Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Why Leaving the EU is the Ethical Choice for People and Planet



As we near what is probably the most important vote any of us will ever cast in our lives the rhetoric on both sides of the debate over whether the UK should remain a part of the EU has been cranked up to 11. A debate that should have been about so much more has become a schism between two rival branches of the Conservative Party. Each side goes on television daily to spit out venomous insults and apocalyptic warnings while their backers in the media cheer and jeer these poor blabbering idiots. Go online and it's even worse, with keyboard warriors screaming insults at one another with all the decorum of two rival troupes of caged chimpanzees fighting over a bucket of EU mandated straight bananas.

Welcome to debating in 2016! 

Any sane person, who has so far managed to avoid being dragged into the melee, might decide to quietly make up their own mind and keep their decision as a secret to be shared only with the ballot paper and the pencil. While this might be a sound tactic from a personal point of view it doesn’t do anything to add to the quality of the debate that we are supposedly having. One of the major irritations of all this is its intense focus on factoids and irrelevant details. People might not have an opinion on – say – the way in which unelected technocrats were installed as leaders in Greece and Italy, but they sure as hell have an opinion on the comparatively paltry amount the UK gives to the EU every month and what it gets back in return.

This relentless focus on the little stuff doesn’t say much about our own leaders’ opinion of our intelligence levels. Perhaps it might be wiser to pause and think about the wider principles involved in this important matter of national sovereignty. How, for instance, does the larger system of the EU function? 

To get a little peace and quiet in which to think we’ll need to lock away the blabbermouths for a few minutes. Imagine, if you will, a large Monty Pythonesque hand descending from the sky and picking up all the noisy rabble and dropping them unceremoniously in a large sound-proofed box. There goes David Cameron, picked up by his necktie and dropped in the box. Boris Johnson is next, winched unceremoniously by his big toe and similarly chucked in, as is Nigel Farage, Michael Gove, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and all the other noisy politicians. But the hand doesn’t stop there. It scoops up great crowds of people angrily shouting “racist!”, “idiot!”, “liberal Islington elitist media whore!” and all sorts of other rude insults. Into the box they all go, squashed down together so the lid can be shut. We don’t know how they’ll all get on inside that box but at least it’ll quiet for a few moments on the outside.

Phew! The sound of silence.

Right, now let’s think about the EU. What is it? Well, it’s a collection of countries in a shared geographical area that have all agreed to be governed under a similar set of rules in order that it will be of benefit to them all. The objective in this case is increased political stability, steady economic growth and a shared European identity. Fair enough, right? Does this mean it’s all good, as many claim? No – of course not! By definition there will be good aspects and bad aspects in any system of governance of this size, although me mustn’t forget that the concepts of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are entirely subjective.

["Hmm. Well, I avoided being put in that box, but if he thinks he can change my mind he's very much mistaken. I hope this isn't going to take long.]

What's that? I can hear some of you talking at the back. I'll take questions afterwards in the comment box below.

Okay, in the interests of disclosure you might have noticed from the headline - Why Leaving the EU is the Ethical Choice for People and Planet – that I am have an opinion on the matter. Good! I don’t claim to be neutral – anyone who does is smoking their shorts. On an important matter like this we must all individually construct our own model of realities, examine our own prejudices and reach a conclusion that is acceptable to ourselves and others. If you disagree with me that’s good too! To agree with every aspect of everything you read on the internet is not a good indicator of mental fortitude. I know a lot of people are sceptical but don’t worry – I’ll respect your opinion just so long as you respect mine.

Right where were we? Oh yes, the wonders of Europe.

So far so good – who could possibly object to a vision of a united Europe? Not I, for one. It’s impossible not to love Europe. Far more than just a medium-sized geographical peninsula tacked onto the western edge of the Eurasian landmass, the countries of Europe have it all. Here are some of the things that make Europe great: food, art, history, culture, geography, sport, philosophy, music, architecture, amazing food, language, the people, poetry, literature, delicious regional food, snow covered mountains and fascinating cities (did I mention the food?). You can drive, as I did once, from the frozen blue of the Baltic and keep on going south until you hit beaches lined with palm trees where the air is filled with the scent of orange blossom and the sound of cicadas. I fell in love with Europe whilst Interrailing when I was 17 years old. It all seemed impossibly romantic compared to life back in grey old Blighty, and in subsequent years I have found myself living in three different countries in mainland Europe, and running small independent national newspapers in two of them. I speak three European languages tolerably well, am married to a Dane, have relatives in Italy and think that Scandinavian noire beats all the other noirs hands down. It’s probably fair to say that nobody could accuse me of being anti-European.

But. 

(I can sense some of you tightening your sceptical fingers on the trigger.)

[“Here it comes – he’s about to reveal himself as a closet xenophobe!” ]

But the EU is not Europe.

[“Hold your fire. Just let him finish.”]

At one point in time the EU – or the EEC as it was called back in the day – might have aligned with whatever values of Europe it was supposed to reflect. Those days are long gone. Instead we have a bloated imperial project that has run out of steam and is feeding off its own internal organs to stave off collapse. To understand why we’ll need to turn to the dismal science of economics. I can hear some of you groaning but I promise you it won’t be too painful.

[“What does he know about economics? He’s just as full of it as all the rest!”]

I studied economics at university in London. I can’t say I enjoyed it, but at least it taught me a thing or two about how the modern capitalist world functions. I was sent to work at the H.M. Treasury on my student placement year (yes that Treasury), where I worked in the economic forecasting department. Norman Lamont was the chancellor at the time and I left there the Friday before Black Wednesday. It was during this time that I got my first lesson about the EU. My undergraduate dissertation was entitled The Prospects of Achieving Full Monetary Union in the EU (it was a real page turner). I got loads of books out from the library at the Treasury and read them in an attempt to understand the issues. But the more I read the less I understood. Eventually, flummoxed, I decided to go with common sense. It would be impossible, I decided, to get all those vastly different countries to dance to the same economic tune. How could economic diktats dreamed up in Brussels be relevant to both a fisherman in Greece and a desk jockey sitting in, say, Edinburgh? Surely you could not have one country that produces a sizeable chunk of the world’s car fleet (Germany) on an equal footing with one that produces mostly olive oil and oranges (Spain, at the time).

My tutor, when I showed him, shook his head slowly. “You will have to change your conclusions,” he told me. “I cannot possibly pass you unless you argue that full integration is not just possible, but inevitable.”

And so I went away, confused, and simply copied sections from books, even though I didn’t believe in what I was writing. My paper sailed through the marking process and was even awarded honours. I had had my first lesson in how EU integration is to be considered: inevitable.

Since that time, which was 1992, I’ve followed the workings of the EU with a half-interested eye. I was pleased when the Euro currency was introduced, simply because it made it easier to travel and because I liked the look of the notes and coins. I suspect I wasn’t the only one.

But what might on the surface have seemed like a good idea in 2002 is now quite obviously a bad idea. Everything changed after the 2007-2008 financial crisis. Up until that point, vast sums of money had been loaned to the countries of southern Europe in an effort to modernise them, thus standardising their infrastructure with northern Europe. I was living in Spain at the time and saw the relentless building programmes going on. To dare question whether it was all necessary (blasting away entire mountains to build a new motorway to nowhere? Pouring money into concrete business parks and airports that nobody needed? ) or how this money would ever be paid back was to invite ridicule. Across Greece, Portugal, Italy and France the same thing was happening: a tidal wave of credit, supplied by mainly northern European banks, covered the landscape with tarmac and concrete.  Every two bit olive and orange farmer was suddenly driving a new BMW and cities sprouted museums of modern art and Michelin restaurants like mushrooms coming up after rain You can’t stop the tide of progress, people said, it’s inevitable.

But then the financial crisis happened and everything changed overnight. When the mood switched from greed to fear, investors bailed out of the now obviously bankrupt countries they called the PIIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain), causing the yield on those countries’ government bonds (the interest rate on the IOU’s they sell to finance themselves) to skyrocket. Yield increases with risk, and all of a sudden it had become too risky to loan money to the PIIGS. Several years of crisis ensued, and the European Central Bank (ECB) was forced to step in and bail out the disaster zones with – yes – more loans. But they were not bailing out the actual countries, instead they were effectively bailing out the banks that had underwritten the bad loans in the first place.

But then it got even worse. Instead of making the banks take a hit for their own stupidity, austerity policies were imposed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the ECB on the countries affected. Pensions and benefits were slashed, investments shelved, national assets put up for sale on eBay and democratically elected governments were removed and replaced with ‘caretaker’ administrations. Greece was hit worst of all, suffering a fall in the value of its national economy of over 30%. Many people found themselves homeless and even starving, and the suicide rate went through the roof. Youth unemployment went up over 50% - unthinkable in modern times. Whenever dissent flared up the riot police crushed it and a succession of weak governments all caved in to the demands of the so-called Troika of the IMF, the ECB and the EU.

The message was clear: don’t mess with the EU.

And the problem hasn’t gone away, even if the media doesn’t report on it much any more. Debt all across the EU is growing, and the ability of anyone to pay it back is diminishing. But why don’t the ECB just force the banks to write off their debts and be done with it? The answer to that is simple: because it will force them into insolvency. If major banks start going bust in Europe then people – lots of people – will lose their life savings, there will be an epic recession and chaos will hit the European heartland. This is not a particularly popular idea for national policymakers and yet it underlines just how fragile the entire edifice has become. And so the countries of southern Europe are left to rot in what is possibly the biggest economic crime of the century.

Greece could have been set free. If it were allowed to leave the euro it could bring back the drachma at a much lower rate of exchange. Greek imports would surge (including tourism) and the economy would be on the road to being rebalanced. But this, under the EU, is not allowed to happen. The EU cannot let Greece leave the euro because if you let Greece do it then you also open the door to Spain, Italy, France and Portugal doing the same thing. The euro currency would not survive such a mass defection, and so Greece is held bent over in a neck lock, unable to move or breathe, while its assets are plundered (if you’ll forgive the expression).

Ah, but people might say, this is all a temporary phenomenon. When growth picks up again all the boats in the harbour will rise with it. The Greeks will get down off their window ledges, move back in from the countryside where they have been scratching a living on that dusty bit of land belonging to their ‘backward’ grandparents, and collectively crack open a bottle of Ouzo to toast the end of the nightmare. The good times will roll again.

Except this isn’t possible.

Mathematicians and bankers know all about compound interest and the exponential function. Put basically, the amount of debt that countries across the developed world have now built up is unpayable Yes, even with Chinese style double digit GDP growth, there would be no way to pay back all the public, private and company debt that has built up.  And in case you hadn’t noticed there is not actually any economic growth at all in the Eurozone.

[“He’s fibbing. I read in the FT that Spain and Greece are picking up.”]

Okay, okay, so there might be a tiddly little bit, but most of it is massaged into existence (remember, I worked in the economic forecasting department of the Treasury, right?). If anyone truly believed there is economic growth in the Eurozone I would ask them to tell me what the current rate of interest is.  I’ll give you a clue: it starts with Z and rhymes with Nero.

Interest rates are the lifeblood of capitalist economies. Without a positive interest rate there is no growth. And some economies (such as Denmark) are actually offering NEGATIVE interest rates. That means you can go and take out a loan for, say, a house, and the bank will actually PAY YOU more money than you borrowed. Does that sound somewhat insane or is it just me?

Anyway, without economic growth you can’t pay back debt. Debt is a gamble on future productivity. You have to have confidence that your future income will allow your debt to be repaid. This is why my Spanish neighbours, who earned no more than a couple of thousand euros a year selling olives, no longer own those shiny new BMWs. But if you’re a country and you find you can’t pay back debt … you have to take on more debt until the mystical growth genie appears again. But what happens if the growth genie refuses to appear, no matter how hard you rub the lamp?

That is exactly what is occurring right now everywhere you care to look because (DRUMROLL) our economies are overburdened with debt and the world is running out of fossil fuels. And in terms of energy availability, there is no substitute for fossil fuels – at least not anything that would leave our overdeveloped countries in any shape or form that we would recognise as ‘modern’. I know this goes contrary to everything you’ve read and seen on Facebook, but really, it’s true.

[“You see, I told you he was crazy!”]

There is no modern economy in the world that does not rely on a steady supply of cheap fossilised sunlight in the form of oil, coal and gas to power itself.  It powers everything from electricity generation and transport, to growing food and making iPhones. Now, this is a big subject that I’ve been writing about for years and – frankly – I could go on and on about it but I’ll save the arguments for another day and merely say that when the price of oil is too high it causes recessions, and when it’s too low it causes oil companies to go out of business. The fabled ‘Goldilocks zone’ in between these two extremes equates with the time period in which we built up all of the energy-guzzling infrastructure so central to the functioning of the modern world in its current configuration. It’s theoretically possible to build millions of wind turbines and solar panels (using fossil fuels) but nobody seems interested in doing so in the timeframe that matters.

[“I don’t believe him. I saw in Good News magazine that Denmark makes 140% of its own electricity using wind. He must have an ulterior motive that he’s not revealing.”]

Sorry, no ulterior motives, just a long hard reading of a lot of material and a dose of intuition.

Thus the EU has got itself into a terrible bind, not unlike a Mexican standoff. It can’t grow its way out of trouble and neither can it allow the weaker elements to break away – it must continue to preserve the power at the centre at all costs because the power at the centre (in this case the German economy) is the growth engine that is keeping the whole thing ticking over.

So, to summarize so far, taking things from the top:

-       A dwindling of the availability of highly concentrated energy, coupled with an overburden of compounding debt, has put the brake on EU economic expansion
-       The weaker countries, which are more heavily mired in unpayable debt, are being systematically asset stripped and their citizens economically brutalised by bodies such as the ECB, the EU and the IMF (there’s a term for this – it’s called ‘disaster capitalism’)
-       The system is stuck in a closed loop, waiting for growth that never comes
-       The longer it is stuck in the loop, the greater the suffering of the people whose lives have been put on hold

How does the EU propose to break out of this closed loop? Well, ex-Goldman Sachs banker Mario Draghi, who is head of the ECB, has vowed to do “Whatever it takes” to get out of it. To that end he has used the ECB’s money (which is really the banks’ money, which really only exists on spreadsheets and gets endlessly recycled round and round) to buy national and company bonds and bail out distressed funds. He has embarked on an asset purchase programme, spending €1.1 trillion in quantitative easing measures. Let me put that in English: Mario Draghi is spending €1.1 trillion of money that he doesn’t have in order to prop up the banks which loaned money to vulnerable countries in a way that makes payday lender Wonga look like a paragon of fiscal prudence. And so the ECB, under the aegis of the supposedly accountable EU, has control over the entire money supply.

Oh, and if anything goes wrong, we’ll all be on the hook for that €1.1 trillion. But nothing could possibly go wrong …

At this point I’d like to introduce two quotes that quite possible speak for themselves:

"Give me control of a nation's money and I care not who makes its laws." — Mayer Amschel Bauer Rothschild

and

“If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.” — Herbert Stein (“Herbert Stein’s Law”)

It is perhaps worth mentioning that there are 30,000 lobbyists based in Brussels. It is these people’s (usually highly paid) jobs to spend day and night courting EU law/rule makers, treating them to champagne breakfasts and showering them with expensively produced reports that prove beyond a shadow of a doubt the interests of the European people align 100% with an increased quarterly profit result for their corporation.

[“Okay, now he’s starting to sound like a conspiracy theorist. I’m off to read The Guardian, or some other place where I can get my daily fill of confirmation bias!”]

Do you want the laws of your country to be decided by corporations rather than people elected to represent you? What’s that at the back? You don’t care because that’s the way the world works in the 21st century so we may as well accept it? That our own politicians are just as corrupt so we may as well go with the ones who are culturally dissimilar to our own crooks?

Well, if that’s your attitude then we may as well all go home now.

But assuming you do care it’s not hard to recognise the pressure that’s on Eurocrats to cave into the demands of the lobbyists. The EU, after all, is the largest block of first world consumers on the planet, and there’s plenty of money to be made from us. The EU and the US are currently trying to get through the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), which is a grand-sounding name for a corporate wheeze. Information on what it actually contains is hard to get as it has been negotiated in secret and even Euro MPs are forbidden from memorising it and telling anyone what it might contain. If this isn’t the biggest corporate stitch up in the history of the human race then I don’t know what is.

Okay, so far I have painted the EU as an undemocratic supra-national body whose initial early promise has evolved into a Frankenstein’s monster that crushes weak countries under its heel and acts as a conduit for corporate power. Let’s turn to immigration.

[“Ha – this is the bit where he reveals his true colours!”]

Immigration and open borders are good, right? People moving round in search of a better place to live where they can earn more money?

Umm, it’s not that simple. Who knows,  maybe one day we will all truly be of one nation, one language, one religion etc. – but right now there are differences between one set of people from one country and another set from somewhere else. Generally speaking, people who have lived on a particular patch of planet Earth for hundreds or thousands of years have tended to develop their own language, cultural norms, dress code and all the rest of it. For right or wrong they tend to think of this patch of land as ‘theirs’ and they’re proud of it. When someone turns up from some noticeably different culture they generally welcome him and make him feel at home. It’s human nature to do so. Even when he goes away and comes back with his entire family, a bunch of friends and half the class he once went to school with, they still tend to get along with him and relations are good. Problems only start when the host community, who regard the area as ‘theirs’ feel they are reaching the limit of their (scarce) resources and that the settler had better not keep on inviting his friends’ friends’ friends because there will not be enough to go round. This is when problems start.

[“But, but, scarcity is a myth! If the Tories hadn’t slashed budgets across the land then we’d be able to build millions of new houses and hospitals and schools and we could go on building and building and building until everyone was happy!”]

Hmm, maybe up to a point. But how will we know when to stop? What about all the infrastructure that will need to be built? Who will pay for it? We already produce only enough food for a small minority of the population – anyway, you’re distracting me.

The problems tend to be worse if the cultures of the two different groups are quite different from one another. If the host community is a poor one – and it probably will be because the richer communities are less inclined to allow outsiders to settle there (unless they are Saudi billionaires or Russian oligarchs, in which case they are welcomed with open arms)  – their resources are likely to be scarcer. In the modern industrial societies of the west, basic resources include things like jobs, hospitals, affordable housing, schools and other public goods. The settler communities compete for these scarce public resources, making some of the hosts resentful. The wealthier people in the chattering classes, who generally don’t live in the poorer areas or have to compete for resources, then tut tut and call the poor people nasty things. Yet it is they who benefit from all the positive aspects the settler people bring (nice food, cheaper labour to do the jobs they don’t want to do themselves), without suffering any of the consequences of having to compete for scarce resources.

On the other hand, the businessfolk and politicians simply can’t get enough settlers. Not only do they work for peanuts on zero hours contracts but they effectively stop anyone else from getting a pay rise. It’s a wet dream of businessmen to achieve the holy grail of infinite labour substitutability. This means they can hire and fire people at a moment’s notice, pay them next to nothing (the government picks up the tab for the low wages in the form of tax credits) and generally treat them as if they were robots while they wait for the actual robots to come along. Likewise, the government loves settlers because they boost the country’s GDP as they open bank accounts, indebt themselves and buy consumer products. Lastly, the middle classes love settlers (as long as they don’t move in next door) as they create an additional pressure on the scarce resource of housing, boosting property prices and rental income and thus allowing them to earn money without working for it.

This might explain why it’s those at the bottom of the pile, forced to compete for the basics, who tend to have the biggest beef about squeezing ever more people in. That’s not a theory, it’s a reflection of reality that the insulated middle classes refuse to acknowledge – any ‘man on the street’ will be able to explain it in similar terms.

[“There, I told you he was a fucking racist! I’m out of here.”]

So giving everyone the right to be anywhere in the trading bloc we call the EU might sound like a fine and dandy idea, but during times of economic contraction it is the poorest who suffer the most: both the uprooted, who have to leave their families and homes behind, and the host peoples from the more disadvantaged classes who have to accommodate the settlers and share their scarce resources.

Lastly, I’d suggest that the very notion of the EU is insane. Here’s a confession: in the last election I voted for the Green Party.

[“Oh yegads! A bona fide nutcase! I told you so … “]

No, I’m not a shallow Green like the leader of the Green Party who is allied with David Cameron on Europe and was last week seen on TV with him driving around in a car talking about growth. Being a proper Green means that I’m neither left wing nor right wing. I care for the ‘magical’ hidden hand of market capitalism just as little as I care for the writings of Karl Marx. To me both are indicative of a 19th century attitude towards the way we treat our planet that is equally suicidal. In case you hadn’t read the news lately you might have missed several important pieces of information that are several orders of magnitude more important than both the EU referendum and the new Top Gear series PUT TOGETHER! I speak, of course, about the rapid acceleration of global warming, the massive forest fires rampaging across the globe, the great dieoff of the coral reefs and the diminution of Arctic ice so early in the year.

Let’s face it, unchecked industrialism has brought us to a point where we might not last out the century. Whatever else the EU claims to be one thing we know for sure is that it is committed to infinite economic growth on a finite planet. Think about it for a minute. All of the many problems that now confront us, the three main ones being access to energy, environmental degradation and population overshoot, are becoming more and more difficult to ignore. Most of us would rather stick our fingers in our ears and close our eyes than admit that we’ve screwed up and that there will be (are) consequences. We’ve got boatloads of refugees arriving on our doorstep fleeing drought and war – the consequences of global weirding and oil wars – and yet we pretend that we don’t have any responsibility to them. Quite the opposite, in fact. People, more and more,

Just. Want. Someone. To. Sort. It. All. Out.

We want scientists to come up ever more outlandish (and costly) ways of staving off collapse, be it genetically modified foods, ill-thought-out geoengineering projects to further mess with the climate or – as a last resort – a space rocket to get us to some other planet we haven’t yet wrecked.

This trend towards putting our faith in the hands of ever-greater powers doesn’t say much for the state of the human spirit I’m afraid to say. It seems to me an abnegation of our responsibilities to insist that someone else deals with our problems, but that’s exactly the attitude I see with supporters of the EU project. They may well talk about this or that EU project saving a wetland or rescuing a dormouse, but they don’t talk about the wholesale pillaging of the planet that the EU promotes and amplifies. I don’t believe that the solutions to our many problems will come from some Wizard of Oz type character sitting in Brussels and pulling levers. There won’t be a one-size-fits all solution to our continued shared existence, so why choose to disempower ourselves more than we already have? By getting ourselves out of it we’ll be restoring the balance of power some way in our own favour.

So next week we have the chance to throw a spanner in the works of the inevitable onward march of the EU machine. Both options will be painful and there will be plenty of hurt, but that is the corner into which we have painted ourselves. There will be unintended consequences - that is the nature of things. Here are two possible scenarios out of millions – it’s up to us to choose which one we want to bring into reality.

Remain Wins

The EU gets a vote of confidence from the UK and – emboldened – proceeds with plans for a federal one-nation Europe with much more robust and invasive policy making powers. Some kind of ‘trade’ deal is reached with the US which allows corporations to sue public bodies for lost profits, but otherwise life remains pretty much as normal in Britain – except for some noisy street protests and the huge boost for UKIP. All the while the debt continues to build up and ever more stringent austerity measures are imposed on member states. In Europe a bank or two collapses, causing others to soon follow suit. Widespread banking failures throughout the financial system ensue and the unpopular ‘bail in’ measures are enacted which see savings confiscated to prop up the remaining banks. Over the next couple of years depression-era scenes and radical violence become commonplace in once wealthy countries. Various extremist parties are voted into power on a wave of frustrated anger and the assassinations of bankers and politicians fill the newspapers. Eventually the EU collapses under the weight of its own internal discord and is dismantled with extreme prejudice by nation states. Years of dysfunction ensue but from the embers of chaos begins a new project to build a truly united Europe based on mutual respect for one another, ecological limits and social democracy, as opposed to the free market capitalism, corporatism and exploitation of the old project.

Leave Wins

The media are all aflutter with predictions of apocalypse, but most people are too busy having street parties to notice – as are many across the whole of southern Europe. The pound gets a sharp correction lower, and the price of gold skyrockets. The EU reacts furiously towards Britain but is powerless to retaliate for fear of damaging the German and French economies. Britain’s admittedly unpopular new prime minister sends trade delegations to the four corners of the world to strike trade deals with countries including Russia and China, much to America’s ire. Economic chaos reigns for a few months but people are at least happy they don’t have it as bad as they do on mainland Europe where Brexit has caused the equity markets and banking system to crash. Several other nations immediately hold their own referendums (Denmark, Holland, France and Poland) and the buzzword on everyone’s lips is ‘contagion’. The new UK government misinterprets its popularity and tries to force through some unpopular policies – including fracking in national parks – but the newly-emboldened Britons won’t stand for it, forcing a general election and electing a party on a platform of national unity. Despite a lot of bluster and bad will the EU is dismantled more or less peacefully as countries are once more allowed to follow their own monetary policy and set their own rules for trade. Nevertheless a few years of chaos and recession follow as a new system configures itself. From these shaky beginnings is begun a new project to build a truly united Europe based on mutual respect for one another, ecological limits and social democracy, as opposed to free market capitalism, corporatism and exploitation.

***

Okay, after that short diversion in the national debate we can now return to arguing about how much money the EU costs Britain and whether they will force us to eat straight bananas.


Open the box and let them out again.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Danger: EU Demolition in Progress



It’s getting harder all the time to distract oneself from how threadbare the fabric of our societies is becoming. No matter how much you avert your eyes it is all but impossible not to notice things unravelling around you. This is happening on every level, from the local to the international, manifesting itself in a multitude of ways.  Just as a fractal pattern has both the macrocosm in the microcosm, and the microcosm in the macrocosm, we are seeing signs of collapse small and large all around us.

At the micro level I could mention the town in which I live. In the past year we’ve seen a couple of big box retailers close down at one end of the scale, and quite a few small independents as well, some of which have been trading for decades. Streets have so many boarded up shop-fronts that the local council has taken to plastering them with posters showing images from happier times. Homelessness has spiked too, as has drug and alcohol abuse. The police station hasn’t officially closed down, but try getting hold of an officer when you need one – as I did when some drunken youth vandalised my car. The building is still there but instead of it being open there is a phone beside the front door that you must use to report a crime.

Aside from the police and the shops closing, public toilets are closed virtually all of the time, and the Post Office too is soon to close down, having been privatised and now asset stripped. The council is being forced to raise its taxation rates by 4% this year to cover the shortfall caused by spiralling costs and diminished funding from central government. Clinics and charities are being squeezed out of existence and the local council tried (and failed) to privatise the town’s midsummer festival.

My wife works in the care sector. The stories I get to hear will make you never want to be dependent on the state in your old age. If you can’t rely on your kids to look after you in your dotage it might be wise to keep a bottle of whisky and a revolver in your bottom drawer. Or maybe you'd rather die of thirst lying in your own mess because the 19-year-old unqualified carer who works for minimum wage is too busy checking Facebook on her phone to hear you pressing the emergency button by the bed.

Food banks are popping up. Schools are cancelling the more costly trips due to a lack of pupils being able to afford them, and local councils are cutting down trees in public places as they are ‘costly to maintain'. Streets are lined with weeds.  

This might sound like a laundry list of woes, but despite it all there is still a reasonably solid façade of normality. Potholes in the road get fixed, people are still buying shiny new cars and householders do up their homes. The county council is still pressing ahead with its plans to install super-fast broadband that will ‘connect us to the world’ as if we weren’t already, and the newspapers continue to repeat that the economy is recovering, that everyone who wants a job now has one, and that generally speaking things are pretty good and getting better all the time. Children’s TV programmes are still talking about us all going off to live on Mars at some point in the future, Richard Branson has unveiled a new spaceship and true believers are still talking earnestly about self-driving robot cars that are fuelled by water.

All well and good if you are not paying attention, but on another level it is also getting harder to ignore the cracks that are appearing around us. And crack-ups don’t get much larger than the EU. The UK prime minister David Cameron recently announced there would be a referendum on whether Britain should remain a part of the EU aka ‘Brexit’. This has had the effect of a starting gun being fired in the race to win votes for the respective ‘In’ and ‘Out’ campaigns. If the ‘ins’ win then the UK will remain within the EU, albeit still on the periphery and with various half-measures in place to ward off unwelcome EU policies. If the ‘outs’ win then the UK will be out of Europe and millions of lawyers can expect to look forward to years of lucrative work as we try to disentangle ourselves from the biggest bureaucratic mess the world will have ever seen.

Even though it is early days, a basic and simplistic narrative has emerged in the debate. It goes something like this:

From the INs: “The EU brings us peace and prosperity. It has eliminated borders, improved the environment and lifted consumer standards. We would be X b/million (insert random number from your favoured think tank) pounds worse off if we left. It protects us from Russia and ISIS and the Brexiters are nothing but a bunch of right-wing racist Neanderthals who want to steal the EU’s (benign) power and use it against us.”

From the OUTs: “The EU is undemocratic and nobody should have the right to decide our national policies – especially immigration. It is run by unelected technocrats who are paid a fortune to make up silly laws. The European Court of Human Rights is the go-to place for Islamic terrorists and paedophiles who should be tried (and hopefully hung) in Britain.”

That might be a bit simplistic, but that’s the kind of level of debate that is going around at the moment. Everybody is talking about whether the EU is a good thing or not to be part of, but nobody is asking whether it can exist at all for much longer. I would argue that it cannot. The EU, at heart, is a vast trading bloc of half a billion people. Its very existence is predicated on capitalism, acquisitive expansion and favourable trade deals at the expense of the third world. It runs on cheap energy – the kind of energy that will not be readily available for much longer, and when the inevitably huge financial unwind picks up pace it will severely curtail European access to capital markets and energy. The EU might be rich but it is only rich because of historically unfair trading conditions that have impoverished half the world. And it has very few viable energy sources that would keep it in the manner to which it is accustomed.

The EU has always contained the seeds of its own destruction. By regarding monetary union as an inevitability (an inevitability that has steamrollered democracy in the process) it would logically reach a point where the weaker member states would not be able to keep pace with the stronger ones. By flooding the southern periphery nations with cash – and then asking for it back with interest – the EU looks from the outside to be a self-cannibalising monster. Peace in Europe? Let’s see how long that lasts. There are many in Greece, Spain and Portugal who see ‘the EU’ as Germany in disguise.

Pro-EU liberals tend to regard the continent in terms of what consumer benefits they can extract from it. To be ‘pro Europe’ is to retain one’s right to fly to Barcelona for the weekend on Easyjet and enjoy tapas on Las Ramblas. They warn that this kind of easy living won’t be possible if we leave the EU.


If the EU were to quit the EU it probably wouldn’t be a death blow. A far bigger existential threat to the EU comes in the form of the refugee crisis So far, only a relatively small number of refugees have arrived in Europe and yet people are already whipped into a frenzy of fear and anguish. In 2015 around a million beaten-down desperate people fled war, drought and economic collapse, to arrive on the shores of Europe – many of them drowning along the way. A million sounds like a lot of people until you remember that there are already half a billion people living here in an area of 1.7 million square miles. If the refugees were spread out equally they would have nearly two square miles each. Lebanon, by contrast, has some two million refugees – and Lebanon is a country you could lose under a crumb on a world map. A Belgian minster's response to the EU's refugee ‘crisis’; tell Greeks to push them back into the sea. There’s your liberal EU for you.


This is also the same organisation that is trying frantically to get a secret trade deal ratified that would hand over yet more power to trans national corporations and take it away from nation states. If TTIP goes through we can kiss goodbye to basic rights and freedoms, such as being able to choose whether our kids eat genetically modified food or can be told that smoking is bad for them.

By now you’re probably thinking that I’ll be ticking the ‘Out’ box on my voting slip on June 23rd. I will be, but its more or less irrelevant as the EU cannot last much longer anyway. This point of view, alas, will not go down well with many people. To be a ‘Brexiter’ is conflated with being a pig-headed xenophobe who refuses to regard social justice issues as the most important battle in human history. The ‘debate’ is far too tribal in any case. The arguments of the ‘Ins’ are confusing and make no sense to me. They talk about democracy yet want to give it away, and they celebrate diversity but at the same time think a ‘one size fits all’ mindset will deliver that.

The irony of being called anti-European is that I am ardently pro-European. I’ve lived in four different EU countries, travelled all over and am married to an Italian Dane. Europe, to me, is the most diverse place in the world and has an amazing spread of history and culture. My ideal life would involve spending several months each year travelling around Europe in a camper van and getting to know it in an even more intimate manner. The EU is not Europe; it’s an abstract concept masking a faceless undemocratic organisation that funnels wealth from one place to another and keeps its modesty intact behind a fig leaf of supposed liberalism.

It doesn’t have to be that way. We could still have a Europe united around some core values other than money and power and capitalism. How about a Europe focused on an emerging eco consciousness? Or what about remaking it as a loose cooperative of bio-regions? Or perhaps, at the very least, we could all agree on a shared constitution founded on liberty, equality and fraternity. Former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis has suggested something along those lines, setting up a pan-European umbrella group called DiEM25 that aims to shake things up ‘gently, compassionately but firmly.’ Perhaps there could be more debate about what kind of Europe would be better suited to weathering the coming financial, ecological and energy shocks without causing so much collateral damage to both itself and other nations.

Until that happens we’ll just have to stand back and watch the fireworks. Big institutions like the EU are like skyscrapers; they don’t come crashing down to the ground without taking out plenty of other nearby buildings and the EU is like the leaning tower of Pisa on steroids.  Big things are an artefact of the age of oil – the future is necessarily smaller and more local. The best course of action is to stop arguing over whether it is best to be stood on top of the creaking tower it or beside it, and simply get the hell out of the way before it goes over. 

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Fear and Loathing in the West




One could hardly have called the Paris terror attacks unexpected. After all, we are constantly being told that murderous plots are being foiled but that others are being planned. I was about to go to bed on Friday night when I noticed the headlines. I turned on the TV and watched the rolling news coverage for a couple of hours before retiring. I felt sad about those people, most of them gunned down in their prime, but perhaps I had been dwelling upon the darkness of the human soul for too long because all I saw were a few more tally marks on a seven digit number filed under ‘War on Terror’. Yes, they were closer to my living room that, say, Yemen or Palestine, but physical distance should not count for much when death is being considered. 

And yet, the next morning it seemed like the whole world had changed. I walked to the corner shop to buy some milk just as it was getting light, and already someone had hung a giant French flag on a wall, presumably in solidarity. There was an intuitive feeling that something had changed on a deep level. As I drank my morning cup of tea and checked in on Facebook and various news sites it became immediately apparent that a very pungent genie had been let out of a bottle. Fear and anger bristled on the screen, alongside sorrow and solidarity. It might just have been a bunch of disaffected and murderous young men gunning down a collection of random civilians in a major European city, but the effect was as a bomb going off in the collective western psyche. Daesh had kicked the west in the goolies.

The blood had barely dried before French president François Hollande declared that his nation would be ‘pitiless’ in avenging the attacks. Jets were immediately dispatched to pound Daesh (as ISIS/ISIL/IS should properly be known - it is an insulting term that confers no legitimacy upon them, unlike the other acronyms) targets, and the president – who had been mocked as a ‘marshmallow’ – was afforded the strongman status he had so desired.

In Britain, too, the psychological ramifications were (and continue to be) deep. The shiny-faced David Cameron, who desperately wants us to be involved in bombing Syria but was thwarted by a popular resistance against such a plan, instantly appeared on television talking about ‘cutting off the head of the snake’ and proclaiming that “We’ll be bombing them by Christmas.” (I’m sure Christ will be happy.) A million fingers pointed at Syrian and Iraqi refugees, as if somehow this was their fault. “A refugee’s passport has been found at the scene of the massacre,” screamed the news and everyone nodded wisely and said “Told you so, you softy liberals.” Of course, when it later turned out to be false they didn’t shout quite so loud. In any case, what kind of suicide terrorist brings his passport to a massacre? Come on people, you can do better than this.

I, born in 1971, have never lived in a time of such hysteria. 9/11 came close, but even in the dark days of the Cold War, in which we children were told that we may, at any given moment, be given a four-minute warning before being nuked, this sense of hysteria was absent. Not so now. Perhaps it’s a side effect of rolling news channels, internet feeds tailored to suit one’s prejudices and social media, but it seems as if the effect of all this is an electronic catalyst for inflaming passions. In the past few days I have seen people – normal everyday people – call for all Muslims to be put in vast concentration camps, for refugees to be gunned down before they reach Europe and for the entire Middle East to be nuked. I have also seen suggestions that if you don’t agree with these sentiments you should be tied to a post and shot. 

I’ll just get my blindfold …

But it pays to take a step back from this madness, take a deep breath and consider how we, individually or collectively, can work to de-fang the monster that has been unleashed. I’m not talking about Daesh exclusively, I’m talking about the cycle of violence that is growing like a whirlwind, sucking in ever more people as it spins wildly out of control. Daesh is like a fire elemental, conjured up by evil magicians. Those magicians - some of whom know full well what they are doing, others less so -  are in both the east and the west. The fire tornado grows stronger and wider with every petrodollar donated by sympathetic nations and every bomb and bullet manufactured in the west and sent to the Middle East. There will be more massacres, for sure, whether it's London, or Copenhagen or wherever - we just don't know.

It also pays to realise some deeper truths. The conflict in Syria, which is fuelling so much fundamentalism and driving the tides of refugees moving towards Europe, is effectively a proxy war between the US and Russia. A deep trauma was inflicted on the Russian psyche after the battle of Stalingrad, in which over a million Russians were killed, and that trauma has never been allowed to heal. Germany, the aggressor, eventually lost the battle of Stalingrad after sustaining losses of several hundred thousand soldiers. But (west) Germany, following the war, was afforded the protection of the United States, which stepped in to the bombed out space to become the new global hegemon. As a result, Germany prospered, becoming one of the most successful industrial economies in the world. By contrast Russia, in the guise of the USSR, decayed from the inside out and eventually collapsed.

Before the USSR collapsed, it could have followed the time honoured tradition of trying to take down its enemies with it. They still had enough nuclear weapons to atomise most of mankind. But they didn’t. Instead, Mikhail Gorbachev, as General Secretary of the Communist Party, pursued a policy of peace in the spirit of glasnost (openness).  World War III was avoided, but instead of reaching out to shake its outstretched hand, the west made a grab for Russia’s throat. Since then NATO has been expanding eastwards for the last quarter of a century and the west – especially the United States – has been gobbling up companies and resources like a bunch of hungry puppies let loose on a dog food factory. All notion of ‘consequences’ flew out the window. History was proclaimed to be dead, ‘we’ had defeated the evil empire and ‘we’ would thus endure endless prosperity as a result. Hooray for us!

Of course, the Russians never saw it like that. Perhaps not immediately, but they caught onto the fact that the concept of democracy was not all it was cracked up to be. For, instead of it meaning ‘the right to choose your own destiny’ in reality it manifested as an economic concept that simply meant your economy would be ‘reformed’ in a manner that made it easy for foreign multinationals to plunder it, that you would be offered a ‘choice’ to vote for one of two insipid pro business-as-usual parties, and that you would lose your rights as a worker. Westerners have so far not been able to understand this reluctance to embrace ‘democracy’, even as the ground is eaten out from under them while they congratulate themselves on being ‘free’.

Unlike western leaders, President Putin, whom Dmitry Orlov memorably described as ‘a shark who eats other sharks’ is not stupid. Having cracked down hard on the thugs and Mafiosi who were making life miserable for the average Russian, Putin is a pretty popular guy. He might have Chechen blood all over his hands, but frankly most Russians don’t care, and it’s not as if he has ever denied it. So, seeing the US and its NATO allies make a mess out of every country they interfere with - a growing list that includes Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Ukraine and many others - Putin has decided to draw the line at Syria, a country with which Russia has historic ties (and, let’s not forget, a strategically-important naval port). By launching bombing raids and committing ground troops to fight Daesh, Putin has (again) wrong-footed the increasingly inept-looking west. At the same time, by launching long-range cruise missiles that fly at altitudes lower than 100m, he has effectively sent the clear message: “Don’t mess with us.” With its ability to block NATO military communications, Russia has sent a very clear signal that it could take out US forces - a truth recently echoed by an American army commander "Russia would annihilate US in head to head battle". 

If there is to be no reconciliation with Russia and a chance for the country to heal its deep-seated wounds, then it appears that Putin will simply act in a unilateral fashion until the west comes along, cap in hand, asking to join him. Which they are (see today’s Guardian: “Putin: from Pariah to Powerbroker in one year”).

I don’t think there’s much doubt that before last Friday the United States and its allies were not much interested in destroying Daesh. There was much hand-wringing and saying ‘something must be done with these barbarians’, but on the other hand there was much profitable reaping of the whirlwind to be had. An endless war in the Middle East is endlessly profitable for the elite classes who parasitise our societies. Stocks in weapons manufacturers have jumped since Friday, national governments across Europe are suddenly able to award themselves sweeping powers, and the obedient mainstream media beats the drums for war louder than ever, whipping up the citizens into a frenzy of blood lust. To point out that our allies, such as Saudi Arabia, are funding Daesh – using money that we gave them to satisfy our oil addiction – is to invite ridicule. To point out that over a million have died in Iraq in an illegal oil war is to be labeled a ‘peacenik’. To ask why there was no similar outcry over the bombing in Lebanon the day before, or why such little fuss was made when a Russian plane full of holidaymakers was blown out of the sky over Egypt is to invites puzzled looks. 2,000 dead in Nigeria – yawn. “You have no respect for the dead in Paris!” arises the cry from the army of social media soundbiters whose profile pictures are uniformly plastered in the tricolor as if it means something.

Nevertheless, despite all this, there does remain some hope and it comes from the same place as the hopelessness. The mainsteam forms of communication are losing their power. They change their allegiances so often that it’s hard not to think of Winston Smith in 1984 trying to remember which country they were currently at war with or allied to -  Eurasia or Eastasia - and what atrocities the enemy is supposed to have committed:

“They have attacked an unarmed village with rocket bombs and murdered 4,000 defenseless, innocent and peaceful citizens of Oceania. This is no longer war. This is cold-blooded murder. Until now, the war has been conducted with honor and bravery with the ideals of truth and justice in the best traditions of mankind... until this moment. Brothers and sisters, the endless catalog of beastie atrocities which will inevitably ensue from this appalling act must, can, and will be terminated. The forces of darkness and treasonable maggots who collaborate with them must, can, and will be wiped from the face of the Earth. We must crush them! We must smash them! We must stamp them out! We the people of Oceania and our traditional allies, the people of Eurasia, will not rest until a final victory has been achieved. Death of the eternal enemy of Oceania. Death! Death! DEATH!” From 1984

It is to be hoped that emotions and fiery opinions may burn bright and burn out fast. But the drivers that put in motion current events are like deep ocean currents and for the time being these forces will have to play themselves out. The politicians and global military industrial complex demand our participation and ask that we join in unthinkingly - but we still have the free will to refuse to do so. A friend of a friend wrote something on Facebook the other day that I am going to paraphrase here:

“Here in France it’s just gone 11 O’clock and almost nobody has paid any attention to the decree that we observe two minutes’ silence. Life went on as normal, people spoke to one another in the streets and shops and carried on with their everyday lives. Yet every news site is saying that we are all fell silent when we didn’t – it’s all a gross exaggeration. This is just to let you know that most people here know they are being manipulated and refuse to be part of the narrative of a war machine.”

For my own part I decided to simply shut off all forms of electronic information on Saturday and instead gathered a handful of acorns and ash keys, 25 in total (that was all I could find). I planted them in pots of soil and with each one expressed the wish that by the time it had grown to maturity, so too would humankind, for the only way for a fire elemental to be dissipated is with an opposite element, such as earth or water. Call it a prayer for peace, if you like.

And perhaps it would also do us well to recognise that the world is changing into a different form which will be uncomfortable for many of us living cosseted lives. Our public institutions are crumbling, our financial and political systems are rigged and corrupt, our resources are becoming more scarce and unaffordable, and our ability to project power upon the rest of the world is waning. These things are simply what happens to civilisations in old age: there is nothing new under the Sun. The more energy we expend in fighting this change, the less there will be that is worth saving when we eventually face reality. Old forms die, new forms are born – it has always been this way. We consider it a ‘right’ that we should be able to drive cars, eat expensive meals in fancy restaurants and enjoy being showered in consumer goods, but we don’t accept that with every right there is a responsibility. We stand by and allow our governments to reduce foreign countries to rubble with barely a peep, and we turn a blind eye while the corporations that are given protection by those same governments plunder resources, pollute the environment and treat people as commodities to be exploited.

I know it’s a tall order to ask for these things to be understood – especially when the news media obsesses about such minutiae as whether the latest James Bond film (the fable of an emotionally-crippled man who travels around the world murdering people for the geopolitical advantage of his country – a character originally conceived of as high satire but now admired as a role model) has earned more money than some other film, or whether a television commercial for a shop is ‘genius’ or not. But we have to try. We have to wriggle free somehow. My kids know it’s all false, other kids I speak to know it’s all false, even some adults are starting to realise it’s all false. And therein lies some hope.