You entrusted your money to people who eat smoked guillemot?

You entrusted your money to people who eat smoked guillemot?

I was in the UK in 2008 and 2009 when the Icesave banking disaster happened, and the UK government rushed to use anti-terrorism legislation to try and protect the money of British investors. There were something like 300,000 “ordinary” British and Dutch investors with money in Icesave accounts, and when the disaster happened all but the first 20,000 pounds or so were not protected by deposit insurance, so the UK government acted to try and protect the full deposits of the savers. I remember this clearly [although, probably not details of dates and money amounts] because one of my colleagues at the time had 120,000 pounds parked in such an account, the proceeds of selling her house, and was looking forward to using the money – inflated by the high interest – to buy her next one, and she was understandably distraught when she woke up to discover it had vanished into volcanic smoke.

I also remember at the time that there was a lot of anger in the British public, not only at Iceland, but also at the British government for guaranteeing the deposits of people who were basically risking their money to get a higher rate of return. I often heard the refrain “they knew the risks” and many people pointed out at the time that higher interest rates usually correspond with higher risk, and these people could have had their money protected if they had taken more reasonable risks in a UK bank. This rhetoric probably wasn’t based entirely in fact, since British deposits weren’t fully guaranteed, and the UK government had to rush to assure large deposits in Northern Rock after it failed[1], but the general rhetorical principle was correct, British banks were safer than Iceland banks and had a correspondingly lower rate of return. The question was asked: should we bail out people who knew the risks they were taking? (Incidentally, I didn’t actually know at that time that a slightly higher rate of interest in a country that I assumed had good banking laws was a sign of higher risk; as a result of the rhetoric of that period I reassessed my involvement in an ING online account that is now defunct).

I can’t easily find articles online from the time that say these things, but I don’t think my memory is wrong. This comment by an academic from McGill University (Canada) makes the point that investors should wear the risk; this blog roundup suggests that many economists thought it was right for Iceland to refuse to protect investors, and indeed Christine Lagarde of the IMF thought Iceland took the right approach. I can’t find any articles directly demanding that deposit holders should carry their risk, but I do remember it being a commonly-stated view at the time, and the view that Iceland did the “right thing” by telling investors to take a haircut is well-accepted, I think, as is the view that it has recovered better than those economies that did not. A subsidiary view, that deposit insurance creates moral hazard, is widely broadcast I think and is consistent with the idea that if you want to get a high rate of return on your deposit you need to be willing to accept the risk that you will lose it, pour encourage les autres. So I don’t think I’m wrong about this perspective and how it was broadcast at the time even if I can’t find written evidence.

The idea that “investors” should wear the risk they take when chasing big profits seems completely reasonable, until one remembers that in this case the investors (and ultimately the creditors) for Icesave included depositors, that is ordinary people who put money in a high-risk/high-return account hoping for a short term gain. It seemed at the time that a lot of people were comfortable with the idea that creditors should just put up with their haircut, and depositors “knew the risks.”

So it’s interesting to compare this rhetoric with the rhetoric surrounding Greece’s recent troubles. Much of the rhetoric about Greece focuses on its profligacy, the easy-spending nature of the Greeks, their corruption, their crazy ideas that they could just keep taking on more debt and spending it however they want. You don’t see much rhetoric (or at least, I haven’t) questioning why people were willing to lend them all this money, and why their creditors are now so heavily exposed. Remember that for every debtor there is a creditor, and the creditor wouldn’t be lending the money if they didn’t want to, i.e. if they weren’t benefiting from it. When Icesave collapsed the greedy motives of the creditors (and, implicitly or explicitly, the depositors who make up a certain proportion of those creditors) was front and centre in the debate, but it’s strangely absent from the Greek debate. We know that in the early stages of its crisis Greece had to take on a lot of public debt to bail out banks that were in trouble; at the time of writing it appears that private debt constitutes about 60bn euros of Greece’s total, which would have been about 30% of the total debt before the collapse. Why were these people lending money to a country that was cooking its books, had apparently obviously unsustainable pension and welfare systems, and an entire population that we are now told were slurping up ouzo down by the beach rather than working 12 hour days like Germans? These creditors didn’t have to lend this money, they could have bought German bonds or Iranian nuclear futures or something more solid and reliable. They loaned money to Greece because up until the crisis Greece’s economy was growing faster than anywhere else in Europe, everyone wanted a slice of that golden Greek sunshine, and basically they thought they could make their motza[2] and get out before the whole shebang went tits-up. i.e., they were greedy. Yet nowhere do we hear tell of their greediness – even though at the same time as their golden goose was turning barren, Icesave depositors were copping flak in the press and the public for being greedy and reckless.

Why is that?

We also shouldn’t stop with these faceless private lenders, who are no doubt lounging around in a gold-plated yacht off some private Greek Island, fluffy white cat firmly en-lapped. We can also wonder why none of this rhetoric of recklessness extends to the dour and responsible Germans. Germany has 60bn Euros sunk in the Greek project, and it is earning a healthy rate of interest. Germany, the country that has never paid its debts, the ultimate trust fund kid, is now strangely insistent on Greece paying its debts, and no one anywhere is questioning why Germany is so exposed to the economy of a country it has deplored as reckless, irresponsible, intransigent and wayward (indeed, worse than Iran if we are to judge by their negotiating results). A handful of eurozone countries have something north of 200 bn Euros sunk into the Greek project, and we now know that they are making a lot of money from this little act of charity: the Guardian’s live blog today tells us that David Cameron is contemplating demanding some of the 1.9bn Euros in profit that the ECB has made from its loans to Greece (though it doesn’t tell us over what period that profit was made). How come this fact – that the eurozone lenders are making fat scads of cash – is not being broadcast widely, as the Icesave depositors’ greedy winnings were being broadcast in 2008? Instead of this morality play, we are constantly reminded that the German taxpayer doesn’t want to have to cough up his or her hard-earned dollars to cover Greek mistakes. Yet right now the German taxpayer is making money from this debacle, so shouldn’t we be instead asking why the German taxpayer tolerates his or her government sinking 60bn Euros into a high-risk, high short-term profit venture in junk bonds? Germany is a responsible country, we’re told, whose taxpayers don’t take risks – at the same time as the media carefully avoids reporting on the big money Germany stands to make if Greece doesn’t default.

The situations aren’t exactly the same of course, and people could argue that the eurozone nations didn’t have a choice – they aren’t loaning this money because they want to, the poor darlings, they’re doing it to save Greece and the euro project. But they did have choices, many choices: they could have told those (primarily French and German) banks to fail, as Iceland did, back at the beginning of the crisis; they could have rushed through some changes to the welfare transfers in the EU to ensure that Greece received direct payments rather than loans[3]; they could have printed money and handed it to the banks, as the UK and US did; they could have raised debt in their own countries, which are much less financially at risk, and provided it as a grant or something; they could have told Greece to find the money on private money markets. But they didn’t, they chose to lend money to Greece on terms that just happen to deliver them large profits – profits that are likely larger than they could have got from e.g. buying each others’ government bonds, or investing in the kind of low-return portfolios that would be politically acceptable to their electorates. And it just so happens that, since they control the mechanism by which Greece generates the repayments of those debts, they are able to turn the screws to ensure the money keeps coming – unlike those investors in Icelandic banks, who have no direct means of control over Icelandic politics and economy (and anyone from Britain who is old enough to know about the Cod Wars should surely know how hard it is to control Iceland!)

And all while this was going on, we were being told about how irresponsible ordinary depositors were to put their money in a bank that had a high interest rate. It’s almost as if the morality underlying the rhetoric depends entirely on the people who took the risks …

Fn1: Northern Rock was then run by famous climate change denialist Matt Ridley, which one should always remember when one is considering how far our modern banks have sunk, and how much one should trust the risk assessment abilities of climate change denialists.

Fn2: This is a Greek word, trust me, I’m Australian so I know Greek slang

Fn3: Something you might argue is hard to do, but it appears that today the leaders of the ESMF have been able to magic up 20 billion euros from the Common Agricultural Policy, in order to find a way to provide rapid finance without leaning on the ECB[4]

Fn4: Which makes one wonder, doesn’t it? Have these people been listening to the Greek government when it tells them how fucked it is? Had they not noticed? They just spent two days arguing with a Greek dude about whether to give him any money, and after they agree they find they don’t have any mechanism to provide the money, and he needs it now and he’s been telling them that for weeks! Perhaps instead of spending that two days arguing, they could have spent it more productively looking for their wallet.

At least it's not debt relief!

At least it’s not debt relief!

This week the European Union was involved in two major deals that settled two outstanding issues. One involved a long-standing issue that posed a threat to global economic prosperity, with an intransigent and corrupt government that consistently refused to adhere to past agreements, was not transparent about its activities, consistently responded to criticism of its activities with aggressive and nationalist rhetoric, and was suffering serious economic problems that required it to rapidly come to a deal that the rest of the world could agree to. The other involved Greece.

The first of these two deals is, of course, the Iranian nuclear deal, which sees Iran keep its peaceful nuclear program and the vindication of its claim to a right to peaceful nuclear power, despite 10 years of obfuscation, secret development, and often dangerously inflammatory rhetoric. For much of that time Iran has been actively undermining US foreign policy interests in the region, including those of its allies, and any concessions to Iran are widely seen as both an insult and a threat to the US’s regional allies. But somehow the EU plus Russia and the USA managed to come up with a genuine compromise that respects Iranian sovereignty, allows it to continue to broadly control (and in many ways, expand) its nuclear science program, eases sanctions and gives security guarantees to the whole region. This deal is realistic about the realpolitik of the region, sensitive to the levers required to influence a sovereign nation’s domestic policy, and mindful of the long-term sustainability of the actions proposed. On a first reading it seems like a masterpiece of cooperative diplomacy.

In contrast, in the same week the EU managed to come up with a completely reprehensible deal that crushes Greek national sovereignty, removes all national control over the key levers of the economy, and doesn’t offer any promise that the problem will go away in 5, 10 or even 30 years. It is both ignorant of the underlying economics of the problem and completely unrealistic about what can be achieved with the policy levers available. On a first reading, it seems like a dog’s breakfast of coercion and wishful thinking.

How could the EU have come up with two such radically different deals in the same week? Ostensibly the former concerns a much greater threat – nuclear proliferation – from a much less tractable nation that shares no strong cultural, political or even geographic ties with any of the nations involved, while the latter involves an ultimately manageable debt crisis in an allied country with strong cultural, political and geographic ties. The latter problem could have been solved by unilateral EU fiat (debt relief) while the former required cooperation from the other power. Yet the deal on Greece has been forged as if that unilateral action were inconceivable, while the deal with Iran has taken a nuanced approach to the real challenges of securing cooperation from such a belligerent negotiating partner. I don’t believe that anyone negotiating with Iran really believed that Iran has a nuclear weapon, so they weren’t negotiating under such a threat, so it appears that they really, genuinely have just tried to come to good terms. It’s not even the case that oil diplomacy or regional military concerns could have been that influential – oil is losing its importance as a geostrategic asset (and will rapidly drop in value as global warming bites), and although Iran has something to offer the US in dealing with ISIS, it is effectively militarily contained.

So what drove this difference? My suspicion is that the economic ideologies underlying the politics of most developed nations are now so completely unhinged and divorced from reality that it is impossible for them to negotiate reasonably in a sovereign debt crisis. They don’t (or won’t) understand fiat currencies, and won’t act with the authority and power that proper understanding of fiat currencies gives, so their negotiations have to be conducted in such a way as to carefully skirt around the actual economic facts in evidence. Connected with this is the related problem of ideologies and moralities – about work ethics, deserving vs undeserving poor, leaners and lifters – that are really hangovers from 100 years ago, and have no place in modern economic discourse (whether sub-national or international). In comparison, the nations involved in negotiating with Iran remain very cognizant and accepting of the basic principles of realpolitik and so are able to incorporate them into decision making and policy development. Hence the apparently bipolar mind at work on these two deals.

An alternative explanation is that negotiations with Greece involved only the EU central powers, whereas negotiations with Iran involved Obama and Putin – who at the moment are looking waaaay saner than the European leadership …

In recent days there has been a tiny bit of discussion on this blog about whether a group of 9 unelected philosopher-kings should be able to decide social issues for 330 million people, so it seems appropriate that I turn my attention briefly to the chaos rolling over Europe and the threat of a Greek exit from the EU. From the outside looking in it seems like the three main powers involved in this shit-show (the European Central Bank, IMF and European Commission) have refused to give any serious ground on their demands, even though these demands are obviously not going to help Greece out of its crisis, and have instead decided to essentially dictate to Greece the terms of its fiscal, labour, welfare and banking policies. Given that they are well aware of how much their austerity policies have failed, and know full well that Syriza was voted in on the promise of no more austerity, it’s just ridiculous bloody-mindedness that drives them to force their ultimatum on Greece. The ECB even appears to have withdrawn its standard emergency credit line for banks experiencing instability, without any justification. They’ve basically made clear to Greece that they won’t accept any political options except those that suit their ideology. This is not how politics works, and it’s no surprise that under this pressure Syriza have decided to tell the troika to jump. Paul Krugman (who for some reason I never normally read) has a particularly deft explanation of this referendum decision:

until now Syriza has been in an awkward place politically, with voters both furious at ever-greater demands for austerity and unwilling to leave the euro. It has always been hard to see how these desires could be reconciled; it’s even harder now. The referendum will, in effect, ask voters to choose their priority, and give Tsipras a mandate to do what he must if the troika pushes it all the way

This is how politics should work, and giving Greece a week of grace to sort this out and set a clear future path would be a good way to indicate respect for its political autonomy. This is also the reason that David Cameron’s promise of an in-out referendum, though insane for Britain, is politically the right thing to do. Tsipras has taken the chance to make sure that his country’s decision is politically validated, and that he can make his final decision about the euro from a position of democratic legitimacy; the leaders of the EU’s main powers are flabbergasted by this, and the troika are confused. It appears that they don’t understand where their authority ends and the democratic demands of the people of Europe begins, and it looks as if a lot of Greek people are going to have to go through a fair amount of pain in order to teach them. This is disappointing, given the states involved are apparently all democratic, and it gives the lie to what I think is increasingly shaping up as the central fiction of the European project: that it can stop another war in Europe.

The EU is a fairweather friend

This isn’t the first piece of brinksmanship that has been deployed by an EU member in recent time. A few weeks ago Italy’s prime minister, Matteo Renzi, threatened to issue Schengen visas to refugees coming from Africa and send them on to other parts of Europe, after it was revealed that not only were other countries doing nothing to help, but German, French and Swiss authorities were turning migrants back at their borders, forcing Italy to manage both the rescue and the housing and welfare of tens of thousands of migrants – even though most of those migrants are hoping to move north to other parts of Europe. Basically Italy had to shoulder this whole burden because the rest of Europe has shown itself unwilling to help its members when they face serious problems. The same could also be said for the UK’s welfare and work problems: it is obvious that the UK is a preferred destination for migrant labour in Europe, because everyone in Europe learns English and the pound is so strong, but the EU has absolutely refused to bend the rules for the UK on welfare and migration issues.

You may not agree with the specific governments on any of these issues (I don’t agree with the UK, for example) but I should hope it’s obvious what the problem here is: the EU member states are fairweather friends. They can carefully hammer out a compromise agreement on a shared issue like the free movement of labour or the role of the ECB that will enable them to handle the normal, stable times, but they are completely unwilling to compromise their own interests for the greater good when extraordinary circumstances roll around. The free movement of labour is fine but sharing the resettlement of refugees is impossible, and will be left for the country that happens to be unlucky enough to get them first; shared work and welfare goals are fine but they absolutely won’t consider an exception for a country that is bearing an unusual proportion of the effects of those rules; stability targets are fine but no one is willing to risk either their ideological purity or their own taxpayers (Germany’s constant petty battle cry) when a shared financial crisis hits one of their weakest members unusually hard. Basically, the countries of Europe are behaving like fairweather friends who pat you on the back and congratulate you when you have a success, and are happy to split the bill at your Friday pizza-and-beer nights, but would rather you didn’t come if you’ve fallen on hard times and might like to skip paying for the odd Friday night. They’re happy to talk about helping you move house, or minding your pets while you visit a sick relative, but strangely they’re all busy when the time comes.

This is funny because the regular refrain we hear from the EU’s main sales merchants is that the EU establishes a bulwark against the risk of a future war in Europe. I’m sorry, but if the countries of the EU can’t come up with a mutually acceptable target for distributing 50,000 refugees among a population of 350 million without being threatened with an ultimatum, it’s unlikely that any one of them are going to pause for even the blink of an eye if war is in their interests. Indeed, while the EU rumbles on with its chaotic and obstinate mismanagement of what should have been a complete non-crisis in Greece, certain countries on the eastern edge are entertaining military antics by a non-EU member (the USA) that threatens to involve them in a war so catastrophic that they’ll all be running to Greece. If this is how you construct an “ever closer union of peoples” that will guarantee peace, then peace must be pretty easy to come by.

The reality is that war isn’t going to happen inside Europe because no one wants it, and the major powers are aging so fast that they are no longer able to field a decent war machine. I think this is great, and one of the many untold benefits of rapid aging, but I don’t think it has much at all to do with the European project, which is looking increasingly like a German/French alternative to colonialism, intended to drive down the competitiveness of the European periphery and ensure the centre gets access to reliable markets and a long-term pool of cheap labour. Students of history might suggest that this is exactly the wrong way to go about ensuring a non-chaotic future: the students of Greece are likely to soon provide an object lesson on the topic.

If the EU wants to retain any kind of democratic legitimacy, its member states need to think about how to rein in their executive, and start giving more credence to the (disparate) complaints of countries like Greece and the UK, about precisely how governance should work in such a confederacy. Because right now it’s looking like a couple of people from primarily northern and western powers think that they can dictate political terms to entire nations on the periphery. That’s empire, not union, and I think people are starting to notice …

Addendum: Joseph Stiglitz also seems to think that the EU is behaving poorly, and Krugman has a couple of pieces pointing out that Greece wasn’t as badly off as we are told, and austerity has really done Greece no favours.

This weekend I read the Turner Diaries, a famous and influential right-wing apocalyptic insurrection fantasy written in 1978. I picked up this nasty little piece of racist literature because of the recent events in the US, thinking to get a bit of background on the white nationalist terror threat in the USA, but I was amazed reading it by the similarities in ideology, vision and practice between US white nationalists terrorists and “Islamic State” (ISIS). In this post I want to review the book and explore some of these similarities.

Background: Don’t try this at home

The Turner Diaries were written in 1978 by William Luther Pierce, founder of a white nationalist organization called the National Alliance, and quickly became an inspiration for many white nationalist terrorists. The most striking influence was on Timothy McVeigh, whose truck bombing of a federal government building in Oklahoma City in 1995 almost exactly mirrors the first major action described in the book, but the Diaries also inspired many other people: the Anti-Defamation League has a page on the Diaries that charts their widespread influence in the white nationalist movement. I first discovered them in my early twenties, when I had a lover who grew up amongst Australia’s neo-Nazis, and although too young at the time to understand their politics was familiar with much of their iconography and inspirations. For many years the book was on sale at a famous alternative bookstore in Melbourne, Polyester, though I imagine it’s unavailable now if the warning on the internet archive version is any guide:

Ownership of this book might be illegal in the European Union, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. You must be at least 21 years or older in order to read this book because of the sexual and violent content. Parental Discretion is Advised!

Fortunately it’s not illegal in Japan as far as I know, and really easy to read on a smartphone, so a few hours later here I am better educated and definitely more disgusted. I read this book so you don’t have to, kids.

The book is the literary equivalent of found footage, purporting to be diaries from a revolutionary war in the USA that were found about 100 years later, and cast light on central events of the time through the eyes of an activist who rose to legendary status in the movement through his sacrifice. It is short, and has that property of narrative coherence and good pace that makes it a page turner (or, I guess, in the modern era, swiper) even though its characterization is shallow and its story devices occasionally ridiculous. No one in this story is likable – and trust me, until you read what these people think and are willing to do, you really haven’t plumbed the depths of what unlikable means – but the plot will keep you involved in their horrid schemes and potential successes even while you are mentally urgently in need of serious disinfection. I guess this is why it was popular with the kind of “visionaries” who blow up kindergartens

The diaries describe the actions of members of a racist insurrectionist movement called “the Organization” that starts off small and ultimately takes over the US and then the world, using a mixture of terrorism and then nuclear warfare. To give an idea of the vision that this book describes:

  • Once they win the USA they solve “the Chinese problem” by nuking everything between the Urals and the Pacific Ocean, creating what they call the “Eastern Wasteland”
  • They don’t have a racial model based on heirarchies and slavery, as the Nazis did: anyone not white is killed across the whole planet. There are no untermenschen here, just white people and dead people
  • They “win” their battle with the US government by starting a nuclear war with the Soviet Union, leading to the destruction of most major cities in the USA and the death of upwards of 60 million people, but they consider to be a worthwhile sacrifice

Being found footage, this book has parenthetical notes describing the “past” depicted in the book: this includes a note telling the reader what “negroes” are, since this race has been exterminated from the entire planet. The book also has a couple of chilling asides in which the diarist describes Nazi Germany as good and decries the fact that they were stopped in their project. It also has a vicious scene where every mixed-race, non-black and non-white person in California – i.e. every Asian, every American of southern European descent, every native American and anyone of dubious heritage is marched into a canyon and murdered. This is racial purity of the most extreme form, and make no mistake: this was the visionary novel that America’s white nationalist terrorists were inspired by.

It also has some ridiculous plot devices, such as the silly idea that the white nationalist Californian enclave is able to start a nuclear war with the Soviet Union but doesn’t itself get nuked back to the stone age.  But for analytical purposes, I’m willing to overlook these slips in the interests of understanding exterminationist ideology.

The Diaries’ Similarities with ISIS

The Diaries have certainly stood the test of time, in that some of the scenes described in them have been enacted by various terrorist groups over time. Obviously they have a striking similarity with the Oklahoma bombing, since they inspired it, but that is just the start of their inventiveness. Other similarities include:

  • The Organization detonates a huge bomb on September 11th that kills 4000 people and leaves a part of a city burning for several days
  • They attack a newspaper they dislike, culminating in killing its editorial writer [at his house, not the offices, but I think the similarities should be clear]
  • They deploy a dirty bomb to render a major power station inoperable
  • Beheading is one of their favourite tactics once they become operational in the field

The tactics described in the Diaries also have specific commonalities with ISIS tactics. In addition to the beheadings, they are very fond of filming executions and broadcasting them:

That’s where we were taking the big-shots to be hanged: the well-known politicians, a number of prominent Hollywood actors and actresses, and several TV personalities. If we had strung them up in front of their homes like everyone else, only a few people would have seen them, and we wanted their example to be instructive to a much wider audience. For the same reason many of the priests on our lists were taken to one of three large churches where we had TV crews set up to broadcast their executions.

This is a new, very modern phenomenon in mass murder, which we see from ISIS a lot. Government regimes like to hide their massacres, but terrorists need to broadcast them. Note also the choice of targets: not agents, technical staff and those who are implacably ideologically opposed to the force, but people whose actions and lifestyles represent a moral transgression. States kill people who threaten them materially, or fit into a category of useless people conveniently-scapegoated; modern terrorists murder people who have symbolic value, but who might otherwise be valuable. Their ideology doesn’t care whether you could be converted to the cause and used, because it is far more interested in making a spectacle out of punishing you for your transgressions.

These transgressions, note, are racial, or derive from crimes against race that the “criminals” didn’t even know were illegal until the new order swept over them – just as many of ISIS’s victims didn’t know they were doing anything wrong until ISIS arrived. On Monday you’re a tobacco salesperson, on Tuesday you’re a criminal about to be executed. This is ideological purity at its craziest.

Descriptions of cities “liberated” from racial miscegenation by the Organization also seem eerily similar to what we have heard of ISIS territory. They are depopulated, full of dead bodies, and struggling to find food and basic supplies, often for weeks, as the Organization is tiny, rules by terror and doesn’t have the manpower to maintain security and distribute food. It has also made clear that it isn’t interested in capitalism or markets, and its activities are completely disruptive of any kind of economic activity. At one point – having nuked much of America – the Organization’s enclaves are so desperate for food that they cannot take in even white survivors. Here is their solution:

In Detroit the practice was first established (and it was later adopted elsewhere) of providing any able-bodied White male who sought admittance to the Organization’s enclave with one hot meal and a bayonet or other edged weapon. His forehead was then marked with an indelible dye, and he was turned out and could be readmitted permanently only by bringing back the head of a freshly killed Black or other non-White. This practice assured that precious food would not be wasted on those who would not or could not add to the Organization’s fighting strength, but it took a terrible toll of the weaker and more decadent White elements.

Welcome to your racially-pure wonderland, honky… The similarities between this desperation and the desperation we are told is common in ISIS-held areas is noticeable. These people think they hold the key to the promised land but their millenial rage has so destroyed the world around them that they cannot help their own.

The “terrible toll of the weaker” alluded to in the above passage is another common element of ISIS and Organization tactics, though it points more to a moral than an organizational failing. Both organizations have an ideology of purity so extreme and powerful that they have developed a position of harsh judgment on almost everyone they are supposed to be helping. It is very clear in the Turner Diaries that the Organization considers the majority of white people to be stupid chumps who have brought about their own decay, and they are responsible for their own bad position through a lack of racial awareness. Although salvation of the white race is their aim, they don’t have any sympathy or compassion for individuals. The Diaries’ putative writer and his girlfriend at one point manage to ambush four black men and two “white sluts” with them, and kill all six, even though two are white, because those two have degenerated – no effort is made to explain to them how they have transgressed against a code they didn’t even know existed. This is early in the book; later this scales to the complete destruction of New York, the white population of which is dismissed because it allowed itself to be miscegenated. There are several passages in the book that justify this in terms of both racial survival and moral laxity: only those white people who can show they are able to “wake up” to the sick and insane racial fantasies of the Organization are guaranteed salvation, with the rest only offered salvation where it is convenient. This is very consistent with ISIS’s extreme ideology, which both punishes people for any kind of minor past infractions against a strict religious standard, and treats Sunni adherents as cheap collateral in its war goals: those who didn’t think to get enlightened and join ISIS are expendable, because they don’t have the purity and commitment that would justify any effort to spare them.

Finally, there is a similarity in targets. In addition to newspapers and politicians, the Organization targets actors and actresses, supreme court justices, and conservative politicians. There are multiple passages in the book railing against conservative politicians, who are racist but not willing to make the extreme steps necessary to see in the new world order. This is similar to ISIS, who consider Hamas and the Islamic Brotherhood to be apostates for considering the use of democracy or negotiation to achieve their aims. The Diaries have an early scene where a cell member is revealed to be “merely” a conservative: they execute him because he doesn’t support their nihilistic form of revolutionary activity. Later on, too, they have to fight a military enclave in Washington State that is run by “conservative” military folks, who want to restore the constitution: they deal with such anathema in an appropriately brutal way. All rival political ideologies, no matter how similar to theirs in goals, are judged impure and dealt with in the same vengeful and exterminationist way. The battle between the Organization and “conservatives” (and libertarians!) in the Diaries is similar to that between ISIS and al Qaeda. There is also a striking similarity in attitude towards people who share the Organization’s broad beliefs but were willing to compromise in order to get rich – these men get very short shrift, and strike me as very similar to the way some of the Sunni sheikhs were treated by ISIS.

The eternal terrorist

This would be simply fanciful rhetoric, except that the Diaries have inspired serious terrorists, and are very popular amongst white nationalists: they represent a real and genuine expression of the vision and goals of the white nationalist movement, which is also the oldest terrorist threat in the USA. The KKK, the original white terrorist movement, formed during the reconstruction era and was around until the end of the civil rights movement, only to be replaced by the network of arseholes that produced Timothy McVeigh. Since then the movement has subsided, and seems to have collapsed into just lone wolf idiots, but historically it was the greatest threat to American domestic security for 100 years. Now a similar movement of nihilistic, destructive purity has arisen in the Middle East, with similarly apocalyptic and violently exclusionary goals, and most analyses of this phenomenon are treating it as if it were unique. My reading of the Turner Diaries suggests that it is not unique at all: it is actually a sadly derivative form of terrorism, just terrorism, with the same ideological framework as white nationalism, and remarkably similar targets. Of course it has been more successful than white nationalism in the USA, but that’s because it sprang up in a situation closely resembling chapter 25 of the Turner Diaries rather than chapter 1.

I don’t know what produces this apocalyptic vision of society, and this antagonistic understanding of the causes of society’s problems, but it looks to me like a lot of terrorists hold it in common, and that people as vastly different as Baghdadi and Turner can have a very similar vision of who their enemies are and how to deal with them. It must be something very common to the human condition, and I don’t know what should be done about it, but my reading of the Turner Diaries, and my understanding of their influence, tells me one simple thing: ISIS aren’t new, or alien to western experience, although we might like to think so. They share a lot with the dark heart of our own racist past, and maybe if we look back there we can find ways to stop these movements from happening in future. Maybe the enemy really is us.

 

British elections primarily interest me from a watching-the-train-continue-to-crash perspective, because I don’t think the UK has much to teach the rest of the world on how to run a social democracy well. The electoral system is completely broken; their Tories are the very picture-perfect image of the born-to-rule upper class who don’t care, their Labour party is weak and achieved its only long run in modern politics by electing a vampire; their only “functioning” industry is banking, and by extension the only economic plan either party has is to keep bankers rich and use the taxes to buy off everyone else; and their media are rotten. However, there are two aspects of British elections that interest me from a policy perspective: what they are going to do about the NHS, and what they are going to do about their terrible education system.

Before the election I was going to write about both of these, but got lazy. My first post was intended to be about the perils for Labour of “weaponising” the NHS (which I think they obviously have done), but the election outcome kind of made my point for me on that regard. However my second post was going to be about Labour’s education policy, which seemed to be the most sensible thing anyone had presented in the entire election period and thus, of course, the only thing that got no coverage. Sadly, that election policy is now going to be dead for at least five years, which leaves the Tories free to pursue their ideologically-driven and intellectually bankrupt, evidence-free Free Schools Policy.

The Labour education policy included two interesting and positive moves, and one very realistic and sensible principle. The first, and in my opinion biggest, move was a plan to make mathematics education compulsory to 18 years. As someone with a strong bias towards maths education, and someone who thinks that mathematics ability is more about education than talent, this plan really appealed to me as a way to turn around Britain’s woeful mathematics performance. The policy received support from an Oxford mathematics professor, du Simonyi, who is kind of famous, and also from the head of Britain’s National Numeracy charity, who said

We really need to challenge negative attitudes that assume that maths is a ‘can do’ or ‘can’t do’ subject. It is not. Everyone can – with effort and persistence – learn the maths they need for everyday life and work

Which is something I very strongly agree with, but something which apparently many British children are struggling to realize, with the result that Britain consistently underperforms its OECD peers in mathematics. It’s really sad to me that the country that did more than any other to advance statistics and mathematics has decided to abandon the census, and basically given away all its mathematical advantages to the USA and Europe, and Hunt’s policy seems like it would have been a first step to undoing this problem. I guess it’s just as well 16 year olds can’t vote though, because that policy alone would be enough to have the entire age cohort rushing to vote Tory …

The second policy, perhaps much less comprehensible outside of the UK, was a plan to abolish GCSEs and introduce a 10-year reform of education. This would break the long-standing division of British schools into technical and academic grades, recognizing that education in the 21st century isn’t just about getting a job and that a formal education until 19 is valuable to everyone in the modern world, not just those planning on going on to further education. This kind of reform finally breaks down an old-fashioned idea derived from Britain’s class structure, and essential to getting rid of that structure. Of course it’s not enough, but it’s a start. Furthermore, Tristram Hunt, the education spokesperson, made clear that they would not set forth on these reforms straight away, but would aim to enact them over two parliaments, giving teachers a break from the constant annoying reorganizations they are forced through every five years and building a coherent, long-term strategy for the system. This kind of long-term thinking is rare in any policy area from modern politicians, and when I read it before the election I was very surprised and hopeful that Britain might finally be making a positive step out of its education duldrums, and maybe even towards sensible policy.

Sadly, though, the election was dominated by Labour talking about the NHS and the Tories wailing about blue-skinned picts invading the mainland, and rational policy-making didn’t get a look in. So I guess now Britain gets the Tory bootheel it asked for. With a Tory majority you can bet that sensible education for the masses will not be part of the policy mix … I wonder if Tristram Hunt even kept his seat?

It’s Friday night here in Japan and I have better things to do with my time than political punditry, but I’m very interested in the shock results coming in from the UK general election. It appears that, against the flow of two years of opinion polls, the conservative party (the Tories) have not just held on to their hung parliament, but may have actually seized enough seats to rule in their own right. If they don’t get those seats it looks likely that they’ll be able to rule with the help of either just UKIP or just the Democratic Unionist Party.

It’s too early to tell but it looks to me like Tory gains have come primarily at the expense of the Liberal Democrats, who have been (deservedly, in my opinion) slaughtered at the ballet box, with the Guardian at this point in the count suggesting only 8 seats remain – down from 53. Another three might cling on, but even the best case scenario is a disaster.

The obvious dark horse in this race was the Scottish National Party, which took Scotland from Labour – they gained 50 seats, almost all of which were from Labour, and have basically ejected Labour from the North. This would not, however, by itself have been enough to prevent Labour from governing, if they had been able to get enough seats by themselves to form a majority with SNP support. Labour leader Milliband (immorally, in my view) refused to enter a coalition with the SNP, but he could have changed his mind on that had he seized enough seats in his own right. And this is where Labour failed – they couldn’t take seats back from the Tories south of Scotland, and this election, obviously, was a referendum on the performance of the ruling coalition. This coalition is very unpopular, but they only suffered (at this early stage) a 0.44% swing against them to Labour, indicating a dismal failure to punish the Tories for their unpopularity at the ballot box.

I think this is possibly because of the spoiling role that the UK Independence Party (UKIP) have played in many Labour seats. According to the Guardian, UKIP issued a statement that said

In many constituencies we are the opposition, on behalf of working class voters who have been neglected and taken for granted for decades. This is true of both Northern England where we are the opposition to Labour and in Southern England where we are the opposition to the Conservatives.

We’ve provided hope and truth for the electorate and driven the political agenda.

In Britain’s first past-the-post system, it’s possible that the spoiling role of UKIP in conservative seats was not enough to win Labour the vote, or that it was equally spread between the two parties, so Labour couldn’t capitalize on Tory unpopularity. Did UKIP cost Labour the chance to lead?

Of course this question would be moot if the UK had a functioning electoral system, with preference allocation, held on a Saturday. More working people would have come out to the vote, and those UKIP votes would have flowed back to the party they defected from. But the ruling parties have both resolutely refused to consider electoral reform. This election shows in stark detail the consequences of continuing with the UK’s flawed electoral system: it benefits regional parties, which both major parties have claimed don’t have Britain’s interests at heart, but worse still it disenfranchises a huge proportion of the electorate. Between them UKIP and the Greens won 16% of the vote but hold 2 seats out of 650; while the Scottish National Party won just 5% of the vote and hold 50 seats. This is because the SNP is a holdout from the time of local politics, while UKIP and the Greens are parties of national opinion – broad movements across the whole country, connected not through local constituencies but through national issues. In a system like Australia these parties would gain significant representation in the Senate, where they are nationally representative – but the UK “Senate,” the House of Lords, is unelected and the ruling parties have refused to give UKIP and the Greens seats in the Lords consistent with their vote share. In a system like New Zealands, these parties would gain some representation through lower house lists – but the UK ruling parties refuse to countenance any change to first-past-the-post systems.

Essentially the UK ruling parties want to cling to a system that dates back to the 19th century, when politics was by necessity local, or the immediate post-war era when politics was strictly defined on class lines and classes were strictly segregated by region and area. Labour thrived under this system 50 years ago as the party of the industrial north, and the Tories as the party of the landed gentry; residual class barriers and geographic prejudices mean they can maintain this benefit for the short term, but at a huge cost to the political aspirations of a large minority of the country. You may not like UKIP or Green politics, but their voters have a right to be heard; you may like SNP politics, but that doesn’t mean they deserve representation in parliament well beyond their ultimately very localized base. Yet this is the result of the current system in the UK.

I hope that the sudden surge in the SNP presence in parliament will get the major parties to finally seriously think about electoral reform. If they don’t do something about it, then at some point in the future the conservative vote will collapse, as always happens in the electoral cycle, and the country will find itself being ruled by a coalition of labour unions and Scottish nationalists. If the conservatives care at all for the future of their country they will look on that prospect with genuine fear, and start working on real electoral reform. Or not … given that if they do UKIP will eat them from the right.

Oh the horrors of being a British voter …

This week 700 asylum seekers drowned when their boat capsized somewhere in the Mediterranean sea; reports suggest that a large number of these poor souls were locked in the hold of the ship and had no chance of escape. A year ago the people on this ship might have been found rescued earlier by the European Union’s large, integrated emergency response program Mare Nostrum, but unfortunately it was defunded and replaced with a much weaker local Italian response under the explicit rhetoric of “deterrent,” pioneered so effectively by Australia. Countries with significant anti-immigrant political parties and communities, most notably the UK and Germany, refused to fund the continuation of a coordinated Mediterranean-wide rescue program on the basis that rescuing asylum seekers at sea encourages people smugglers to simply send more, and the best way to save lives is to refuse to help, so that the people smugglers’ business collapses when their customers realize the risks.

The events of the last week – 400 drowned last week, 700 this week, and it’s only Monday – show how effective that tactic has been. So does the record so far this year, with 30 times the deaths recorded in the equivalent period last year under Mare Nostrum. Record numbers are crossing the Mediterranean, fleeing persecution in Libya and chaos in Syria and Iraq. These people appear not to have got the Home Office memo, and apparently think that any risk is better than staying where they are. The ideology of “pull factors,” based on the assumption that these asylum seekers aren’t really that desperate and are just looking for the best country to settle rather than a place of safety, has been shown to be completely wrong.

Last year, before the end of Mare Nostrum, I wrote that Europe has been presenting evidence against the Australian ideology of reducing “pull” factors. Since I wrote that blog post Mare Nostrum has ended and the flow of refugees has exploded. Either there is no relationship between the border control policies in place at sea, or the defenders of this ideology – if they are being honest – will have to accept that the evidence shows that the only “pull” factor at work here is going in the opposite direction of their claims, and that rescuing asylum seekers at sea is a more effective deterrent than letting them drown. Of course they won’t accept such a conclusion, and will continue to argue that we “encourage” these desperate people by saving them, when all the evidence now shows that their plight is so desperate that they don’t care about our search and rescue plans, they just want to get out. But our political masters don’t care about these people, and indeed why should they when popular columnists refer to them as vermin and cockroaches? So instead mealy-mouthed politicians in Europe try to maintain their ideology of deterrence through callousness, and maintain that they will end the flow of refugees by targeting the people smugglers – rhetoric they have used for years to no effect, probably because they aren’t even bothering to do that. And how can they affect migration policy in North Africa? Libya is a chaotic mess that the last Italians fled from months ago, leaving the people of Libya and especially its most vulnerable stateless displaced to their bloody fate. How do you target people smuggling when you don’t even have an embassy? Europe is powerless to affect events on the ground in Syria, and refugee flows through that part of the world are now so huge that it would be impossible to identify the people smugglers, let alone stop them.

Japan is another example of the emptiness of “pull factor” rhetoric. Even though Japan has only approved a handful of asylum applications in the last decade, numbers of people claiming asylum have increased ten-fold over that time. How can it be that a country which offers zero chance of resettlement is seeing unprecedented application numbers, if asylum policy at the destination is a major determinant of asylum seekers’ choices?

Abandoning people to drown is cheap and politically easy in modern Europe, but it will not deter these people, because they are desperate. It’s time for Europe to recognize that its neighbourhood has gone to hell, and Europe won’t be able to keep ignoring this problem forever, or pretending that it can stand by and let people drown out of simple callousness. If Europe is not willing to invest the time, money and lives in stabilizing Syria and Libya, then it needs to recognize that it has at least a moral responsibility to save the lives of the desperate and stateless when they put to sea. Maybe then Australian politicians will also rethink their cruel and vicious policies towards the stateless. This problem is not going to end anytime soon, but if we keep lurching towards the moral event horizon, our humanity will …

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