On free speech

Freedom of speech is a principal pillar of a free government; when this support is taken away, the constitution of a free society is dissolved, and tyranny is erected on its ruins.

Benjamin Franklin, On Freedom of Speech and the Press (1737)

Let me begin by stating frankly that I am not, personally, at all bothered about Twitter. I do not have, and have never had, a Twitter account. (Or Facebook Meta, Instagram, Pinterest, or [insert name of social media thing here].) If Twitter disappeared in a puff of smoke tomorrow, it would have essentially zero impact on my life. Indeed, if Twitter had never existed in the first place, it would also have had essentially zero impact on my life.

I speak, therefore, as a non-Twitting member of the general populace. What interests me about it – far more than the not especially interesting face that a billionaire has been bought out by another billionaire; plus ça change and all that – is that a poll was recently conducted to determine whether to re-admit Donald Trump to its hallowed virtual turf. Apparently, 52% of those who expressed a preference said that he should be so re-admitted, which presumably means 48% said he shouldn’t.

Now I am not especially keen to hear more from Mr Trump, although (1) as a non-Twit I won’t have to and (2) as a non-US citizen I don’t suppose he cares what I think. What is interesting here is that it is such a controversial proposition that someone so prominent in American public life – after all, in case anyone has forgotten, he used to be the gosh-darned President – should be denied a platform from which to express his views. After all, isn’t the First Amendment to the US Constitution supposed to guarantee free speech?

Well, apparently free speech is like democracy. You can say whatever you like, so long as we agree with it, just as you can elect whichever government you choose, so long as we approve of it. (Hard luck, Salvador Allende; no mandate for you!) It is, of course, so different for those unfortunate people groaning under the heel of, say, the Chinese Communist Party, who can only say things approved of by some different value of “we”.

But who exactly is this “we” that determines what can be said, or who can be voted in? How did they get to be in such a position of authority? Is there, indeed, only One Truth that everyone must accept, One True Answer to every question that can be asked? I don’t think it’s just me and Ben Franklin that would answer that with a resounding No.

I hear things all the time that I find deeply offensive. People in positions of authority routinely say things that I consider wrong, stupid, and frankly dangerous. (Very few of them, of course, would care much even if they knew about that (see above, under “democracy”).) There are certainly times when I wish that chorus of idiots would just shut the hell up. Then again, it’s entirely in my gift what measure of my attention I choose to give to them. There are plenty of other people, both alive and dead, who deserve it a whole lot more.

It’s not often that I find myself in agreement with the late Mao Zedong, but: “Let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend.” After all, isn’t that what liberalism is meant to be about? Although, having said that, I may have missed the news that John Stuart Mill has now been cancelled, possibly due to having been the wrong sort of feminist. But I digress.

Free speech is necessary for free thought, and free thought is necessary for intelligent thought. It’s hardly controversial to suggest that we need as much intelligent thought as we can get to deal with all the stuff that’s in store for is in the near term, not to mention the medium and long term. I dare say even Mr Musk would agree with that proposition, although his notion of intelligent thought is perhaps not quite the same as mine.

Whether or not Einstein said so, we really can’t solve our problems using the same thinking by which we created them. If, however, the only thinking allowed is the One True Way, then surely we never will. And we see this everywhere. The One True Way, for example, is endless growth and endless consumption of more stuff, regardless of how much stuff there is. The One True way is endless growth of the human population, regardless of the impacts on the non-human population or how grim the lives of most of the human population will be. The One True Way is happy motoring, in EVs if necessary, even if we can’t generate the electricity, let alone manufacture all the necessary batteries and electronics, to make that happen. And so on.

It is a still rarer occurrence for me to find myself in agreement with David Icke than with Chairman Mao, but really, it doesn’t have to be like this. For the vast majority of the time that human beings have existed on this planet, after all, it has not been like this. Indeed, it hasn’t been remotely like this, and there’s a decent case to argue that human societies have often chosen otherwise. From where I’m sitting, that looks like a smart call. Why wouldn’t you choose to live in a way that gives you personal autonomy and your community every prospect of future prosperity?

An obvious answer to that question would be that the question could never be asked. That, after all, would be wrongthink. A really well-educated population – that is to say, one that had been trained never to think critically – would never even be able to form such an idea. (Why yes, I am considering a post on the education system, now that you mention it.) If you have been taught to drive a car on the assumption that the steering-wheel is merely decorative and that the accelerator pedal must always be flat to the metal, you are going to crash hard at some point. Right now, we are all driving in that car, and most of us are passengers.

It’s time to start thinking freely, and that means speaking freely. Some people are going to find some of those things hard to hear, and that’s okay. Shouting “Fire” in a crowded theatre if the theatre is in fact on fire has some merit, after all. But we can’t go on as we are. You don’t want to be in that car when it hits the wall, whichever wall that turns out to be.

Of course, that’s just my two penn’orth. You’re free to disagree.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

On the suppression of agriculture

The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.

Masanobu Fukuoka, The One-Straw Revolution,

Warning: Contains book recommendations. Proceed at your peril.

Only a complete idiot, of course, would want to suppress agriculture. But apparently we now have complete idiots in charge of our food supply. Consider this video by a UK poultry farmer, explaining the shortage of eggs: not the result of avian flu, but of the refusal of supermarkets to pay farmers enough to cover their increasing costs. The same is equally true for dairy farmers, and has been for a long time now. Likewise small-scale pork producers. Costs go up, prices stay the same, and eventually farmers stop farming.

Increasingly, the only way for farmers to survive is become a large-scale industrial producer. But this means they are completely in hock to the supermarkets, which are becoming the only distribution channel unless the farmer is lucky enough to be able to sell directly to the public. They are also hugely vulnerable to price increases in their inputs, If you have a million commercial laying fowl in barns, you are going to be spending a lot of money to feed those birds and to heat those barns. When those costs go up – and they have gone up a lot recently – you’re in trouble, unless the supermarkets are kind enough to pass on the price increases which they are imposing on the buying public to their suppliers. Which they aren’t.

None of this is especially new. Joanna Blythman‘s excellent book Shopped, which I have recommended here before, had all of it well-documented back in 2004, and none of it was especially surprising news even then. But it is now reaching a point where farming, in any meaningful sense of that word, is becoming almost impossible. For those of us who like to eat food – which I imagine includes you, dear reader – this is an issue.

Sweeping decisions about agriculture are now being made by people who apparently can’t tell a pig from a pitchfork. Consider the Dutch government’s edict to close down their livestock farmers, with the results pictured above, or the Sri Lankan government’s catastrophic decision to move over to 100% organic agriculture overnight. It’s not that organic agriculture is a bad thing, but the fact that those in power apparently thought it could be achieved at the press of a button.

On the other hand, your organic farming methods need to be the officially blessed ones, or you could end up in deep trouble. If you don’t believe me, ask Amos Miller, who is looking at a $250,000 fine for producing organic food in what the authorities deem to be the Wrong Way. As farmer Joel Salatin put in the title of his 2007 book, Everything I Want To Do Is Illegal.

I certainly don’t dispute the fact that industrial agriculture needs to go away and be replaced by something that can actually be sustained, not to mention providing the people with adequate nutrition. Frankly, it is becoming embarrassingly obvious that it is going to go away, whether we plan for that transition or not. But the transition can be eased tremendously by well-informed and judicious policies. There seems to be little sign of these breaking out.

Small farmers are, of course, anathema to the sort of “big-picture” morons who are calling the shots these days. This has been the trend for a long time. “Get big or get out,” said US Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz back in the 1970s, earning himself a particularly scathing chapter in Wendell Berry‘s magisterial The Unsettling of America (1978). Arguably, in England this goes back as far as the Enclosure Acts.

Why is this? For a long time, after all, the yeoman or small farmer was considered to be the backbone of the nation, not only supplying us with food but also playing a vital military role. (It was just the same in the Roman Republic before there was a standing army, so this not a parochial point, either in time or in space.) Why would anyone object to that?

Well, there may be a clue in the fact that the Russian for yeoman is kulak. Stalin was prepared to risk a major famine to stamp out the kulaks, in which he was ultimately successful – both in stamping out the kulaks, and bringing about a major famine. The farms were collectivised; that is to say, the kulaks were made to get big or get out (in this case, to Siberia). This event, incidentally, is ingrained so deeply in the collective memory of the Ukrainians as to be a major contributory factor to the present war. But we digress,

Stalin was a totalitarian, and so is Tesco. That may sound like an extreme assertion, but really, Tesco would like to have a monopoly on all food sales in the UK, and collectively the UK supermarket sector is not far away from achieving that goal. At that point, they will have a complete stranglehold not only on British farmers but on the British people in general.

After all, how is it possible to coerce a yeoman? The yeoman is able to provide not just food but other necessaries such as clothes (ever wonder about the term “homespun”?) and medicines. Before formal schooling, people learned the skills they needed by doing, under instruction from experienced adults. Basically, between them and their neighbours they had pretty much everything they needed to live, and to live reasonably well. Yeomen only tend to get shirty when outsiders – overlords, for example, or governments – try to oppress them. And they are well-placed to resist oppression.

It is a good deal easier to oppress people who are in no position to resist. This includes farmers just as much as the rest of us. The kulaks put up quite a fight against Stalin, and although Stalin won in the end it was at immense cost and hardly a cause for celebration. If you are in charge – and it doesn’t matter if your intentions are good or ill – what you want is a docile population that will go along with whatever your prescription happens to be for the earthly paradise.

It would be extraordinarily convenient if those people only knew food that came from a shop, water that came from a tap, and value that flowed from the state-issued currency (ideally in a cashless society so that all expenditures can be monitored and controlled). The last thing you want is people who are to any degree self-reliant. After all, such people may not do what you tell them, and then where will you be?

One last book for your consideration: Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed by James C. Scott (Yale University Press, 1999). Even if you are deeply convinced that Tesco is your friend, this may perhaps convince you that this may not help as much as you might suppose in terms of outcomes.

Of course, we don’t actually need food, do we? We can just eat this stuff instead. It’ll be fine. Right.

This is what the buffet will look like at the next Davos forum. Definitely.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

On the atomisation of society

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

John Donne, Mediation xvii, Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions (1624)

You don’t need to be a conspiracy theorist to have noticed that the official response to the Covid-19 pandemic tended to accentuate a trend that has been developing across industrial society for the past few decades: the tendency to separate people from one another. During the height of the pandemic, people were forcibly isolated in large numbers. Physical proximity, let alone actual contact, was explicitly forbidden. People died alone because their nearest and dearest were excluded. It was forbidden even to look upon the face of another.

The economic damage is well-known, but not enough attention, it seems to me, has been paid to the psychological damage. What long-term harm has been done to children who have been taught to regard other people as dangers to be avoided? Will they be able to form normal relationships with others as they grow up?

The so-called “Partygate” scandal in the UK, which contributed to the departure of Boris Johnson from office, showed that those supposedly in charge of managing the pandemic response didn’t really believe their own propaganda. Much was said of Johnson’s disregard for his own laws, which I agree was bad enough, but more significant is the (further) damage done to public trust in official pronouncements. This is not going to help, for instance, with the government’s response to climate change, assuming there ever is one of any substance.

“[W]ho is society?” Margaret Thatcher famously asked, “There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families….” Forty years on from the Thatcherite revolution, she would seem to be right; and there are barely even families any more. Even the camaraderie of the workplace, such as it is, was denied to many people during the lockdowns. All you could do, really, was sit at home and consume.

This process had already been well-documented in the US in Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone, published back in 2000. Putnam was specifically concerned with the decline in democratic participation, but he located the causes for this firmly in the factors contributing to the atomisation of US society. The institutions that used to bring people together he found to be in widespread decay; I can’t help feeling the echo of this in the widespread collapse of the British pub, already underway before Covid and more recently the hikes in energy costs threatened the precious few that remain

It may be a coincidence, although I doubt it, but all this is eerily reminiscent of the grim dystopian vision of mainstream economics. I have discussed elsewhere the many shortcomings of the conventional economic world-view. This transformation from a world of collectives to a world of pure individualism almost looks as if economists, unable to build a model that adequately reflects social reality, are reshaping society so that it will be a better fit for their models.

It’s certainly a very convenient trend if your wish is to manipulate people into doing what you want. If everyone is more or less paranoid about those around them, they will find it impossible to unite against whichever thing you wish to impose upon them. During the Industrial Revolution, laws designed to prevent this sort of thing were quite explicitly titled: “An Act to prevent Unlawful Combinations of Workmen” (39 Geo. III, c. 81) passed in 1799, and others followed.

As someone who lived through the 1970s, it is interesting to see the renaissance of the British trades union movement. We’re now seeing union leaders who sound uncannily like the men we used to hear daily on the news back in the day, leading organisations with names like UNISON and Unite. To be sure, this is driven primarily by economics; in a harsher environment, people necessarily group together to defend their mutual interests. The members of the Bilderberg Group are doing much the same thing, after all, just in a better class of hotel.

But I think there’s more to this than economics. In the UK, and I would think across much of the industrialised world, the mass of people are getting very close to the edge. Those who are employed have little or no security of employment, and their employers increasingly treat them as if they were expendable, interchangeable resources. Despite having a job (or jobs) they are dependent on state benefits, which can be arbitrarily withheld at any time. Typically they are massively in debt, as this is their only access to any kind of material capital such as a home, a car, or even a washing-machine, and they are therefore extremely vulnerable to rising interest rates, which again are outside their control. Consequently they have little or no discretionary income and effectively no chance to save any significant amount to give themselves a hedge against the future.

This isn’t just the lower orders I’m talking about here. The middle class is feeling the squeeze as well. They may have larger and more impressive houses, but that’s not much consolation when they get repossessed. The professions are often not unionised, or are represented by historically non-militant bodies. But even the Royal College of Nurses has voted to take industrial action to improve pay and staffing levels, a step it had never even contemplated since its foundation in 1916.

As I have pointed out many times, we are social primates. Being social, living in groups, is hard-wired into who we are. Aristotle already knew this; his well-known saying that “man is by nature a political animal” (Politics, Book I, §1253a) clearly implies it. This is not to say that the natural state of affairs is for everyone to be one big happy family. On the contrary, as Aristotle’s observation also recognises, to be human is also to be part of a clique. But there exists a sociological equivalent of the strong nuclear force which makes us tend to clump together.

For this reason, I don’t believe that this project, if we can call it that, to uproot and disrupt and as it were colonialise society at all levels, can succeed in the long term or even be sustained for much longer. That is the upside. The downside, however… well, to continue my analogy with physics, consider the effects of nuclear fission. You don’t want to be standing too close if that kicks off.

Society cannot and will not be reduced to individuals, however convenient that might be for some parties. But as individuals, we can help de-atomise our world. Get to know your neighbours, if you don’t already. Join clubs – actual, physical clubs where you go to some location and mix with other human beings who share an interest, whatever it might be. If you can’t find one, start one.

It takes a village to raise a child, the saying goes. But actually it takes a village to do a great many things. Whatever the future brings, it will be easier to deal with if you aren’t facing it alone.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

On amnesia

The past was alterable. The past never had been altered. Oceania was at war with Eastasia. Oceania had always been at war with Eastasia.

George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four

In my more paranoid moments – and which of us isn’t prey to a few of those nowadays? – I sometimes wonder if there aren’t some people who take Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four as their template for the ideal future of our civilisation. It certainly seems to be working out that way sometimes.

Consider the telescreen. In the novel, these are in every home, and serve two purposes: they are a vehicle for Party propaganda, but they also allow surveillance by the Thought Police. Aren’t these functions perfectly served by social media, especially when consumed via smartphone? The modern world has gone one better than Orwell; we carry ours around with us everywhere, and moreover pay good money for the privilege.

Social media is also the home of another Orwellian institution, the Two Minutes Hate. I think we can all recognise this description:

Within thirty seconds any pretence was always unnecessary. A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledge-hammer, seemed to flow through the whole group of people like an electric current, turning one even against one’s will into a grimacing, screaming lunatic. And yet the rage that one felt was an abstract, undirected emotion which could be switched from one object to another like the flame of a blowlamp.

George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four

But the thing I want to draw attention to this week is the way in which what was true or important yesterday magically ceases to be true or important today. This has always happened, of course, but it seems to me that it happens more often and more blatantly than it used to, even over my lifetime.

Seen much in the news lately about the Syrian civil war? Probably not. Is this because the Syrian civil war is over? Nope. It’s still going strong. People are still dying, there’s still a huge refugee crisis, all that stuff that used to be all over the headlines is still happening. It’s just been dropped from the news agenda. A cynic might suggest that this is because the evil Assad regime (they must be evil because they’re clients of the evil Russians) has not been swept away by the heroic freedom fighters (a.k.a. the clients of the USA) as was supposed to happen, and it’s all a bit of a mess.

All propaganda needs a nice clear story-line. You need to be able to see who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. But as Orwell points out, these roles can be reassigned as required. Consider the career of the late, unlamented Saddam Hussein. He was installed as dictator of Iraq by the USA in order to oppose the evil Iranians (you can tell they’re evil because they have oil and prefer to dispose of it on their own terms rather than the ones America would prefer). So long as he performed this role, Saddam was one of the good guys, and he could do what the hell he liked to the Marsh Arabs or anyone else he didn’t like. Only when he decided to start thinking for himself and maybe selling his oil in a currency other than the US Dollar did his white stetson mysteriously become black.

An even more striking example of this mutability of virtue is the late Colonel Gaddafi. By a spooky coincidence, he also controlled substantial oil reserves. Gaddafi enjoyed a long and colourful career as the Libyan Antichrist. He was blamed for pretty much any and every terrorist attack for many years; indeed he seems to have embraced this, and claimed responsibility for things he had nothing to do with. At his peak, he was almost as ubiquitous a scapegoat as Covid-19 or Vladimir Putin.

Yet even he was brought back to the fold when he denounced the 9/11 attacks, and for a time he was the blue-eyed boy, best mates with Tony Blair, removed from the official list of bad guys by the US, and even paid a subsidy by the EU for helping to curb illegal immigration from North Africa. Despite this, however, his new friends in the West shed no tears when he was deposed and killed, providing air cover for rebel forces.

It’s not just recent history that’s getting the Orwell treatment. Hollywood has of course always played fast and loose with the facts, and many of us already know that “Inspired by true events” usually means “Mostly made up” – although perhaps not enough of us. But the recent film The Woman King is quite spectacularly mendacious even by Hollywood standards. While the female warriors it depicts did exist, they were by no means anti-slavery; the historical Kingdom of Dahomey was heavily dependent on the slave trade, and those women took an active part in slave-raids. It’s almost as if they’d remade Schindler’s List with an SS officer as the hero.

The most impressive attempt to rewrite recent history going on at the moment, though, has to be the campaign to pretend that the claims made for the various Covid vaccines were never in fact made, either by the manufacturers, public health authorities, or politicians, and even that there were never any lockdowns. It was claimed, as we remember, that vaccinated people would not catch the disease and would not pass it on to others. It was also claimed that the vaccines were safe. Those claims may or may not have been made in good faith, but they aren’t looking so robust now.

I can only assume that the people trying to deny all this are either so detached from reality that they think people will actually believe this tripe over their own lived experience, or so desperate to avoid the likely backlash that they’ll try anything. The public health policies of many nations were founded on these claims, and it’s far from clear that those policies did more good than harm.

Who knows, maybe they’ll get away with it. They may need to expunge quite a few criminal records, and they’re certainly going to have to delete an awful lot of video footage. And it wouldn’t be the first time Joe Biden put his foot in it – just ask the State Department. Perhaps one day the pandemic which was supposedly the worst thing since the Black Death will be quietly forgotten, just like the Syrian civil war.

But I hope not. I hope Lincoln was right about the impossibility of fooling all of the people all of the time. Winter is almost here, and naked emperors may find it less than comfortable. Will enough people buy into the Party line du jour to maintain business as usual? Maybe for a while, but certainly not forever. Keep a journal. The history of the next few years may be interesting, and it can’t hurt to have an independent record.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

On the Day of the Dead

Life is wasted on the living.

Douglas Adams, The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the \Galaxy

This post appears on the first of November: All Saints’ Day, also known as All Hallows (hence Hallowe’en for the previous evening). In Celtic tradition it is Samhain, the mid-point between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice. In Latin countries it is the Day of the Dead, a time to remember and honour the dead, and also to celebrate life. It’s a family occasion, a time to visit graves and to familiarise the new generation with those who went before.

I have discussed elsewhere my view that one of the great failings of our present-day civilisation is our inability to accept, or even acknowledge, the fact of death. It leads us into such ludicrous displays of hubris as to try and stop the outbreak of a novel coronavirus by ineffective and profoundly counter-productive measures, including the quasi-compulsory rollout of inadequately-tested vaccines that, it is now apparent, did not prevent the virus from spreading, as we were assured they would. (I know everyone is now claiming that no such assurances were given, but anyone with a longer memory than a goldfish knows that they were, quite apart from the abundant video footage of everyone from Joe Biden down saying so quite unequivocally.) Apparently we couldn’t handle the idea that anyone might die.

More generally, we end up having a dysfunctional relationship with our own history. We aren’t quite at the level of the Incas, who treated their dead as if they were still alive, going so far as to ask their opinion in political debates, but we very much want to imagine that the dead were in all respects the same as us, and answerable to our standards. Strangely, it doesn’t seem to occur to people who think this way that one day they will die and future generations may not agree with how they lived. Driving cars may well seem to them as appalling as widespread chattel slavery does to us.

The Day of the Dead is an opportunity for us to acknowledge that we are a part of the larger current of human history. The dead are still a part of us; without them, we wouldn’t even be here. Our language, our food, our customs are all bequests to us from the dead. Without a connection to the past – which implies a connection to the dead – the world is bizarre, arbitrary and incomprehensible. It’s like being one of those people who wakes up with total amnesia.

These days we are much exercised by colonialism. One of its distinguishing features, it seems to me, is the desire to eradicate the traditions of the colonialised and replace them with one’s own. In this sense, the Roman Empire was not a colonial empire, because the Romans didn’t really care what you got up to so long as you kept the peace and paid your taxes. Consider, for example, what the British did to the last Sikh Maharajah, Duleep Singh, when they conquered liberated his kingdom in 1849. He was converted to Christianity, made to cut off his hair – which is a big deal for a Sikh – and ended up living like a country gentleman in a castle in Perthshire. To take another example, the Spanish invested a lot of effort in destroying the manuscripts of various central and south American civilisation, without for the most part knowing or caring what they contained. And so on.

In a perverse way, it seems to me that we are now engaged in colonialising ourselves, at least in this sense. Many of our ancestors thought, spoke and acted in ways that are repugnant to us. This has certainly been the case for many of the dead themselves: the subjects of Queen Victoria, for instance, were horrified by the loose morals of their Regency predecessors, a point of view which was reversed by their more permissive successors, and so it goes.

Let us take a moment to remember The Family Shakespeare, an edition of Shakespeare’s plays with all the naughty bits removed by a lady named Henrietta Maria Bowdler and her brother Thomas. (Do follow the link to Wikipedia; some of the example edits are hilarious.) In so far as this is remembered at all, it is in the word “bowdlerise,” which is not usually meant as a compliment. But we can only afford to be amused by this because we still have the unexpurgated texts. If The Family Shakespeare was the only version we had, we would be much the poorer.

(Of course the Bowdlers weren’t the first people to muck about with the Bard. For many years, King Lear was performed in a version that had a happy ending, which it’s fair to say is not quite what the author intended.)

If we cannot acknowledge the dead, if we cannot accept that they still live in us, then we will lose everything they have to give to us. We will turn ourselves spiritual, social, cultural and intellectual orphans. This would be foolish at any time, but in an age of profound and multi-dimensional crisis such as we now confront it verges on the suicidal. Just because Marcus Aurelius owned slaves doesn’t mean he doesn’t have anything of value to tell us about dealing with loss, for instance.

At this time of year, according to tradition, the boundary between the world of the living and the world of the dead becomes thin and permeable. The dead can appear to us; perhaps speak to us. I for one will take good advice wherever I can find it.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

On limits

If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.

Stein’s law

There are, it seems to me, two kinds of people in this world: those for whom Stein’s Law is self-evidently true, and those for whom it is not. I don’t think the second group can really be all that numerous, even though as a species we are specialists in denial. But the majority of people fall into a third category, those who might be prepared to admit the truth of it in theory but refuse to apply it in practice.

Take economists. It is simply assumed that economic growth is normal and indeed inevitable; it is the default state of things, and if for some reason economic growth slows down, or heaven forfend goes into reverse, then this is a problem and someone ought to do something. This is because mainstream economics assumes that there are no physical or other limits to growth.

Partly this is because it’s easy to suppose that any really big number is more or less the same as infinity, even though of course it isn’t. A lot of the time you can get away with this, and in any case most people have a really poor intuition about really big numbers. If an oil company were to announce the discovery of a new field with three billion barrels of the black stuff, you might be impressed; if instead they said they’d found enough to fuel the world for about a month, possibly less so.

But there’s a deeper reason, I suspect. There is a well-known line, often but apparently wrongly attributed to Walt Disney: “If you can dream it, you can do it.” I first came across it as the slogan of the software company Adobe. It sounds great, but of course it isn’t true (especially if you’re trying to do it with tools from Adobe, but maybe I’m just bitter). I’ve had dreams in which I can fly, for instance; lots of people do. That doesn’t mean that flinging myself off a cliff is likely to end well for me.

It isn’t true, but we want to believe it. We want so desperately to believe it that we will swallow almost anything if it means we get to have our dream. EVs are the poster child for this. There are any number of reasons why it is not physically possible to replace the current vehicle fleet with electric vehicles, but we are so fixated on the dream of leaping into a car and driving off into the great beyond that we will never accept those reasons until we absolutely have to. This despite the fact that we all know that 99% of actual motoring bears no similarity to the dream. There are no car commercials that show the product sitting in a queue on the Hanger Lane gyratory system.

Our inability to let go of the dreams of freedom symbolised by the private car is going to end up costing us a lot more than dreams if we aren’t careful. An immense amount of damage is already being done to the world in order to satisfy our hunger for electronic gizmos of all sorts. We manage to ignore this, because it might make us uncomfortable, and the ugly stuff is mostly happening in poor countries a long way away, and so we can.

This is a lithium mine. Isn’t green energy marvellous?

We even manage to lie to ourselves about our motives. We aren’t moving in this direction because we want to “stop” (at best mitigate) climate change. The fact is, it won’t have that effect, and on some level I suspect many people know it. We are going down this route because fossil fuels are getting less abundant and harder to extract, which has the side-effect of making them more expensive.

Germany has invested massively in renewable energy sources. Now that cheap natural gas from Russia is no longer available, Germany is screwed. Of course everyone blames the evil Putin for exploiting the laws of physics, but he didn’t put them there in the first place. We have been extracting fossil fuels from the planet like crazy for over a century, and the high-quality, easy-to-access stuff has mostly gone. This is why we are reduced to fracking and cooking sludge to get more and more of our fuel. It’s been known pretty much since forever that we would reach this point; the petroleum geologist M. King Hubbert was even putting tentative dates on it as far back as 1956. (His numbers have actually held up pretty well.)

The same applies to every other non-renewable resource too, including of course lithium. Again, this has been known about and studied for a long time. The original Limits to Growth report came out back in 1972, and subsequent updates have tended to validate its findings. There’s nothing in the least surprising about any of this. It’s infant-school stuff. If I have five apples and I give you two, how many apples do I have left? The answer is not infinity.

Not having access to an infinite supply of apples may be inconvenient. Not having access to abundant cheap fossil fuels is going to put a major spanner in the works, because it undermines everything, from how we eat to how we move ourselves and goods around to how we communicate. We’re so used to having that around that we’ve come to take it for granted. It’s become hard-wired into our understanding of how the universe works.

It turns out that is not, in fact, a natural law that electricity simply flows from your wall-socket whenever you want it to. Nor is it a natural law that you shall have your own private vehicle to take you wherever you please, even if that involves navigating the Hanger Lane gyratory system. When so august a body as the United Nations claims that internet access is a basic human right, it’s clear that something is seriously out of whack. After all, no electricity, no internet – using carrier pigeons isn’t really going to cut it.

Railing against limits will not make them go away. Limits are actually valuable from a creative point of view, which is why poets down the ages have come up with all sorts of complicated verse-forms. Working within constraints can paradoxically be easier than working without them. Writing a good sonnet is much simpler than writing good vers libre, if only because after fourteen lines you know it’s time to stop.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.

Reinhold Niebuhr

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

On sanity

Mens sana in corpore sano.
(A healthy mind in a healthy body.)

Juvenal, Satires, X

You need to be quite careful when quoting Roman satirists. My old school, for instance, had a motto taken from the poet Martial: “Quas dederis solas semper habebis opes” – “Only those riches you have given [to others] will be yours forever” – which sounds terrific until you learn that Martial wrote it in the hope of getting money out of someone. Context is everything.

In the context of Juvenal’s poem, mens sana in corpore sano is just one of a list of things he claims are not good in themselves; they may be desirable, other things being equal, but his point is that other things generally aren’t equal. This was a philosophical commonplace of his time, in the Stoic tradition. I don’t think it is a coincidence that Stoicism is making something of a comeback these days.

After all, healthy minds and bodies are in short supply these days in the industrialised world. Let’s look at bodily health first.

Most of us mostly eat the fruits of industrial agriculture, often after further industrial processing – what Michael Pollan has elegantly characterised as “edible food-like substances.” These products are absurdly deficient in nutrients, addictive, and in many cases actively productive of disease. Many years ago, the Canadian dentist Weston Price looked into the relationship between diet and health – initially with a focus on dental health, as you might expect, but then more broadly. He compared people eating a wide variety of indigenous diets with those consuming the products of industrial civilisation, His conclusions can be summarised as follows: there is a wide range of diets that people can eat and be healthy on, but the industrial diet isn’t one of them. He would not have been remotely surprised to see the epidemic levels of obesity and related illnesses such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes that we see today; indeed he observed this in his own researches back in the 1930s.

On top of that, we swim in a sea of bizarre chemicals that human bodies never evolved to cope with (not to mention electromagnetic radiation, which is a whole other conversation). It may be pure chance that this has coincided with massive increases in cancers of various kinds, but I’m not inclined to think so. People will tell you that increases in cancer are merely the effect of people living longer; well, bowel cancer used to be considered a disease of older people, and is now increasingly affecting much younger people than it used to. Contrary to what you may believe, people in the Bad Old Days used to live into their twenties and thirties; they weren’t going down with bowel cancer at that age, so how come we are?

But these things are perhaps less of an imminent peril than the mental health emergency.

I’m not talking here about depression, although that is what is normally meant by this. It’s said, for instance, that 10% of Americans are on anti-depressants of one sort or another. But there is a lot to be depressed about these days, and I’m reluctant to conclude that feeling sad about the ongoing collapse of our way of life is somehow illegitimate; that’s the sort of thing that got psychiatry a bad name in the Soviet Union.

What concerns me more is the apparent inability of so many people to connect with, let alone grapple with, the reality of our situation. I understand their reluctance, up to a point, but only up to a point. When the USS Indianapolis went down in 1945, nobody aboard was in denial about sharks. By contrast, at the moment almost everyone seems to be in denial about the fragility of the physical basis of our civilisation.

There is the odd exception. Take this recent article about the possible effects a shortage of gas might have on the operation of the vast BASF chemical plant at Ludwigshafen. I had never heard of the place before I read the article, but I was in no way surprised at its existence, because it is the kind of thing our civilisation produces: massive in scale, tightly-coupled, and completely lacking in resilience. This place depends on gas both as an energy source and as feedstock, and its products are many and varied, including several we will struggle to do without, including fertilizer, AdBlue, and (hilariously) carbon dioxide.

The Ludwigshafen complex has been running 24/7 since the 1960s, and nobody is quite sure what will happen if BASF are obliged to shut it down, which they will be if gas supplies fall below a certain level. It is entirely possible that parts of it may not start up again. Certainly it is the case that things like glass-making furnaces are designed to run continuously, and are likely to break if the power is shut off and they therefore cool down.

The very fact that we do things this way is evidence for a kind of collective insanity. On an individual level, however, we don’t seem to be doing much better. Part of this may just be down to failures in the educational system, which no longer seems to be even trying to inculcate critical thinking about, well, anything. Certainly it seems to be turning out people who, if not technically illiterate, are unable to scale a “wall of text” with any confidence.

There’s no quick fix for any of this. We are all just going to have to muddle through as best we can. Will we be fit enough in mind and body to deal with what is coming down the road? Only time will tell, but for many of us – myself included – the omens aren’t looking too good.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

A tale of two Elizabeths

Look here upon this picture, and on this….

William Shakespeare, HamleT, Act III, Scene iv

As far as I know – and I’m sure my readers will correct me if I’m wrong – the last official act of the late Queen Elizabeth II was to inaugurate the premiership of Liz Truss. At the time of writing – and again, this might change – Liz Truss is the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, wherever the hell that is, and God help us all.

What have we seen, since the last Labour government? A glossy but insubstantial Old Etonian, who, having narrowly dodged a bullet with the Scottish independence referendum, concluded he was impervious to bullets, and went ahead with the Brexit referendum, which he lost. Remember when people were saying David Cameron was the worst Prime Minister since Lord North? Read on.

He was replaced by Theresa May, who was supposed to be a safe pair of hands, and at least appeared to be an actual Conservative. But it turned out that she was a poor judge both of the mood of the country (she lost her majority when she called a general election) but also of her party, which she seemed unable to control.

Therefore her party (not her country) ditched her in favour of Boris Johnson, a spineless pathological liar with no clear vision for the nation beyond the notion that he ought to be Prime Minister of it. His flaws were ruthlessly exposed by the pandemic, although sooner or later they would have been apparent in any case, and so Boris had to go.

So then the membership of the Conservative Party, in their decidedly finite wisdom, decided to replace him with a Margaret Thatcher blow-up doll in the form of Liz Truss. She does, it’s true, have a vision for the nation; the problem is, it is a crass poor-man’s-Ayn-Rand kind of vision which has only a passing resemblance to reality on the ground.

If someone had said in 2016 that one day we would look back on the Cameron years as a golden age of statesmanship they would have been laughed to scorn. Frankly, these days Lord North is starting to look pretty good. There’s talk now of another leadership election to replace Truss. I can’t help imagining three toffs in a locked room choosing their favourite Pokémon: that’s the level we are at now.

The real worry, though, is what happens when – as seems inevitable at this point – the Labour Party wins a majority at the next general election. Sir Keir Starmer QC (a.k.a. the worker’s friend) will have managed this by much the same means as Tony Blair in 1997 – “Vote for us! We aren’t the Tories!” The problem is that as far as I can tell the Labour Party hasn’t the slightest clue what to do with power, assuming they achieve it.

That isn’t due to a shortage of useful policies they could in theory pursue. What is lacking – and lacking in spades – is any realistic awareness of the nature of the multiple crises Britain is now facing. Yes, there are issues around the distribution of wealth, but there are also issues around the fact that there is less wealth than there used to be, and indeed there is likely to be even less wealth going forward.

Liz Truss does at least have a coherent response to this situation: “Let’s give all the remaining wealth to the rich people!” The problem is that she is going to have trouble selling this to the non-rich people, who, inconveniently, form a majority of the electorate. Labour may be able to extract some mileage in the short term from a policy of distributing some of the remaining wealth amongst the non-rich people, but ultimately this is going to founder on the rock called: THERE AIN’T NO MORE WEALTH. SORRY.

Because the supply of wealth is indeed finite. You can have rich people pay no tax at all, and that fact will still be true. It doesn’t matter how intensely you may be relaxed about it, for most people it won’t be even slightly helpful. Material wealth, in an industrial economy, depends on access to cheap fossil fuels, and that access is going away. You could make Noel Edmonds or indeed Kermit the Frog Prime Minister and that would still be the case. (The way British politics is going, I wouldn’t rule either of those contingencies out.)

Labour’s answer seems to be to try and emulate Germany’s famous Energiwende, just at the moment when its inadequacies are being so cruelly exposed by that nasty Mr Putin. But even in a world unpolluted by nasty Mr Putin, those inadequacies would be exposed soon enough. The unpalatable truth is that there is no good substitute for that sweet, sweet crude. Hence the incipient collapse of Germany’s industrial base, and by extension everything that depends on that.

Maybe the incoming Labour government will be an improvement on what we have now. It’s hard to imagine it could be much worse, but then we used to think that whatever came after David Cameron would necessarily be less awful. The point, however, is that it will not make the bad things go away – and no, blaming the bad things on the previous administration does not make them go away, even if the blame is justified.

It may well turn out to be the case that HM Elizabeth II’s demise was a mercy, in that it spared her the much, much worse that is to come. One can only feel sorry for her unfortunate heir, who will have to preside over all that – and indeed for his heirs and successors, whoever they may be. One thing’s for certain: it’s all downhill from here.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

On the rich

The rich are different.

F. Scott Fitzgerald

Yes, they have more money.

Ernest Hemingway

So here is a news story which you almost certainly haven’t come across, and which you probably don’t care about unless you’re Spanish. But stay with me: there is a larger point to this.

Now Spain is organised in a slightly eccentric way, in that a good deal of political power is decentralised to what are known as communidades or communities. These communities are on quite a large scale; Catalonia, for example, is a communidad. This is partly because the present Spanish constitution was devised in reaction to the preceding regime of Generalissimo Francisco Franco, who was very much of the opinion that everyone in Spain should do exactly as Madrid told them to, or else. Interestingly, Franco himself hailed from one of the more marginal regions of Spain, Galicia, an area which has, amongst other things, its own language – which he was very keen to suppress. The same could also be said of Catalonia, Valencia, the Basque regions… you get the idea. There’s a reason why the Spanish national anthem is an instrumental.

The current hot topic in Spain is property taxes. Madrid, which together with its surrounding area constitutes another communidad, decided to remit them. Andalucia, which is one of the poorest regions of Spain, has now decided to follow suit, with the explicit goal of attracting rich people to go and live there (they are targeting a figure of 7,200 – I have no idea how they arrived at this). Curiously, this exemption is only to apply to properties worth more than €300,000, because apparently it’s okay to tax poor people. The even hotter news, as I write this, is that another poor region, Murcia, wants to follow suit.

None of this, as you may imagine, is going down particularly well with the government in Madrid. There is, as you may also imagine, a party-political dimension to this, which I don’t propose to explore here. My point is rather how strange it is that attracting rich people to your area is considered to be a desirable goal.

After all, most people don’t set out to attract rats to come and live in their house. It’s not that it’s hard to accomplish; the rats are all out there looking for opportunities, really. They will come to you, no questions asked. The rats are quite clear about what they will get as their side of the bargain. What I want to explore here is: what is to be had on the other side?

Because what can we say about rich people? As Hemingway pointed out, they have more money. As the government of Andalucia has noticed, this is at least in part due to their ability to avoid getting taxed. (Notice there how I said “avoid” – because, in the UK anyway, tax avoidance is completely fine, it’s tax evasion that gets you into trouble. Notice also the fact that avoidance and evasion are actually synonyms. Did rich people get to write the UK tax code? Blimey!)

But not getting taxed isn’t really a superpower. In the UK, again, there is what is known as the personal tax allowance, which at the time of writing stands at the princely sum of £12,570. If you earn less than this per annum, you will pay no income tax. Then again, you won’t be very rich either. I am guessing that these are not the kind of people whom the government of Andalucia is anxious to attract. Goodness knows they get enough yobs from the UK coming over every summer, burning to a crisp on their beaches and vomiting in their streets. Not exactly Jay Gatsby

So what is it with the rich? Well, there’s a thing I like to call the Gates paradox. It’s called that on the assumption that Bill Gates (a.k.a. Kermit the Frog) is the richest person in the world – I don’t actually know who that is supposed to be right now, so humour me and assume it’s Bill. Now let’s say Bill Gates goes into a bar. Any bar, just the kind of bar you can find anywhere. Your local bar, let’s say. I’m sure you have one. The odds of Bill strolling onto mine are pretty remote, and probably yours too, but, as I say, humour me.

Here’s the thing: the average (mean) income of everyone in that bar has now increased to the point that everyone in there is a millionaire. Yes, even the loser playing the fruit-machine who has never had a regular job. Even you, dear reader, assuming you’re in there, and it’s your local bar so why wouldn’t you be?

And then at some point Bill Gates walks back out of the bar. Is everyone in there still a millionaire? No, and of course they never actually were. There was never a moment when the loser at the fruit-machine could have bought a yacht on the strength of Bill/Kermit getting in a pint of Kronenbourg 1664 and a packet of cheese and onion (other beers are available). It was an artifact of the mathematical definition of a mean, and never something you could take to the bank.

None of this is of course remotely surprising. But somehow we are all supposed to believe it at the macro-economic level. It’s called trickle-down economics, and it has been repeatedly shown not to work. After all, if it did, a lot more ought to have trickled down by now. So even if 7,200 rich people were to flock to Andalucia, I very much doubt there would be the positive effect on the local economy that the Andalucian government expects, or is at least cracking it up to be.

For one thing, even to the extent that 7,200 rich people go to live in Andalucia, how much money will they actually spend locally? Sure, there might be some upturn amongst the local cocaine dealers, but those guys don’t usually pay much in the way of taxes. Then of course there will be people who “reside” in Andalucia for tax purposes but actually spend most of their time – and money – elsewhere. There will be some additional input, I’m sure, but it’s reasonable to question whether it will make up for the loss of revenue that’s baked into the cake. The losses are readily calculated; the gains are speculative.

This only looks like a good idea if you assume that speculation pays – not, of course, in every case, but in general. I don’t think that is a good bet. It was a good bet back in the day, maybe, but this is a really, really bad moment to go in for a game of pitch and toss. In case you hadn’t noticed, things are not exactly on the up.

There is a comforting phrase that is often bandied about that “a rising tide floats all boats.” This has always tended to conceal the fact that some boats are mysteriously more buoyant than others, but in any case it can have no relevance at a time when the tide is manifestly going out. And as the notorious swivel-eyed lefty Warren Buffet famously said: “Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked.”

In the next few months and years we shall certainly be seeing a few bare arses. It would be nice if this didn’t impact too much on the well-being of the good people of Andalucia, but I am afraid it will. And on many more of us, wherever such lies are told.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

On the end of a chapter

I know nothing stays the same
But if you’re willing to play the game
It’s coming around again

Carly sIMON, cOMING aROUND aGAIN

Unless you have been living under a rock, and goodness knows I do my best to do so, you will have heard of the recent demise of Queen Elizabeth II. Or, if you’re Scottish, Queen Elizabeth I (Elizabeth Tudor was never queen of Scotland, and yes, there are people who care about that).

Like most people in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland – wherever the hell that is – I have never known another sovereign. My mother, who is also in her nineties, reminded me that she is now on her fifth monarch: she was born under George V, lived through the (brief) reign of Edward VIII, the longer reign of his brother George VI, the entirety of Elizabeth’s epic shift, and is now a subject of Charles III, as I suppose I am too. But for most of us, she was just there: on the stamps, on the currency, on the telly every Christmas. You might not watch her, but she was there.

The image above gives you some idea of how things have changed. It’s a commemorative re-issue of a postage stamp that was originally priced in pre-decimal currency to a value of about 1p in “new” money; the re-issue price is £1.55, or 155 times as much. Now that’s inflation. The original was issued by the Royal Mail when it was a public institution; the modern version by a private company.

My country has been a monarchy for a very, very long time. I consider my country to be England, although I have Welsh, Scottish and Irish in my ancestry – probably Norse as well – and England has been a united kingdom more or less since the time of Æthelstan, which is over 1,000 years ago. (My American readers may need a little lie-down at this point. That’s fine. I’ll wait.)

In that scheme, the seventy-odd years of Elizabeth’s reign may not seem to be such a big deal. After all, we’ve had long-lived monarchs before: Queen Victoria managed 63 years, and George III before her reigned for almost 60. But the difference is that the country has changed almost beyond recognition during Elizabeth’s reign. Her father, after all, had been a King-Emperor, on whose domains the sun famously never set; she had to make do with the Commonwealth, which is not at all the same thing, let alone the fact that it shares a name with the republican government of Cromwell – who, amongst other things, executed the original King Charles in 1649. So let’s not go there.

When she was newly on the throne, a British government could at least imagine that it could mount a foreign invasion without reference to the United States – I’m referring, of course, to what is euphemistically known as the Suez Crisis. Latterly, British military initiatives have tended to consist of sending our forces wherever the Americans tell us to.

For a while now there has been the unspoken feeling that a turning-point was in the offing, and the death of a queen is as good a peg as another to hang that on, although matters were coming to head in any case. The kingdom is becoming increasingly disunited – both when it comes to the growth of secessionist tendencies. and not only in Scotland, but also on a class level. The current political system is manifestly unable to cope with this, and indeed at this point only seems likely to make matters worse.

It is not exactly a sign of confidence in democracy that there have been facetious calls for Edward Fitzalan-Howard, 18th Duke of Norfolk and hereditary Earl Marshal, to be put in charge of various failing things after his excellent organisational work for the late Queen’s funeral. At least, I think they’re facetious.

Economically, the country is seizing up. There seems to be no feeling that most people can make a reasonable life for themselves, either now or in the future. God knows what the upcoming winter will be like. I wouldn’t be surprised to see open political violence, now that peaceful protest has effectively been made illegal. Rioting and looting are pretty much a certainty on some level.

Will the new king make much difference to any of this? I’m sure he’ll do his best, not that he has any real power to do much, notwithstanding the attempts in some quarters to portray him as some latter-day Louis XI. He is known to stand for values that are at least somewhat appropriate to our situation. There seems to be every chance that the monarchy will manage to survive the forthcoming upheavals, which is more than can be said for many of our institutions.

I wish His Majesty the best of luck. He’s going to need it, as shall we all.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.