Post-National Elections: Poland

After Spain’s post-national elections, Poland is shaping up to be another case of post-national democracy in Europe: the Civic Platform leader Donald Tusk turned up in London this weekend to launch a campaign swing pitching for the votes of thousands of Polish expatriates. The polls suggest the Poles are quite narrowly divided; the contribution of the emigrants might be decisive.

As an Polish academic points out, they are also likely to swing towards the Civic Platform:

“They are generally students or graduates and pretty open-minded. It’s hard for a xenophobe to live in London, for example, for too long,” he said.

“And these people are Donald Tusk’s electorate. His party, Civic Platform, believes in openness in Europe and doesn’t play on a strong ethnocentric/nationalist discourse, unlike the ruling Law and Justice Party.”

Is this a case of demographic politics as well as European integration? Arguably, the Kazcynskis have been keen to ease their unemployment problem whilst not doing anything to worry an older electorate by shipping annoying young people to the UK. Whether Tusk can bring off the reverse manoeuvre with their votes is a good question – only 6,000 Poles in the UK voted in 2005, the peak year for Polish immigration. However, this phenomenon will probably lag substantially.

Unsurprisingly, given the probable balance of forces, the Polish government hasn’t really done much to ensure that expatriates can vote – there is no postal voting – although emigration and expatriation are hardly rare in Polish history.

There have been repeated expectations that this year, or this decade, will see a “European generation”; but usually, the people who are expected to be this turn out to enjoy the benefits of integration without thinking about it very much. If there ever is, perhaps it will be Tusk’s people?

Diary of a Desperate Man

At long last Amazon has brought me something I’ve sought for a long time: Friedrich Reck’s Tagebuch eines Verzweifelten. Reck (or Reck-Malleczewen, as he sometimes styled himself) is a footnote to the history of the Third Reich; but an interesting and important footnote.

Born in Prussia into the minor landed gentry, Reck never quite fulfilled what his family must have expected from a young man of his station. Indeed, he ended up a journalist. He’d be forgotten today altogether, I’m sure, but for the facts that he opposed the nazis and died in one of their camps. Continue reading

Where is He? The Mysterious Dissapearance of Jean Claude Trichet

Well this is a rather frivolous post about a fairly serious issue. Has anyone seen Trichet? (No, not Kelly, Trichet). I imagine the financial markets would like to know what he thinks. Or rather, maybe they wouldn’t, but they need to.

Basically this isn’t a case of quietly fiddling while Rome burns (and Q2 GDP, and September retail sales) but it damn nearly is (burning I mean, or was that Paris), and the Reichstags won’t be far behind. Meantime hardly a flat or house is being sold in Spain.

So with all eyes focused on US data while the eurozone economy is visibly tanking, or rather wilting by the day, where the hell is Trichet? Hasn’t anyone else noticed how he has suddenly gone missing? Strong vigilence is obviously over, but when the hell is he going to start explaining that he might have to lower interest rates, and when he finally does this how will the financial market activists respond? I mean some of them seem to have very little idea about what is actually going on at the moment. Over at DailyFx, for example, they seem to be under the impression that the eurozone is a country or something:

“As an export dependent nation, the Eurozone has a lot to lose if the Euro continues to rise.”

I think they meant Germany there, since France certainly isn’t dependent on exports, and Spain has a whopping trade and CA deficit which puts the US one really in the shade.

Actually the general tone of what the DailyFx analyst has to say isn’t so far from the mark:

The Euro made a new record high today despite larger than expected drops in German business confidence and import prices. Economic data out of Europe continues to get worse and if the Euro does not stop rising, the European Central Bank will be forced to verbally intervene in the currency. Don’t forget that the Euro topped out in late 2004 after Trichet called the moves brutal and he may have to do so again as German business fell to a 19 month low in September. This is a result of deteriorating credit conditions, a strengthening currency and tight monetary policy. As an export dependent nation, the Eurozone has a lot to lose if the Euro continues to rise. The only major benefit of a strengthening currency is lower inflationary pressures. We are already seeing the initial impact with import prices falling for the first time in nearly 2.5 years. Less inflationary pressure means less pressure on the ECB to raise interest rates. If we see a material slowdown in economic data, softer inflation may actually give the central bank the flexibility it needs to begin talking about lowering interest rates.

So this is the point. We are soon going to be into declining rates at the ECB, and then what is going to happen to euro/dollar. I ask you? Are the markets ready for this?

Even ECB-adviser and hawk Joaquim Fels now has the current ECB rate as neutral, and of course, if the fundamentals are deteriorating, neutral quickly becomes “overtight”. No wonder Trichet is hard to find at the moment.

If you are looking for more serious analysis of all this, Claus Vistesen has some over at Alpha Sources.

As for Trichet, after a long search I have finally located him, he has been in Holland, talking about the importance of demography for Europe’s future. Obviously he is rather more focused on the longer term right now. I can well understand why.

The grinch who stole talent

Chris Dillow (of Stumbling and Mumbling), responding to Gordon Brown’s recent speech to the Labour Party, says that “economic success requires that talent not be unlocked, and remain unused”. So Brown’s call for the development of “all the talents of all the people” is “purest wibble” because “all profits come from power, and this means disempowering talented workers”.

Now Chris may be shooting for some sort of curmudgeon of the year award here, but what’s worse is that his argument is misleading. The first problem is that he politicises something which can’t be changed, which is the fact that life involves choice. Chris says:

… specialisation stifles many of our talents. The musician who becomes a lawyer never fully unlocks his musical talent. The cricketer who becomes a doctor lets his cricketing talent wither.

But these examples are chosen so to contrast the ‘world of work’ with ‘fun’ things. You could just as well say ‘the gymnast who becomes a lacrosse player never fully develops his vaulting skills’ or ‘the muralist who becomes a photographer never fully develops her drafting skills’. Even an imaginary society of extended lifespans and perfect leisure will produce these sorts of choices. I’d hope we can agree that Gordon Brown can’t be blamed for not having an answer to that.

When you do turn to ‘work’, of course, you have to agree that it does constrain people. This is because work is transactional: you have to keep your side of the bargain. But you get things in return, including things that help you to develop your ‘talent’, not the least of which may be a context through which to define your talent. The transactional framework of skill development is, in fact, wider than what is often understood as ‘work’. The trainee gymnast, for example, has to agree to stick to a certain diet and a certain training schedule. If he doesn’t, he won’t receive further coaching. So becoming a gymnast resembles work (even if no money changes hands). Many gymnasts might say it is work. Conversely, work can be fun and rewarding: you get to get better at something.

Of course, Chris would argue that while this might be an ideal formulation of ‘work’, most jobs just aren’t like that. Part of his argument is that the transaction is unequal: the ‘skills’ you get to acquire are in fact demeaning and – crucially – you’re often expected to work at less than your full capacity. True, plenty of jobs are dull and demeaning. But use any economic model you like – and Chris is using a Marxist model – the trends have been going the other way. There is more automation. There are more high skill jobs than there used to be; people live longer, and have longer retirements in which to develop other skills. There is more leisure time. Politically – and this is one of the EU’s finest achievements – there is greater labour mobility and therefore more choice of occupation. And there are more educational opportunities. Many of these things could be reversed – and our political culture will be one determinant of this – but drudgery for all is not yet a requirement.

Another problem with Chris’s argument is that he takes ‘talent’ as essentially personal. In Chris’s view, talent is a thing that lies within which can either be released or kept imprisoned. The latent premier league footballer inside the call centre operative; fully formed but denied opportunity for expression. I would suggest that a better way to think of ‘talent’ is as a predisposition to respond quickly to development in the context of a willing audience. Skills and admirers: for ‘talent’, you need both. On this understanding, latent premier league footballers don’t exist: there are only those who actually do play in the premier league. The rest (including you and me, possibly) are ‘other’ footballers. We might in some sense be ‘better’ than the premier leaguers, but we don’t have their audience. Or look at it from the other end. Imagine that the number of premier league clubs were halved tomorrow (the TV audience has declined). None of the premier leaguers are changed, physically. Their passing and dribbling skills are undiminished. But now, suddenly, half of them are no longer premier league players. So was that talent ever fully theirs?

This is significant in the context of increasing diversity, which has been the trend. There are more kinds of sports than there used to be (new sports get invented). Handball is popular in Germany but not – so far – in Britain: after the 2012 London Olympics this could change. And it’s not just sports: there are more kinds of job than there used to be. Necessarily, the ‘audience’ for each is smaller. What does this mean for talent? Less opportunity, or more? We seem to have to give a mixed verdict.

Finally, there’s personal experience. My experience of work is that there’s no limit to how challenging you can make it. You can aim to make it easy, of course, and that’s a sensible aim. But despite occasional idiocies, there are regular opportunities to do things in a new way. I think this is true at least of every profession. By contrast, here is Chris’s view of the way things work in medicine:

If you had to go to hospital for a minor operation, who would you rather perform it: the brilliant surgeon for whom the operation is a dull routine one, or the young and mediocre one for whom it’s a challenge requiring full use of their talent?

I suspect this situation never arises, and not just because surgeons, like most people, tend to work in teams so as to combine experience. The young surgeon will be committed to doing her job well – on the basis of her training – and the older one is likely to want to innovate. Both are good.

Lingua britannica

As soon as I have some time I shall write a follow-up to Ingrid Robeyns’ post at Crooked Timber on the current political crisis in Belgium and talk a bit about the importance of the Dutch language to Flemish native speakers of Dutch. I am still looking for the right angle to the story and I’ll probably decide to tackle the subject in a personal manner. It may be the best way, even when it is by proxy, to convey some of the sensibilities involved to a broader audience.

In the meantime, however, I would like to keep the interesting debate on language in the comments section to Ingrid’s post alive and point you to a remarkable report on language proficieny in Brussels and Belgium by Philippe Van Parijs, entitled Brussels Capital of Europe: new linguistic challenges (pdf), which was published at the Brussels Studies website. I am sure our readers will find plenty to debate here. One quote to wet your appetites:

In Europe and the rest of the world we absolutely need a common language, one that is not monopolized by a small elite but is widely spread amongst all sections of the population. Through accidents of history this role has fallen to English. For us Belgians, what a stroke of luck! Whether our mother tongue is French or Dutch, of the 6000 languages spoken in the world today, English is one of the 10 to 15 languages that lie closest to our own. Even better: if there is one language in the world that can claim to lie precisely midway between French and Dutch, it is English and only English, which is after all but a dialect very similar to Frisian, which the Angles took with them when they crossed the Channel in the fifth century and which was later made unrecognisable by some Vikings who, after a few centuries of French lessons in Normandy, crossed the channel in turn to simplify its grammar and graft 10,000 French words onto it. Some inveterate narcissists will perhaps still manage to complain about the fact that the chosen language is not precisely the same as the one in which they were rocked by their mum. But this should not stop us rejoicing at our incredible luck.

Why is the author rejoicing? To quote a Dutch saying: Als twee honden vechten om een been, loopt een derde ermee heen. Or, literally translated, When two dogs are fighting for a bone, a third dog will walk off with it. According to Van Parijs, the Belgian lingua franca won’t be Dutch, nor French, but… English:

When today’s adolescents will have completed their language-learning period, the order of the three languages will most probably be reversed. For their generation, English will have become the country’s first language, Dutch the second and French the third.

The luxuriant growth of objects

Jean Baudrillard died recently and the obits – this one in particular – persuaded me to give his writing a try, starting with The System of Objects (1968), which addresses the interaction of the technical and the cultural. In conversation with Steven Poole a few years ago, Baudrillard said – apparently of this book – ‘I did this critique of technology, but I would not do that any more. I am not nostalgic. I would not oppose liberty and human rights to this technical world’.

The System of Objects is aphorism dense. It is also somewhat puritanical. An example of the first:

The fact is, however, that automating machines means sacrificing a very great deal of potential functionality. In order to automate a practical object, it is necessary to stereotype it in its function, thus making it more fragile … so long as an object has not been automated it remains susceptible of redesign …

And an example of the moralising:

… sexual perversion is founded on the inability to apprehend the other qua object of desire in his or her unique totality as a person … the other is transformed into the paradigm of various eroticised parts of the body, a single one of which becomes the focus of objectification.

It’s hard to read The System of Objects without feeling fingered. Personally. Whether it’s your tastefully muted yet minimally accented interior decor (‘nothing but an impossible echo of the state of nature … aggressive … naive’), or your small collection of Galaxie 500 B-Sides (‘in short, there is something of the harem about collecting’), or the iroko antelope head sculpture you and your girlfriend brought back from Africa (‘… narcissistic regression … imaginary mastery of birth and death’), your way of living holds moral lessons for you. Yes, your plan was to pass a pleasant sunny afternoon reading on the sofa; but look, a swamp of guilt and self-doubt is rising around you, and it comes from all the things around you which you thought were good, or at least OK.

Baudrillard connects the moral to the everyday, the mundane, and so his net is cast very wide. This follows from his initial purpose of giving a systematic account of popular culture. The author’s opening challenge to himself – ‘Could we classify the luxuriant growth of objects as we do a flora or fauna, complete with tropical and glacial species, sudden mutations, and varieties threatened by extinction?’ – is followed up with a granular chapter structure that at first takes on items such as ‘… Walls and Daylight, Lighting, Mirrors and Portraits … Seats … The Lighter …’ and then shifts by way of cars and robots to broader classifications: ‘The Ideology of Models … The Ambiguity of the Domestic Object’. Ungenerously, you imagine Baudrillard starting out in his apartment – and writing about everything in it – then shifting his attention out the window (some cars down there), reminiscing briefly about that kinky phase he went through (embarrassing, frankly), then trying to remember how it was that time he went shopping at Christmas and found all the advertising incredibly irritating. In other words, The System of Objects has some of the qualities of a confessional. And because you too, reader, are bourgeois, your milieu will be very similar. And so you can connect, no?

The ambition to write big, to write it all, but then not to finish, also seems reassuringly European. (Being and Time remains two-thirds incomplete to this day, measured against its own table of contents.) Then again, Baudrillard’s contemporary, Roland Barthes, seems to have tackled the issue of popular culture by means of postcards and essays, and his piece on the Citroen DS from Mythologies (1957) is conveniently pocket sized.

I haven’t read enough Barthes to be able to convincingly compare him with Baudrillard (and I haven’t read enough Baudrillard either) but I suspect that not only did Barthes get there first, he had more poetry:

It is obvious that the new Citroen has fallen from the sky inasmuch as it appears at first sight as a superlative object. We must not forget that an object is the best messenger of a world above that of nature: one can easily see in an object at once a perfection and an absence of origin, a closure and a brilliance, a transformation of life into matter (matter is much more magical than life), and in a word a silence which belongs to the realm of fairy-tales.

Baudrillard’s metaphors, though similarly starry, are less beguiling:

… the intimacy of the car arises from an accelerated space-time metabolism and, inextricably, from the fact that the car may at any time become the locus of an accident: the culmination in a chance event – which may in fact never occur but is always imagined, always involuntarily assumed to be inevitable – of that intimacy with oneself, that formal liberty, which is never so beautiful as in death.

Yet when he is not reaching, he is often impressively direct:

Objectively, substances are simply what they are: there is no such thing as a true or a false, a natural or an artificial substance. How could concrete be somehow less ‘authentic’ than stone? We apprehend old synthetic materials such as paper as altogether natural – indeed, glass is one of the richest substances we can conceive of.

The modern idea of the nobility of materials is still very widespread; perhaps more entrenched now than it was in 1968, having acquired an environmentalist gloss. You can test the modernity of this idea yourself by taking a pocket knife into an eighteenth century grand house and having a (discreet) poke: underneath the gilding it’s cheap softwood and plaster.

So why would Baudrillard ‘retract’? One possible reason is that reactions to modernity are easily connected with fascism. And although technological ‘lock-in’ (‘fragility’ is Baudrillard’s term) remains a reality, a counter-force is technological entrepreneurship. And then there are computers, of course.

(My thanks to Alex and David for letting me guest post at AFOE.)

Quiet Riot

Quietly, there seems to be a tiny crisis affecting European politics. For a start, there’s the rocambolesque imbroglio making Belgium a generic cynosure. It would be hard to do better than to point again to Crooked Timber, although it’s worth pointing out that Jean Quatremer is doing a good job too. I especially like the quote from the Flemish prime minister about the 40,000 Flemish hunters (or light infantrymen – the context is missing and the word is the same) who can defend Flanders in the event of civil war; now that’s what I call statesmanlike.

Of course, nothing of the sort is going to happen – in fact, if you wanted my prediction I’d say nothing at all will happen. Belgium may consist only of the King, the army, a football team, some diplomats and taxmen, and the capital, but that’s more than the Austro-Hungarian Empire had in the way of central institutions. In fact the similarities are marked; the overlapping divisions, competing governments, large and permanently different capital city. But whatever happens, the result won’t be the first world war, or for that matter the end of the European Union. Whatever the collectif antiliberale says about it.

Apparently it’s all a neoliberal plot to destroy the EU and socialism, based on this FT thinkpiece. Sadly, Jerome seems to have missed a bit:

the vital importance of a functioning EU to the continent’s stability and prosperity

And another one:

Democratic pragmatists, who support European integration as a means to enhancing national interests rather than as an end in itself, can plausibly argue that their vision of the EU has never been more relevant. If the Flemish and Walloons do unhook from each other, they can quickly hook back into the EU as separate entities bound by common European values. The very existence of the EU allows us to contemplate a resurgence in national sentiment without fear of violence or confrontation. In the context of Europe’s past, that is no small achievement.

No hostile paraphrasing there, eh.

Of course, Robin Shepherd is right – it’s precisely why we need the EU. I would expect that nobody will notice very much difference even if Belgium is abolished; funny little nationalisms are a luxury a continent where borders are meant to be irrelevant can afford.

Meanwhile, a million miles away (well, it feels like it..), Britain may be about to have another spasm of Euro-politics. The European issue in Britain has traditionally swung across the political spectrum, like a cow on a rolling deck, blundering into political parties and sending them flying like skittles. To kick off in the 1940s, Ernest Bevin as Labour Foreign Secretary was keen on the proto-Euroinstitutions, the OEEC, the European Payments Union, and NATO, and the idea of Europe as a “third force”, but was opposed by the Labour Left who thought the “same old gang” were behind the Schuman Plan, trying to get their hands on the nationalised coal industry.

Then in the 50s, there was a split in both parties – the Tories were unenthusiastic until MacMillan, but always had strong European and diehard imperial tendencies. Then, a period of consensus around the three applications to join. Then, in the 70s and early 80s, the Labour Party swung back against, before the 1988 Policy Review espoused “social Europe”. The Conservatives, meanwhile, passed Labour in ’88 going the other way, from ratifying the Single European Act of 1987 to the Eurosceptic wars of 1990-1997. It looks like the issue is about to crash into Labour again, but the ricochets will be widespread.

What has happened? Well, some of the trade unions are keen on holding a referendum on the not-constitutional treaty, and are deploying the same arguments as the Tories for it (it’s really the same thing, Blair promised one on the constitution, &c). But their reasoning is opposite; they are concerned about the bits about free trade from the Treaty of Rome. They’re hoping for a non de gauche, having seen what a triumph this was for their comrades in France. Of course, the problem with the entire argument is that turning down the treaty won’t reverse this, as it’s the status quo.

At the same time, the Conservatives are in favour of a referendum, because they think it’s something even they could win. (Yes, it’s harsh. Harsh, but fair.) And so are the Liberal Democrats; who probably don’t think they could win, but feel that it would be best to support a referendum. Not just any old referendum, though, but an all-out balls-to-the-wall one on British membership of the EU.

Risky, no? Not that anyone’s listening. Even if the only time this was done, the pro-membership side won convincingly, and every government that has been elected since 1970 has been more or less supportive of the EU, this positively frightens me. The upshot? The Prime Minister may be tempted to shoot the fox; more like sweep the whole field with a machine gun. That would be achieved by calling an election with ratification as a manifesto commitment; which may just have become more likely.

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Belgian Politics

is updated in this post from Ingrid Robeyns.

America’s founding fathers didn’t want the capital to be in New York or Virginia, so they invented Washington, DC. The EU’s founders didn’t their headquarters in France or Germany and chose Brussels. Whether there’s a lesson in there is hard to say.

Frozen conflicts: Transnistria

Spent a weekend in Nagorno-Karabakh last month.

If you don’t know what or where Nagorno-Karabakh is… well, that’s healthy and normal. Most people don’t. But it’s pretty interesting, in a depressing sort of way.

When the Soviet Union broke up, it left a number of unresolved ethnic and territorial conflicts around its old frontiers. Four of these still survive today. In ascending order of nastiness, they are Trans-Dnistria, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Nagorno-Karabakh.

Would anyone be interested in an occasional series on these? Here’s one on Trans-Dnistria below the cut.
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