When the Brexit Bubble Bursts

Individual folly is very different from political folly.   When an individual acts in an openly self-destructive manner, or engages in behaviour contrary to his or her own interests or to those of the people around them, they are likely to get criticism or advice from their friends or family, or from other people who might hold up a mirror in front of them and o show them the error of their ways.   Such interventions might be able to bring our troubled individual to his or her senses, and  convince them of the harm they are doing to themselves and to others.

But when whole communities or societies are behaving in a foolish, destructive or self-destructive manner, it’s very difficult to change or reverse the trajectory they’ve embarked upon.   Consider Theresa May’s ‘Brexit dinner.’  If the leaked revelations in the Frankfurter Allgemeinen Sonntagszeitung were a correct rendition of what actually happened that evening – and few people seem to be denying that they were – it is clear that

a) The Prime Minister who is asking the British public for a mandate to reinforce her position in the Brexit negotiations does not actually understand what these negotiations actually entail, in which case she is dangerously ignorant or ill-informed

b) That both her timetable and her objectives are unrealistic and not accepted by the European Commission – in which case she is committed to a course that has very little possibility of a positive outcome

c) that May’s negotiating partners are genuinely shocked, worried and even horrified at the UK’s ‘delusional’ approach to Brexit.

Given the scope and the importance of the forthcoming negotiations, you would think that a country that was seriously interested in bringing them to the best possible conclusion from the point of view of its own material interests alone would take these criticisms very seriously indeed, and that it ought to take a long hard look at Theresa May and her team before voting for them.   But that is not the kind of country that we have become.

Instead these revelations have provoked the usual frothing outrage in the Tory press, in below-the-line comments and on social media at the perfidious Europeans and cognac-loving foreigners who have been ‘arrogant’ enough to criticize us and attempt to ‘interfere with our election’.

No one should be surprised by these puerile and infantile insults.  To pay any serious attention or give any credence to the criticisms of Juncker and Merkel would entail acknowledging the enormous risks and limitations in the Brexit project,  raising doubts and a capacity for self-analysis that are entirely absent from the collective mindset that produced the project in the first place.   As a result any doubts and criticisms can only be attributed to ill-intentioned foreigners engaged in a ‘New Project Fear’, as the Telegraph called it, supported by what one moronic commentator in the Independent called ‘EU Quislings.’

This is how collective folly works.  Where individuals have to deal with social criticism and censure, communities and societies engage in collective groupthink, sealed off from any thoughts or ideas that might contradict the basic assumptions that hold the group together,  so that its members combine to reinforce the worst instincts of the group.   Charles Mackay once recognized these tendencies in his classic Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds.   In a chapter on the ‘South Sea Bubble’ of 1720, Mackay described the various joint stock companies that sprung up that year in addition to the South Sea Company, which induced thousands of people to invest their money in scams and fraudulent companies that had little or no possibility of success.

Some of the ‘Bubble Companies’ that were subsequently abolished by Parliament were superficially plausible:  One company proposed to pave the streets of London; another raised capital to invest in Cornish tin mines, and another ‘for sinking pits and lead ore in Derbyshire’.  But there were also companies that sold shares for enterprises such as ‘trading in hair’, ‘improving of gardens’, ‘furnishing funerals to any part of Great Britain’ and even – an enterprise that seems particularly appropriate to our own predicament –  ‘for carrying on an undertaking of great advantage; but nobody to know what it is.’

In his consideration of why so many people were attracted to these schemes, Mackay commented on the ‘unwholesome fermentation’ of the British public, and  asked rhetorically whether it was ‘ a dull or uninstructive picture to see a whole people shaking suddenly off the trammels of reason, and running wild after a golden vision, refusing obstinately to believe that it is not real, till, like a deluded hind running after an ignis fatuus, they are plunged into a quagmire? But in this false spirit has history too often been written.’

It has indeed, and now it is being written again, as the UK lurches blind into a negotiation process that its leaders do not understand, in pursuit of illusions that have very little possibility of realisation.   In her study of self-inflicted historical wounds The March of Folly, the historian Barbara Tuchman, attributed ‘the pursuit by governments of policies contrary to their own interests’ to a failure of leadership, and argued that’ Intelligent government would require that the persons entrusted with high office should formulate and execute policy according to their best judgment, the best knowledge available and a judicious estimate of the lesser evil.’

No one can plausibly argue that what Theresa May and her government are doing any of these things.   For that they can and should be blamed right now – just as they undoubtedly will be blamed when historians pore through the wreckage of the trainwreck that is British politics for clues as to how it happened.  But the political tragedy that is unfolding before our eyes is not merely due to the machinations of the Tory party or the raw ambition of little men and women who have put their own careers and interests above any notion of the common good.

If the British public refuses to acknowledge any truth in the EU’s criticisms, and accepts May’s presentation of herself as a ‘bloody difficult woman’ valiantly standing up to the same corrupt foreigners who we fought in so many wars, then it will reinforce the worst tendencies of her government, which will in turn reinforce the worst instincts of the public.  If it gives May a mandate, without even asking what the mandate is for, it will be no different to the investors who once bought stocks in ‘an undertaking of great advantage; but nobody to know what it is.’

History is not kind to societies that behave like this.   In its account of the collapse of the South Sea Bubble, the Parliamentary History at the time once observed:

‘And thus were seen, in the space of eight months, the rise, progress, and fall of that mighty fabric, which, being wound up by mysterious springs to a wonderful height, had fixed the eyes and expectations of all Europe, but whose foundation, being fraud, illusion, credulity, and infatuation, fell to the ground as soon as the artful management of its directors was discovered.’

A similarly precipitous fall awaits us over a much longer period, unless we can find a way to come to our senses and recognize that what the UK is currently seeking through leaving the EU is very unlikely ever to happen, and was never likely to happen, and that the country is about to commit an immense act of self-harm that will be very difficult to escape from. One very simple way to do this would be to deny May the mandate that she wants, and that she and her team are blatantly ill-equipped to receive.

Because otherwise we will put our collective fate in her hands, and in the hands of Boris Johnson and Liam Fox, and the very least that can be said about this is that it is not a sensible decision.   Otherwise we shall have to wait for the Brexit bubble to burst.  And when that happens, and its consequences become clear, it is very unlikely to lead to reflection and analysis of what went wrong,  or whether the expectations behind it were ever realistic in the first place.

On the contrary, it’s far more likely that the mood of the public will turn even more bitter and rancorous than it already is, whipped on by the same irresponsible politicians and newspapers that are currently vilifying Juncker, and that failure will be blamed on ‘EU Quislings’, foreigners, immigrants and ‘Remoaners’ who ‘stabbed us in the back.’

History ought to tell us where sentiments like that can lead, but for the time being it seems, too many politicians seem unable or unwilling to learn from history or halt the headlong rush towards a very painful collision between our collective illusions and reality.

But we can.  We can look at May and her party, and we can just say no, before it’s too late.

 

 

 

Liars’ Ball: the Unbearable Lightness of Brexit

There’s a tendency in some fringe political circles at both left and right-wing political circles to imagine that the ‘system’ we have is secretly or overtly controlled by an all-powerful and all-seeing group of malevolent men who are able to direct events entirely according to their own whims..  They might be the Bilderberg group, the Illuminati, David Icke’s lizard-people or Dick Cheney and his neocon cabal holed up inside a mountain coolly pulling the levers of 9/11in order to justify endless imperial war.

The monumental political car-crash that has taken place in the last few days suggests a very different explanation of why things happen.  Malevolence is certainly not lacking in this horrendous episode; in fact it practically oozes out of every pore of the disgusting campaign that Leave is now erasing from the Internet.   In the last few days a succession of Brexiters have admitted that the promises they made and the outcomes they hinted at will not be realised, and they have also made it clear that they have no plan about what to do next.

Daniel Hannan has said that freedom of movement will not stop. Farage has said that the £350 million NHS promise was a mistake.  Ian Duncan-Smith now says that the promises made during the campaign were only ‘possibilities.’   Liam Fox says we won’t trigger Article 50 without a period of reflection.  In a stunningly fatuous and glib Telegraph article on Sunday, even by his standards, Boris Johnson essentially said that nothing would change as a result of Brexit.  We can all go on living, working and studying in Europe.   We will continue to cooperate with Europe.  The only change is that the UK will extricate itself from the EU’s extraordinary and opaque system of legislation.’

Something tells me that that is not what many leavers voted for.  Even the newspapers that did so much to promote and sell the Brexit idea to the public now admit that there will be serious negative consequences for their readers.  The Sun had a piece over the weekend on ‘how leaving the EU will affect your wallet’.  Among other things it warned that ‘buying goods or services will become more expensive’ – something that clearly impact on the British economy.   The Sun also suggested that inflation will rise, accommodation could cost more; unemployment may increase and wages could fall, leaving the average worker £780 worse off; that the falling pound would push up interest rates, thereby increasing rents and mortgages.

Other predictions included a shortfall in government income from taxation of between £28 billion to £44 billion by 2019-2202, leading to higher taxes and more cuts, which might result in some families losing as much as £2, 771 in benefits, according to another of those pesky experts who Leave exhorted the public to ignore, the National Institute of Social and Economic Research (Niesr) – in a report that the Sun now quotes as an authoritative source.

No wonder one Sun reader asked plaintively  ‘ Why didn’t you tell us before? Did you not think of this before the vote? Can we take it back now? Please?’ and another pointed out ‘ All info it would have been good to know BEFORE the vote. Thanks Sun.’

Some may conclude that readers who believe the Sun have only themselves to blame, but millions of people who read other papers also listened to the lies and fantasies propagated by Farage, Johnson, Gove, IDS & Co

Yet even if  you conclude that this deception serves some people’s personal political ambitions, it’s difficult not to conclude that overall, this is a massive enormous own-goal by the British ruling class, which  has precipitated one of most devastating national political crises in recent memory – when it was not even necessary.

In using the referendum as a vehicle for individual political ambition and a solution to internecine Tory political problems,  Cameron and his opponents have acted against the interests of their own party, against their own class,  as well as the interests of the nation as a whole.  They divided the country like no event in its history.  They have weakened the economy and lost money for their rich pals.  They have threatened the disintegration of the UK while simultaneously wrecking its reputation internationally.

It is now horrifically and terrifyingly clear that the men responsible for this disaster did not anticipate it and were woefully-unprepared for its consequences, and had in fact no plan whatsoever.  So we aren’t dealing with Bilderberg lizard-men here, but with political stupidity and incompetence on an epic scale by rulers who ‘neither see, nor feel, nor know’, as Shelley once put it, some of whom emerged from the weekend yesterday to share their grief and repentance with the nation:

David Cameron

In her famous study of historical mistakes and catastrophes The March of Folly, the historian Barbara Tuchman analysed a series of avoidable historical disasters and catastrophes from Troy to Vietnam, in an attempt to understand why rulers and governments sometimes pursue ‘policy contrary to self-interest.’

Given that we have all become spectators of precisely this phenomenon, it’s worth revisiting some of her conclusions.   Tuchman found various explanations for this tendency in government.  They included ‘the insidious spell of wooden-headedness’ in which governments and policy-makers become locked into a kind of internal group-think, so that its members stop asking critical questions about the policies they have chosen.

Tuchman saw this this tendency to ‘breed folly’ as a product of unaccountable power. since ‘the power to command frequently causes failure to think’.  Some these explanations might apply to our current predicament, but Tuchman also quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson’s warning that ‘ In analyzing history do not be too profound, for often the causes are quite superficial.’

Meditating on this, Tuchman rightly concludes:

‘This is a factor often overlooked by political scientists who, in discussing the nature of power, always treat it, even when negatively, with immense respect.  They fail to see it as sometimes a matter of ordinary men walking into water above their heads, acting unwisely or foolishly or perversely as people in ordinary circumstances frequently do.  The trappings of power deceive us, endowing the possessors with a quality larger than life.  Shorn of his tremendous curled peruke, high heels and ermine, the Sun King was a man subject to misjudgement, error and impulse – like you and me. ‘

This is true as far as it goes.  But ‘ordinariness’ doesn’t necessarily equate with ‘well-meaning’, and it can’t be offered as an excuse for the reckless gamble that led Lord Snooty and His Pals to push their country off a cliff.   That requires a combination of arrogance, superficiality, sociopathic indifference, reckless ambition and stupidity of a type that we have rarely seen displayed so openly in British politics.

And the fact that jokers like Cameron, Johnson and Gove have been able to perpetrate such a monumental folly on the nation is perhaps a symptom of a wider rottenness and decadence in the political system, in the ability of the ruling classes to churn out politicians of quality even on their own terms, and perhaps the folly is ours as well, since, as Tuchman argues:

‘The problem may be not so much a matter of educating officials for government as educating the electorate to recognize and reward integrity of character and to reject the ersatz.  Perhaps better men flourish in better times, and wiser government requires the nourishment of a dynamic rather than a troubled and bewildered society.’

Perhaps they do, but these are not the men we have, and they aren’t the times we have, and it is now clear that our society is far more troubled and bewildered than many of us knew.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Destroying and Degrading: the War Machine Marches On

It’s often difficult to determine whether the seemingly endless wars and interventions that followed the atrocities of 9/11are directed by incompetent fools or cunning and devious knaves.   For thirteen years now, the US and its allies have carved a swathe of global violence across the world, which has left the shells of broken eggs everywhere but there is no sign of an omelette.  In fact, there isn’t a single case in which Western military interventions have produced anything more than the formal trappings of parliamentary democracy.

The overwhelming and terrifying legacy of these wars has been more violence, death and destruction, state fragmentation and political chaos, the destabilisation of whole societies and whole regions, the strengthening of old corrupt elites and the creation of new ones, all of which has strengthened  and empowered the same enemies that our governments are supposedly intending to destroy.

This less than stellar record raises a number of important questions about the conduct of that dark art that we call ‘foreign policy’.  Has the militarism of the last thirteen years been a ‘rational’ attempt to pursue strategic and economic interests, such as control of resources, markets, supply routes, the elimination of strategic rivals and the boosting of the arms industry,  using counterterrorism, WND and the war on terror as a convenient smokescreen?

Or is it the consequence of gross stupidity, shortsightedness, bureaucratic inertia, inner-circle groupthink,  and shallow and ignorant politicians who respond continually to ephemeral political pressures, lobbying and j’accuse op eds with kneejerk reactions that take no account of the longterm repercussions of their decisions and fail to make contingency plans to prepare for them?

To put it yet another way, is Western foreign policy directed by men who think like Machiavelli,  Bismarck, Talleyrand and Henry Kissinger, who know what they want to achieve and how to achieve it?  Or by a hybrid combination of Alan Partridge,Captain Mainwaring and Al Capone that lacks the insight or intelligence to avoid policies ‘wholly contrary to the purpose in view’, as Voltaire once wrote of Louis XIV’s revocation of the Edict of Nantes?

Today our governments have thinktanks, informed commentators, academics, and security analysts at their disposal to help them make decisions.  Yet they failed to see the possibility that launching an open-ended ‘war on terror’ in response to the 9/11 attacks might actually work to the advantage of the al-Qaeda franchise and provide it with a powerful recruiting tool.    Or that the breaking up of the Iraqi state might lead to insurgency and civil war.  Or that encouraging Ethiopia to overthrow the Islamic Courts Union might produce something like al-Shabaab.   Or that deciding overnight to bomb Libya might result in the destruction of the Libyan state, the collapse of its government and rule-by-militia.

Unless you believe that these outcomes were entirely deliberate and sought-after, then they suggest that our governments do not actually understand the world they are living in or they way it functions; that they have no ability to analyse their mistakes and learn from them;  and that they share the same characteristic that one historian once identified in Philip II of Spain, in whom ‘ No experience of the failure of his policy could shake his belief in its essential excellence.’

Take for example, the US project to ‘degrade and ultimately destroy’ Islamic State, as Obama promised yesterday, with air strikes and drone attacks in Iraq and Syria modelled on similar tactics used by the United States in Yemen and Somalia.

According to the New York Times, Obama’s determination to eradicate the IS ‘cancer’ follows ‘harsh criticism for saying two weeks ago that he did not have a strategy for dealing with ISIS in Syria.’ Now, hey presto! he has one, and to say that it doesn’t look very coherent doesn’t even begin to describe it.

In Syria, the US plans to bomb Islamic State, an organization that it helped create in order to fight the Assad government, while simultaneously promoting a new organization of ‘moderate rebels’ that will be entirely beholden to the CIA, in order to continue the fight against Assad.

This will supposedly be achieved by channeling weapons to favoured rebel groups, a policy that has already been tried and failed.  An analysis published this week by the Conflict Armament Research (CAR) organization of Islamic State weaponry captured by Kurdish forces in Iraq and Syria, found that ‘ M79 90 mm anti-tank rockets captured from IS forces in Syria are identical to M79 rockets transferred by Saudi Arabia to forces operating under the ‘Free Syrian Army’ umbrella in 2013.’

Again and again the supposedly ‘moderate’ Syrian rebels have merged with the more ‘extreme’ elements or proven to be indistinguishable from them.  Islamic State itself has directly received training and weapons from many of the states who have funded the rebels, including Saudi Arabia.  Yet incredibly, the Saudis are now going to provide training bases for a new generation of ‘moderate rebels’ who will fight both ISIS and the Assad government!

Meanwhile the US proposes to build a coalition of states to fight IS, nearly all of whom were instrumental in funding, training and facilitating the jihadist fighting organizations that gave rise to it in the first place.  And as always, the faithful vassal-state Britain has joined the fray, with Lord Snooty promising to provide the Iraqi army with machineguns, in order to help ‘squeeze’ IS ‘out of existence.’

This will be good news for Manroy Engineering Ltd and other companies that manufacture machineguns, and it will undoubtedly help to replace the American machineguns, Humvees and other weapons that Iraqi units abandoned when they fled the Islamic State offensive during the summer.

But until Iraqis have a government and a society worth fighting for, there is no guarantee that many of these weapons may also end up in the IS arsenal.  Given that the Anglo-American occupation effectively destroyed Iraqi society and left in place the Maliki government that Sunnis – and IS – have been rebelling against, it is really difficult to see how ‘we’ can conjure up a new society out of the wreckage and chaos that ‘we’ helped create, any more than ‘we’ can find ‘moderate rebels’ from the various organizations that once gave rise to IS.

Personally I have no problem with the notion that Islamic State must be fought.  IS is a  violent expansionist sectarian movement that has nothing to offer the peoples of the Middle East but pseudo-religious tyranny and endless war.   It has murdered Shia, Christians, unarmed prisoners-of-war and captured journalists with shocking impunity and insouciance.

Such an organization is a direct threat to the lives and security of millions of people in Iraq, Syria, and beyond. But the rise of IS is a product of societies that have already been ‘destroyed and degraded’ – and it is from within those societies, and from within the region as a whole that the resistance to it must come.

All this brings us back to the question that I posted at the beginning of this piece, as to whether the interventionist process is driven by stupidity or devious calculation.   The answer, I suspect, is both.

The characteristically hysterical attempts by the American and British governments to present IS – a movement that consists of between 18,000 to 30,000 fighters – as a threat to their own citizens and their ‘way of life’, rather than the Middle East itself; the dishonesty and historical amnesia with which these governments have ignored their own disastrous record; the rampant opportunism with which they have used IS as a justification for the establishment of new military bases in the Gulf States and an intensification of the ‘regime change’ project in Syria – all these factors suggest the amoral pursuit of ‘rational’ state interests.

But the latest reckless, ill-thought-out and back-of-a-fag packet response to the IS ‘evil’ also points back to Philip II, and the historical ‘wooden-headedness’ that Barbara Tuchman once analysed in her study of ‘the pursuit by governments of policies contrary to their own interests’ The March of Folly.  

Today militarism is leading the Middle East and the world to catastrophe, and the latest war- that-is-not-a-war is just one more example.  Because as horrendous as IS is, the imperialist disease that helped create it can never be part of the cure.  Western military power may win some tactical victories, but it is incapable of reconstructing the societies that our governments and their allies have done so much to wreck, and is more likely to intensify the destruction and degradation and state fragmentation that has already wrought such havoc.

So whether it is the result of stupidity or calculation, Obama’s convoluted ‘destroy and degrade’ policy is likely to add another grim chapter to the march of folly of the 21st century’s forever wars – and another example of the reckless lunacy of a superpower with too much power and too little sense, and which appears to believe, again and again, that the best way to put out a fire is to shower the flames with gasoline.  .