Lowkey on Afghanistan

A strong overview of the failure of liberal intervention and the war on terror. “It’s great that the world is concerned for human rights in Afghanistan, but where have you been for the last 20 years?”

The Complexity Trap

In discussions around recent events in Israel/Palestine, as with the issue generally, there’s a common narrative about complexity. The situation is complex, nuanced, ‘both sides’… blah blah blah.

The history of the region certainly is complex (although I imagine every region is complex when you look into it). This, however, is the only area where we’re always reminded it’s so complex we can’t take a firm position. China has a rich history spanning millennia, and that’s never used as a reason to shut up and step back on commenting about the Uyghurs, is it? I’ve never seen anyone appealing to the complexity of the Middle East go on to outline any of it – to actually provide any of that nuanced context which we need before we can dare to conclude anything.

This appeal to information isn’t being used to clarify anything. Or explain anything. It’s instead an anti-information. There’s no suggestion of ‘here is the specific knowledge you lack, which could clarify this’, as would be expected in a normal discussion. Instead, it’s a bizarre claim that the whole thing is basically unknowable.

As James Butler put it:

[Edward] Said argues that Western writers frequently mystify the ME by suggesting its politics are so arcane, conducted among people so alien and different from us, only a tiny group of professional experts can possibly comprehend them at all. It is a means of political demobilisation.

As Michael Brooks explained so well, the situation is not very complex at all. The reality of the asymmetry between Israel and Palestine is so blunt that it’s laughable (and rather sick) to pretend otherwise. One side is an ethnostate doing settler-colonialism with advanced military hardware, backed by the most powerful states on Earth, and just attacked Al Aqsa during Ramadan. The other is an occupied people, with the right to armed resistance, using glorified fireworks which have a kill rate well below 1%.

What in the history of the region justifies the time white phosphorus was used? Eh? Grow up. I don’t know the history going back centuries. I can’t list the top ten exports or name all the political factions. I don’t need to know all that to see things that are blindingly obvious. That most of the people harping on complexity don’t know that stuff either, but simply don’t want their comfortable fence-sitting disturbed. That attacking places of worship is wrong. That if any of us lived in Gaza, we wouldn’t want to accept the abuse.

It’s impossible to make a reasonable argument that Israel is acting in a way we would ever accept if it was done to us. People are hesitant to even try, which is why they resort to hand-wringing about complexity instead. There’s nothing behind it. There’s no knowledge hiding there, only deliberate ignorance. Don’t let this foolish trap blind your moral clarity.

Book Reviews (20)

The People’s Republic of Walmart – Leigh Phillips & Michal Rozworski

An excellent, readable work advancing a modern socialist response to the economic calculation debate.

One of the better capitalist arguments is that only the market and its price signals can marshal production and exchange on a large scale – that the level of information needed makes planning impossible. Phillips and Rozworski summarise some of the key points and responses in layman’s terms, advancing their own core thread – that much of the world’s economic activity already is planned, that taking place within firms; especially giants like Walmart. In fact, firms which try to introduce internal markets, competition, and price signals tend to crash and burn, as in the case of Sears after a Randian took over.

Given that planning empirically works on large scales, the question broadens to one of democratising planning, and using big data effectively and responsibly. The authors consider both capitalist firms and the USSR as authoritarian in different ways, in their discussion of the latter asserting that one of the reasons planning struggled was the authoritarianism of the society. Contra common arguments that planning inevitably produces shortages which are responded to with state suppression, they suggest that Stalinism undermined planning by inhibiting proper flows of information. If the reports of farmers are ignored in favour of top-down dictats and factory managers fear being shot if they admit problems, planners won’t have decent data and the economy will falter.

They recount Allende’s CyberSyn as an inspiring early attempt at a more democratic planning – with limited computing technology, Chile’s government was nevertheless able to co-ordinate around a CIA-sponsored strike using a balance of bottom-up and centrally guided organising. (Of course, nobody who responds to the mildest of socialist ideas by screeching about gulags is ever heard lamenting the brutality of Pinochet.)

It’s an intriguing piece of work, discussing the economic and historical debate in a more interesting, insightful manner than the off-the-shelf slogans you’ll hear anywhere else.

The Well of Ascension – Brandon Sanderson
Mistborn #2

I’ve seen two cons mentioned for book two – that it’s a bit slow, and that the original crewmembers aren’t there much.

It’s true that the pace isn’t as intense and twist-filled for much of it. However, the character work is even better as the cast adjusts to a new situation and its challenges. Ham, Dox, etc are less in focus than last time – but they’re still there quite a bit, and show more of themselves in their new context with Sanderson’s great dialogue and plotting.

New characters and some old ones come to the fore – aside from the obviously interesting Vin, the kandra perspective is fresh, Sazed is Sazed but even more, and Elend becoming less of a drip is a key point. Zane is repetitive, though. Action is still crisp and dynamic, particularly as the pace does pick up. The ending is less rushed than The Final Empire and just as staggering.

Some world building points do feel slightly thrown in by surprise, and finding another document lost for over a thousands years is a touch cheap (though admittedly, it’s hard to imagine an alternative given the situation). Duralumin is cool.

Venus in the Blind Spot – Junji Ito

A selection from horror manga artist Junji Ito. The phrase that comes to mind is ‘mixed bag’.

The best pieces carry plenty of dread and creepy imagery – Billions Alone, the title story, The Enigma of Amigara Fault, Keepsake. Billions Alone’s loner character is the most compelling in the collection, Amigara Fault pulls off a foreboding compulsion with a body-horror payoff that builds as you think about it, the title story has a particularly unique hook.

Weaker pieces are still interesting but a little abrupt, weird for the sake of it. There’s Lovecraftian-incomprehensible, there’s twists and foreshadowing, then there’s just ‘doesn’t make sense’. Master Umezz and Me shouldn’t be here: this fanboy piece about how Ito read Kazuo Umezz growing up is an abrupt shift in topic and tone, and the art style comes off goofy with a light-hearted subject.

I get the impression that his longer work would probably build on the strengths the best pieces here show, with time to dig into some characters more and build up that unease. Some of his shorter work struggles in those areas, while others succeed.

Patriotism: Enemy Terrain

Starmer shagging a flag
Dave Brown, Independent

Keir Starmer’s consultants have suggested a focus on ‘flag’ and ‘patriotism’. It’s not just the left criticizing Keith’s focus-group gestures – the commentariat is also recognising how lacking in ideas he is.

The sycophants have a ready answer: Labour has to seem patriotic to win, everyone thought Corbyn hates Britain, ordinary people like the flag, etc, etc. This is beside the point. The trouble is how empty of content this is. This flag-shagging is nothing but a gesture on terrain thoroughly owned by the right.

That doesn’t mean the left shouldn’t make any forays on this terrain. Matt Widdowson’s thoughtful article on socialist patriotism argues the need to articulate ‘a genuine love of our country and its people — in opposition to the militarism and imperialism’. I’m still personally uncomfortable with British patriotism while we leach off the third world and so forth, but I can see the need of the narrative in electoral strategy.

The trouble is that nobody I’m aware of has ever came closer to articulating this positive vision than Jeremy Corbyn, and he was lambasted as a Britain-hating nutter despite being a mild socdem. The whole territory of patriotism is occupied by rabid Tory nationalism.

Caring about the nation’s poor – unpatriotic. Wanting our services properly run in-house – unpatriotic. Wanting out of the middle east – unpatriotic. Why? Because he thought people in other countries were also human, dislikes the Empire, etc. Corbyn wasn’t a nationalist, which is why everyone got convinced he wasn’t a patriot. The Tories sell all our stuff off to the lowest bidder and treat our people like shit, but they’re ‘patriotic’ because they love poppies and bombs.

Attempts to articulate progressive patriotism in some form will contradict the nationalist poison inherent in the mainstream view of what patriotism means, and thus be branded Britain-hating. Attempts to hang on the coattails of the symbols will be seen as the empty focus-group tripe it is. Why would flag-shaggers go for fake flag-shaggers when Boris is right there, rutting the thing with wild abandon?

The whole thing is hard, and Keith doesn’t get it. I don’t have an easy answer either. The right has overseen over 100,000 Covid deaths and, before that, similar numbers through austerity. They’re still polling around 40%.

Voters this brainwashed will not go for a watered-down version of revanchist nationalism when the real thing is available. It’s possible to articulate a progressive patriotism, but trying to win the right’s culture war by hanging on the flag’s coattails is a fools’ errand.

Why not go for the people who are reachable, with a meaningful platform to address their material circumstances? The thing that could’ve won in 2017, if it weren’t for backstabbing centrists? By all means have a flag in the background of that speech – but still expect the usual suspects to rant about you hating white people.

Someone will be pissed off regardless, but trying to offend nobody won’t inspire anybody.

Two Articles Worried About Zoomer Birthrates

Fellow blogger Phil Ebersole linked two articles for discussion which looked at Gen Z in relation to marriage, etc, from an American conservative viewpoint: Rod Dreher’s No Families, No Kids, No Future and The Flaming Eyeball’s response The Kids Are Not Alright.

My response got a bit long and I haven’t posted for a while, so I’m copying it here too.

#

What on earth is Rod on about? 😆

“We are going to have to endure a civilizational collapse before we begin the Great Relearning. I am beginning to see now why a sociologist I heard speak a few years ago said that losing awareness of the gender binary is going to mean the end of us. He meant that we will lose cultural memory of the basic fact needed to ensure the future of our civilization.”

So birthrates are lower? Fine. It’s not a portent of civilizational collapse or human extinction lmao. There are billions of us! He’s talking as though we’re about to forget how children are made. There will still be straight people, he’s panicking at nothing – not to mention, a bi person and straight/bi partner can have a child!

“A number of readers have pointed out that the “B” in “LGBT” — bisexual — is probably doing a hell of a lot of work in that 30 percent number. This is probably true, but it doesn’t really change much. I’m not sure how many men would want to partner with a woman whose sexual desires are so unstable.”

What… what? What is he on about? His article is absurd.

The other article is a little more interesting but still rather catastrophizing. Note the dogwhistles like “soy boys” and bizarre judgements like “the increase in unappealing [female] grooming habits such dying their hair and cutting it short” – unappealing to who, eh? Aren’t people allowed varied aesthetic sensibilities? Did blue hair cause the fall of Rome?

I’d need to go do research to evaluate the biological claims there regarding testosterone levels, etc. But the social/cultural perspective is too weak to take particularly seriously.

“Modern American leftism […] is mere entropy, fake ugly men dressed as fake ugly women saying fake ugly words. This is why self-hating and freakish progressives can tirelessly work to take over institutions and cancel people, but they can’t create, preserve, or even measure value, so they just run everything into the ground. Despite routing conservatives over and over, they are terminally unhappy because they can’t produce anything of value, they don’t know how to love, and they can never put enough effort in to please their vengeful and jealous god.”

Routing conservatives over and over? Trump was in power for four years, Bernie failed, Biden is center-right by normal standards and has said ‘nothing will fundamentally change’ and that he’d veto M4A. As a progressive I have more serious reasons for some unhappiness than a fuddy conservatives’ ‘blue-hair lesbian on TV’ nonsense.

These writers’ sort of analysis is what happens if someone can only view society through the lens of conservative cultural grievances. No economic or structural perspective whatsoever. They don’t even mention climate change, which is a top-three answer imo for ‘why don’t zoomers want kids as much?’ (two others – money and more free social choice).

As a UK zoomer, my perspective would be that there are concerning issues in the world but I don’t see eye to eye with these particular writers on the problems or solutions.

What Else To Call Them?

Thatcher - starving miners.
Boris - starving minors.

Over 100 Tory backbenchers have complained about ‘abuse’ after Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner used the word ‘scum’ in Parliament.

Recent events provide a decent enough reason these people should be thoroughly shunned. Following footballer Marcus Rashford’s campaigning there was a vote on whether or not to extend free school meals to poor kids in England over the holidays, which lost by 322 votes to 261. Only five Tories voted for the scheme.

Being confronted with the subject of child poverty gets some people even more rabid than usual.

Backbench loon Steve Baker says “Not destroying the currency with excessive QE is also one of our duties.” £12bn on Serco’s failure of Test and Trace is supposed to be affordable while a pittance on feeding families in poverty would destroy the pound – according to a guy who guns for No Deal and wants to return to the gold standard.

A fellow blogger quotes MP Philip Davies’ reply to a constituent:

[P]arents should be primarily responsible for feeding their children rather than the state […] I wonder what we would ask them to be responsible for.

Meanwhile Ben Bradley MP (who previously suggested sterilising the unemployed) is under fire for a tweet suggesting that free school meals vouchers would end up in crack dens:

The Conservative MP had replied to a tweet in which another user had described the free school meals programme as ‘£20 cash direct to a crack den and a brothel’.

He then responded with: “That’s what FSM vouchers in the summer effectively did…”

While various councils, charities and businesses are working to address the need of these families, there is too large a segment of British society which agrees with the above MPs. The same people manic about foreign aid, which they want spent ‘at home’ instead, oppose practically any action to support the nation’s poor.

‘Can’t afford kids? Don’t have them!’ some gobshite is always spouting, apparently unaware that people’s situations can change over 18+ years, that we’re in a pandemic and people have lost jobs or need to somehow manage on a segment of their usual wage, and, crucially, that the kids exist anyway and need food even if the parents are ‘feckless’.

Ideally parents wouldn’t need state help to feed their families – but the fact is, they do. Despite the ravings of every nonce picking up a calculator to tally up the price of potatoes and carrots, people don’t use foodbanks or go hungry for a laugh or because they’re simply shit at financing. They aren’t all on drugs or stupid or wasting it all on fags, telly, and iPhones.

(Someone might have bought something nice before they were poor, good luck jobhunting without phones/internet, and do you expect the poor to have nothing to keep them sane?)

Instead of worrying about a fantasy of feckless parents dependent on the state, let’s talk about the reality – landlords dependent on parasitic leaching of other people’s money, employers dependent on exploiting labour for a pittance, shysters like Serco dependant on hefty public contracts. The Trades Union Congress has pointed out that child poverty in working households has risen 38% since 2010, with government policy behind much of the rise.

Who’s been in power since 2010? Oh, right. The Tory scum. When this is the situation, what else to call them?

Book Reviews (17)

books17

Reform or Revolution? – Rosa Luxemburg

The German revolutionary’s response to Eduard Bernstein, who argued for a path to socialism through gradual reforms, without a revolution.

Reading this felt a bit like watching Rosa put Eduard through a wood chipper. The arguments are fairly accessible to the sort of weirdo who would read this, and when she directly addresses her opponent it’s with an entertaining irascible tone.

She would be disappointed that (as of now) capitalism hasn’t irrevocably collapsed in crisis with the proletariat rising to seize the means – in a sense, she was too optimistic. But other theoretical forecasts are prophetic, such as credit being a ‘mighty instrument for the formation of crises’ (rather than a mitigation, as Bernstein argued).

The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers – Paul Kennedy

Kennedy’s thicc account of the rise and decline of leading powers through economic and military change from 1500 to 2000 was popular with DC wonks on its release in 1988 mainly because of the last chapter – an analysis of existing trends and informed speculation on the near future.

These days the last chapter is more of an example of how a well-educated cautious broadly-liberal American observer saw things in 1988. It’s fascinating that such an intelligent and informed person could be so naive as to refer to ‘fissures [which] often compel the United States to choose between its desire to enhance democratic rights in Latin America and its wish to defeat Marxism’. PAUL, YOU MUG, THE U.S. USES ‘SUPPORTING DEMOCRACY’ AS A RHETORICAL PRETEXT WHILE SPONSORING ANY DICTATOR GOING, YOU’RE TOO SMART TO FALL FOR THIS!

Also intriguing looking back from now is Kennedy’s reference to balancing the three competing priorities facing governments heading to the 21st century – ‘guns’, ‘butter’, and sustained growth – as a very difficult task. Continual economic growth is demanded by capitalism, but is impossible (not merely difficult) due to the threat of climate change, and, indeed, the finite amount of resources and demand – good luck breaking the laws of thermodynamics. It would be interesting to hear his response were he pressed on this point now.

The book is primarily a work of history, looking at how economics, technology, and warfare relate to the global balance of power from 1500-1988/2000. You don’t need to memorise particular battles, names, or dates. Kennedy’s writing is as engaging and narrative-driven as you could expect of something like this.

He explains how Europe became the centre of world power due to its internal competition in technology and trade, with its geography making it difficult for, say, the first country to develop gunpowder to take over the whole continent and have innovation stall there. From there he looks at the leading powers which rose in the continent, and the factors which helped each to prominence as well as those which led to downfall – the Habsburgs, Napoleon; and Britain’s place as an imperial/merchant superpower spurred by the Industrial Revolution. Developing through the two world wars comes the long-predicted ‘bipolar world’ led by the U.S. and Russia, taking Kennedy through to 1988 and fears of nuclear war.

Is this a good book? Yes. Do you need to know a lot of history or economics? No, though you might want google here or there. Did it take me a long time to read, and is it a bit dry? Yes.

Wakenhyrst – Michelle Paver

H/t Matthew Richardson.

A well-paced, character-rich gothic story of a murder in 1913. A manor in a fen; a somewhat unfortunate, bright, ‘plain’ female lead; an overbearing misogynist father figure; superstitious villagers with strong accents. All the familiar tropes – very slickly executed.

The marsh setting is an atmospheric point of contention between Maud and Edmund Stearne, the girl and father whose… difficult… relationship forms the core of the book. Paver alternates a close third-person focused on Maud with an epistolary style, each character’s voice stark and engaging. Young Maud’s understanding of her mother’s regular miscarriages, Edmund’s awful pompous journals, and Maud’s inexorably growing knowledge of what’s really happening around her are well served by the approach, which leaves room for doubting everyone’s reliability.

An atmospheric read, well-researched and suspenseful.

On Beauty – Zadie Smith

A funnier, better characterised, modern adaptation of E.M. Forster’s Howards End, about two feuding academic families. The narrative centres on the Belsey family – the white academic father, Howard; black hospital admin Kiki; budding Christian Jerome; self-styled hustler Levi; intensely driven student Zora.

The Belseys alone are diverse and well-realised (though Kiki perhaps less so – a human counter to Howard’s ultra-cerebral nonsense who’s given less chance to shine in her own right); but add in the black conservative Kipps family and you get a lively cast with complex personalities and conflicted relationships driving the plot. Add in other characters: Carl, a rapper thrust into poet’s circles, sensitive to being taken a fool; Claire, a perfect satire of a poet; the delightfully elliptical Jack French and his dictionary… – it’s funny, with powerful, frustrating, and touching encounters.

At times the nods to Forster can ring a little false. The opening awkwardly uses a Forster highbrow style to frame the more natural, effective email exchanges (before the fantastic dialogue introducing the Belseys); making the plot reflect its earlier inspiration sometimes requires unconvincing gambits like Howard not having a mobile phone.

On the whole, though, very entertaining and meaningful.

How to Help

By Hook Or By Book

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Hi everyone. If you’re like me and are feeling sad, frustrated, and helpless over the continuing systemic racism in America, here are some ways to become proactive.

https://blacklivesmatters.carrd.co/#

https://www.thecut.com/2020/05/george-floyd-protests-how-to-help-where-to-donate.html

78E83EB0-CB04-43C9-9AC1-3D8DF428B237

https://www.splcenter.org/20170814/ten-ways-fight-hate-community-response-guide

https://www.cnn.com/2020/05/30/us/how-to-be-an-ally-guide-trnd/index.html

11 Terms You Should Know to Better Understand Structural Racism

Handshake of friendship and respect, racism concept

Defeating racism, tribalism, tolerance and all forms of discrimination will liberate us all, victim and perpetrator alike.

~ Ban…

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Leaked Labour Report

These revelations should end any debate around whether Labour’s senior management team, including McNicol, were serious about a Labour government in 2017. To the contrary what this stunning cache of documents reveals is how McNicol – and a tight, unelected circle around him – made every effort to undermine and denigrate that year’s election campaign, frequently stating how they hoped it would fail while simultaneously planning to replace Jeremy Corbyn from as early as January. – Novara Media

A leaked report makes plain the extent to which anti-Corbyn staffers – including former general secretary McNicol – sabotaged the party, actively undermined it in the 2017 election, targeted those they deemed a ‘trot’ (‘anyone left of Gordon Brown’), and intentionally mishandled antisemitism complaints to tar the leadership with their own failures to properly respond to allegations.

This use of antisemitism as a factional football is, of course, grossly antisemitic. The report refers to a case of holocaust denial being sat on, all to help falsely brand the Corbyn wing as antisemitic.

Here is Novara Media’s selection of extracts regarding the 2017 election.

Here is Emilie Oldknow saying she had Tom Watson delay the expulsion of Ken Livingston (for antisemitism) to embarrass Jeremy Corbyn, despite his demanding a resolution.

Here are Rod Liddle’s (apparently he’s a member?) shameful public statements being ignored due to factional allegiance.

You’ll be able to find the full report, if you can stomach it.

This is a true test of Keir Starmer’s commitment to ‘unity’ and ‘fighting antisemitism’. Anyone complicit in this should have no place in politics.

Book Reviews (16)

Books 16

Earthsea: The First Four Books – Ursula Le Guin

Fantasy set on an archipelago world, with magic rooted in true names and the balance of the natural world. The first trilogy – A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, The Farthest Shore – covers the heroic exploits of the mage Ged, who starts out as a gifted, impatient, arrogant goat-herder. There’s action in there, but it’s a chill pleasant read. Would’ve liked more of the school on Roke. Le Guin’s Daoist influence is used well.

Tehanu changes tack in interesting ways. It’s good overall – the turn towards ordinary life and women counterbalances elements of the first books, and a weaker writer would’ve forced a way around The Farthest Shore’s ending. But the pacing is choppy, and sometimes it feels a bit like an essay poking through.

The character and worldbuilding are high-class.

Why You Should Be a Socialist – Nathan Robinson

Robinson’s arguments for democratic socialism emphasise core principles – solidarity, concern about class structures, commitment to democracy in the economy (e.g. the workplace) as well as in the usual political sphere. As with his work in Current Affairs, he draws a sharp divide between his politics – based in libertarian socialist  ideas – and the more gulag-y stuff.

One weakness is a lack of a clear distinction between social democracy and socialism, linked to his excessive reticence to define terms. He veers between arguing for (good) reforms within capitalism along the lines of Bernie Sanders – pointing out the successes of individual socialist mayors, etc – and calling for more radical systemic change. Many liberals could come out of this thinking ‘okay, the Democratic party needs reform and it might be good to have a few socialist voices here and there, but I’m still not convinced about seizing the means of production.’ But hey, that’s not a disaster.

He does, though, make a lot of good points for newcomers, especially hammering the points of real commitment to democracy beyond the limits of liberalism, that public ownership needn’t mean state ownership, and that libertarian socialism is a thing.

It’s very obvious, given that we live on a planet with finite resources, that endless growth is impossible. And yet we have created [corporations] that exist to pursue endless growth[.] This is a recipe for civilizational suicide.[…]

Whether people are free depends not just on whether they own themselves, but whether others have power over them in practice.[…]

We should probably focus less on the question of whether something is in [the public sector or private sector] than on questions about who gets the benefits and who holds decision-making power.[…]

Liberty without socialism means rule by CEOs, socialism without liberty means rule by bureaucrats.[…]

I can never understand why using an iPhone means you cannot object to the conditions under which iPhones are produced and sold and advocate for changing them. […] If a resident of the Soviet Union had gotten a free education in state schools and a job in the state bureaucracy, would they be a hypocrite if they criticized [the] structure of the Soviet economy?

The Toll – Neal Shusterman

At first I was a bit concerned about how this trilogy would be finishing – the initially ambiguous gap in time from Thunderhead was confusing, the Tonist interludes seemed too out-there, some fast perspective hopping, and thoughts of ‘really, this is a super-intelligent AI’s plan?’

But it does all come together! It’s a lot of fun, and works back through questions raised by the first two books to tie up in a story of enormous scale. Greyson and the Thunderhead have a great weird dynamic, all the characters are enjoyable (though Goddard is a little ‘mwah-ha-ha!-y’), the conclusion wraps up in a satisfying way without being too sugary. But I find it weird that people still struggle to understand people like Jeri?

A good ending to a refreshing, fast-paced take on (u/dys)topia and AI, with nice worldbuilding around post-mortality – albeit the themes on that are nothing new – and an interesting cast.