Predictions for 2022

Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.

George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-four

Well, it’s that time of year again. In this post, I’m going to re-examine my predictions for 2021 and indulge in some equally ill-founded speculation for the year to come. We’ll see how well I do…

So here were my five predictions last time:

(1) Julian Assange to be extradited to the USA

Surprisingly this hasn’t happened (yet), partly due to the slowness of the legal machinery, although it looks like it’s getting closer. I’m going to give myself half a mark for this.

(2) Boris Johnson to leave office

Even more surprisingly, this also hasn’t happened yet, at least as I wrote these words, but his days are clearly numbered. It’s hard to see how he can survive the sheer number of scandals surrounding himself and his government, especially after the disaster of losing Shropshire North in a recent by-election. Another half-mark.

(3) The USA to suffer its Suez moment

One word: Afghanistan. Not just the fact of the US withdrawal, which as bound to happen at some point, but the ham-fisted way in which it was carried out. A full mark.

(4) Covid-19 to rise again after victory has been declared

I suppose victory hasn’t quite been declared, although a lot of people who had been making very self-satisfied noises have egg on their face now that the Omicron variant is running rampant. The vaccines have been shown not to be the silver bullet they were supposed to be, not that that has stopped governments everywhere administering them to anything that moves. I’m going to award myself a full mark for this one.

(5) Another major global financial crisis will hit

Nope! Not in 2021, although I still expect one to come along shortly. No marks.

So that’s three out of five, which isn’t too shabby. Now for my predictions for 2022. I won’t go for Julian Assange or Boris Johnson, as that would be shooting fish in a barrel. Instead…

(1) Russia to invade or annexe Ukraine but not start World War III

Well, Russia doesn’t start World War III in the average year, so this might seem an odd one, but a lot of people seem to be expecting it to happen and I don’t believe that it will. Vladimir Putin is many things but he is not an idiot, especially not by the standards of contemporary political leadership. If he can get what he wants without a shooting war, that’s the way he’ll go.

Given that much of Europe is heavily dependent on Russian natural gas, and that the USA is currently something of a paper tiger, I don’t see any real opposition. And when you remember that histories of Russia general start with the Principality of Kiev – currently the capital of Ukraine – from the Russian point of view it seems quite reasonable for them to want at least eastern Ukraine.

I’m not saying, incidentally, that Russia won’t invade Ukraine in 2022. I certainly expect borders to change in 2022, one way or another, but I am not expecting the nukes to fly.

(2) China not to invade Taiwan and not start World War III either

Continuing the theme of exciting geopolitical events that won’t happen in 2022, I don’t expect the Chinese to do anything drastic against Taiwan. I do expect them to be more assertive in the area of the South China Sea – again not perhaps completely unreasonably; there’s a clue in the name – but they’ll let the USA start any trouble. It’s possible that the USA will start trouble, of course, but they may have some difficulty building a coalition outside the region.

Again I am not expecting armageddon. There may be a regional-scale hot war, but in that event my money would be on China. My prediction is for tension to keep on ratcheting up but without any actual explosion, at least in 2022.

(3) Donald J. Trump to announce his candidature for the US Presidency

I will put my hands up: to some extent I just want this to happen for the entertainment value. I don’t think it would be a good thing for the USA, because it would mean the 2024 presidential election would be even more divisive and disputed than the last one, which is saying something. It might also encourage the current administration to do something stupid in foreign affairs, which is a common ploy when a government wants to distract attention from failures at home (Argentina’s decision to invade the Falkland Islands in 1982 being a classic example).

The idea might well appeal strongly to Mr Trump, who does not strike me as the world’s best loser. It might also appeal to many disaffected elements in American society, of which there are plenty. It’s also a really, really bad idea, but that has never stopped people from trying such things. In an extreme case, it might even lead to drastic changes in the current political arrangements in the US, whether that takes the form of constitutional changes, secessions by various states (attempted or successful), and/or military action of one sort or another.

In predicting this, I may be under-estimating Mr Trump’s patriotism and good sense. I’d like to be wrong, honestly, but I’m guessing he’ll give it another go. If he does, it will be… interesting.

(4) Scotland to demand another referendum on independence

I don’t claim to know exactly what form this will take, but now seems to be an excellent moment for the Scottish National Party to go for broke. They already have a very strong political base at home. The UK government is falling to pieces in front of their eyes. Scottish voters are currently split on the independence question, but this could change rapidly. If the EU were to make it clear that an independent Scotland could (re)join quickly, that might swing it for a lot of people.

If Westminster drags its feet, as I expect it will, the Scots might even hold one unilaterally, along the lines of Catalunya in 2017. The Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish governments have all come into prominence since Covid struck, with the unavoidable inference that they have handled it markedly better than England. What else might they do better, given the chance? Mr Johnson’s administration has not set the bar especially high, after all.

I don’t say the referendum will occur in 2022; it may not even occur at all. It is likely the courts will be involved. But my prediction is that there will be a serious official request to hold such a thing.

(5) Global supply-chains to deteriorate to the point of causing serious shortages

Arguably this is already happening. The UK has been remarkably short of Christmas cheer this year, and has been obliged to import turkeys for (as far as I know) the first time in modern history. Australia is struggling with shortages of urea. Examples could be multiplied.

But I am talking here about long-term shortages of daily requirements. I am talking about food riots in industrialised nations. I am talking about large-scale governmental interventions to subsidise or buy up and distribute necessities; perhaps even rationing.

I don’t know where this will happen, or what goods will be affected. I expect multiple instances across several nations, though. Thanks to Brexit, and the imminent imposition of further restrictions on the movement of goods between it and the EU, I would certainly expect the United Kingdom to feature prominently. But other places may suffer too, even the US.

Those are my five prognostications for 2022. I expect to be wrong on some of them, and frankly I would rather be wrong on numbers 3 and 5, but we shall see. As ever, your comments are very welcome.

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

On endings

No one is actually dead until the ripples they cause in the world die away.

Terry Pratchett, Reaper Man

In the northern hemisphere, where I happen to live, today is the shortest day of the year: midwinter, a time of customary celebration – Christian or otherwise – when people gather together around a fire, feast and make merry, and generally tell themselves that the worst is behind them. Of course this isn’t really true. Winter is just getting going now, and while the solar year may have ended, and the calendar year isn’t far behind, there’s a good long way to go until spring.

It’s also a time to look back on the year just gone and reflect and what it has brought us or taken from us. Latterly the second category has seemed to outweigh the former, in many ways. Not many people are better off today than they were a year ago, let alone two years ago – unless they hold shares in Moderna.

Usually this time of year is about hope, and I would never discount hope. Only an optimist would get out of bed in the morning, especially when it’s still dark. But today I want to strip off the sugar-coating and focus on the underlying pill. Things come to an end, including lives; and while this is also a necessary process it’s not always an easy one.

I don’t usually talk about personal matters in this blog – if you want Facebook I’m sure you know where to find it – but I’m going to make an exception this time, because it’s relevant to the theme. A few weeks ago, my brother died, quite unexpectedly. It wasn’t from the dreaded lurgi but a common or garden heart attack, so he won’t even be a statistic; then again, he won’t be a political football either, which I suppose is some consolation. Just a part of the usual processes of attrition that are quietly going on all around us, as noticeable as the sound of falling leaves.

In this case, it’s not just a life that’s over – he had children and grandchildren, and leaves a widow and more behind him. There are things that would have happened if he had lived that will not now happen at all, or not in the same way, now that he has died. That is something we can speak of as an ending.

He leaves behind not just his family but a number of creative projects, some of them involving me, which will now no longer come to fruition, at least in the way they would have done. To that extent, the world is certainly a poorer place for his leaving it. Of course it is just as true to say that the world is a richer place for his having been in it: he was a talented musician, artist, designer, photographer and songwriter, and perhaps no single lifetime would have been long enough for him to do all that he might have done.

This video gives some sense of a good ending. It’s the band’s final performance of their most famous song, live in front of their home fans. I include it here not just for the song or for the performance, although I happen to like both very much, but for the way the band members are with one another at the end. It’s the kind of parting I would have wished to have had from my brother, but of course I never did.

I’m not getting into any metaphysical discussions about the after-life here; I’m not a theologian, and don’t even play one on TV. The quotation from Terry Pratchett at the head of this piece must however certainly be true, as far as it goes. (For what it’s worth, it’s more or less what the ancient Greeks believed about the after-life, in as much as the ancient Greeks agreed about anything.) I’d like to think that my brother will have something more than that, though. I tend to find the notion of reincarnation intuitively appealing, as that’s the way that ecosystems seem to work in general. He had a natural burial in a biodegradable coffin, so at least on the physical level that’s what awaits him.

Beyond that I’m not qualified to say, and perhaps nobody is. I’ll find out for myself one day, when my turn comes as it will for all of us. The Anglo-Saxons used to reckon age not in years but in winters, and at this time of year it’s easy to understand why. Not all of us will get to see the spring.

Eat, drink, and be merry….

In memoriam Will Shaman, 1956-2021

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

On craziness

It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.

Jiddu Krishnamurti

Many people would agree that we live in crazy times. But I think there’s some value in trying to distinguish between the various kinds of crazy we are seeing, if only to keep ourselves (comparatively) sane.

Some of it is just flat-out randomness – the weather, for example, as with the recent multi-state tornado in December (the usual tornado season in the US is April-June). That’s an extreme example, but there have been a lot of them about lately. There’s also the kind of craziness that assumes you can treat your supporting ecosystems like a waste disposal unit without there being any blowback from such behaviour.

There’s definitely no shortage of craziness of the plain old psychiatric variety. Most, if not all, industrialised nations are seeing huge rises in what are euphemistically termed “mental health issues.” Frankly, a lot of the depression people are reporting nowadays is simply realism, given that in most areas of life and for most people in those nations things really are getting worse with no realistic prospect of getting better. In such circumstances, would happiness be more rational? Is it really mysterious that so many people turn to drugs and alcohol?

We can also find that kind of insanity supposedly defined by Einstein as “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” The current poster child for this is the worldwide mania for giving people extra doses of a vaccine that will accomplish nothing of medical value. Why? For no better reason than that people think something ought to be done, and this is something which can be done, and so we’re going to do it.

Then there is the fine old tradition of the Lord of Misrule, where for a day social norms are inverted, government is handed over to those unfit to govern, such as children, and it is permitted to do all those things we are meant to refrain from doing. It is hard to contemplate the present government of the UK without being reminded of this phenomenon. Certainly our rulers have reversed plenty of social norms, such as not lying, at least pretending to be embarrassed when caught lying, not contravening the law of the land, not abusing public office to enrich their mates, not selling seats in the House of Lords in exchange for political donations, and so forth. Except that this has being going on for rather more than a day now, and some people are getting restive.

Yet another aspect of craziness is the Holy Fool: a figure who flouts every convention and yet has access to deeper truths than conventional wisdom can offer. Now there is something to be said for conventional wisdom a lot of the time. In the UK, for instance, it is the conventional wisdom to drive on the left-hand side of the road, and even if it were objectively true that it would be in some sense “better” to drive on the right you still wouldn’t want to try it on the M6.

Nevertheless in many cultures and in many times and places the Holy Fool has had an honoured place in society. One could definitely place St Francis of Assisi into that category, for instance. After all, conventional wisdom is fine for conventional situations, but sometimes you need a different perspective. That seems especially true today, because when all is said and done it was conventional wisdom that got us into this mess – or rather this intertwined mess of messes – in the first place.

Where, then, are our Holy Fools? It’s easy enough to find unholy fools; the newspapers are full of them. The College of Cardinals doubtless thought they had found one in the hermit Pietro Angelerio when in 1294 they chose him as Pope Celestine V, an experiment that was only slightly more successful than driving on the wrong side of the M6. But this was in response to a crisis: in this case, a two-year vacancy at the top due to the cardinals’ inability to agree on a successor to Nicholas IV. We have no shortage of crises at least as serious as that one.

“When you have eliminated the impossible,” says Sherlock Holmes in The Sign of Four, “whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” Similarly, when conventional wisdom sinks us deeper into the mire, we should look elsewhere for advice. Of course the trouble with seeking advice from people who seem crazy is that quite a few of them actually are. This is a strategy of desperation, but if this isn’t time to be desperate I’d like to know when it would be.

So then my advice – and I might be crazy too – is to seek for answers in the margins. Look again at ideas that have been forgotten, or relegated to the attics of our culture. Listen to the people who don’t get interviewed on prime time. Listen critically, of course; as the saying goes, don’t keep your mind so open that your brains fall out. But there are more things possible – and thinkable – than we are generally led to believe. Search them out.

Don’t believe everything you read on the Internet, any more than you should believe everything you read in the newspapers. (The only thing you can believe in some newspapers is the date on the front page.) Don’t even believe this. But do experiment. Try different ideas on like clothes. Read widely. Use multiple search engines. Talk to people. Open your mind. Above all, don’t worry about what other people might think.

I call it grey sky thinking.

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

On having an opinion

You always own the option of having no opinion. There is never any need to get worked up or to trouble your soul about things you can’t control. These things are not asking to be judged by you. Leave them alone.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

I have a friend – let’s call him John. John is one of the smartest people I know. He’s a pure mathematician by inclination, and when I say pure he can’t even tell the time on a digital clock after 12 noon (he subtracts the wrong number) but if you can solve it using group theory he’s all over it. He once wrote a paper on optimising the Malaysian rail system, which is entirely single-track, without once using the word ‘train.’ That’s the kind of person John is.

I’ve known John for a very long time; since we were twelve, which is longer ago than either of us would care to remember. But he is defined for me by something he said to me when we were at university together: “I am prepared to have an opinion on anything.”

In saying this, I think he was in advance of his time, because nowadays everyone, it seems, is prepared to have an opinion on anything. My favourite Internet acronym is IANAL: I Am Not A Lawyer. Or, to put it another way: I am aware that my opinion is of no value whatever, and yet I am still going to tell you what it is. This was going on well before social media, as Usenet veterans will tell you, but it is everywhere today (and indeed Usenet itself is still a thing, believe it or not).

Now you might say that this sort of thing is a bit rich coming from someone who has a blog. After all, isn’t a blog just a vehicle for someone’s opinion? And that’s true, of course, and if I didn’t think my opinion had value I would be deep in IANAL territory. However, I tend to write on subjects that I have thought about in some depth, and usually researched in some depth as well. I don’t pretend to be the font of all wisdom, but I like to think there is some wisdom in there somewhere.

Sturgeon’s Law would lead us to expect that 90% of Internet content would be crap. In reality, the percentage does seem to be considerably higher. Why? Because it is mere opinion. It is not the product of thought or of research. It is just the content of someone’s head at a given moment.

Such content has been put there by some process. For most people, most of the time, it has been put there by someone else. This is not in itself a bad thing. A rough definition of culture, after all, is the stuff which has been put into our heads by other people: this is good to eat, you should avoid that, and people who do that other thing are beneath contempt. Every choice excludes other possible choices, and culture is nothing if not a shared set of possible choices. All societies are defined in this way, and I doubt if you could find any group of people anywhere, at any period of history, who did not have some form of self-definition along these lines. We would certainly miss this in our society if it weren’t there.

But you can be more or less aware of your culture. Most people, most of the time, just go with the flow. In such cases, your opinions are largely pre-fabricated. It’s one thing to have opinions; quite another when your opinions have you. Very few people raised as an orthodox Jew, or as a Muslim, or indeed as a vegetarian, will spend much time on the question: “Should I eat this bacon sandwich?” For me, as an ex-vegetarian who has raised his own pigs (and baked his own bread) there is much more to it. How did the pig live and die? How was the bacon made? Was the bread baked using the Chorleywood process? Is there proper brown sauce?

You can see from this example how much easier it is to have a ready-made answer to hand in these situations. To the extent that the ready-made answer will do well enough it is, from a Darwinian perspective, better to have one and use it. People got around the world quite adequately using Ptolemaic astronomy as their guide. We put men on the Moon using Newtonian physics; it may not be “the Truth™” but the maths is so much simpler than Einstein’s version, and it’s accurate enough to do the job.

Problems arise, however, when the ready-made answer no longer cuts the mustard. It seems to me that many of the issues we face today exhibit this problem. For example:

  • The economy is failing to deliver the goods we want at the price we want. I’m sure you can think of multiple examples of this from your own recent experience. Several responses suggest themselves: want less; pay more; do without; roll your own. But no: we prefer the canned answer: Grow the economy! Because there will always be more stuff, amirite?
  • Politician X has made claim Y that I simply can’t believe. Again, I’m sure you can think of plenty of specific examples; God knows I can. Here there are two canned responses, depending on whether politician X belongs to your party; either Politician X is a lying scum-bag like all the rest of the Z party or Politician X was misquoted and really meant to make the different and more defensible claim Y’. Neither of these responses allows for the possibilities that politician X was (a) high on drugs, (b) said so on behalf of corporation Q, who will be offering her/him a well-paid sinecure when she/he leaves politics, (c) is so genuinely dumb that she/he knows no better, (d) is a space cadet pure and simple. Frankly, most of those explanations are more plausible these days. If I could get my hands on whatever Boris Johnson is smoking lately, I’d be sorely tempted.
  • Disease X is killing Y people! This is a hot one, for reasons that could do with unpicking, but in the past many theories have been proposed for this kind of thing: the wrath of God being a popular one in Western culture (the Plague of Justinian and the Black Death both elicited this response, which was a stock one for that culture). You could also consider that this has been a thing ever since the Neolithic Revolution; you could also consider that the Hong Kong flu of 1968 also killed a lot of people and the world continued to revolve around its axis. But the canned response? Vaccines will save us all – they will doubtless save some of us, but all of us? They will doubtless kill some us, too, as vaccines are wont to do.

This is just a list of some generic opinions which are commonplace across the Internet, which is to say the common space of public discourse today. I’m sure you can come up with plenty more examples if you care to reflect on the matter – which in my opinion, too few people do.

Of course, you may disagree. I’d be delighted to read your own opinion – if indeed it is your own.

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

On protest

Protest that endures, I think, is moved by a hope far more modest than that of public success: namely, the hope of preserving qualities in one’s own heart and spirit that would be destroyed by acquiescence.

Wendell Berry,. What Are People For?

As I write this, the present government of the United Kingdom is preparing to pass legislation that will make public protest illegal. It contains plenty of other objectionable measures, but this is the one getting most attention. Its announcement naturally provoked public protests – which were of course pointed to by the government as further evidence that such things cannot be tolerated.

I am not sure, actually, that public protest has ever accomplished a great deal in terms of convincing governments to change their mind. There was, for example, an enormous rally in 2003 to protest against the UK’s involvement in the second Gulf War; the reported number of people involved varied depending on whether the newspaper reporting it was for or against the war, but it was certainly very large, on the order of hundreds of thousands in London alone. We joined the war anyway, and the electorate failed to eject the New Labour government at their next opportunity.

Long before that we had the Chartist movement, which aimed at turning Britain into a democracy – something it has never actually been, despite what people say. Their methods consisted of drawing up a charter stating their demands, holding public meetings, and submitting petitions, all of which were ignored. When the rest of Europe was ablaze with revolution in the heady year of 1848, the Chartists submitted a third and final petition. (Of course these days we have online petitions, which allow public opinion to be ignored much more efficiently.) Needless to say, the practical upshot of all this was essentially nothing.

Given that governments can and do ignore these events, it is perhaps surprising that they are so keen to restrict them. They already require police permission to occur in the UK, and are banned from taking place in Parliament Square, where Members of Parliament might be obliged to take some notice of them. I can only suppose that it is part of the growing tendency amongst governments across the world to feel that people should just shut up and do what they are told.

The ongoing pandemic has offered many opportunities for this tendency to display itself, in the UK and elsewhere. In a recent essay, Paul Kingsnorth has surveyed a few of these, and it is already looking quite disturbing. In parts of Australia, we have already reached the point at which citizens are being put in internment camps by the military. I don’t think you have to be paranoid to find this a worrying development. The same goes for compulsory vaccinations, as we are now seeing in Austria, and soon in Germany too by all accounts.

This is not a public health issue, by the way. The vaccines do have a value in terms of reducing the severity of the disease, should you be infected by it. If you are likely to be severely affected, I advise you to get the jab; I have myself. But they do very little in terms of reducing transmission. It therefore makes very little sense to vaccinate and re-vaccinate people in low-risk groups, especially when you consider that none of these drugs has passed the normal clinical trials (nor are they likely to, given that the control groups have now been vaccinated).

What this is about, increasingly, is governments asserting their authority over individual citizens. It may well be that for many, perhaps most, people it is more rational to risk infection than to risk taking the vaccine – leaving aside the possibility that it may well not work against the variant du jour in any case. But rationality has nothing to do with it. The government wills it thus, and therefore it must be so, and anyone who doesn’t like it will feel the full rigour of the emergency legislation.

Emergencies, of course, can go on for a long time. Income tax was brought in back in 1798 to pay for the Napoleonic Wars. Those must have been some pretty expensive wars, because we’re still paying the tax. (It did go away briefly in the early nineteenth century, to be fair.) Once governments have powers, they rarely choose to relinquish them. Even if the current government is forced out of office at the next election – which seems vanishingly unlikely – I doubt whether the current bill, doubtless law by then, will be repealed wholesale. A show will be made of getting rid of this or that provision; they might even re-legalise public protest. But they will keep as much of it as they dare.

So what can we do? Should we all take to the streets? Perhaps if enough people did so the system would be swamped, but that is a little akin to the idea current in my childhood that if everyone in China jumped up and down at the same time it would cause an earthquake. (If you want to do that, fracking is much more practical.) In other words, it probably isn’t going to happen. How could such protests even be organised in an age when telephone and digital communications are monitored both by governments and by corporations whose interests those governments serve?

We live in dark times, but there is always something to be done. We can all put a little grit into the gears of the machine from time to time. There is a lot to be said for opting out of those things we still can: such institutions as Buy Nothing Day are helpful (and of course can save you a packet too). Passive resistance can be surprisingly effective. The best way to get a bureaucrat to ignore you is to be slightly more trouble than you are worth. Let the good soldier Švejk be your role-model.

The art here is judging what you can get away with. Big obvious things, like going on one of those illegal protest marches, will probably land you in jail. But there is always a gap between the official reality depicted in legislation and the actual situation. That is the space you want to inhabit. If rules are bent often enough then they cease to be enforced and eventually become unenforceable. The rules governing corruption in public life in the UK are approaching that point now, for example, as the case of Owen Paterson demonstrates.

MPs, of course, get to change the rules that govern them (and sufficiently senior MPs get to ignore them altogether). The rest of us don’t have that luxury. Time, however, is on our side. All governments rely on the consent of the governed, and if that consent has to be extorted by force then an expensive and potentially unreliable machinery is needed to do the extorting. I am not sure, for instance, that the current UK government is as well-beloved by its police as it might need to be, after long years of “downsizing.”

Let us remember that even large things that appear permanently established may not in fact be so. When I was growing up, the Soviet Union was one of the great givens of geopolitics. Then, quite suddenly, it went away. Perhaps history will surprise us again. For this too will pass.

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Ozymandias”

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

On rent

I love you

You pay my rent

Pet Shop Boys, “Rent”

Man is born free, but everywhere he is in rented accommodation. Why is this?

The relationship between landlord and tenant goes back at least to the feudal period, as does much of the legislation governing it, at least in Anglo-Saxon jurisdictions. Now the feudal period gets a lot of bad press, to the point where there is a school of historians who want to deny that “feudalism” was ever a thing. but without getting into all that there is one characteristic of feudalism that I want to stress: economic (and political and military) arrangements were based above all on personal relationships.

This is so utterly alien to the way we do things in modern industrial society that I want to explore it a little. Your typical mediaeval peasant would have a landlord. In all likelihood, he would know his landlord personally. Indeed, quite often the landlord wouldn’t be all that much richer than some of his tenants. The rent would not however be paid in money but in kind (so many bushels of wheat, say), in service (so many days a year of labour), or in some combination of the two, to an amount that tended not to change much over time. The peasant’s family would live in the same village for many generations, and the landlord’s family would stay in the same manor-house for many generations. This makes for dull history, but remember what the Chinese are supposed to say about interesting times.

The landlord himself was in turn probably the tenant of someone else higher up the food-chain, right up to the tenants-in-chief, who were technically tenants of the king. We don’t tend to think of, say, Warwick the Kingmaker as a tenant, but legally he was. Only the king really owned the land, at least in theory, and Warwick the Kingmaker had a personal relationship with the king – in his case, with several of them. At the Warwick the Kingmaker level, rent would usually take the form of military service. This is how mediaeval kings raised their armies, and also why their armies tended to disintegrate once they had better things to do, like get in the harvest. This obligation to military service went all the way down to the peasant level, which is where foot-soldiers came from, and also why mediaeval foot-soldiers were generally seen as a bit rubbish.

Now I am not arguing that this was some ideal form of society, although it lasted for enough centuries that we can assume that it had its points. But where it differs most dramatically from our current arrangements is that it was a set of personal relationships, and that there were obligations in both directions. A good lord would look after his tenants, and his tenants would look after him. Of course in practice there were plenty of bad lords and for that matter bad tenants, but that was how it was supposed to work, and on the whole it seems to have worked well enough most of the time.

None of this obtains nowadays. I spent many years in rented accommodation, and I only knew two of my landlords personally. (One of them, indeed, was an insurance company, and not knowable personally at all.). My rent consisted of a monetary payment, which was subject to review (read: increase) every year. Usually I dealt with a management company or some other intermediary, paid by my landlord and therefore acting in his/her/its interests. And the arrangement was always assumed to be temporary. Indeed, it was defined as such.

These are not conditions which encourage good relations. In fact, they almost prohibit such relations. They are also not conducive to stability, either at the individual level or at the social level. The mediaeval peasant may not have owned his tenancy, but neither was there any serious danger that his family would be thrown out of it when he died. The modern tenant may have some legal protections, but once the person whose name is on the lease hops the twig, it’s game over.

Now this is part of a wider trend, in which people become increasingly isolated and atomised and the cash-relationship is substituted for every other kind of relationship. In such an environment, stability is an impossible dream – rather, it becomes a nightmare, since in a static world there is no scope for arbitrage. The fantasy of those who promote and profit from this world has been nicely articulated by an acolyte of the delightful Klaus Schwab and his World Economic Forum:

Welcome to the year 2030. Welcome to my city – or should I say, “our city.” I don’t own anything. I don’t own a car. I don’t own a house. I don’t own any appliances or any clothes.

Ida Auken

If you follow the link to that article – go on, I dare you – everything is described as being free. But I can’t imagine anyone who has ever paid rent could really believe that, because the one unquestioned fact about our world is that, if money can be made from a thing, someone is making money from that thing.

And I would wager, dear reader, that you have paid and are paying rent. Even if you “own” your house, if you have a mortgage then you are paying rent on the money you used to buy it – and the bank still has the deeds. The same goes for your car, or for anything else you “bought” with borrowed money. For many people, this goes for the fuel they use, the water they drink and the food they eat. We already live in a world in which ownership is concentrated in very few hands; as few as in mediaeval Europe. What we don’t have is the slightest reciprocity from the owners.

Because housing has ceased to be something that exists primarily for people to live in. It has become an investment vehicle, a cow to be milked by those who own it. And it isn’t just housing that is going this way. There are very few enterprises you can make money from these days, and so the wealthy are increasingly becoming what economists call rentiers. A rentier is someone who does absolutely nothing productive, but owns an asset – an apartment block, a patent, a copyright, a tract of land, a monopoly – from which money can be extracted, because other people need it to use it.

Entire books have been written on this phenomenon – recently, for example, Rentier Capitalism: Who Owns the Economy, and Who Pays for It? by Brett Christophers (Verso, 2020). The reason it has become so prevalent is not, I think, simply the fact that rich people want to get even richer; that was the case well before even the days of Warwick the Kingmaker. The reason is that you can no longer make money they way you used to, by having some kind of productive enterprise like a farm or an iron-foundry or even a software house. There are no good investments, as we used to understand the term. On the contrary, real wealth is contracting already, and I don’t see it expanding any time soon.

So I don’t happen to think that 2030 will look the way Ms Auken invites us to imagine. Dr Schwab and his merry pranksters have a little over eight years from the time of writing to bring that scenario about, and the omens are not propitious. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if global property markets – and stock markets – were to experience what is euphemistically known as a “correction” between now and 2030. Frankly, I would be more surprised if that didn’t happen.

You may see this as good news, or bad news, or not news at all. Like most news, I expect it to be mixed. But to paraphrase Michael Hudson, rent that can’t be paid, won’t be paid. What that means for you, dear reader, depends on whether you are a landlord or a tenant. Prepare accordingly.

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

On the perils of accountancy

Many of our psychologists, sociologists, economists and other latter-day cabalists will have numbers to tell them the truth or they will have nothing.

Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business

When I graduated from university, back in the 1980s when dinosaurs still roamed the Earth, there used to be an institution known as the Milk Round, whereby various corporations toured universities hoping to recruit the nation’s best and brightest. Rather disappointingly, to my mind, most of these seemed to be after future accountants. They had a point, in that the CEOs of many large UK businesses already came from a background in accountancy, and the trend was for this tendency to become more pronounced. “Become an accountant, me hearty,” they didn’t actually say but I suspect secretly wanted to. “‘Tis a man’s life! The smack of the salt breeze in your spreadsheet….”

You have to realise that prior to this time accountancy was generally seen as very, very boring. There was a well-known Monty Python sketch in which an accountant by the name of Herbert Anchovy seeks to break out of the stereotype by re-training as a lion tamer. He says of accountancy: “It’s dull. Dull. Dull. My God it’s dull, it’s so desperately dull and tedious and stuffy and boring and des-per-ate-ly DULL.” The joke, of course, is that when he realises how scary lions actually are he changes his mind.

Looking back, I dodged a couple of bullets at this moment in my life. I didn’t go into accountancy. I also didn’t go into academia, which was what I thought I was going to do, but that’s another story. Accountants did, however, go on to rule the world, and I think this is no longer helpful, if it ever was. Let me explain.

An account is, fundamentally, another word for a story. In the sense accountants use the term, it’s a story about financial transactions, and it is told to an auditor – literally, a hearer. These stories are not, for the most part, especially riveting. My point, however, is that like all narratives they construct a reality. In this case, the reality is based around arithmetic, which is itself an abstract view of the world, and what is being counted is money, which is not of itself a real thing.

Our oldest written records are financial accounts, but when they speak (for instance) of the movement of ingots of silver there is good reason to believe that no physical ingots ever stirred from the temple treasuries in which they resided. As I have discussed previously, we should always bear in mind that money is not the same thing as wealth. Interested readers are referred to the works of Michael Hudson concerning ancient Mesopotamian economics, and to the late David Graeber’s excellent Debt: The First 5,000 Years (Melville House Publishing, 2013).

Now the idea behind keeping accounts is to have an accurate and verifiable record of financial transactions – originally for the purposes of keeping track of tax liabilities and payments, but the practice is now used by pretty much any organisation that uses money, which is all of them. But like any account of the truth, it is capable of being adapted for the narrator’s own purposes. “Creative accounting” is not a compliment. It is the kind of thing that led to the collapse of Enron, and when people are caught doing it they can end up doing prison time.

Because accounts are supposed to be a true description of affairs. That is their whole value. For this reason, we have a system of supposedly independent scrutiny by external auditors which is meant to ensure this. Notoriously, Enron’s auditors, Arthur Andersen, failed spectacularly in this regard. But without going to such extremes, accountants can choose to represent basically the same underlying facts in different ways in order, for example, to reduce their client’s liability to taxation. Whatever you may think of the morality of this, it is perfectly legal and quite a substantial industry in its own right.

This is an example of how changing the narrative can have real-world effects. I remember hearing the political economist Mark Blyth remark in a lecture that in the previous year he personally had paid more tax than America Airlines did. A further real-world effect of this might well be, as he went on to suggest, that Americans would cease to be willing to put up with this sort of thing, which might not be such good news from American Airlines’ point of view.

Now this may be reprehensible in the financial sphere, but it’s downright dangerous when we apply the accounting mentality to other things, as we are so prone to do. The poster child for this is CO2 emissions. Many industrialised nations claim to have reduced their emissions when in fact what they have done is offshored them – that is, transferred them to the balance-sheet of some other, poorer nation. This completely overlooks the central fact that the global levels of actual, physical CO2 in the atmosphere are what counts.

Massaging statistics does not and cannot affect the underlying realities. The map is not the territory, nor the accounts the reality they describe. Our physical environment is not a tax system. You might be able to fool the Inland Revenue, but not Mother Nature. This goes for all other forms of pollution, depletion of fossil fuels and other natural resources, social issues, and so on. The stories we tell ourselves will not help us unless they relate usefully to what it actually happening and suggest practical action.

As I write these words, COP26 has yet to produce a definitive agreed text. I very much doubt whether that text, when it emerges – and something or other will have to emerge to justify the thing being held – will meet either of those criteria. There will be pledges. There will be nice-sounding generalisations. There will be continued growth in CO2 emissions and in all the other harms we are perpetrating to the living world to which we belong and on which we depend.

Nothing to see here, move along.

We no longer have the luxury of pretending that manipulating numbers in Excel is the same thing as making effective change in the world. We’ll probably keep on doing it, of course, because it’s what we do. But there will be a reckoning, and it will entail more than just a tax bill.

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

On the failure of imagination

What it will be Questiond When the Sun rises do you not see a round Disk of fire somewhat like a Guinea O no no I see an Innumerable company of the Heavenly host crying Holy Holy Holy is the Lord God Almighty…

William Blake, Vision of the Last Judgment

One of the many crises that industrial civilisation is currently facing, and to my mind one of the most serious, is a crisis of imagination. Indeed, an active imagination is something we fear, to the point of declaring it pathological. If William Blake were alive today he would almost certainly be on some fairly heavy-duty medication.

Part of this is down to a cumbersome literal-mindedness that stems, I suspect, from the feeling that scientific discourse is the only vehicle of truth. Now the language of science is plain to the point of sterility – a scientific instrument 27 km (over 19 miles) across can only garner the adjective “large” even in a language unusually rich in adjectives denoting size (Ginormous Hadron Collider, anyone?). There is no room for ambiguity, let alone metaphor; it is like the Republic from which Plato wished to banish poets. But this is itself a rhetorical stance. When Julius Caesar wished to cultivate the image of a plain-speaking soldier, he published accounts of his wars in langage so simple that they are still used as introductory texts for students of Latin. This wasn’t because he was a plain-speaking soldier; he just wished to be taken for one.

In the same way, the authors of scientific papers wish to be taken for infallible oracles of truth. That’s fine so long as we realise that that’s what they’re doing. Certainly there are other ways of thinking, speaking and writing that also provide access to truths, not necessarily the same kinds of truths they are looking for at CERN, but nevertheless of value. And these are the truths we are lacking today, or so it seems to me.

When Shakespeare’s plays were originally produced, not only was Othello played by a white actor but all the female parts were played by men. Contemporary audiences nevertheless had no difficulty in believing in Romeo’s passion for Juliet, or Antony’s obsession with Cleopatra. You’d have a hard time staging a Shakespeare play that way now. (Having all the male parts played by women is apparently fine, though.)

All this would be merely sad – very sad, granted, but nothing more – except for the way this lack of imagination deprives us of possibilities for life and indeed survival. If there was ever a moment in our history when we needed to think outside the proverbial box, this is it. Because if we don’t, this is our situation:

You are here.

Industrial civilisation is predicated on consuming resources and turning them into unusable waste. That is what it does, always has done, and as far as I can see always will do. Some of those resources are intrinsically finite, like petroleum, and those that could be renewed in principle it tends to consume at rates that exceed replacement levels, like fish. “Decoupling” economic growth is a fantasy born of wishful thinking and blind faith that accounting tricks can accomplish things in the physical universe.

Continuing in a straight line along the same path – or, to use the popular word, “progress” – is not a viable option. As I write this, COP 26 has just begun in Glasgow. This is an international conference intended to address the issue of climate change. As its name suggests, there have already been twenty-five of these, and climate change is still merrily trucking along. And of course climate change is just one of the issues we face at the present time. We are not even holding ineffectual talking-shops when it comes to ocean acidification, biodiversity loss, or pollution.

So there are fundamental questions about the way we live that need to be addressed, and addressed quickly. We’ve been kicking the can down the road for a long time now, and it has been joined by plenty of other cans, to the point where we now have to kick this down the road:

This is just going to hurt your toe.

There’s an old saying that if you find yourself in a hole you should stop digging. That’s certainly true, and anything we can do, individually or collectively, to slow down the insanity has to be the first step. And I do not mean buying a Tesla: I mean consuming less, consuming more responsibly, and if at all possible giving the living world some breathing-room. We can’t all be Isabella Tree, but that must be the correct direction of travel.

And this is going to mean discarding many of the assumptions we have all grown up taking for granted. A “good job” is not one that facilitates the extraction and consumption of resources – what with rich if unconscious irony we call “productivity.” Not is it one that allows us to consume more of those resources ourselves. Maybe the individual is not the be-all and end-all. Maybe you don’t actually need that new iPhone. Maybe your life would be better if you didn’t own a smartphone at all.

People have lived sustainable lives on this planet for many millennia – at least two hundred of them. It can be done. The mere fact that you and I are alive today proves that. More than that, it can be done in ways that are at least as pleasant and fulfilling as driving a van for Amazon or developing pointless smartphone apps or writing reports. We have been mis-educated to imagine that all human life prior to the Industrial Revolution was so miserable as not to have been worth living. Arguably much human life during and after that revolution might deserve that description, but a lot of people before and outside industrial civilisation have been, and are, a good deal happier than we like to admit.

Because consuming stuff is not, ultimately, very satisfying. This is one of the few points on which all the major religions agree, and frankly it’s amply confirmed by experience. We don’t need industrial capitalism. Certainly, if the choice is between that and the extinction of most life on this planet – and I believe it is – it’s hardly a difficult one.

The difficulty lies in untangling ourselves from the mind-bogglingly complex web in which this way of living has enmeshed us. But that web is already starting to unravel. We can help that process along by buying less, making do, learning skills so that we can do more for ourselves rather than depending on the industrial economy to provide. The ongoing supply chain issues should already be teaching us that, but of course we can’t imagine a world in which the shelves are not magically refilled. But that’s the world we’re going to be living in.

All of this is going to require creative thinking and adaptability, which are qualities our culture has taken pains to educate out of us for many years now. The good news, so far as it goes, is that the process has only been partially successful. We still have imagination; and to quote Blake once more: “Imagination is the real and eternal world of which this vegetable universe is but a faint shadow.”

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

On pollution

It isn’t pollution that’s harming the environment. It’s the impurities in our air and water that are doing it.

T. Danforth Quayle

When I first became aware of environmental issues back in the 1970s, pollution was a hot topic. Whether it was the use of pesticides like DDT, oil spills (as in the wreck of the Torrey Canyon), the problem of nuclear waste, or the disposal of toxic chemicals (as in the Love Canal disaster), pollution was big news. Nowadays, unless you count the excessive levels of CO2 in the atmosphere, not so much. Why is this?

Before I answer this question, I’d like to divide pollution into two categories. First, there are substances that exist naturally but which we have either put somewhere inappropriate, as in an oil spill, or in inappropriate quantities, as with CO2. Crude oil and CO2 both occur naturally on this planet, but crude oil does not belong off the coast of Cornwall and CO2 should not constitute 412.5 parts per million of the atmosphere, or not if we want good things to happen. There are natural mechanisms that will eventually take care of these things, although not necessarily in ways which we will like. This kind of pollution is bad, no question, but it doesn’t necessarily mean the end of the biosphere as a whole. Large tracts of it, sure, but those tracts don’t affect our shareholders, so that makes it an externality, right?

The second type of pollution consists of substances that do not occur in nature. (Clever old Homo sapiens, eh?) I’m thinking here of things like Strontium-90 or PFAS. As far as I know, the living world presently has no good way of coping with these things. We’re merrily putting them out there in the blind hope that everything will be fine. After all, everything was fine yesterday – well, mostly fine – so everything will be fine tomorrow. Apart from the things that aren’t, and we obviously need more research to prove that those things are anything to do with us.

Possibly a big boy did it and ran off. As I say, more research is needed.

I think we’ve stopped having a conversation about pollution because everyone knows it’s going on – and on an epic and ever-increasing scale – but nobody wants to take responsibility for it or to accept the realities of a world in which it stops happening. And this is the real point. Because we are responsible – you are, I am, every member of industrial civilisation is. We demanded more and cheaper electricity, so nuclear power stations were invented; hence Strontium-90 and all the other nasties that result from that. (Oh yes, and electric cars are going to save the world. Right.)

Once upon a time there was a slogan that went like this: “Reduce, reuse, recycle.” Well, of course reducing resource or energy use will be bad for economic growth, so that had to be discarded. Likewise reusing stuff implies buying less new stuff, which is likewise bad for growth, so chuck that one as well. Recycling might be okay if someone can make money out of it, but these days it mostly means sending stuff to China to go into a landfill somewhere. (Which it makes it into pollution, of course.)

If you’ve ever drunk alcohol, you have been involved in a little fable about pollution. Yeasts break down organic matter – almost any organic matter – into sugars, which they then use as food. Alcohol is a by-product of this process. From yeast’s point of view, it is excrement. Above a certain level, it is toxic to yeast (and indeed to people). The sediment at the bottom of a barrel of wine or beer consists of yeast which has drowned in its own excrement. I’d call this a sobering thought if that weren’t a contradiction in terms.

We are not, yet, drowning in our own excrement. But it isn’t hard to see how this could occur, perhaps in a more varied and colourful way than the yeast in a wine-barrel, but just as inevitably. And unlike yeast, we will be taking a lot more lives with us as we go. Nobody knows exactly how many species we are driving to extinction by our activities, but the ballpark figure is around two hundred per day. Per day. And that number is rising.

Think about that for a moment. Think about that in the context of the interconnectedness of all life on this planet – which includes you, dear reader. Imagine that you lived at the top of a tall building, and that every day someone randomly knocked out two hundred bricks from the fabric of that building. Would you feel secure? I wouldn’t. I don’t.

We do a lot of things that are inimical to life on this planet. Pollution is only one of them. We cut down forests. We hunt species to extinction. We invade and destroy unique habitats. We do these things not because we need to, but because we choose to – not explicitly, in many cases, but implicitly. If I choose to drive a car, I choose the oil industry, and all the pollution that entails. (Even if I drive an electric car, how is it lubricated? And where does the electricity come from? Not to mention the steel it’s made from, and all the exotic minerals that go into the electronics. And so forth.) If I choose to use a computer, I choose the semiconductor industry, and all the pollution that entails. And so on. This is how industrial civilisation rolls. We all know this, on some level.

Trouble is, this is both horrible and impractical. It’s like heating your house by cremating your immediate family. Not only is that sickening, pretty soon you’re going to run out of children. And that’s where we are.

Sorry if this is a downer, but, well, that’s how it is.

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