Monday, October 30, 2006


Yglesias on "growth" and GDP

A longish post but one that people should probably be made to read before being allowed to read or hear anything relating to "the economy" in the mainstream mass media.

Sunday, October 29, 2006


Post Castro

Certainly, one is by convinced by this footage that Castro isn't actually dead, but he looks so shockingly bad that I find it impossible to believe that the (Fidel) Castro era is anything other than over. Which is interesting.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006


Again, from Plato's Republic

we should prefer [as our rulers] the steadiest and bravest and, so far as possible, the best-looking.

But how insane to prioritise good looks (albeit subordinated to steadiness and bravery) as a criterion of fitness to rule! I'd like to have heard Socrates up against some real opposition, rather that the flimsy resistance put up by pushovers like Glaucon. This guy for example, knows how to argue:

King Arthur: The Lady of the Lake, her arm clad in the purest shimmering samite held aloft Excalibur from the bosom of the water, signifying by divine providence that I, Arthur, was to carry Excalibur. THAT is why I am your king.

Dennis: [interrupting] Listen, strange women lyin' in ponds distributin' swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.

Besides Python, I'm reminded of the joke title for a Bernard-Henri Levi book,

God Is Dead But My Hair Is Perfect

Saturday, October 21, 2006


Quote, and misquote, of the day

It's a pity, because it was a great quote to be able to refer to, but according to Richard J. Evans' The Coming of the Third ReichHermann Goring never did actually say that "every time I hear the word culture I reach for my gun". The origins of the quote are in a play written for Hitler where one of the characters says:

When I hear "culture", I release the safety catch of my Browning!

On the up side there is this remark from 86-year-old impressionist painter Max Liebermann when, having been deposed by the Nazis from the Prussian Academy of Arts in 1933, was asked how he felt at such an age:
One can't gobble as much up as one would like to puke.

Thursday, October 19, 2006


Lost in translation?

Paul Lafargue's 1880 essay The Right to be Lazy, rejecting the notion, promoted in 1848 by Louis Blanc, of a "right to work", is a bit of a gem. Arguably, in fact, the notion could be due for a bit of a revival, at least if some advocates of an unconditional and universal basic income are to be believed, as I hope they are. They question whether, given certain economic, sociological and ecological realities, "full employment" is a plausible, let alone desirable, resolution of the social ills found in the advanced capitalist societies.

But I've noticed an interesting little discrepancy between the English and French versions found at the Marxist Internet Archive. In section two ("Blessings of Work") of the English version, Lafargue (son-in-law of Marx) scorns the tortured factory workers who won't:

...besiege the warehouse of [the manufacturer - DC] Bonnet...and cry out: “M. Bonnet, here are your working women, silk workers, spinners, weavers; they are shivering pitifully under their patched cotton dresses, yet it is they who have spun and woven the silk robes of the fashionable women of all Christendom.

And then describes the situation of the capitalist threatened with bankruptcy due to crises of industrial overproduction:

At his wits' end, he implores the banker; he throws himself at his feet, offering his blood, his honor. “A little gold will do my business better”, answers the Rothschild. “You have 20,000 pairs of [tights - DC] in your warehouse; they are worth 20c. I will take them at 4c.” The banker gets possession of the goods...

(See where this is going?)

In the French - original - version, however, these passages appear as folows:

...assiéger les magasins de M. Bonnet, de Jujurieux, l'inventeur des couvents industriels, et de clamer: "Monsieur Bonnet, voici vos ouvrières ovalistes, moulineuses, fileuses, tisseuses, elles grelottent sous leurs cotonnades rapetassées à chagriner l'oeil d'un juif et, cependant, ce sont elles qui ont filé et tissé les robes de soie des cocottes de toute la chrétienté.


Acculé, il va implorer le juif, il se jette à ses pieds, lui offre son sang, son honneur. "Un petit peu d'or ferait mieux mon affaire, répond le Rothschild, vous avez 20 000 paires de bas en magasin, ils valent vingt sous, je les prends à quatre sous." Les bas obtenus, le juif les vend six et huit sous...

You may have noticed the appearance of the word "juif" - Jew, translated in the second paragraph as "banker". Also, the English translation fails to register the fact that the sight of the workers "shivering pitifully under their patched cotton dresses" would apparently be enough "to sadden the heart of a Jew" (or, literally, "the eye of a Jew").

I wonder did someone at the MIA tidy this up, or what? In any case I would hope that the demonisation of Jews or other isolated groups is not to be one of the aspects of the essay to gain the renewed relevance I have referred to.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006



I was - slightly, weakly, on balance etc. - in favour of the Iraq war (on regime change/humanitarian intervention grounds) when it began in March 2003. For me it was always an extremely difficult, almost incalcuable dilemma. I was never able to understand those who seemed to see either no good arguments for or no good arguments against the war.

I haven't really posted anything here relating to my own views on Iraq. This is partly because I felt the blogosphere (or at least that part of it I follow) could do with a bit less on war, terrorism etc. and a bit more on, well, other important stuff. But it's also because any thoughts I might have had about the situation now or since 2003 have just been overwhelmed by my sense of horror at how things have turned out. Truth be told, this horror, and an associated sense of disgust, have led me to follow the news from Iraq in less and less detail. Of course, events in Iraq have come to be reported in less and less detail too, simply because there are so many bloodsoaked details to choose between. I remember already being horrified in April 2003 when 15 demonstrators were shot dead by the US Army in Fallujah. I remember being disturbed at how little attention the incident recieved. I remember thinking about how important a role the shooting dead in Derry of 14 unarmed demonstrators by the British Army had been in propelling the IRA to 25-odd years of "resistance" in Northern Ireland.

I can't say with any confidence that I will long remember the deatils of any incident in which so few as 15 people die in Iraq this week, or that I will even read about it.

I have long since ceased to identify with the "liberal hawk" or "pro-war-left" side regarding Iraq, but it is only relatively recently that I have resolved in my own head that the invasion has been a disaster which cannot be redeemed. By this I do not mean that all hope for anything but a bloody abyss of Yugoslavia-style civil war and break up, or regional conflagration, or genocidal massacre is over in Iraq. Rather I mean that I see no plausible outcome that could possibly lead anyone reasonably to say that the decision to invade had - despite it all (and those two little words, "it all" don't really signify the signified very adequately) - been vindicated.

The only thing that held me precariously back from this conclusiion was the thought that - almost unbelievably, though one should not, I suppose, ignore the terrible psychological cost for those who thought they had seen and lived the bottom of the abyss under Saddam to say now that it is worse without him, the darkness of the vision of their future this requires them to accept, to enunciate - some polls do seem to have indicated that many Iraqis, perhaps a majority, were still glad of the invasion for it's having brought down Saddam's regime, for all that has followed.

Well, even if that were true, even if that were still true, and even if one disregarded the impact of the war on non-Iraqi interests (for, while I would maintain that the interests of Iraqis ought to have been overwhelmingly the most morally decisive factor regarding the war, other factors - the death and injuries to non-Iraqis, including coalition troops, the damage to American and British democracy and security, the general filip to Bin Ladenist ideology and any number of other such matters - must also carry some weight), even then - we cannot anoint those Iraqis who have survived the murder-wave that has swept their country with the right to deem the deaths of those who have died to have been an acceptable price. For they have not paid that price, though there can be few who have not now paid something, even if it is only the fear of losing everything. Somone might point out that if the price had been lower and the reward greater this seeming anti-utilitarian/consquentialist principle would have seemed more doubtful. Well, yes, indeed it would have.

Marc Mulholland's repeated focus on this anti-consequentialist point (or perhaps he was focusing more on the illegitimacy of excessively long-term, or wide-lens, framing of the relevant consequential calculus) helped me focus my thought slightly on this. Like me, Marc seems almost relieved that Norman Geras has acknowledged what seems clear enough - i.e. nobody, but nobody, would have supported the war if they had known how it would turn out, or at least that anybody who did propose such a course of action while promising such an outcome would have been considered rather odd.

Yet Marc also comments:

I think that Norm was unwise to (a) recognise a catastrophe and then (b) say that his hatred of [S]addam was such that he would have stood aside had he anticipated.

This refers to Norm's saying that

...nothing on earth could have induced me to march or otherwise campaign for a course of action that would have saved the Baathist regime.

and that he would therefore

have withheld support for the war without giving my voice to the opposition to it.

if he had anticipated a failure on the scale of that which the invasion and occupation of Iraq has become.

Marc compares this to

...those who refused to defend Austria or Poland against Hitler because they were bloody dictatorships.

I have always approved of Norm's highlighting of the possibility of some kind of neutrality as to the decision to invade Iraq, since despite the fact that I did just about come down on the pro-war side I didn't do so with great weight, so to speak. For most of the pre-war period I, cowardly perhaps, classified myself as neither pro-war nor anti-war. Nevertheless I don't, as Norm appears to, think it was in any way illegitmate or morally suspect for those who did decide that the war was wrong to actively campaign against it (though of course there were many shameful ways of opposing it, involving betrayal of victims of oppression). After all, this was a high stakes decision. Even people who acknowledged the terrible evil that led people, inside and outside Iraq, to favour regime change by force might have feared catastrophic results of one kind or another and felt a duty to do what they could to prevent evils that might outweigh whatever good would reliably be achieved with Saddam's overthrow.

While I think it is possible that, given what we knew (or should have judged to be the case) at the time, some kind of critical neutrality was the appropriate stance, I think it is odd to say that even knowing the evils that would descend upon Iraq due (in some admittedly restrictive or indirect sense of "due") to the invasion, knowing that these evils were such as to prohibit support for a war that would topple even so heinous a regime as Saddam's, that one would not deem it appropriate, so to speak, to lift a finger to prevent these evils because this would be in some sense to help perpetuate other lesser (by definition in the hypothesis) evils.

Nor do I believe this is a coherent stance given that Norm also tells us that

Had I been of mature years during that time, I hope I would have supported the war against Nazism come what may, and not been one of the others, the nay-sayers.

To adopt what I think is a better analogy than Marc's: support - support come what may and with no nay-saying - for the war against Nazism, surely constituted, among other more worthy things, support for a course of action that would help save - that did in fact save - the Stalinist regime in Moscow.

So also, by the way, would have support for any campaign opposing, say, a nuclear first strike during the Cold War. Will anybody say it would have been wrong, in that circumstance, "to march or otherwise campaign for a course of action that would have saved the [Stalinist] regime"? Me, well, funnily enough it would be precisely the prospect of "nothing on earth" that would have induced me to do just that.

Sunday, October 15, 2006


From Ayn Rand's testimony to the House Un-American Activities Committee, 1947

Rep. John R. McDowell: You paint a very dismal picture of Russia. You made a great point about the number of children who were unhappy. Doesn't anybody smile in Russia any more?

Rand: Well, if you ask me literally, pretty much no.

McDowell: They don't smile?

Rand: Not quite that way; no. If they do, it is privately and accidentally. Certainly, it is not social. They don't smile in approval of their system.

I don't remember the last time I smiled in approval of my system.

Thursday, October 12, 2006


Love and war in Plato's Republic, Book V

'Then what about anyone who has distinguished himself for bravery? Do you agree that he should first be duly crowned, while the army is still in the field, by his fellow-campaigners, by young men and children in turn?'


'And that they should shake his hand?'

'I agree again.'

'But I'm afraid you won't agree to what I'm going to say next.'

'What is it?'

'That he should exchange kisses with them.'

'I think it's the best idea of all,' said Glaucon. 'And what is more, I should add to your law a clause that would forbid anyone to refuse his kisses for the rest of the campaign, as an encouragement to those in love with a boy or girl to be all the keener to win an award for bravery.'


Definite hint of Monty Python, methinks.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006



I saw, on television, Primo - a staged version of Levi's Auschwitz memoir If This Is A Man and it reminded me of what an extraordinary document it is. I sensed that someone else in the room was a bit put off at having their cosy newspaper-strewn Sunday living room invaded by such matters, and I didn't blame them. Normally I might cave in and turn off the television rather than feel guilty at making someone who didn't, at that moment, want to deal with anything "heavy" feel guilty about ignoring it. But when you hear or read that righteous sentance: "If I were God I would spit on Kuhn's prayer", well, there's no turning back. Actually, I had long since been gripped - "gripped", that dimly epiphanic experience of clenched jaw, fixed gaze and, yes, almost a slight queaziness in the pit of the stomach - by that stage, following a tentative ten opening minutes when I wasn't sure if the adaptation worked.

Is it trite - Oprah-like? - to say of a Holocaust memoir that you will feel a richer human being for having read it? Richer if only because you achieve a greater consciousness of the catastrophic evil contrived by men, of the stain of shame that the just man, as Levi says, must feel that such things can have happened, can go on happening. (And perhaps a greater consciousness of the abyss that threatens when we cease to care whether we live like just men.)

Anyway. Read it if you haven't. I can't find my copy so maybe I'll get some more Levi.


Money and democracy

So a first step - but only a first step - in limiting the corrosive effect of socio-economic inequalities on the content of democracy is to abolish private funding of election campaigns. Instead, all candidates for election (who might, to qualify, have to prove some threshold of minimum support through the gathering of signatures) would receive equal funding from the state.

The problem that arises here, however, is that the concentration of power in the central state could also pose a threat to democracy. The only (partial) safeguard against this that I have come up with is for whatever particular regime of equal political funding is established to be enshrined in constitutional law. This might reduce the risk of manipulation. (Another interesting idea is that, instead of banning private funding, the state would offer to fund any candidate forgoing private funding to the same tune as any privately-funded candidates.)

There are also questions as to the funding of non-party political activities, including those that don't necessarily relate directly to any election or referendum. But the principle is clear enough.

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