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April 30, 2009

A favourite festival

What I love about May-day is the sheer number of meanings, stacked over each other. "Police vs. Punks" has been top of the deck in Berlin since annual riots became a Mayday calendar fixture in the 1980s. Numerically larger but less prominent are the marches of trade unionists and political parties, and a free music festival attempts to divert people's attention. Below it all are the spring festivities of Beltane, Walpurgisnacht and the like.

The interplay between those meanings isn't a side-note; it's what makes the festival. It's a day for anarchists and trade unionists, hippies and organizers, spontaneity and organization. Political may-day grew out of the campaign for an 8-hour day, towards the end of the nineteenth century. Organized from above as a limited political protest, it absorbed from below a tangle of quasi-religious meaning, drawn from folk customs and the unfulfilled desire for a workers' festival. Events could take place under the dual banners "Proletarians of all lands, unite" and "Love one another"; red flags and red flowers were jointly symbols.

By the same token, the idea of a sensible protest being disrupted by a violent minority doesn't wash. Much of what started the demonstrations was police violence: French police killed eight peaceful protesters on May 1, 1891; five years earlier many had been killed by a bomb at a protest or by the police response in Chicago. The murkiness of the latter is utterly familiar; it's unclear who threw the bomb, but four anarchists were nonetheless executed for it. I'm no great fan of "playing chicken with pigs" as a form of protest, but it's no strange hijacking of something otherwise calm.

This year, the German media have spent several months hyping the destructive side of the demonstrations, egging on the car-bombers with their lurid outrage, predicting that the recession will make the whole event bigger and more destructive. Maybe they're right; hype is a self-fulfilling prophesy. Personally I'll be avoiding the riots and letting my hippie side hang out for a day.

[the historical bits here have largely been yoinked from Hobsbawm]

April 29, 2009

Idioms of protest

Somebody flings a shoe at George Bush. A Cambridge student follows his lead, and misses Wen Jiabao. The idea catches on in India and Ukraine. By now activists are planning target practice (all those misses are pretty embarrassing), the paranoids have started questioning whether Zaidi was a "lone shoeman", and shoe-throwing has become a recognizable idiom of protest.

It's not a bad model for how protests take shape. A successful new idea is replicated everywhere, often with more concern for imitation than effectiveness. Over time it becomes increasingly ritualistic and 'symbolic', until eventually somebody comes along to cut through the crap. Protest, like the rest of politics, works through analogy and institutional momentum more than through reason.

I'm not complaining. Repetitive protests give the rest of society at least a fighting chance of figuring out what the hell is going on, and even to respect them. If you hesitate to cross a picket line, it's because you know what a picket line is. It's a shame when ineffective forms of protest become dominant, but that's just the price we pay for lack of imagination.

Mainly, I'm intrigued by the history of protest techniques. South Asia, for example, clearly favours some styles which are less common in Europe. Other forms are dictated by the behaviour of the authorities. British protesters can let themselves be arrested, with only a small risk of being mistreated by the police. In Greece or Russia, only the foolhardy play chicken with the cops. Forget the causes they're advancing; I want to read the story of how protesters make themselves heard.

April 27, 2009

In Brief

No time to write a real post today. Instead:

  • something cheery: parts of the Aral Sea, which once looked as though it would be wiped out completely by water mismanagement, are making a comeback
  • something bizarrely cyberpunk: Brazilians have been breaking into old US military satellites, and using them as ersatz orbital CB relays
  • something thoughtful: Eliane Glaser in the New Humanist, arguing that Snow's 'two cultures' (science and the humanities, unable to talk to one another) are outmoded, and now we're back to science vs. religion

April 26, 2009

Religion in the slums

The case for religion tends to be much more convincing than the case for belief. Mike Davis, author of Planet of Slums, plans to discuss Pentecostalism in his next book. Meanwhile, he says:

For someone like myself, writing from the left, it’s essential to come to grips with Pentecostalism. This is the largest self-organized movement of poor urban people in the world – at least among movements that emerged in the twentieth century. It has shown an ability to take root, dynamically, not only in Latin America but in southern and western Africa, and – to a much smaller extent – in east Asia. I think many people on the left have made the mistake of assuming that Pentecostalism is a reactionary force – and it’s not. It’s actually a hugely important phenomenon of the postmodern city, and of the culture of the urban poor in Latin American and Africa.

Far from being an escapist sigh of the oppressed, this is religion as a pragmatic way of dealing with the surrounding world. As Eliza Griswold writes in a piece on religion in Nigeria:

Pentecostalism has updated Max Weber’s Protestant work ethic for the 21st century. Pentecostals do not drink, gamble, or engage in extramarital sex; so all of that formerly illicit energy can go into either business or education.

Grey as that life may sound, I can't fault it as a route out of the slums. It would be nice to have a secular alternative with as much force as religion gets by making up stories, but I can't see it happening yet. Meanwhile I'll keep on looking, forlornly, for a godless cult to join.

April 25, 2009

22 years' jail for breaking Iraq sanctions

Life gets pretty unpleasant for people falsely accused of terrorism: once the authorities have publicised somebody as a terrorist, it becomes embarrassing to see them walk free. The lucky ones find support from the community and grudging government acceptance that they have at least some rights. Others, like Rafil Dhafir, find themselves hounded for anything the authorities can pin on them

Dhafir is an Iraqi-American doctor. He is currently serving 22 years in an American jail, confined to a 'communications management unit' that severely restricts his contact with the outside world. The US government thinks of him as a terrorist, and 'counts' his imprisonment as a success in the War on Terror.

But Dhafir has never been so much as charged with terrorism. He was instead convicted of sending money to Iraq, in violation of sanctions. He claims the money was for charitable purposes, and nobody seems to deny this.

Sanctions on Iraq were one of the most bone-headedly counter-productive policies of recent years. Variously intended to contain Iraq, force it to dismantle its WMD programs, or force Saddam from power, they in fact only managed to harm the weakest in Iraq (to the tune of several hundred thousand deaths), while strengthening the regime. But forget that breaking this law is far more honourable than obeying it, and you still bang up against the length of the sentence. 22 years?! When other sanctions-breaking attempts went unpunished, and comparable fraud offence rarely carry anything like this sentence? This is a sentence that makes no sense -- except on a political level.

April 24, 2009

Dai Qing

One name mentioned repeatedly, and respectfully, mentioned in China Pop is that of journalist Dai Qing (戴晴). Dai has written on many topics, including a book on the Three Gorges dam, which got her briefly jailed in the aftermath of Tiananmen. More recently she has criticized the Beijing Olympics, and is one of the signatories of Charter 08

Trying to track down her work on the internet, I end up with:

  • A blog apparently once here, but now seemingly only available from archive.org
  • A handful of newspaper columns from the start of this decade
  • A profile of Dai from the Wall Street Journal (one of many, but mostly telling the same story so I'll stick with listing one)

April 23, 2009

Book: Energy Flash

Simon Reynolds. Energy Flash, a journey through rave music and dance culture. 1998.

Reynolds' history of 'rave music and dance culture' attracted me primarily in an anthropological way, as a loving report from an alien subculture. It's helpful that Reynolds' sympathies match mine. An intellectual left-liberal, and a believer in spritual and social progress through counter-culture, he drenches raveculture in his own aspirations

'What the London pirate stations and the free parties conjured up was the sense of rave as a vision quest. Both transformed mundane Britain, its dreary metropolitan thoroughfares and placid country lanes, into a cartography of adventure and forbidden pleasures' [xviii] ... 'While rock relates an experience (autobiographical or imaginary), rave _constructs_ an experience. Bypassing interpretation, the listener is hurled into a vortex of heightened sensations, abstract emotions and artificial energies' [xix]

Similarly, he shares the natural doubts. Coming into electronic music from years submerged in post-punk, he worries that ecstasy alone can't save the world:

Is rave simply about the dissipation of utopian energies into the void or does the idealism it catalyses spill over into and transform ordinary life? Can the oceanic, 'only connect!' feelings experienced on the dancefloor be integrated into everyday struggles to be 'better at being human'?

But the socio-political analysis doesn't get out of hand: most of the book is filled with descriptions of the music; Reynolds somehow manages powerful and varied descriptions of music, without the ability to fall back to the crutch of describing the lyrics.

My only disappointment was how parochial Reynolds' approach is. The cover doesn't make it clear, but this is primarily an exploration of rave culture in the UK. Detroit and Chicago do get a chapter largely to themselves, but there is very little exploration of the european scene. Eurodisco, EBM and the like are more-or-less ignored.

April 22, 2009

The land grab of 2008

GRAIN reports on what happens when a food crisis meets an economic crisis, and is given a healthy shove by government policies:

On the one hand, “food insecure” governments that rely on imports to feed their people are snatching up vast areas of farmland abroad for their own offshore food production. On the other hand, food corporations and private investors, hungry for profits in the midst of the deepening financial crisis, see investment in foreign farmland as an important new source of revenue. As a result, fertile agricultural land is becoming increasingly privatised and concentrated.

They've also been obsessively collecting news clippings to back up their case.

April 21, 2009

From the magazines

I don't normally like human-interest articles, but occasionally journalists are skillful enough to win over even skeptics like me.

First, Rebecca Skloot on 'service animals'

people often find it hard to believe that the United States government is considering a proposal that would force Edie and many others like her to stop using their service animals. But that’s precisely what’s happening, because a growing number of people believe the world of service animals has gotten out of control: first it was guide dogs for the blind; now it’s monkeys for quadriplegia and agoraphobia, guide miniature horses, a goat for muscular dystrophy, a parrot for psychosis and any number of animals for anxiety, including cats, ferrets, pigs, at least one iguana and a duck.

Then, two from Gene Weingarten in the Washington Post. One is a recent tear-jerker on children killed by being left in cars:

"Death by hyperthermia" is the official designation. When it happens to young children, the facts are often the same: An otherwise loving and attentive parent one day gets busy, or distracted, or upset, or confused by a change in his or her daily routine, and just... forgets a child is in the car. It happens that way somewhere in the United States 15 to 25 times a year, parceled out through the spring, summer and early fall. The season is almost upon us.

Two decades ago, this was relatively rare. But in the early 1990s, car-safety experts declared that passenger-side front airbags could kill children, and they recommended that child seats be moved to the back of the car; then, for even more safety for the very young, that the baby seats be pivoted to face the rear. If few foresaw the tragic consequence of the lessened visibility of the child . . . well, who can blame them? What kind of person forgets a baby?

Then - without much deeper meaning, just a great portrait - on children's entertainer The Great Zucchini:

The Great Zucchini actually does magic tricks, but they are mostly dime-store novelty gags -- false thumbs to hide a handkerchief, magic dust that turns water to gel -- accompanied by sleight of hand so primitive your average 8-year-old would suss it out in an instant. That's one reason he has fashioned himself a specialist in ages 2 to 6. He behaves like no adult in these preschoolers' world, making himself the dimwitted victim of every gag. He thinks a banana is a telephone, and answers it. He can't find the birthday boy when the birthday boy is standing right behind him. Every kid in the room is smarter than the Great Zucchini; he gives them that power over their anxieties.

April 20, 2009

Trotsky and leapfrogging

The Worldchanging folks often talk about leapfrogging, 'the notion that areas which have poorly-developed technology or economic bases can move themselves forward rapidly through the adoption of modern systems without going through intermediary steps'. It's nice to see the same concept in different clothes, in a book on Trotsky (who naturally had the problem of explaining Communism in Russia):

In appending new forms the backward society takes not their beginnings, nor the stages of their evolution, but the finished product itself. In fact it goes even further; it copies not the product as it exists in its countries of origin but its ‘ideal type’, and it is able to do so for the very reason that it is in a position to append instead of going through the process of development. This explains why the new forms, in a backward society, appear more perfected than in an advanced society where they are approximations only to the ‘ideal’ for having been arrived at piecemeal and with the framework of historical possibilities.

Can you repeat that?

This report from the British Council talks about how being a native speaker of English isn't as big an advantage as it might seem. A review says (and my experience agrees entirely):

As English increasingly becomes the language of business, native speakers feel, quite understandably, that they are at an advantage. But discussion often goes more smoothly when the native speakers leave the room – proceedings are not muddied by idioms and intuitive, unthinking use of slang. Conversation among non-native speakers may be more direct and pragmatic – correct, probably, yet stripped down and functional. The people who see themselves as facilitators are, in reality, obstacles. This is increasingly evident to non-native speakers, and it is having an impact on the teaching of English as a foreign language.

Most people are impressively incompetent when it comes to talking with non-native speakers of their language. The exceptions are generally those who have learnt through experience how to talk simply - businesspeople, tour guides or travellers. But it's a skill which could be taught - it just isn't.

Teaching of foreign languages in Britain, for good reason, farcical: a basic knowledge of French is pretty useless, when every child in France is learning English to a far higher level. Why not let kids opt out of learning foreign languages, and instead take a course in 'how to communicate with foreigners'? Give them prose-composition excercises with a thousand-word vocabulary. Mark them down for using slang, or irony, or meaningless pleasantries that confuse the conversation. Have comprehension exercises where children must make sense of Babelfish translations, or letters badly translated from Finnish. Get them onto skype, let them talk to the Chinese kids their age who are learning English. Teach them how to rephrase and repeat, how to pitch their language according to the audience, how to figure out when a listener hasn't understood them. It'll be far more use than a few words in French.

April 18, 2009

Independent Iraqi politics, 2006

Reading Blair Unbound, Anthony Seldon's political biography of Blair since 2001, I've been struck by how forcefully it confirms the view much of the outside world had of Number 10 in that time. Namely, that everything was driven by personalities rather than policies, with Blair rarely hearing -- let alone listening to -- the outside world.

Naturally I've been paying particularly close attention to the treatment of the Iraq war. This was the first political event I was deeply involved in, and re-viewing it as history provides a chance to see what I interpreted correctly and falsely at the time. Generally, the lesson is I was most likely to be right when I was at my most cynical.

A good example of this is the casual way in which Blair and Bush controlled Iraqi politicians -- including elected politicians, whose democratic selection was one of the last remaining justifications for their war.

So, when Nouri al-Maliki's selection as Iraqi Prime Minster in early 2006, replacing Ibrahim Jaafari, most reports treated it as a decision made by Iraqis. Relatively few journalists discussed it as a selection determined by the Americans. I did, correctly cynical for once, mainly because I had been paying attention to Helena Cobban:

The US and British governments...have been using the power of their countries' military position inside Iraq to try to subvert the results of the December election by pursuing a determined campaign against the nomination of Ibrahim Jaafari as Prime Minister.

Now it is safely in the past, Seldon is free to show that the cynics had it right:

[Blair] became convinced that al-Jaafari should, in the interests of Iraq's future, step down. But how? Al-Jaafari did not want to relinquish office, and so the full weight of the Bush administration would be required to shift his view....Blair told Bush that he had asked Straw to go to Baghdad to 'bang heads together' and suggested that Rice join him....Straw and Rice were unable to dislodge al-Jaafari during their visit, but, in making clear that they spoke with the full authority of their bosses, they made their point. Sawers and the NSC's Megan O'Sullivan remained behind to maintain the pressure. Blair kept in close contact with them, and on 20 April, al-Jaafari eventually stepped down.

April 17, 2009

Book: China Pop

Despite the column-yards given over to news from China, I often feel that the only stories I read from that country are ones about money. There are other, less business-oriented voices around -- how could there not be, given the number of people constantly travelling to and from China -- but you have to go and hunt them down rather than waiting for them to arrive on the front page.

So on Cosma's recommendation I bought myself a copy of Zha Jianying's book China Pop.

Written in 1995, this is a a tour of the Chinese culture industry - books, film, television, art and the press. Zha wisely avoids the temptation to cover everything. Instead she focuses mainly on her Beijing-intellectual friends, people she understands and who will be willing to talk with her. So we get telling pen-portraits of a handful of successful artists. There is the team behind TV melodrama Yearning (ke wang), a mix of highbrow writers such as Zheng Wanglong, who devoted their energies to building a chinese equivalent to Mexican soaps. Or there isChan Koon-Chung, one of the breed of ambitious Hong Kong media entrepreneurs trying to expand onto the mainland.

Many of Zha's subjects are intellectuals who have consciously abandoned an inward-looking and elitist 'avant-garde' in favour of the mass market. It all sounds strikingly like Yeltsin-era Russia, where some professors become millionaire wheeler-dealers, while many of their colleagues end up bewildered and impoverished, unable to find a position for themselves inside a new world. Even as she focusses on the success stories, Zha does manage to point out the number who have lost their way.

What's truly striking, though, is how dated the book feels. She writes of the fledgling contemporary art scene in Beijing; now, artfacts lists 149 galleries there, and Chinese influence on the international world is growing exponentially. Equally, much of the media - the press, music, even porn - has been transformed beyond recognition by the internet. I'd love to see Zha write a similar book now, and capture what has changed in the past 15 years. Unfortunately her latest book won't help: she's devoted it entirely to the 1980s.

April 16, 2009

Dubai: Hari, plus Mike Davis

There's much to be said for Johann Hari, whatever uncertainties you may have about his reliability. He's one of the few reliably left-liberal voices in the British media, and he's an excellent writer. His long piece on Dubai in last week's Independent deservedly ruffled a lot of feathers. In it, he describes the life of the labourers imported to build Dubai's skyscrapers, kept without chance of escape in what amounts to slavery:

Every evening, the hundreds of thousands of young men who build Dubai are bussed from their sites to a vast concrete wasteland an hour out of town, where they are quarantined away. Until a few years ago they were shuttled back and forth on cattle trucks, but the expats complained this was unsightly, so now they are shunted on small metal buses that function like greenhouses in the desert heat. They sweat like sponges being slowly wrung out. Sonapur is a rubble-strewn patchwork of miles and miles of identical concrete buildings. Some 300,000 men live piled up here, in a place whose name in Hindi means "City of Gold". In the first camp I stop at – riven with the smell of sewage and sweat – the men huddle around, eager to tell someone, anyone, what is happening to them.

The reaction was immense, and consisted of that odd mix of "you're making it up" and "that's old news" which is generally a sure sign that you've hit a nerve.

But in the interests of not relying on Hari alone, here's a somewhat similar account of Dubai, by Planet of Slums author Mike Davis:

Dubai, like its neighbours, flouts ILO labour regulations and refuses to adopt the international Migrant Workers Convention. Human Rights Watch in 2003 accused the Emirates of building prosperity on ‘forced labour’. Indeed, as the Independent recently emphasized, ‘the labour market closely resembles the old indentured labour system brought to Dubai by its former colonial master, the British.’ ‘Like their impoverished forefathers’, the London paper continued, ‘today’s Asian workers are forced to sign themselves into virtual slavery for years when they arrive in the United Arab Emirates. Their rights disappear at the airport where recruitment agents confiscate their passports and visas to control them.’

Back to Hari for the last word:

Perhaps Dubai disturbed me so much, I am thinking, because here, the entire global supply chain is condensed. Many of my goods are made by semi-enslaved populations desperate for a chance 2,000 miles away; is the only difference that here, they are merely two miles away, and you sometimes get to glimpse their faces? Dubai is Market Fundamentalist Globalisation in One City.

April 15, 2009

Georgia: rebels without a programme

In Georgia, the protests continue: small rallies, alongside attempts to blockade the streets outside parliament and other official buildings. Day in, day out, there are still several thousand people involved in the protests, an impressive show of strength.

The problem is the leadership; as Paul Rimple writes:

I'd really like to sympathize with the opposition, but these people must understand what a grave responsibility they bear when talking to thousands of tired and angry people. If you are a leader, people depend on you to guide them. If you don't know what you are leading them towards you have no reason to be sitting in the chair.

They have genuine grievances. Problem is, they won't allow any avenue to resolve them, short of toppling the government. They've rejected out of hand suggestions of directly elected mayors, and of a coalition government. They aren't putting forward demands of their own, except for the unachievable one of complete power.

And if, somehow, they did manage to oust Saakashvili? The new president would instantly be beseiged by the same crowd of disaffected politicos, and there's no reason to expect any better behaviour from the protest leaders than from Saakashvili. My instinct is usually to support protesters, but in this debacle I don't see much to admire anywhere.

By the way, here are some blogs following the protests.

ETA: Judging by the Global Voices roundup, more or less every other blog has the same view. Doesn't mean we're right, of course.

April 14, 2009

A financial crisis reading list

[warning: a mainly-for-my-own-benefit big-list-of-links post]

Despite the left's general crapness in responding to the economic crisis, they must have some ideas, somewhere. I just can't find them. The obvious solution - ploughing through a big pile of documents, and hoping to find something insightful buried within it. Here's the pile - makeshift, incomplete, and poorly-arranged, likely to grow and mutate over time, but (hopefully) containing something worthwhile. My delicious has even less-sorted links. Categories are very vague.

From the left

  • Mat Taibbi in Rolling Stone
  • The crash - a view from the left, a collection of articles co-edited by Jon Cruddas. Direct link to pdf
  • Rowenna Davis' LC post bemoaning the lack of action on the left
  • Fabians: pamphlet on green economics, speech by Sunder Katwala, focus-grouped views on bonuses &c
  • ATTAC: new docs from France
  • Casino Crash: "Critical thinking on the financial and economic crisis"
  • Prospect: After Capitalism
  • The Nation: Reimagining Socialism
  • Demos: Lessons from the global financial crisis
  • IPPR: Towards an accountable capitalism, commentary on the G20, and (getting tenuous now) green jobs
  • Amartya Sen on 'Capitalism Beyond the Crisis'
  • The quiet coup - Atlantic article on the IMF, by Simon Johnson of baseline scenario

From the centre

  • Planet Money, a blog and tri-weekly (?) podcast from NPR. The team also made an hour-long introduction
  • Obama's latest speech on the economy, giving an overview of what he's been up to
  • The Turner Review. Guardian summary. Direct pdf link
  • G20 London summit: Communiqué, official site, unofficial information collection
  • Esprit issues devoted to the financial crisis, November and December
  • Economics blogs/pundits: Paul Krugman, Tyler Cowen, Brad DeLong, The Baseline Scenario, FT Economists' Forum, Nouriel Roubini, naked capitalism


  • Max Otte's book Der Crash kommt has been hanging around on German bestseller lists for months. But I haven't seen it mentioned in the English-speaking world, and there doesn't seem even to be an English translation
  • Charles Morris, the trillion dollar meltdown
  • Robert Shiller, the subprime solution
  • Nassim Taleb, The Black Swan
  • Charles Kindleberger, Manias, Panics and Crashes. First Chapter
  • Friedman, The great contraction. First Chapter
  • Books listed in the Turner Review
  • Martin Wolf's book Fixing global finance

April 13, 2009

Renting vs. buying, Sofia-style

Bulgarian anthropologist Ivaylo Ditchev has some interesting articles up at Eurozine. He's good on migrant workers; he's downright brilliant when justifying my prejudices against home ownership.

As in the rest of the country, nine out of ten people in Sofia own the home they live in (unlike in the former GDR, for example, home ownership in Bulgaria was as high during communism as it is today). A similar proportion consider it self-evident to keep the same flat for life and see their children inherit it; to sell property is considered somehow to be an evil.

The real-estate market, abolished under communism in 1948, has been slow to come into motion. People find excuses not to sell: they waited for prices to go up first with Nato accession (2004), then with EU accession (2007). Well, prices did go up, but there was no property boom. Typically, elderly persons would live in extreme poverty, turning off the central heating in all but the bedroom, and obstinately refusing to sell their bigger flat and buy a smaller one.

This means that even after 15 years of "transition", the spatial expression of new social inequalities has been slow to take shape. In the same block of flats, one finds growing differences in income, culture, and expectations; rarely is it possible to convince all owners to pay for the re-plastering of the façade (making much of the city look as if it had been subject to air raids). From the outside, it is possible to single out the rich owner who has covered his floor with a strip of brand-new stucco; it is said that burglars identify their targets according to the estimated price of the window frames.

The British and American faith in home ownership as a free-market idol confuses me. In personal terms, investing 300% of your wealth in one asset seems like dubious personal finance. In market terms, apartment blocks are like enclosures: more efficient than strip farming, and they free the serfs to seek their fortune in another city.

Seems to me, Britain isn't far from Bulgaria on this. Some of the reasons for owning homes are exactly comparable: faith in ever-rising prices, and the desire to pass on a family home through the generations, despite the low likelihood of your children wanting to live in the same place. Most of our other reasons are historical, cultural and social, conservative rather than pro-market. Renting meant government ownership, hence unresponsive management. It also often meant blocks of flats, hence New Brutalist concrete, product of cheap postwar reconstruction and a bone-headed architectural fad. Thatcher's sale of council homes was a way to turn the richer workers into loyal Conservative voters. Pillaging public assets to subsidise this, she made buying into a genuinely good deal for anybody rich enough to afford it. Since then, we've convinced ourselves that house prices always rise, so anybody who rents is either a fool, or too poor to get rich. Plus, there's that unpleasant "Englishman's home is his castle" thing.

Despite this, we talk about home ownership primarily in economic terms. Why?

April 12, 2009


John Gray likes Margaret Atwood's new (non-fiction) book on debt:

Atwood's project is to show how human thought has been deeply shaped by notions of debt. It will be objected that she is merely spinning out an extended metaphor suggesting analogies between debt and noneconomic phenomena that are only vaguely analogous. In fact she is advancing the contrary and more interesting claim that economic activities involving borrowing and lending are metaphorical extensions of an underlying human sense of indebtedness. Beliefs about debt are not shadows cast by processes of market exchange. They are presupposed throughout much of human activity. Economic life invokes a sense of order in human affairs, widely dispersed throughout society.

German left

The weakness of the left's response to the financial crisis is also noticeable here in Germany. Left-wing parties are somehow managing to lose popularity, even as capitalism collapses around them. Even Attac -- the group campaigning for a Tobin Tax, and generally among the better-informed critics of unfettered free markets -- have failed to make a dent in the debate. Der Spiegel nails one reason - the left's certainty of itself, regardless of the rest of the world:

Those who know they are always right can deal less with a specific moment than with their principles. So they miss the forward-pass from history, the breath of the moment.

Thus the clear weakness of the left is not least their inability to react adequately to this unique historical moment, which is for many as confusing as it is threatening.

That has always been the power of a successful protest movement: vocalising the situation in order to change it. Tangibly, surprisingly. It happened in 1968. It happened in the 1970s, with the environmental and anti-nuclear movements. It happened in 1989, as the wall fell. Always the expression of suppressed or displaced feelings played a decisive role - wit, verve, impudence, passion and a touch of genius, brought together for a 'concrete utopia' [all very loosely translated]

April 11, 2009

Can a recession help Russia?

Tyler Cowen, of Marginal Revolution has an excellent article arguing that the United States, despite being the epicentre of the financial crisis, will probably survive it better than many other countries:

Its size is one reason why the United States has such a robust polity and economy. In bad times, international cooperation tends to break down, which increases the relative influence of larger economic and political units. Smaller countries, such as Belgium, are generally more dependent on international trade than the United States. And in truly dire situations, military power counts for more—and the United States accounts for almost half of the world’s defense spending.

Going by these reasons (Tyler has others which don't apply), you might think Russia is also in a good position. Small CIS countries which had gambled on free markets -- Georgia, Estonia -- will end up in hard times as falling demand cuts them off from foreign markets, while the Russian military has not lost its ability to dominate them. Russia, its stock market relatively insignificant, is also insulated from the financial downturn, except insofar as it affects energy prices. Hardline Russia-fearers such as Edward "New Cold War" Lucas will still be able to terrify us with tales of Kremlin power-games in the coming years.

I generally buy that narrative. But in the other side of the balance is the hint that Russia will continue to be a whipping-boy for its neighbours:

As its economy sinks and social tensions portend a summer of discontent, several mass media outlets in Tajikistan are busy identifying culprits for the Central Asian nation’s problems. By all appearances, the chief scapegoat is shaping up to be Russia. Local newspapers recently have blamed the Kremlin for everything from stoking the 1992-97 civil war in Tajikistan to drug trafficking, economic woes and even a possible future coup d’etat

I wouldn't suggest this as marking a larger trend, given that Europe and the EU are equally plausible scapegoats for Central Asia. But if economic hardship encourages xenophobia (and it often does) then the easiest targets are expatriate workers. In Central Asia, that mainly means Russians, and to a lesser extent Chinese. They could well find themselves in awkward position, even if Russia turns out to be, like the US, a 'counter-cyclical asset'.

April 10, 2009

Georgia protests: Friday

This probably won't be as detailed as yesterday's blogging, but I'll try to keep an eye on what's happening in Tbilisi today.

Friday 1300: Overnight, a few hundred protesters maintained a vigil outside the parliament, blocking the street there (video). Saakashvili was scheduled to give a speech at 1200; he refused to step down, and called for 'dialogue and sharing responsibility'. Extracts here. The opposition have demanded Saakashvili's resignation before 1600.

1630: Plans to hold riots in more areas around Tbilisi. Saakashvili proposes direct election of mayor of Tbilisi. Shevardnadze: "constructive dialogue between the authorities and opposition is impossible"

1900: some leaders call for civil disobedience . More claims of roads into Tbilisi being blocked. Russia increasing troop levels in Abkhazia? Gacheciladze, Burjanadze and others repeat calls for Saakashvili to stand down

2000: The opposition groups seem to be splitting up, physically and tactically. At least Levan Gachicheladze and Kakha Kukava (Conservative) are calling for disobedience (without violence - they seem to mean blocking the roads) - see Telegraph, Mosnews, RIA-Novosti. Nino Burjanadze wants to debate Saakashvili live on television.

Sat 0100: Opposition plan daily blockades outside parliament, the presidential residence and the public broadcaster, 3-9 pm. Seeming difference between the protest leaders: Irakli Alasania (former UN ambassador, most popular of the protest leaders) and Nino Burjanadze are calling for dialogue, Levan Gacheciladze and Salome Zourabichvili focus on direct action.

Summary of Thursday: ~50,000 people on almost entirely peaceful protests (GIPA and RFE/RL report some exceptions). 'Wu Wei' writes:

Our local staff came in this morning with reports that the Opposition was really badly funded compared with previously (from Patarkatsishvili), whereas the Government was really well organised. The Opposition had only paper banners, no free food was provided to keep people there, whereas the government had rounded up a load of taxis and paid them to take people away.

Hostages in France

Sarkozy is feeling helpless about the current French fad of workers holding their bosses hostage as part of protests:

"What's this about holding people captive? We have the rule of law in this country. I will not let such things happen," Sarkozy told a group of entrepreneurs on Tuesday.

The same day, workers at a British-owned plant detained four managers, including three Britons, and held them overnight.

This is the same Sarkozy who first gained national attention by personally wading in to rescue hostages. Perhaps he should put together a personal SWAT team and embark on a 'save capitalists' tour of the country.

Apparently 45% of the French consider kidnapping an acceptable tactic in workers' disputes. I kind of agree, as long as it's on the level of 'inconvenience the boss for a couple of days', rather than 'lock somebody in a cell for years, and demand ransom'. But perhaps I should learn to keep my petulant side in check.

More on characters

On that debate about China returning to traditional characters: Xinhua says no. And goes further:

For the first time in nearly 20 years, China will issue a modified list of simplified Chinese characters in an effort to further standardize a language used by billions around the world.

April 9, 2009

Georgia protests in detail

I don't see anybody else doing a blow-by-blow account of the demonstrations in Tbilisi, so let me take a shot at it. Not sure how it'll work out (or whether I'll have the time/ability to stay on top of what's happening):

Afternoon. The main demonstration has been pushed back an hour, 3pm rather than 2 (@zhvania). Protesters move from Avlabari metro to the parliament square, where riot police take up positions. 15 EU/international govt. representatives monitoring events from Ministry of Internal Affairs' Situation Room, where there is CCTV coverage of "all the main thoroughfares". At the rally, Burjanadze 'asked pardon that she was in power and could not protect population from tyranny'. @zhvania reports that the crowds didn't like Nino Burjanadze's speech, and that Gia Miasashvili called for changing the Georgian flag. "Eka Beselia, leader of the Movement for United Georgia party, called for acts of civil disobedience" (source) At the end of the main protests, the organizers moved to the public broadcaster, complaining at the lack of live coverage. There, members of the Conservative Party, including Bezhan Gunava, attempted to break through a police line.

According to the Deputy Interior Minister, the demonstrations were peaceful, there were no arrests, and the international observers were happy.

There was a 2000-strong demonstration in Batumi, led by Zurab Nogaideli, and another in Poti

They also agreed to wait 24 hours before further action - supposedly to give the government a chance to respond.

Morning/day before: Democratic Movement - United Georgia claim 60 activists arrested in Rustavi - denied by government Government, opposition jointly commemorate events on this day in 1989, when Soviet troops attacked demonstrators in Tbilisi, killing 20. Claims that the road into Tbilisi has been blocked aren't true, says government and one journalist. Russia possibly increasing troop levels in Abkhazia, with the protests as distraction. Protest performance art "Fighting for one chair"

How many demonstrators?

  • Compare these estimates to the 15,000 who protested in late 2007, or to the 100-150,000 hoped for by the organizers
  • Mosnews: "At 1:50, the number of participants was estimated at between 15,000 and 30,000"
  • RIA-Novosti: "Reporters in Tbilisi estimate that a total of 100,000 people have so far joined the rally," (at 1533 local time)
  • Hotnews citing AFP: "At least 50,000 people"
  • Georgian govt. twitter: "crowd estimate from press reports vary between 20,000 to 40,000"
  • Le Monde: at least 50,000 outside Parliament by 1400 local time
  • Civil.ge: "Opposition leaders said over 100,000 people were gathered; but number of people gathered outside the Parliament is lower at about 3:30pm."
  • Radio Netherlands (of all places): "more than 60,000 people"
  • Reuters initially reported 40,000, now upgraded to 60,000
  • Trend news: 'over 30,000'
  • An assortment of claims
  • Georgian Daily: "More than 100,000"
  • Xinhua " About 120,000 people"
  • These numbers may not match what is now on the linked pages; estimates are constantly being revised. They were accurate when I made each link
  • Civil.ge: according to deputy interior minister "police estimated around 25,000 protesters at the rally – the number, however, was higher than the official figure, but less than opposition’s estimation of over 100,000."

Statements: Former president Shevardnadze: "there will be problems during the demonstration" (@zhvania). Interior minister Vano Merabishvili: "“There is no chance of a revolution in Georgia... but my mood tells me there will not be violence” .Patriarch of the Georgian Orthodox Church: "I appeal to the Georgian army not to use force under any circumstances". USA State Department: "Peaceful protests are an important part of any democracy and an integral and acceptable way to express political views...The United States stands ready to sustain and deepen its support for... reforms". Salome Zurabishvili: "it is the final test for the nation, and [everything] depends on the extent to which we are able to stand there calmly, prudently, and to the end". EU presidency calls for "maximum restraint"; diplomats in Georgia for "open dialogue"

Blogs: Global Voices is summarizing. Ketevan22 has some recent updates. A photo-essay

World media coverage: New York Times, Guardian, Le Monde, Financial Times, BBC. Stratfor's analysis is surprisingly good, although it over-emphasises Russia.

German coverage: Focus, Spiegel, DW, sueddeutsche

Following Georgia online

Here's a rough online reading-list, of places to follow whatever happens in Georgia in the next few days


  • Eurasianet
  • Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
  • Civil.ge
  • Georgia Today
  • Georgian Daily
  • Institute for War and Peace Reporting
  • Google News
  • Georgian TV streams: Maestro, Rustavi-2
  • Russian and Western sources: RIA Novosti, ITAR-TASS, New York Times
  • Russian-language: Yandex, Livejournal


There aren't so many English-language blogs in Georgia: Tbilisi Calling and the newish Tbilisi Blues are worth mentioning, though.

There is also a very promising project by journalism students at the Georgian School of Public Affairs, who are covering the protests. See particularly the blogs by Sherqqizi, Salome Kasradze, Vusula Alibayli and Ketevan Vashagashvili. So far these only have a couple of posts each, but the quality is pretty good.

Global Voices and Registan are useful when they cover Georgia, which is not all that often. Here is the Global Voices roundup

[@zhvania] lists some, of the forums with discussion of the demonstrations.

No sign of much on Twitter so far, despite the tweeting from Moldova Edit: Georgian twitter has, in fact, suddenly got going in the past day or so. #tbilisi seems to be the most common hashtag. @dv0rsky, @anano are in Georgia, @lingelien and @zhvania from outside. there's @govtofgeorgia for the official line and @civilge for news. [all in English; there is a little Georgian-language action too]

Background and analysis

  • International Crisis Group
  • World Bank
  • Human Rights Watch

Some questions about the Georgian protests

Obviously, I'm following today's protests in Georgia with interest. Not being there, it's hard to get a feeling for what's going on. I have no answers, but here are some of the questions forming in my head:

Is the country behind the protesters?

Most of the reporting I've seen concentrates on the political elites: the opposition leaders themselves, their key supporters, and the wonkish community of diplomats, NGO workers and the like. It's hard to tell how much resonance their demands have with the rest of the country. naturally, they can demonstrate this by bringing a lot of people onto the streets.

Do they want the country?

Look at the demands. More power for the judiciary, respect for private property, a moderate line on Russia. Will Georgians support this? Sure, many will. But where is the talk about jobs, pensions, the cost of living - the kind of things you would raise to build a mass movement? Rather, the demands seem perfectly tuned to appeal to the world outside Georgia - the governments, the NGOs, the military concerned after last year's war.

What about the world?

So, if the opposition care about outside support, will they be getting it? Here, they're doing a decen job. Salome Zourabichvili's op-ed in the New York Times last week lays out the stall for the American policy community. Nino Burjanadze was last year already doing the rounds of Washington wonks. Now the US is being very supportive of the demonstrators.

Politics, or Geopolitics?

The question of whether the demonstrators are counting on internal or external support can be rephrased: does politics matter? I usually believe it does. The balance of power in Tbilisi right now, for instance, depends very much on the peopel involved. But there's an altenative, geopolitical take on this in which Georgia is just a pawn on the grand chessboard of power politics. So the US and Europe want Saakashvili out because he is likely to weaken Georgia - and hence American influence - by giving Russia an excuse to invade. The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline (briefly shut down by Russia during last year's war) would doubtless also come into play. Personally, I don't buy it. Foreign acceptance of the possibility of a putsch is crucial - had the US hinted it would step in and defend the elected Georgian government, Saakashvili would be sleeping easier. But foreign pressure to overthrow the government? I don't think any major power, Russia aside, cares enough about Georgia to dabble like that.

What about Moldova?

Nathan writes that "the interesting question will be how and whether events in Chisinau shape those in Tbilisi". Which is a very interesting question. Superficially, they're both quite inward-looking protests. For instance, I don't think either of them have much connection to the financial crisis. It's tempting to fit them into a narrative of ex-Soviet modernisers unhappy with losing elections. Surely some of the demonstrators and parts of the media will put things in those terms. I don't think it would be true -- but truth isn't what matters, at times like these.

More of this to follow later in the day, if time allows

April 8, 2009

Scavenger Hunt

I've never got into the habit of blogging about things I'm working on - largely because they tend not to have a public face, and/or to be confidential in some way.

Here is an exception. It's a scavenger hunt, built by the folks at edgecentric, with a chunk of my code somewhere in its bowels:

This is our version of a web-managed Scavenger Hunt. Sure you've seen lists to go after, but never before have you competed live against other players from around the world! If you are having difficulty with what a Scavenger Hunt is we suggest you read the entry at Wikipedia.

In our version, we send you a text message to your phone with the current item to 'hunt'. Once you get your message - you go off an get the best picture of the item. When you have your shot, you then email it to us!

Once we receive your image we'll put it in the ranking system and everyone will start scoring its quality against other contributions.

Unfortunately it's US-based, and I'm not, so I haven't been able to try it out (alienated labour, huh?). Still, nice to know it's out there.

Turning people against the police

The London G20 protests, if they achieved nothing else, have certainly radicalised a lot of people. Or at least, have made them distrust and dislike the police. Now there's a video, showing Ian Tomlinson being attacked by police just before he died.

No, the police probably didn't plan to murder him. They did beat him (more severely than is shown in the video, according to eyewitnesses), and fail to help him. And after his death they tried to conceal what happened.

The fact that he died is the only bit of chance here. Everything else was a deliberate strategy, chosen by the police. And many people will be looking differently at the police - if not because of this, then because of kettling. Keep people trapped on a street for hours on end, and they won't like you for it.

The Guardian also pick up on the media response, so far:

Although the Guardian reported the death on its front page, almost all the coverage elsewhere ignored it completely or concentrated on a version of events that suggested that the police's only connection with Tomlinson had been to try to rescue him from a baying mob of anarchists.

Now, the video has got the story more mainstream attention, and even the Mail is criticising the police. Strangest of all, I find myself agreeing with many of the comments on the Mail article.

April 7, 2009

Universities on strike

Many French universities have been on strike since the start of February - their longest strike since '68. This has received very little media coverage outside France. My sister, being a student in France, is somewhat irritated by this, and keeps emailing me to grumble that nobody has noticed the protests. Unfortunately, my eyes glaze over when I try to figure out all the arguments and counter-arguments. Still, rather than totally ignore it, I thought I'd at least post a few links:

  • The little coverage in English: Guardian, Independent
  • French Wikipedia articles on the law and protests
  • Rue89, a French online newsmagazine, Libération seems to have decent coverage. Today, they are suggesting the strikes might end soon
  • Statements from the universities are popping up on Youtube

If you want to find out more about all this, you could do much worse than following the notes about it in Art Goldhammer's French politics blog

April 6, 2009

Character assassination

My Chinese-language textbook tells me earnestly that:

The ultimate aim of the reform being carried out in the Chinese writing system is to gradually replace the ideograms with a phonetic writing system. Before this can be done, the characters should first of all be simplified and the number of strokes of the characters reduced so as to relieve much of the burden of both users and learners of Chinese

That's undoubtedly somewhat over-optimistic; no wholesale conversion to pinyin is likely in the near future. But apparently in the 25 years since it was published, character reforms have not just slowed down, but are under threat of being reversed.

At this year's CPPCC session, representative Pan Qinglin submitted a proposal to abandon simplified characters in favor of traditional forms.
His reasoning:
  1. The first round of simplifications in the 1950s was accomplished too hastily, producing a result that betrayed the fundamental aesthetic and scientific principles underlying Chinese characters.
  2. They've outlived their usefulness, since flexible computer input methods have been developed that handle simplified and traditional characters equally well.
  3. Reviving the use of traditional characters would foster cross-straits unity by bringing the mainland in line with Taiwan, which still uses what are called "standard characters" (正体字).

Assorted arguments for and against are summarised here. My - entirely selfish - reaction is to fervently hope that the simplified characters stay put.

April 5, 2009

Market Socialism

Rowenna Davis points out the obvious need for market-based left wing politics:

Seven months after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the left is still failing to put forward a coherent agenda for change
To move forward, the left must get over its insecurities about the market and make the economic case for the society it wants to see.

She then totally fails to suggest where that position might come from. Cosma Shalizi has pointed out one framework:

"Market socialism" is a current of ideas, starting, it seems, with the Polish economist Oskar Lange, for how to make extensive use of markets without thereby creating gross economic and political inequality.

Or, as he puts it in a book review:

[The author thinks] that both competitive markets and socialism contracted mésalliances when young and easily entrapped (to unlimited private property and central planning, respectively), but that now, in their maturity, they can and should divorce these undesirables (both rather brutish creatures, really, and one, at least, more than a bit of a whore) and wed each other, and he sketches a portrait of their connubial bliss.

These 'market socialist' proposals are all a bit pie-in-the-sky, suggesting ideas such as a stock market denominated in coupons. And I haven't read the book, so have little idea how the ideas play out. But market socialism fits my prejudices far better than straight Marxism, or Parecon.

ETA: more on this at Liberal Conspiracy

April 4, 2009

Racism in the Mail

Some more from Nick Davies' Flat Earth News, this time him being particularly damning about the Mail:

Perhaps I have been unlucky, but hI have never come across a reporter from the Daily Mail who did not have some similar story, of black people being excluded from the paper because of their colour. A district reporter told me he would call up from Manchester to tell the news desk a story, 'and they would always ask: "Are they our kind of people?" i.e. "Are they white, middle class?" Or more often it would be: "Are they of the dusky hue?" And if they were of the dusky hue, then they didn't want the story.' I mentioned this to another reporter, who has spent several decades on the Mail, and he immediately named the senior news executive who was most keen on the 'dusky hue' euphemism. And this is not a thing of the past. While I was writing this book, I spoke to a local news agency who had just had the Daily Mail news desk on the phone, checking out a murder on their patch and asking if the victim was white or black so that they could decide whether they wanted the story.

April 3, 2009

From the eXile to Rolling Stone

This is one of the more interesting - and forthright - general interpretations of the financial crisis. Partly because of cottoning on to the political structure:

As complex as all the finances are, the politics aren't hard to follow. By creating an urgent crisis that can only be solved by those fluent in a language too complex for ordinary people to understand, the Wall Street crowd has turned the vast majority of Americans into non-participants in their own political future.

But mainly for doing the legwork to investigtae things I haven't heard mentioned anywhere else:

[from May 2008] the Fed had simply stopped using relatively transparent devices like repurchase agreements to pump its money into the hands of private companies. By early 2009, a whole series of new government operations had been invented to inject cash into the economy, most all of them completely secretive and with names you've never heard of. There is the Term Auction Facility, the Term Securities Lending Facility, the Primary Dealer Credit Facility, the Commercial Paper Funding Facility and a monster called the Asset-Backed Commercial Paper Money Market Mutual Fund Liquidity Facility (boasting the chat-room horror-show acronym ABCPMMMFLF). For good measure, there's also something called a Money Market Investor Funding Facility, plus three facilities called Maiden Lane I, II and III to aid bailout recipients like Bear Stearns and AIG. While the rest of America, and most of Congress, have been bugging out about the $700 billion bailout program called TARP, all of these newly created organisms in the Federal Reserve zoo have quietly been pumping not billions but trillions of dollars into the hands of private companies (at least $3 trillion so far in loans, with as much as $5.7 trillion more in guarantees of private investments).

I'm intrigued that this article is printed by Rolling Stone. I'd somehow always thought of Rolling Stone as being fairly superficial, despite the ancient history of Hunter S. Thompson, but it now carries not only this, but also much of Naomi Klein's best work.

And the author of the piece above? Matt Taibbi, who - I've belatedly realised - was one of the founders of Moscow magazine The Exile. The Exile was what all expat magazines aspired to become. Racist, sexist, and reliably offensive in all ways possible, it also carried political analysis that put mainstream correspondents to shame. It was closed down last summer, through some murky combination of government raids and lack of money, leaving only a ghost presence online. Its remaining staff are now exiled themselves, supposedly in Panama, although founder Mark Ames also popped up in Georgia to cover the war there last year. It's nice to see the overlap between mainstream journalism and the porn-and-bile of the exile.

April 2, 2009

My brother lost an election, and all I got was this lousy TV show

What I love most about Georgia is the constant stream of head-slappingly ridiculous news. There was the anti-Putin Eurovision entry, of course(youtube). But Russia can counter that with its hastily-produced action film about the Ossetia war (also on Youtube).

Far more entertaining is the political talk show from self-imposed jail:

It's been dubbed "Protest TV". A man in an improvised prison cell under the 24-hour gaze of television cameras, promising to stay put until Georgia's president quits.

And to top it off, here is a former Minister for Conflict Resolution threatening to hunt down the president and "make him sorry for ever having been born".

April 1, 2009

Getting my Georgia fix

Another country with more interesting politics than Germany: Georgia. A mess of opposition groups are planning protests at the end of next week, calling on President Saakashvili to resign. Didn't do them much good the last time they tried it, back in 2007: Saakashvili called a quick election, won it easily, and then went back to his usual melange of market fundamentalism, temper tantrums, and russia-baiting. Maybe this time the opposition have a plan, but I wouldn't count on it.

Saakashvili, meanwhile, is trying to undermine these opponents, by accusing them of planning armed revolt, and of being Russian catspaws - the latter because a politician's husband met a Russian official around the time of an exiles' get-together in Vienna a fortnight ago. One theory is that Russia is intervening just enough to keep the Georgian politicans fighting like cats in a bag.

And for the people who want to forget politics, and pretend the world is all about tanks and pipelines? Well, I have a sneaking fear they're right. The Russian army are planning a military build-up in the separatist region of Abkhazia, while the US are making promising noises about training the Georgian army.

That's just the boring side of things; the ridiculous bits are better not written about on April Fools' Day.