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Thursday, 17 April 2014

DAVID CAMERON THE EVANGELIST

David Cameron says he is evangelical about his Christian faith


"Jesus created the big Society "

Prime minister criticises some non-believers for failing to see that faith can give people a 'moral code'


Evangelical Christianity has wrecked American political life introducing a level of public hypocrisy not seen since Caligula’s Rome. Across the world from the Indian sub-continent to Burma, from Thailand and Russia to Turkey and the Balkans religion has poisoned public life. Some states like Saudi Arabia have been turned into theocratic prisons. In Russia the Orthodox church cheers on Putin as he destroys civic society. Hostilities between faith groups tears societies apart across the planet, as Christians attack Muslims, Muslims murder Christians, Buddhists murder Muslims and everywhere turn their violence against non believers. Any possibility of a peaceful settlement in Palestine is blocked by religious fanatics on both sides, with Jewish settlers stealing other peoples land citing religious texts dating back over 2,000 years.

Britain, however, since the last war has been moving steadily toward an increasingly secular society, religion having lost its grip on the masses. True, immigration from the Indian sub-continent has seen the emergence of a self-confident Muslim community, but overall the direction of travel has been away from religious observance toward a more secular, more tolerant society. In Britain, unlike the US, where no avowed atheist could currently be elected President,*  an open non-believer could become Prime Minister without anyone blinking an eye; indeed Ed Miliband has a good chance of doing just that.
Despite the consternation of the established church, so called ‘faith groups,’ eschatological fanatics and sandwich board wearing doom merchants we have been steadily leaving organised religious belief behind us; leaving behind the childhood of our species.

Now however, impressed by the record of religion across the world, David Cameron wants to turn the clock back:-

‘I believe we should be more confident about our status as a Christian country, more ambitious about expanding the role of faith-based organisations, and, frankly, more evangelical about a faith that compels us to get out there and make a difference to people's lives.’[1]

Now given the current state of British Society, - the open hostility to Muslims in some areas, the tensions between some religious groups and the growing threat of Islamic fundamentalism you might think that ‘expanding the role of faith-based organisations’ is the last thing we need?
But no, Cameron feels we need more hectoring religious zealots, more moralizing from pious God botherers and more interfering bible basher's seeking to bully and coral us so that we too can become ‘sheep’ like them.  Cameron also expresses the belief that that ‘some atheists and agnostics did not understand that faith could be a "guide or a helpful prod in the right direction" towards morality.’[2]

Well stepping up to the rostrum for a moment and taking it upon myself to speak on behalf atheists and agnostics, - enough already. No, we do understand and can see very clearly for ourselves the nature of religious morality around the world and where it leads. If we did not have this concrete evidence we could still read the religious texts, the Torah, the Bible, the Quran, all containing the most hideous injunctions.  All three bullying monotheisms make big claims for themselves with the latter  two offshoots of Judaism, Christianity and Islam seeking to impose their moral codes on others who do not share their bizarre beliefs or practise their arcane rituals. Well no Mr Cameron we do understand and we are having none of it.

Of course as soon as they start spouting pious platitudes British politicians instantly render themselves ridiculous. Thus we have Cameron opining that ‘Jesus invented ‘The Big Society’ 2000 years ago.' This would presumably make the tale of the loaves and fishes the first example of a food bank? ’ I mean really, this is beyond satire.

I don’t give a fig for Mr Cameron’s woolly religious beliefs and half-baked pieties, but when public funds are to be distributed to groups preaching nonsense to children or ‘faith based’ organisations seeking to impose their moral codes on me, I will use whatever platforms I have to protest and object.

As to his new found Christian zeal I can think of no better riposte than to quote G K Chesterton.

‘Talk about the pews and steeples
 And the cash that goes therewith!
But the souls of Christian peoples...
                    Chuck it, Smith!’[3]

*I suspect Obama of faking it. 


[2] Ibid
[3]  From ‘Antichrist, or the Reunion of Christendom: An Ode’ by G. K. Chesterton. 

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Wednesday, 16 April 2014

THOUGHTS ON THE CRISIS IN UKRAINE

Putin's Poker Face

I.

We have all come across it, the chillingly blank expression, the unblinking stare, the cold hard look as you are told lies; the poker face. Though never having played the card game I am certainly familiar with the concept of the bluff. Looking at the face of Vladimir Putin you know he would be a perfect poker player, it is impossible to read his intentions.
I wrote as recently as two weeks ago that I thought it unlikely that Putin would move quickly on Eastern Ukraine, I was not the only one. We were all wrong. It seems that Putin calculated that his best move was the one least expected. He also appears to have calculated that time is not on his side. From his perspective it is important that the new government in Kiev not be allowed to stabilise and facilitate open and free elections that will then create a legitimacy that the current regime in the Ukrainian capital lacks. He also calculates that the west will hold back from acting too firmly, a consequence of splits between the EU and US and within the EU itself, with Germany in particular being cool about serious sanctions. As it happens he may have miscalculated. I have been pleasantly surprised by Angela Merkel’s solidity. I worry more about lobbying from the City of London, which will seek to dilute any sanctions likely to damage the wealth of financial institutions and individuals in the City.
Putin is gambling and has consciously raised the stakes, he also has a gun under the table and is likely to use it if the alternative to using it is losing face.

We are now in the most dangerous situation in Europe since the collapse of the Soviet Union, times like these have the capacity to spiral out of control and it is hard to resist the parallels with 1914. History though far from teaching us not to make mistakes just ensures that any mistakes we make will be fresh ones.
A Pro Russian Member of the Defence Militia?

It is also worth keeping an eye on China during this period. The men in Beijing have irredentist claims of their own and they will be watching carefully as to how much Putin is allowed to get what he wants.

The Moral Bankruptcy of the Far Left

II.

For the sake of this piece your correspondent visited the so called Stop the War Coalition website [StW]– greater love hath no man. It is a site worth keeping an eye on since it provides a window on the thinking of those who seem to imagine themselves to be on the revolutionary left. Unsurprisingly you find there that the crises in the Ukraine is all the fault of western governments in general and Britain and the US in particular. (Rather comically the only people who still believe Britain to be a great imperial power are senile old generals sitting in the House of Lords and the far left).
It can be difficult, and unpleasant, to try to make sense of the mind-set of these people, not least the notion that they imagine are offering a radical critique. Thus we have:-

‘But the United States and NATO broke their word to Russia, by adding most of Eastern Europe and the Balkan states to their own military alliance, and by building military bases along Russia's southern border. Ever since the end of the Cold War in 1991, the European Union (EU) and NATO have been intent on surrounding Russia with military bases and puppet regimes sympathetic to the West…’[1]

Leaving aside the disgusting smear on countries like Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, and Bulgaria as ‘puppet regimes,’ and the fact that in these democratic countries citizens voted for governments who stood on a platform of entry into the EU and NATO,[2] the writer here presents in unadulterated form the 19th century doctrine of ‘spheres of influence.’ This doctrine in which ‘great powers’, carve up regions of the world irrespective of the wishes of local populations, being extolled on a website pertaining to be of the left!

But the most revealing passage comes later on, and uncovers the real betrayal of the historic doctrine of left wing solidarity by the vacuous, jargon spouting zealots of StW:-

‘Those who demand anti-war activity here in Britain against Russia are ignoring the history and the present reality in Ukraine and Crimea. The B52 liberals only oppose wars when their own rulers do so, and support the ones carried out by our governments. The job of any anti-war movement is to oppose its own government's role in these wars, and to explain what that government and its allies are up to.’’[3] [My emphasis]

This disgusting doctrine, wrapped up in slurs, lies and misrepresentation owes a great deal to none other than Noam Chomsky, and has been brilliantly dissected by Nick Cohen. Thus Chomsky presents his governing principle:-

‘The ethical value of one’s actions depends on their anticipated and predictable consequences. It is very easy to denounce the atrocities of someone else. That has about as much ethical value as denouncing atrocities that took place in the 18th century.’[4]

As Nick points out:- 

 ‘…It is not courageous to protest in a Western country against the actions of a Western government when Western societies protect your rights to protest, and to speak and to write freely…consider the isolationist view conveyed by that glib little phrase “the atrocities of someone else”, which slips from his lips like a sneer.’’[5]

The moral bankruptcy of the Chomsky position, now adopted as the template by much of the far left is as exposed as the King in the Hans Christian Andersen story. What would Chomsky have said to the left of the 1930's who offered solidarity  with those fighting Franco in Republican Spain, or opposing the growing persecution of the Jews in Nazi Germany? Well he would say:-

“It is very easy to denounce the atrocities of someone else. That has about as much ethical value as denouncing atrocities that took place in the 18th century.”

Putin's Dilemma 

II.
Victims of Ukraine's man made famine of the 1930's


Few countries suffered as much in the 20th Century as Ukraine.[6] The catalogue of atrocities visited upon the inhabitants of a country the size of France is truly incomprehensible. Immediately following on from the disasters of the First World War and the Civil War the Bolshevik rulers in Moscow turned their attention to Ukrainian nationalism.  Beginning in 1929, over 5,000 Ukrainian scholars, scientists, cultural and religious leaders were arrested after being falsely accused of plotting an armed revolt. Those arrested were either shot without a trial or deported to prison camps in remote areas of Russia. There then followed the elimination of the wealthy peasants, ‘the Kulaks’ and the forced collectivisation of Ukrainian farming and seizure of grain, which was to be sold overseas to pay for industrialisation. The famine resulting from these actions has been estimated by Robert Conquest at 14.5 million--more than the total number of deaths for all countries in World War I.
Kharkiv Under German Occupation 
Still devastated by the famine and the years of the Stalinist Great Terror the country was then invaded by Nazi Germany in 1941. After the famine and the Great Terror some Ukrainians certainly welcomed the Germans as liberators, some even fighting for the German army.
Hitler’s however intended that the Ukraine be completely ethnically cleansed of Jews and all the rest of its Russian and Ukrainian inhabitants. The country was to become a German colony to be named Goth-land. A few Ukrainians might be permitted to remain as servants or slaves.
German Propaganda poster
presenting Hitler as the liberator
of Ukraine
It is hard to calculate the exact number of Ukrainians who died during World War 2, since no separate figures were ever kept, the Ukraine simply representing merely one constituent part of the Soviet Union, however it can be safely stated that it ran into many millions.
Ukrainian collaboration with the Nazi’s still rankles in Russia, whilst Ukrainians remember the famine and the attempts made to destroy Ukrainian language and culture. That said the relationship between Russia and the Ukraine is a multi-layered and complex one that has developed over the centuries. The Western region however, incorporated as it had been into the Austro Hungarian Empire, leaning more towards the West than the Eastern districts bordering Russia. Indeed the roots of Russian civilisation lie in Kiev and Kievan Rus and many Russians regard Russia and Ukraine as one and the same. Fewer Ukrainians see things this way.
The central point being however that it is neither possible nor desirable to break the interwoven relationship between the two states, a relationship as strong and complex as that between England and Scotland.*
The roots of the current crisis can be firmly found in Moscow and the regime of Vladimir Putin, for whom the thought of a ‘stable democratic and independent Ukraine seeking prosperity through closer links with the EU, keeps him awake at night. Precisely because there is such strong cultural and historical ties with the Ukraine Putin cannot countenance Ukraine developing a healthy democracy. What a model that would provide for Russian citizens?

*Not even the fiercest Scottish Nationalist  envisage a hostile relationship with England should they achieve independence; indeed part of their case seems to be that on a day to day level little will change.   



[2] These countries often having been on the receiving end of Russian aggression understandably were reluctant to rely solely on Russian goodwill and the continuance of largely benign administrations in Moscow, -with the advent of Putin how right they were.
[4] Quoted in http://blogs.spectator.co.uk/coffeehouse/2014/03/chomsky-in-the-crimea/ I really do recommend reading this article in full

[5] Ibid
[6] The suffering of Poland was perhaps as great, that of Russia almost equal in such a hideous top ten. 



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Monday, 14 April 2014

HIERARCHY DEMOCRACY AND THE CULT OF THE 'STRONG LEADER' Part One

Power Is Sexy!


I.


Whilst in training to become a counsellor there was a moment that has stuck in my memory. We were about to have a dialogue/seminar, we did not really have lectures as such, about the power dynamic between therapist and client, the tutor entered the room and wrote on a flip chart the simple sentence, ‘Power is Sexy.’*


Now this course was about as 'right-on' as can be imagined, the students predominantly female, the tutor male. I can still remember the discomfort, possibly even shock, in the room. I also remember registering my own recognition that power could be a turn on, could provide a kind of electric current that can induce a heady sense of legitimacy authority, even a variety of charisma. If you were in charge of a situation, entrusted to exercise power and control that must be a recognition of your own eminent suitability to exercise it. The aim of the seminar was to clearly establish the importance of acknowledging within oneself both this aspect of the power dynamic, its attractions, its allure, and that failure to do so was fraught with danger.


I am not sure how well the seminar succeeded, my memory of the conversation afterwards was a predominance of the belief that only men were subject to such feelings!


I wrote recently about the Stanford prison experiment,[1] an experiment exploring the attractions of power and our innate capacity to abuse it. However you do not need a controversial psychological experiment to establish the corrosive effect of unchecked power, recent history provides a mountain of evidence. “All power corrupts,” Lord Acton famously observed, “and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Everyone remembers Acton’s statement, but few have taken on board its implications.


The Cult of Leadership

II.


Many years ago I worked for a non-hierarchical organisation, a collective providing housing for single homeless people. It was one of the richest experiences of my life.[2]


By the early 1990’s considerable pressure, some of it external but sadly much more from within, was being placed on the organisation to conform and turn itself into a conventional hierarchy. The issues were both complex and simple and there are aspects of that period that still rankle with me today and I do not intend to relate the full saga here, though maybe one day I will write about it. One thing that I do remember is that all the problems that the organisation was experiencing were put down to the fact that we were a non-hierarchy. I remember at the time fiercely arguing about this, indeed having to counter a number of fictions being peddled by those who wanted to destroy the collective ethos and who, of course, saw themselves as the new management team. The argument was lost and the organisation did become a bog standard hierarchy.[3]


Nobody seems to connect the greed of the utility companies, the catastrophic failures of banking and financial services industries, the rancid nature of the Murdoch and Rothermere newspapers, the problems in the NHS, Social Services and the Metropolitan Police Service with their rigid hierarchical structures. They should.


It is inconceivable, for example, that RBS could have been destroyed if Fred Goodwin had not had such autocratic power, or the phone hacking scandals occurred had the Murdoch Empire not been an autocracy. Everywhere we see examples of greed, venality, duplicity and corruption born of the largely unchecked exercise of hierarchical power.  The Western capitalist obsession with ‘leadership’ is as corrosive to the health of society as it is misguided. It is also extremely dangerous, as the crash of 2008 demonstrates.


As Nick Cohen points out in his powerful polemic ‘You Can’t Read This Book,’ most people spend the majority of their lives in a dictatorship called work.  Unless they are genuinely self-employed people inhabit a regimented world in which they have little or no power over their lives during their time at work; for the majority of the working population what the boss says goes, it’s either their way or the highway.


 Of course it is true that hierarchical structures operate on a spectrum from the dictatorial to the benign and consultative; what links them all is the noticeable absence of real democracy.  We do not accept this in our politics, why should we accept it work?


Many will react with incredulity at the very idea of democracy in the workplace, living as we do in a society captured by the cult of leadership and sold daily on the vital requirement of hierarchy, of the necessity that one person be in charge.[4]


Hierarchy and the Culture of Greed

III.


The price we pay for our worship of this model is horrendous, both at the individual and macroeconomic level. This concentration of power also leads, unsurprisingly, to a concentration in wealth. Inequality in this country is already at pre-First World War levels, the top 10% now have between 60% and 70% of all wealth, and we are heading back to the levels of the late 19th century. Despite the crash of 2008 bankers and autocratic CEO’s still award themselves immense pay packets and bonuses; the heads of the utility companies follow suit, arguing that they must be paid ‘the going rate,’ omitting to mention that it is they who set that rate. As Will Hutton points out, referring to the work of the economist Thomas Piketty: - 

 ‘High executive pay has nothing to do with real merit, writes Piketty – it is much lower, for example, in mainland Europe and Japan. Rather, it has become an Anglo-Saxon social norm permitted by the ideology of "meritocratic extremism", in essence, self-serving greed to keep up with the other rich.’[5]

This cult of greed has now reached ludicrous levels with the Chief Executives of charities arguing that they too need immense pay packages to ignite their innate talent and creativity.[6]


As it turned out all this wealth creating flair, bragged so much about by the likes of Fred Goodwin and hailed by Gordon Brown and Peter Mandelson led directly to the crash of 2008. It turns out they had all the acumen and financial nous of a drunken gambler. Now, having demanded that we pick up the tab for their losses, they return to the roulette table unabashed. Why would they not? They operate without either democratic control or accountability. Power turns out not only to be ‘sexy’ but also extremely profitable.


I may seem to have strayed a little from my original focus on the attractions and dangers of power at an individual level, but I think there is a thread that connects whatever insights I had in the seminar room to Fred Goodwin and casino capitalism. Power corrupts not always in the most obvious ways, creating instant bullies and megalomaniacs, though it can do that, but it can also do so in more subtle and complex ways. The key moment is the happy discovery that people will so often willingly surrender up their power, happy to have someone take the weight of responsibility from them. This not only provides a first injection of the electric kudos of power but also serves to legitimize ones taking it.


Democracy is sometimes messy, often uncomfortable and always hard work, this is the core of the attraction of the ‘strong leader’ and the hierarchical structure. It also explains the reason for the ubiquitous and relentless pro-hierarchical propaganda which we are constantly fed, since leaders and led both require legitimisation of their respective positions, the led to justify their cowardice, leaders to justify their exercise of power.


Though I can make no claim to it being unique my experience is unusual in that I have worked in both hierarchical and collective structures, the former in senior management positions and have also managed both small and large teams. One thing is clear to me, there is more bullshit written and said about leadership than any culture can safely absorb. Hierarchies are no more an inevitable way of organising human affairs than is slavery. In every environment I have worked a collective model would have been as equally viable as a hierarchy.


There are problems of course in both structural models, what non-hierarchical structures offer is a check on the personal abuse of power and the empowerment of those who live and work within them. The virtues of hierarchy are the ‘virtues’ of dictatorship and autocracy, they can get things done quickly, the trains run on time; the problems they create are all around us.


Western society has outgrown feudalism, absolute monarchy and a property based franchise, it could also outgrow rigid hierarchy.# The alternative is the continued development of undemocratic and unaccountable economic and social structures, structures incompatible with any form of democracy, even in its limited capitalist incarnation.

*Henry Kissinger who loved power and the ruthless exercise of it believed this to be literally true, believed it provided him with a powerful seductive tool. Bill Clinton believed the same and indeed sought to test the hypothesis to destruction. 

#There are a range of models between pure hierarchy and fully democratic collectives. Progress could be made by creating greater democracy within existing organisational structures. Unfortunately at present the direction of travel appears to be in the opposite direction. 






[1] http://alextalbot.blogspot.co.uk/2014/04/the-great-psychology-experiment-with.html
[2] It is perhaps worth saying that I worked there for seven years, this was no short lived hippy experiment but a stable and extremely succsesful housing charity.  
[3] It is still in existence, and for the purpose of writing this piece I checked out the charities website. The period when the organisation was a collective has been written out of the organisations history, whilst the Chief Executive, one of those who fought so strongly to turn the organisation into a hierarchy, now enjoys an inflated salary,  many times greater than frontline staff, whose corresponding salaries have been considerably reduced in real terms.
[4] It is noticeable that people always sell the idea of ‘strong leadership,’ it is worth reframing this as ‘dictatorship’ which is what in reality they are  calling for. Though of course framed in this way it is considerably less appealing.
[5] http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/apr/12/capitalism-isnt-working-thomas-piketty
[6] The greed and venality within the charitable sector deserves a post all to itself. Much dates back to the early Blair years when there was a concerted effort to re-launch charities as ‘the third sector.’


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