you (and your close family) safe. People from other tribes who are not related to you will ‘look after their own’ first and if this means an action that is detrimental to your safety, so be it. Altruism towards people who you have less genetically in common with at the expense of those with whom you share more genetic material doesn’t work in evolutionary terms. It seems perfectly natural that when people are separated into groups, the feelings or needs of the group to which you belong become more important than those of another.

The easiest and I think most obvious way of combating the inherent tribalism within all of us is to cut it off at its source. The only reason people are ever seen as different or ‘other’ is because they are (but only in a geographic or social sense). Separating people of difference without encouraging a full and all-encompassing mixing (to avoid dilution and assimilation) is the theory behind multiculturalism, it doesn’t work and only serves to strengthen the feelings of difference. It has been tried in almost all major cities in Western Europe and many others around the world. When people are allowed to mix naturally without the fear of their own culture being in any way harmed or lessened by pressure from outside, the ignorance that exists between separate groups evaporates and the clear common ground that exists between all people regardless of race, culture or religion becomes apparent.

What exactly do we mean by tolerance? To some it may mean voting for a candidate who believes that homosexuality should not be illegal, to others it means smiling through gritted teeth while your son brings home his first boyfriend, while to others it means being the proud parent at your son’s gay wedding. Personally, to me tolerance means treating people in an equal way whatever difference they may have from you (or each other) to the point of ignoring the difference, not even noticing it. A person’s choice (or inherited genetic tendency) of lifestyle, should not be judged by the way it affects them but by the way it directly affects those around them, not in a ‘I don’t approve’ way but in a ‘their children aren’t safe’ or a ‘driving like that is dangerous’ way. Not doing what you would do in a given situation is not grounds for persecution, doing something that has negative affects on other people is. Maybe ‘acceptance’ is a better word to use but tolerance is the word in common usage on the subject so I’ll continue with that.

What are the limits of tolerance? Should I tolerate unlawful behaviour? Unethical practise? Cruelty?

No, these are not things I think anyone should tolerate. They all have a clear victim, all freedoms of action have a boundary around which stand the other members of society who could be affected by those actions. Granted there are many examples of ‘victimless crimes’ such as drug use but I don’t really want to get into the whole ‘legalise drugs’ issue. Suffice to say that in this piece I mean crimes that have a clear victim (I would include children of substance abusers in this category). Poor ethics are not constricted to the corporate world, we all know examples of religious leaders driving expensive cars and wearing designer suits, while the charities and causes they claim to support struggle with lack of funds (or no funding at all if they dare to break one of the requirements set down by the church). There are many examples of cruelty that are only permissible in law due to dietary restrictions, or bodily requirements placed on the religious. These actions are still cruel, whoever or whatever orders you to do them. Tolerance does not extend to allowing actions against an unwilling victim (I include all children in this) or to slaughter any animal in a way that causes any more than the bare minimum of suffering and for any reason other than necessary pest removal or food.

These are so far examples of toleration with regards to behaviour, what about tolerating intolerant thoughts and views?

Many people may disagree with me on this but I cannot allow the suppression of intolerant views to be more important than the freedom to express them. I do not believe that they are (or can ever be) correct or valid but for tolerance to be truly tolerant it must cover all members of society not just those who I agree with. It is only through frank and open discussion that the enemies of tolerance and freedom can be engaged, silencing one’s critics without exposition is a surefire way to encourage them, ensuring their continuance. Deconstructing and refuting their arguments in front of those they are attempting to convert in the most public forum possible is the only way to show people the falsity of their claims. The irony of the religious fanatic standing on a street corner screaming about the evils of free speech is not lost on me but it almost certainly is on him or her. However, tolerance of this sort is not really comparable to the tolerance spoken of above, if a person has views you do not agree with it is not only your right but also your duty (time and place allowing) to challenge them, point out any errors, inconsistencies and errors before expressing your own opinions and backing them up with the reasons you hold them and any evidence to support your claim. Just shouting ‘Shut Up You Nutter!’ before walking off without giving them the option of reply won’t convince anyone of anything other than your own intolerance and inability to accept criticism.

“I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it” – Voltaire

We all live here, in this now global society, it is no longer enough to peer through the once murky camera lens of a far away country, wondering how people could treat each other like that. Metaphorically walking by when one witnesses harassment, bullying or victimisation of any member of society be they part of a vulnerable minority or just unlucky enough to be surrounded by ignorant idiots is not an option anymore. It is only by standing up and confronting the peddlers of hate head on that we can start to build a world we would be proud for our children and grandchildren to live in.

We are not just members of society, we are society.

Thanks for reading

Rowan

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Far-Right Racists Are Just Fundamentalists With Western Names

Whether through the violent extremism of Anders Breivik or the legitimate democratic process used by Marine Le Pen, we are currently witnessing a groundswell in far-right feeling and actions throughout the populace of Western Europe. Many people here feel resentful of the immigrants who have arrived in the past few decades and the governmental policies that allowed them to do so.

I am not a fan of the term ‘far-right’, as it implies that ‘centre-right’ politicians are a little bit racist but not enough to be illegal and that ‘centre-left’ politicians are not. I would much rather the economic and social aspects of politics be separated from the labels ‘left’ and ‘right’. I would put myself on the right economically but the left socially, most people would class me as an economic and social liberal. The irony is that most politicians of the ‘far-right’ appeal to a voter base which is anything but right-wing economically. It is the poor and disenfranchised, those who feel they have more right to a share of a country’s wealth than those who have spent less time in their country who are voting for Geert Wilders. It is not the rich, be they industrialists, bankers, or sport stars that Nick Griffin is appealing to for votes, despite the popular opinion of the political spectrum and its ethnic grouping. The reactionary movements being seen throughout Europe are not ‘far-right’, they are racist and they work by appealing to the base instincts surrounding a fear of ‘otherness’. Lets not forget that the racist element in politics has always been there, as far back as you want to go populations were grouped according to ethnicity. The mass migrations started in the middle to the 20th century from the former colonies to Western Europe brought the general populace face to face with people from other cultures and the results have not always been positive as seen by the 1958 Notting Hill race riots and the rise of movements like the White Defence League, the National Front and the British National Party today. However, it is only in modern times that these types of organisations have become political parties of any note and not been generally supported by open violence against those who they perceive as ‘non-white’.

This is not just about religion or culture. Whereas in the past much talk of immigration was based on broadly ethnic grounds, with the immigrants arriving in a country being highly visible due to their different skin colour from the existing population, now much of the immigrant population is from within Europe, more specifically the EU. Despite the separation between the end of World War II and the late 1980s between East and West, much of Europe has a shared history with religious and cultural practises crossing national borders without impediment. Language and dietary tastes are often the only differences between immigrants from other European nations and the current residents. This has proven to be much more difficult for governments to deal with, the regulations within the EU allow for the free of movement of labour between member states, it is impossible to remain a member of the EU and restrict the movement of other member states’ citizens within one’s own borders. Politicians of mainstream parties have tried to tackle this issue by restricting numbers of immigrants from outside the EU but this has unintended consequences. Many of the immigrants seeking to come and work here from Asia or Africa are highly skilled graduates and therefore of obvious benefit to the economy but many unskilled workers also come illegally (or remain longer than legally allowed), changes to immigration policy alone will not solve this. The majority of immigration between EU member states happened during the boom the mid 2000s, when several former ‘Communist-Bloc’ nations were added,  before the financial collapse of 2008. Those most affected by this immigration were ‘blue-collar’ workers, especially labourers or skilled tradespeople, who found that their prices were often being undercut by the new migrants who had lower overheads by living communally or not having to support families. It is these people who find the appeal of the ‘far-right’ parties most powerful, although their feelings towards the immigrant population is not unlike that felt by the Luddites of the 19th century towards the mechanised working practises of the industrial revolution.

Some may see a correlation between the rise of the ‘far-right’ across Europe and the rise of fundamentalist Islamic ideologies throughout the world, especially among 2nd or 3rd generation immigrant muslims in Europe, as evidenced by the public transport bombings in Madrid and London following the invasion of Iraq. While it may be true that some have a ‘I hate them coz they hate us’ attitude, it should not be forgotten that the causes of fundamentalist ideological groups are almost identical to the causes of the ‘far-right’ political movements opposing them. The overriding fear of losing one’s way of life, feeling ostracised from your local or national community and a feeling of persecution by foreign powers can drive people to commit horrendous acts, as we have seen throughout history via revolutionary wars and the fall of colonialism. Whether those feelings are caused, in the modern world, by immigration, foreign policy or global capitalism, the effects are the same. People feel that the only way to maintain the way of life they enjoy or believe is ‘right’ is by violent opposition to any change, especially change proposed by or for the benefit of those who they see as ‘other’ or ‘different’ from themselves. This sentiment is evident currently in the French election campaign, with the Front National party led by Marine Le Pen pledging to virtually stop immigration and pull out of the single currency if elected, following the European parliament’s decision to limit member states’ budget deficits. These type of feelings are rooted in the fear of the unknown which is present in everyone but they are truly irrational. Why would the European parliament want to weaken the economy of an EU member state? Disagreeing with governmental policy is not the same as knowing they are ‘out to get you’, there is no ‘master plan’ of European ministers, socially engineering the nationality and culture out of all EU citizens, there are just people trying to do what they feel is right, trying to make the best of a bad financial situation.

I think the current economic situation is highly relevant to this situation, with people not only having less spending power due to wage inflation lagging behind the increases in the cost of living, help that people previously had from public bodies is decreasing due to the lack of available funds. The perceived injustices created by the myths perpetrated by certain sections of the media (immigrants do not, for example get preferential treatment in social housing) that could be tolerated during times of plenty, have come to a head with many people believing that allowing people from poorer countries to live and work here is not only an affront to those born in their country of residence but that it is also a major factor in the privations now being felt. That many immigrants work jobs often unwanted by the local population into which they move, continue to pay taxes while being unable to access the benefits afforded to those who are work-shy or benefit dependant seems to be regularly ignored.

How then, to solve the problems (if you see them as problems, which I do) of the feelings causing this divisive drive?

“I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better”
 – Abraham Lincoln

There is a difference, in my opinion, between diversity and multiculturalism. Diversity does not affect how people interact with each other, it is the objective aim of good governmental policy, rather than the policy itself. Multiculturalism, is the governmental policy that has failed in this aim. It is the policy of preserving individual cultures by keeping them separate from each other, ghettoising whole communities, forcing them to become even more insular. In a diverse, cosmopolitan city such as London, multiculturalism can never work because the density of the population forces some overflow into the surrounding areas but with multiculturalism still at the heart of much local and national government policy, it can only ever happen at the fringes. This causes resentment as people see their neighbours change and now living in ‘white’ or ‘British’ pockets feel isolated and resentful towards their new neighbours, who they feel are ‘swamping’ the area and the new residents turn to what they know, their own culture, exacerbating the problem. As is so often the case, education would appear to be a solution on many levels. If a person from an immigrant background becomes educated, they often want more from their lives than can be offered by staying in the areas the grew up in, driving them to integrate fully into wider society. This is also the case with those at risk of becoming ‘far-right’ sympathisers or even voters. Sadly this does not happen often enough.

This does not mean I want the whole of Europe to become some kind of huge homogenous cultural and ethnic blob with no differences between people but that with experience of other people comes understanding. I wouldn’t want to go back to 1950 when shops didn’t sell pasta or rice, nobody knew what a curry was or how to hold chopsticks and the closest most people got to another country was the seaside. Nor should you.

Thanks for reading

Rowan

You May Not Believe Climate Science But You Cannot Deny The Economics

There seems to be a choice of 3 opinions one can take on the Climate Change/Global Warming debate. Firstly one can choose to deny the existence or validity of any evidence that shows the global trend of rising average temperatures. The second position seems to be one of acknowledging the rising temperatures but dismissing the idea that it could be in any way ‘man-made’. The third position is one of acceptance of near-universal scientific consensus, that the world is getting warmer and its our (collective) fault. There is a fourth position of believing the climate science but not caring enough to do anything about it but this is really just a form of denial without having to deal with the arguments, outright denial or just looking the other way often end up with the same results, that of having to deal with far larger problems, far quicker and more expensively than would have been the case had they been confronted at the first opportunity.

There are probably a number of motives for the denial evidenced in the first two opinions listed above. These vary from religious to financial but all appear rooted in the human disposition of being opposed to change of any sort. One can be opposed to changes in the global climate but that will not stop them happening. It is interesting that those who deny the often overwhelming scientific evidence for climate change will often point to other scientific evidence for previous changes in the global climate, accepting only the evidence they like to hear, not unlike the ‘independent’ studies into the links between smoking and cancer in the 1950s. There is a huge amount of industrial capital invested in fossil energy sources, not just by us in the West but globally, being told that we need to change our cultural dependence is unsurprisingly distressing. It is also reasonable that those with the most to lose would want to make absolutely certain that change is necessary before it is effected. However, misleading the public with lies and bullying politicians into doing things they know will have negative long-term consequences for their citizens are not actions that can be tolerated. The media has a lot to answer for this, the traditional media debate pitches two opposing views against each other to argue their points, leaving the audience to make up their own mind with some sort of compromise. Little weight is given to the scientific strength of each of the opponents, even if 99% of scientists are sure of one side of the argument, the audience are presented with a view that both opinions are equal, this may be fine in political debate but more emphasis needs to be given to scientific backing in debates about public policy that is based on scientific evidence.

Imagine that there was no scientific evidence to support the claims made by proponents of Climate Change. Imagine the world was not warming and global weather patterns were not changing. We do know that the world as a whole is getting richer and our lives are becoming more and more automated with every passing year. Labour saving devices in the home and workplace save our biological energy but cost in the form of electricity and are becoming an ever more important part of people’s lives throughout the world. Add to that the increasing burden of travel, caused by the people wanting to travel to ever more exotic locations for their holidays or having to travel ever further for work and the energy demands of the world show no signs of abating in the near future. The fossil fuels available to us are a finite resource, despite new options for extraction being opened up in Arctic waters (ironically by Climate Change itself) the increase in demand is far faster than the increase in supply. Any basic economic model will indicate that where demand exceeds supply, prices will rise and when the supply is limited by finite resources rather than expandable manufacturing capacity, prices will continue to rise until they become unaffordable. This is a process currently underway, the diesel I put in my van costs nearly £1.50 a litre ($10.80/gallon) and despite the restriction of supply caused by the current political problems in the Middle-East, a real-terms fall in global energy prices is not likely in the near future. The current stretch on supply chains means there is no slack in the system so any disruption causes massive peaks in the oil price. Any medium term increase in supply by drilling in ever more hazardous environments is likely to be more than offset by not only the increased demands from the developing world but also the massively increased costs of extraction from oilfields found in very deep or very cold locations. Not to mention the heightened risks associated with these types of drilling techniques, both to the local ecology and the workforce.

Home energy bills continue to rise faster than inflation and fuel poverty (more than 10% of household income spent on home energy bills) has become a significant problem in Britain yet popular opinion still seems to resist the idea of energy efficiency in the home, with political pressure pushing for tighter controls on the prices charged by energy companies and the high initial costs of renewable sources being cited as ‘prohibitive’ to their widespread implementation. LED lighting is expensive to install but costs less in the long-term, is this any different from buying a house rather than renting? We seem to be waiting until the energy bills we pay are so high the payback on installing PV cells or wind turbines are almost immediate. All the while certain elements are releasing negative and untrue stories to the media about the longevity and maintenance costs of the technology used in the harnessing of these energy sources.

The fundamentals of my argument boil down to this:

Fossil fuel energy is getting more expensive due to supply and demand issues, who do you think will be best prepared for the future? The state who makes sure its citizens have full access to oil until the final drop has been extracted while refusing to invest in new technology to use the various ‘free’ sources available to them, or encouraging its citizens to use energy in a more responsible way? Or, the state who begins a gradual shift from fossil to renewable sources as early as possible, while reducing the overall demand on energy supply by educating its citizens in the benefits of energy efficiency?

Even if you are a Climate Change ‘denier’ or ‘sceptic’, your bills will continue to rise. You may not wish to change the way you live but it will cost you more if you do not. I may dislike the raised costs of precious metals and could choose to deny their scarcity but like Cnut, the will of a person cannot hold back the tide.

Thanks for reading

Rowan

Both the UN and Al-Assad are the Enemies of the Syrian People

We have today witnessed the first cracks from within the core of the ruling Ba’ath party in Syria, with the resignation of the deputy oil & mineral wealth minister Abdo Hussameddin. More importantly, he has not merely resigned because of the regime’s brutal oppression of the rebels, he has chosen to side with the revolutionary forces in their cause and questioned the legitimacy of a regime whose grip on power can only be maintained by overwhelming force and even reported massacres of dissidents.

The significance of this action remains to be seen. Will we see a domino effect of Al-Assad opponents from within the regime switching sides? Or will the inevitable destruction of Abdo Hussameddin’s property and persecution of his family be enough to keep quiet any dissenting voices within the party?

As yet, all those switching sides have been from within the armed forces, mostly from lower ranks, the political power base has remained steadfast in its opposition to the popular uprising seen in some cities. In the Arab and North African regimes that have fallen so far; Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, the regimes found it difficult to maintain internal support from ministers and the military, handing the revolutionary forces priceless political capital and legitimacy in the eyes of the external world. If those closest to the leader desert, it becomes near impossible for any outside observer to remain neutral in a civil or revolutionary war. A dictator who can only rely on the support of his overpaid generals cannot be granted any degree of legitimacy by the world when an active opposition movement is in progress. This is why the latest political development in Syria could prove to be so significant. Without the internal support from his party, the backing given to Al-Assad from the permanent UN Security Council members of China & Russia becomes ever more farcical. For now, they can hide behind the maxims of ‘stability’, ‘security’ and ‘opposition to regime change’, safe in the knowledge that, having learnt painful lessons in Iraq and Afghanistan, both Nato and the Arab League have no desire for active military intervention in a country with a strong, if hugely unpopular, governing regime and no stable political opposition.

It remains one of the aspects of modern humanity that I find most abhorrent. Our inability to act in a supportive, coherent manner to stop known acts of genocide in foreign countries is, for me, evidence of how far humanity has to left to go before we can call ourselves truly humane. Be it in Rwanda, Chechnya, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Sudan, Sierra Leone or Syria, the facts that those affected are ‘not like us’ or ‘far away’ has no bearing on the suffering endured. This is not the middle of the 20th century, no-one in the outside world knew of the atrocities committed in German death camps during WW2 or the forced labour camps in Kampuchea (Cambodia) until well after the events, there was no opportunity to prevent them in action. Now the information and communication technology exists to make the world aware of what is happening almost instantaneously. Even when the incumbent government shuts down communication networks, getting an arresting grip on the slippery multi media messages coming out from any conflict zone is now impossible, some will always squeeze out. To what end? So politicians can sit around for months debating ‘sanctions’ and ‘non-lethal aid’ or ‘peace-keeping missions’. Even these insipid measures take months if not years to occur, yet when they do they achieve nothing. The records are littered with cases of victims being murdered in clear view of UN soldiers with no fear of reprisal because of the pathetic terms of engagement given to the soldiers, in some cases not even allowed to return fire when engaged.

Please don’t mistake me for a war-monger. I am always opposed to unnecessary military conflict, it is the inability of the international community to reach a consensus on a positive course of action that I find so frustrating. It is clear to all what is wrong, we all know it must be stopped. It is not so much the wrong action we need be so scared of, no action in these instances is the worst course. Iraq is not to be seen in this way, Saddam Hussein was, despite his reputation, not in the active process of eliminating whole sections of society opposed to his rule. He may have been portrayed as a threat to democracy but this was not, in my opinion, enough to justify his removal.

I do not want any military intervention in Syria but I do think the international community could do far more to prevent further violence. It is understandable that China & Russia would want to stop the UN preventing the brutal oppression of a dissenting of rebellious movement, after all they want to be able to continue to do the same to their own domestic opposition. It is the construct of the UN Security Council that is to blame. Too much emphasis is placed in universal consensus and power invested in vetoes by the permanent members. One of the purposes of the UN is to prevent rogue states from doing as they please without repercussions. If a dictator knows that getting China or Russia onside grants you the equivalent of immunity from prosecution, why would they worry? It is the overly hierarchical bureaucracy of the UN that slows its effectiveness, it is democratic compromise rather than universal endorsement or veto that will affect a solution to worldwide problems.

None of what I write can help the people suffering on the ground in Syria, my blogging is just another part of the diplomatic waffling that only serves to lengthen the process of helping the victims. Until people start to realise that not only are all the people of the world deserving of a basic standard of living, that not only should the leaders of other countries opinions be equal but also that their own opinion is of no more import than that of any others will the principles behind the founding of the UN be truly implementable.

Hopefully, the Al-Assad regime will realise the futility of their current position and start a strategic withdrawal from power without foreign military intervention but I fear there will be much more blood spilt before then. This blood will be on the hands of all politicians and political lobbyists around the world who believe that their opinion is, because of their financial or military power, more valid than any others who disagree.

I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.

 Voltaire

Thanks for reading

Rowan

Economic Sanctions Will Not (And Cannot) Work In Iran.

The aftermath of the “1st Gulf War” of the early 1990s was the first time I remember hearing the phrase “Economic Sanctions”, which were to be used against the Ba’athist regime in Iraq, with the intention of pressurising the then dictator, Saddam Hussein into cooperation with UN weapons inspectors. At that time I was in my early teens with a still highly idealised and polarised world view, the cold war with its threat of nuclear oblivion was still fresh in the collective memory and the modern financial superpowers of China, India and their smaller neighbours were still thought of as stagnant economic backwaters. The continued dominance of Western industrial imperialism seemed unstoppable, communism had fallen in almost all of Eastern Europe and the devastating military power of NATO had just been in evidence. It seemed to us that the only way to power and success was by working with the West, that fighting was futile and could only postpone the inevitable fall. The political opinion of the time (having just witnessed the events following the fall of the Berlin Wall) was that large-scale military conflict would be no longer necessary, that external political pressure and internal civil unrest would be the modern, safer (for the West) and cheaper (for the West) way to wage regime changing wars. It was on this background that economic sanctions were proposed and agreed against Iraq. Knowing that the Iraqi economy was (and still is) highly dependant on the export of crude oil to the Western powers who would be implementing the sanctions, the collective opinion in the UN was that Saddam Hussein would be forced to cooperate with the weapons inspectors or risk losing power completely in a violet coup d’état brought on by the impoverishment of the civilian population.

As we know, this is not how it happened.

While it is unquestionably true that economic sanctions on a country such as Iraq in the 1990s can and often do have the effect of reducing their power on the world stage by crushing the financial muscle available to them and driving their economic development backwards, the supposition that this is probable or even likely to lead to inevitable rebellion and regime change is at best questionable. Crippling the economy of a rebel state may make its leader unpopular with its population but the financial losses imposed upon Iraq led to a humanitarian crises with a disputed but huge number of children and vulnerable adults dying or being severely affected by malnutrition and a lack of both clean water and medical supplies (between 200,000 and 500,000 child deaths), the per capita yearly income in Iraq fell from over $3,500 to less than $450 in the years leading up to 1996. The outside world was not unaffected by the suffering caused by the sanctions and various UN resolutions were passed allowing Iraq to trade crude oil in return for humanitarian aid. However, while much aid was bought using this system, it all had to come through centralised government agencies, further strengthening the dictator’s control over his people and making civil unrest (let alone open rebellion) nearly impossible. Without Saddam Hussein’s blessing, the populace of many areas would have starved to death, they were simply not strong enough to even consider a popular uprising. The sanctions had not just failed in their attempts to get Iraq to tow the line and cooperate with the UN resolutions, they had caused millions of ordinary Iraqis pain, misery and suffering, while further reinforcing the vice like grip Saddam held over the country.

Now the new fear, as perceived by Western governments, is the proliferation of nuclear armaments spreading to Iran, a volatile theocracy openly opposed to “Western Imperialism” and the state of Israel (also a nuclear power). This opposition is not without cause, the Western backed Shah of Iran was openly put in place following the nationalisation of the country’s petroleum industry by a democratically elected government. The Shah went on to be increasingly autocratic and brutal becoming ever more unpopular until the islamic revolution of 1979. Western governments have almost all been unilaterally opposed to the government in Tehran since this time and mistrust of Western governmental policy has become embedded in the political structure of the country. Despite Iran’s protestations that their nuclear programme is wholly for civilian purposes, it is widely recognised throughout the international community that the level of uranium enrichment being pursued could easily result in the manufacture of weaponry; combined with the use of Iran’s domestically produced missiles, a large number of countries could theoretically become vulnerable to attack.

However, despite the continued hostility of the Iranian government towards the West, when asked (in confidence) many citizens will express a belief in the re-establishment of diplomatic relations with the US. The general population in large Iranian cities like Tehran live highly modernised lifestyles, compared to the states surrounding them (due mostly to revenues provided rom state oil exports) and have much more political and expressive freedom than most islamic states (partly due to the differences between Shiite & Sunni attitudes to discussion). Contrast this to Pakistan (a current nuclear power) where scenes of celebration following the September-11-2001 attacks were broadcast worldwide, large sections of the country are under tribal rule and corruption is rife throughout both the military and political establishments. It is however, a democracy which, although unstable, has a stated (though not always actioned) aim of aiding Western military forces in their pursuit of the Taliban and other religious fundamentalist and fanatical organisations hostile to Western involvement in Islamic politics.

We have recently seen various military maneuvers in and around the strait of Hormuz both by the Iranians demonstrating that they could close it and the Americans showing that they could keep it open. Given the stated Iranian military aim of deterrent rather than engagement and the American desire to sustain stability in the region I don’t believe that this posturing and flexing of muscles is likely to come to anything more than slightly heightened tensions between neighbours. The idea that an Iranian nuclear weapon would be used as any more than almost all have them have ever been used for (a deterrent) I find equally implausible. The Iranian government may be theocratic but they are not suicidal. Neither are they genocidal, whatever you might hear in loaded news reports. The only overtly aggressive statement to come out of Tehran in recent years was the highly dubious Farsi translation of a speech by President Ahmadinejad when he appeared to predict the elimination of the Israeli government, although he did not say how or when. Given that the president is not the “Supreme Ruler” and the verbally belligerent yet reluctantly pragmatic approach normally taken by such states in foreign affairs, a nuclear Iran could well be a stabilising influence on the region to counterbalance the military and diplomatic power of Israel.

It should also not be forgotten that nearly 60% of all Iran’s exports go to China, India, Japan and South Korea, not Europe and North America. With these figures set to rise as the Eastern economies grow more rapidly than their Western counterparts, stricter restriction on oil exports to the West will most likely result in strengthening bonds between Iran and the Far East, further loosening any controlling influence Western governments may feel they have in the region.

It is my belief that only by engaging with states like Iran on an equal diplomatic basis rather than treating them like errant teenagers needing to be ostracised from the community can stability, peace and equitable, sustainable development be achieved, not just in the Middle East but throughout the world. I do not mean in a Kissinger “Realpolitik”, condescending way just to deal with them because one has to. Treating another’s opinions or values as equal and as valid as yours is fundamental to a belief in democracy and free speech. Persuasion and debate through the use of evidence are the only tools needed here, not intimidation and coercion with threats of force. We should not be surprised if others are offended and defend themselves aggressively if they perceive us as aggressors trying to change them forcibly, if we listen we’ll probably see that most of us want the same things in life, just wrapped up a little differently.

Thanks for Reading

Rowan

Can Assad Hold Back The Arab Spring Tide In Syria?

More than a year since the start of the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ it has become clear that the predicted collapse of the numerous dictatorships throughout North Africa and the Middle East will not be happening at the pace some had hoped. It certainly has not happened in the same way the former communist bloc in Eastern Europe changed in the years following the fall of the Berlin Wall. With hindsight, it is clear why this could not have been the case. Almost all (Yugoslavia excepted) of communist Europe relied heavily on the central authority of Moscow for military, security and financial support, as was shown by the responses to various popular uprisings in the 1950s and1960s, most notably Hungary in the Autumn of 1956. This created an atmosphere of mistrust among the citizens of the country, with the state feeling no need to curry popular support from any section of society. With the start of Perestroika in the USSR during the middle to late 1980s, the governments of Eastern Europe were left with an empowered populace determined to change the status quo and little state power to prevent them. This has not been the story in North Africa and the Middle East. There is no single dominant central power dictating and enforcing policy in the region, much of the income of the region is dependant on the export of natural resources to foreign markets (most notably crude oil) rather than heavy industry, tending to empower an autocratic despot still further by not relying on near full employment levels for economic stability. The history of European communism since the death of Stalin seems to suggest that ruling by committee without an unchallengeable tyrant was the government of choice (Yugoslavia & Romania excepted), this gives greater stability when the state is strong by spreading the strain or pooling resources and loyalties but once cracks appear under severe pressure, the lack of a central authority figure for those in power to gather around can lead to further rifts and fragmentation, possibly precipitating governmental collapse.

However, the overriding factors in the success or fall of governments under popular revolt seem to be:

  1. Does the current government accept there must be a change and will they go without being forced?
  2. Has the current government lost control of the military?
  3. Do the rebels have adequate resources to fight or do they have any outside (foreign) aid?

When we look at this list in this order and compare them with the list of states to have had successful rebellions in the ‘Arab Spring’ and the order in which they fell (Tunisia, Egypt, Libya) we can see that as soon as a ‘no’ answer appeared to a question, the government fell. It may seem fairly obvious that if the government has no will or resources to hod on to power they will lose it but it is also quite unusual for those in power to relinquish it easily and not to have contingencies in place to support them, especially within the military.

Clearly, Syria has not reached any of these points yet. Assad will not go anywhere willingly and excepting a few deserters, the majority of the armed forces are still under his control. The international community is wary of supporting a dispersed and disorganised rebel army whose leadership, power and political polices are largely unknown. Currently, the situation appears to be unwinnable for both sides, the uprising is too powerful, numerous and widespread to be crushed by Assad and his government forces but without outside assistance the rebels have little chance against a trained, organised and well equipped army. The current trend in the international community is to look for a peaceful solution based on government reform and more popular representation. However, many of the diplomats pushing these ideas are from The ‘Arab League’, whose membership consists of states who are (in the most part) dictatorships. Clearly instability in the region is bad for all of them but the thought that another of their number could fall victim to a revolutionary movement that still threatens them must surely be a worry. It is stability and peace that concern them, not liberty and justice.

In Libya, the geography and demography of the country made rebel support fairly simple and almost risk free. Almost all the population centres and military installations are near the coast, using modern aircraft carriers and battleships to provide air support for the rebel fighters proved an effective way of removing a largely unpopular dictatorship without the use for ground troops. This could not happen in Syria. With many of the population centres far inland and at altitude, effective air support for untrained guerilla fighters would prove difficult and would be unlikely to succeed without providing active ground troops to support the rebel forces. Given the close political links between Syria and Iran and the incredible worldwide unpopularity of the war in Iraq, ground troops are really not a viable option.

Nor should they be. One of the major failures of Western foreign policy in recent years has been the underlying belief that governments in the developing world should be encouraged, coerced or cajoled into running their economies for the benefit of us rather than their own citizens. The conviction that what is good for them cannot be good for us and vice versa is a long-held misconception that is prevalent in the corridors of power throughout the Western world. The conservative short-termism implicit in this belief is undeniable. Flourishing, developed economies need partners to trade with, the more equal or near-equal trading partners you have the stronger you will all be. Imposing Western-dependant governments, even if those governments are democratically elected, in countries like Iraq or Afghanistan is not a long-term solution. Propping-up pro-Western despots like the Shah in Iran or Mubarak in Egypt may provide temporary stability but only at the expense of long-tem development. Allowing (Egypt) or enabling (Libya) the citizens of a country overthrow their own government and giving them the choice to run their state affairs for their own benefit is the only long-term solution. Much of the political and religious instability and fanaticism throughout the region could be tempered and moderated by fair and equitable development. Treating them as political equals rather than noisy, troublesome peasants who deserve to be tricked into selling their prized assets on unfair terms will only exacerbate the ill-feeling towards the West many of these people feel.

It’s not the decadent, modern lifestyle that we lead that leaves many Arabs feeling resentment towards us. You only have to look at the popularity of many aspects of Western culture and technology throughout the region to see that. Its our arrogant belief that only we deserve it.

Thanks for reading

Rowan

All comments are welcome, I’ll try to answer as many as I can.

Is there an alternative to Capitalism?

Am I the only one getting thoroughly sick and tired of the protesters in front of St Paul’s Cathedral? I get their point, they think life in a capitalist system is unfair and should be made more fair. Yeah great, any suggestions about what a better system than capitalism is? No? What a fucking surprise.

The Church of England is not, at least in principle, in favour of huge profits by either individuals or corporations (except themselves, they do have a large portfolio of stocks in the FTSE). When stopped by the police from entering the London Stock Exchange, the protesters decided to block the entrance to probably the only organisation in the local area not wholly obsessed with profit at any cost. A bit of a PR coup really, even if it was an accident, as the general public are more likely to care about the obstruction of a church of a god than a church of money. One major thing they seem to have overlooked (a fact which seems to be overlooked by most modern protesters) is the provision of a viable alternative.

In 2003 when many people marched throughout Europe to show their displeasure with the planned invasion of Iraq, the alternative was to not invade. Whatever your personal views on the invasion, not invading was always a valid option and was given as the chosen alternative by the protesters in that movement. In more recent times, many protests have been due to economic circumstances. From university tuition fees to public sector pensions, today’s protesters all seem to have the same message. “It’s not fair” and not much else other than to say that another way should be found. This is not an alternative, none of the major political parties have viable options due to the current hamstrung nature of the public purse, there simply isn’t enough money in the treasury for students or public sector employees to be given special treatment anymore. All that seems to come out of the current protest camps are a variety of ways of telling us “it’s not fair”, “it” being capitalism or at least life under a capitalist system. I have yet to hear anyone give a viable alternative or to even explain what they mean by “capitalism”. As far as I can make out, it was the removal of knowledge in the marketplace by obscuring the products for sale that caused much of the financial distress being seen now.

Imagine a farm produce wholesale marketplace. All the producers have their wares on show and you are free to barter with them for the prices you will be prepared to pay. You can see and touch the produce, you can tell the quality and know what it will be worth to you once purchased. However, as time goes by some producers start to pre-package their products, making it very difficult to tell the quality of the goods before purchase. Not only that but you cannot even open the box after purchase because you will be re-selling it on to another dealer with the eventual owner only knowing the quality when it is too late to do anything about it, you only have the word of the producer to go on for any knowledge as to the quality of the product. With no checks on the producers, is it any wonder this modern-day version of Jack’s magic beans economics failed? Whatever anyone tells you, this is not capitalism. Blocking the workings of Adam Smith’s invisible hand by making the marketplace opaque not only prevents free access to the markets by those who do not understand the jargon or etiquette of the stock exchange, it limits the scope of the free market system. Poor products will not sell well at a fish market, why should their stocks rise in the FTSE? True capitalism may be inherently unstable and volatile but as long as transparency is maintained, long-term rises in stocks with no worth (and slow falls in valuable stocks) will be kept to a minimum. It is not less capitalism that is the solution, it is more freedom, transparency and accountability in the marketplace that can return us to economic growth.

Whatever you hear the protesters say, we are all better off in many ways than our parents generation. They in turn were better off than their parents and so on. This is not only in terms of material consumer goods such as cars or televisions (although many of these, such as washing machines or dishwashers, could be said to have improved the lifestyles of their users) but also in terms of working hours and conditions (including paid holiday, much safer working practices and conditions, minimum wage etc), higher life expectancy both in terms of quantity and quality (retirees going on activity holidays would have been unheard of decades ago) and also in the education and freedom of career choice available to the modern school/university leaver. In the early part of the last century many men and indeed children worked in mines, dangerous factories and other industrial sites. Regardless of the education received at your local school, you where unable to choose a career, it was provided by the local works, you did what your father did, you were unskilled and could work nowhere else, hence the fear felt by many of these communities when the global market made many of these works unprofitable and left them out of work. Instead of seeing the opportunity provided by these closures, many sought in vain to stop them by protest, making the situation for their communities worse. Embracing the changes in the modern world and changing with it, rather than fighting to hold back the tide, is the only way forward today. We can all be better off by using the free market to better our own situations, trying to halt globalisation can only work against you, resulting in you been left behind those who have chosen to press forward into modernity.

The only examples of non-capitalist policies given by the current protesters that I have heard have included using co-operative banks or shopping at The John Lewis Partnership. These companies exist inside the capitalist system not outside and are subject to all the same forces, unless you force people to run companies in this way, many will not choose them. Given that many of these people seem to not be in full-time employment (or at least don’t have to go to a permanent place of work every weekday), they shop at John Lewis & Waitrose and use banks which are more expensive to the users than most on the high street, I presume they are not those most at risk from the ravages of this inhumane capitalist system. Without the modern economic booms of the late 1980s and early 2000s I doubt if many of them would be in a situation to afford to protest in this way.

The continual flow of population from states with restrictive economic policies to those with higher levels of economic freedom is evidence enough that living in these kind of nations is not popular with those who have no choice in the matter. From Cuba to the former Soviet Bloc to South-East Asia, the general populace have never been happy to live under repressive, far-left regimes. Fully socialist or communist states have never been (and can never be) maintained inside democratic systems, people will always want more freedom to choose.

Scandinavian countries so-called social-democractic polices are often touted as a kind of “3rd way” in between the extremes of capitalism and socialism. The results of their policies are plain for all to see: high GDP, high human development index scores and low Gini coefficient all sound almost too good to be true. There are however certain factors which have helped them (especially Norway & Sweden). Being generally sparsely populated, often mountainous and forested has given them easy access to sustainable timber, hydro-electric & geo-thermal power, iron-ore and other minerals. Fertile fishing grounds and the discovery of North Sea oil & gas when combined with their relatively low population have also helped boost their ability to fund large welfare states, resources that are simply not available in the levels required to most Western European states. Restrictive immigration policies (until recently) and a lack of former imperial colonies contributed to high levels of social homogeneity. This, combined with some of the freest movement of labour in Europe (hiring and firing is surprisingly easy for such ‘left-wing’ governments) has hindered the abuse of the welfare state so often seen in this country. Other than high tax rates and some nationalised industries, their economies are free-market based with emphasis on foreign exports of both natural resources and high-end technology. High levels of population density, a relative scarcity of natural resources and a pre-existing welfare dependency culture mean that these models cannot be copied into the UK wholesale and although there are aspects that could be adopted they would, despite their long-term benefits, be expensive to implement and would increase the expense of government borrowing in the short-term.

In both the long and short-term, I can see no viable alternative to free-market economic policy. It remains to be seen how much state intervention is necessary or desirable to maintain (or start) growth and prosperity while continuing our inevitable progress toward human health and happiness. My own feelings are that people and companies should be left to trade as best they can with as little government intervention as possible. Laws and policies that ensure free trade and equality of opportunity can, in my opinion, only ever be good but laws that restrict these freedoms should always be avoided.

“It is not the creation of wealth that is wrong, but the love of money for its own sake.”
 
“No one would remember the Good Samaritan if he’d only had good intentions; he had money as well.”
 
“There can be no liberty unless there is economic liberty.”
 
– Margaret Thatcher
 
 
Thanks for reading
 
Rowan
 
All comments are welcome, I’ll answer as many as I can
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