Beyond Their Ken?

Spain’s economic problems now form part of such a complex web of cause and effect, action and reaction, that it is getting increasingly difficult for laymen, journalists and politicians alike to get to the core of what is actually happening.

To a herd of rams, the ram the herdsman drives each evening into a special enclosure to feed and that becomes twice as fat as the others must seem to be a genius. And it must appear an astonishing conjunction of genius with a whole series of extraordinary chances that this ram, who instead of getting into the general fold every evening goes into a special enclosure where there are oats- that this very ram, swelling with fat, is killed for meat”. – Tolstoy, ‘War and Peace’.

After so many false dawns, the recent announcement by Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy that the government was revising down its 2013 economic forecast hardly caused a blink among a citizenry that is now completely inured to deception and ready to believe the worst about the intentions of any politician willing to come forward with either good or bad news. The long announced recovery has once more been delayed, and will now be noted not in the last three months of this year, but during the first six of 2014. Naturally, a public which is now totally accustomed to such postponements will not be surprised if this one is far from being the last. Continue reading

Post No. 10000

(Because it is!) I should probably do more French politics blogging, I think. A couple of themes lately:

Cahuzac x Sarkozy.

There’s been a major scandal around the budget minister Jérome Cahuzac, spearhead of a campaign against tax-evasion, who turned out to have hidden his own multi-million euro fortune in Switzerland and had to resign. As a result, the president announced a campaign to “moralise politics” and legislation to force politicians to declare their financial interests. Ministers were ordered to go first and set an example.

Cahuzac is a weird character, a cardiologist who turned expert in cosmetic hair transplants to make money, and whose wealth was managed by a veteran of the extreme-right student movement, a long-standing member of Cahuzac’s circle of friends, a group of men with a surprising tilt to the far Right. Marine Le Pen’s spokesman was strangely calm about the whole affair, describing it as “anodyne”. This may suggest that the FN’s tax affairs are not entirely in order. Allegedly, some of his patients paid in cash so he could ship the money straight to Reyl & Cie of Geneva.

This even overshadowed the news that the former president, Nicolas Sarkozy, is under police investigation over his campaign finances. The story goes back to the great Bettencourt affair; at the time, certain daring voices (like this blog) suggested that Liliane Bettencourt’s envelopes of cash had reached the president himself. It’s probably most interesting that the issue has been officially recognised – it’s no longer something for intrepid journalists and radical bloggers. It’s also interesting, though, that the investigators are treating the case as one in which Sarkozy manipulated the old lady into handing over her money, rather than, say, the richest person in France and owner of one of its biggest companies pouring untraceable cash into the political system. Clearly, there is a limit to how far anyone is willing to recognise the issue.

That said, Cahuzac’s bank is going to be the object of more inquiries, and it apparently served many other politicians, so you should certainly look out for more revelations.

Salon de thé

Is that a tea party in French? Here’s an interesting blog post on the French conservatives. You may recall that they couldn’t elect a leader after losing the elections, and fell to fighting among themselves. They eventually agreed to try again in a year’s time, which is coming up fast. Lately, would-be leader Jean-Francois Copé, the man once voted the most annoying politician in France, has been suggesting that perhaps they could forget about the election and it’s all better now. Unsurprisingly, would-be leader 2, Francois Fillon, isn’t having that.

And then the government began passing the gay marriage legislation, and the Right put aside the row in order to mobilise against it. Or, as the link argues, they mobilised against it in order to put off the row until later, in a more-or-less conscious imitation of US Republican tactics. They didn’t have the votes to stop it, and it’s popular, but they could agree on putting down 700 amendments to the text, staging demonstrations, and generally going to the mattresses, and so that’s what they did.

Everyone was surprised about the capacity for mobilisation of the rightist and Catholic network, and the whole thing took on its own momentum, ending up with members of parliament coming to blows and thugs attacking gay bars. Now, the law is on the statute book, and although another demo is planned for the 26th of May, you wonder what the point is…other than putting off the evil day when they have to pick a leader.

Also, if you think Cahuzac is a slightly unlikely figure what with the hair transplants and the fascist mates and the socialism, check out the anti-gay marriage campaign’s leader.

In general…

Bernard G.‘s comment here is recommended.

Margaret Thatcher: European.

The French Socialists’ internal policy machinery has been activated to express increasing frustration and anger at the constraints of the Eurozone, in the context of rising unemployment and basically no sign of anything improving. Specifically, they’re trying to start a row with the Germans, and somewhat less obviously, Britain. The key quote is here:

“Le projet communautaire est aujourd’hui meurtri par une alliance de circonstance entre les accents thatchériens de l’actuel premier ministre britannique – qui ne conçoit l’Europe qu’à la carte et au rabais – et l’intransigeance égoïste de la chancelière Merkel – qui ne songe à rien d’autre qu’à l’épargne des déposants outre-Rhin, à la balance commerciale enregistrée par Berlin et à son avenir électoral”, écrivent également les dirigeants socialistes pour qui “la France possède aujourd’hui le seul gouvernement sincèrement européen parmi les grands pays de l’Union”.

So, they accuse Angela Merkel of thinking of nothing but German creditors, the German trade surplus, and her party’s prospects, and describe this as intransigent egoism. Well, perhaps they have a point. They blame all this on David Cameron for having a “Thatcherite tone” and only thinking of “Europe a la carte and with a rebate”. And apparently, the French government is the only sincerely European one.

Now I had no idea Merkel was such a poor weak insignificant figure that her policy was dictated by Britain. You may be surprised to learn that this diplomatic triumph is insufficiently publicised in the UK. Further, I clearly remember that the reason for austerity in the UK was meant to be that things were bad in the eurozone and we were going to be like Greece. Don’t just ask the prime minister, ask Sir Mervyn King. It’s as if British politicians tend to blame everything on the EU and French politicians tend to blame everything on the Brits, or something.

However, not only are they right on the actual issues, they have a point about Thatcherite Europe.

Margaret Thatcher was underrated as a European politician. As prime minister, she was very much in favour and deeply engaged in the creation of the Single European Act and therefore of the single market. It is a cliche to say that the Brits only think of the European Union as a single market, but this is ahistorical – in the mid-80s, single market completion was the absolute top priority on the European agenda. If Europe is a project under construction, the single market was the phase that was completed in the 80s. The notion of catching up with Europe, competing with Europe, trading across Europe – all of this was ingrained in Thatcherite style, tone, and rhetoric.

British macro-economic policy in the Thatcher years was also driven by European integration. After giving up on monetarism, the UK government decided to establish a fixed exchange rate with the D-Mark, and later formalised this by joining the Exchange Rate Mechanism. In fact, the UK spent as much time under Thatcher tracking the D-Mark as it did targeting the money supply. The notions of “importing credibility” that were used to promote the Euro in the 90s and 00s had an earlier run-out in the UK in the 1980s.

With an open capital account and a currency pegged to the D-Mark at a dramatically high parity, the UK in the late 1980s looks rather like a peripheral European economy of the mid-2000s, with inflows of capital chasing yield, a growing financial sector, a trade deficit, a housing bubble, and a political elite frantically clapping themselves on the back, before the crash.

The UK’s broader foreign and defence policy could have been reduced to the word “NATO”, which is another way of saying that it was focused on Europe. In the early 1980s, UK defence plans were all about the BAOR operational area in Germany and the NATO Northern Flank. In fact, if it hadn’t been for the accident of the Falklands, they would have been much more so, sharply reducing the Navy at the expense of the Army and RAF and the nuclear world. Similarly, Thatcher really didn’t care about the Commonwealth or anything much outside, yes, Europe or the North Atlantic.

I can hear a storm of whataboutery building by now. What about the rebate? What about “give me my money back”?

Well, what about it? A lot of European politicians spent the 1980s ripping into each other over narrowly national interests. (They did in the 70s and 90s and 00s, too.) Were any of the various ferocious defenders of the CAP as it applied to them un-Europeans? Was Helmut Kohl un-European for insisting on reunification, to head right for the reductio ad absurdum? Germany was obviously pretty keen on exporting cars – was Hans-Dietrich Genscher a Eurosceptic, then? This is simply hypocrisy, with a dash of sexism chucked in. (Do we have to quote Mitterrand fancying her again?)

I also think it’s important to distinguish Thatcher, prime minister, from Thatcher, post-prime-ministerial pontificator. Her swing to Euroscepticism was post-1990, post-power, rather like her swing towards the climate-change deniers. It’s worth noting that the Eurosceptics were not passive, either – they deliberately sought to claim the Thatcher myth as a source of legitimacy for their efforts to topple John Major. She also, I think, adopted Euroscepticism as a way of projecting influence in the Tory Party after leaving office. That said, we should surely consider action before 1990 as weightier than words after 1990. And her foundation was very much involved in the Central European transition to a certain idea of democracy – in the EU, in NATO, in the stability pact, eventually in the Euro.

So why isn’t this more obvious? I think the answer is that the European Union has not turned out to be the nice alternative to Thatcherism it was sold as in the 1990s. Ask a Spaniard. No, go ahead.

The policies it delivers – open trade, austeritarian macro-economics, open capital flows, no real redistributive budget, and a permanent war on inflation – are basically nothing Margaret Thatcher would not have welcomed. Even the way she thought tact was something sailing-ships did would fit right in with German newspapers claiming Cyprus is a richer country than Germany. And the EU’s generally sane approach to things like environmental regulation would work for the post-1987, Montreal Protocol and IPCC-championing, “first scientist prime minister” version of Thatcher. It did at the time.

I wonder, in conclusion, if Thatcher can be understood from a European point of view as an ordoliberal politician, rather than a libertarian or just a conservative? Britain has always been more like Germany than it lets on. Thatcher was a European; it’s Europe that’s the problem.

City slicker

UK Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne statement to IMF governing meeting in Washington DC –

The deficit is forecast to be the highest in Europe in 2013 and gross debt is set to reach 100 percent of GDP in the coming years. The UK also has a large and systemically important financial sector, which the IMF described as a “global public good” in the 2011 UK Spillover Report. A strong and credible consolidation plan is therefore essential for global, as well as domestic, financial stability.

That referenced IMF’s 2011 UK Spillover Report –

The size and interconnectedness of the U.K. financial sector make it a powerful
originator, transmitter, and potential dampener of global shocks. The U.K.
agglomerates core international financial functions making it a key node in “funding”
liquidity and balance sheet hedging, providing buoyancy to global markets and
acting as a key channel transmitting shocks or stabilizing measures.

The stability and efficiency of the U.K. financial sector is therefore a global
public good, requiring the highest quality supervision and regulation. Significant
efforts to strengthen supervision will help contain the risks to global stability posed
by the sector’s size and complexity. Stronger liquidity, capital and leverage rules
should dampen credit cycles and lower systemic risk, as can the U.K.’s
macroprudential policies. 

Thus, the IMF did not say that the UK financial sector was a global public good. It said that it performs various functions (for which, by the way, it is handsomely remunerated) but in doing so it is potentially destabilizing to the global economy. Furthermore, it said that this property motivated various policies regarding regulation and supervision — not contractionary fiscal policy, as Osborne implied.

George Osborne went to a Washington IMF meeting and put on the record a willfully and egregiously misconstrued version of IMF analysis of the UK. But more column inches will be expended tomorrow on Luis Suarez’s teeth than on Osborne’s sleight of hand. Something ain’t right.

Endnote: the use of the term “global public good” specifically in connection with the financial system seems to have gotten its most careful articulation from Alberto Giovannini. It’s clear that not what Osborne meant.

Also, you’d think Osborne might have been wary of complicating his IMF visit given the austerity backdrop to it.

A right to be forgotten?

So we’re talking about the “right to be forgotten”. I am profoundly unconvinced about this. For a start, I can’t see how you can have an ethics of responsibility and at the same time a right to be forgotten. I am very interested in the past track record of people who want to exert power over me. That Boris Johnson used to claim that renationalising Railtrack was as bad as Robert Mugabe is, I think, relevant information to anyone who might have to vote for or against him. Similarly, the public memory of archives is enormously important, especially to anyone who intends to commit journalism.

That said, we should take petty tyranny, the abuse of private power, seriously too. We should take it seriously, among other things, because it is so common and it tends to be exercised in the same direction as all the other privileges in society. Having posted an embarrassing photo on Facebook should not actually be a bar to employment. Obviously, we’re living in a transitional era here – in the future, everyone will have an embarrassing Internet past, and therefore it will be unremarkable. The trouble is what happens in the meantime.

These two points are obviously in tension, if not contradiction. What I would like would be not so much a right to be forgotten, as a duty of tolerance, a right to be different or perhaps more importantly, a right to be wrong. Wrongness comes to us all. If you are never wrong, it suggests that you’re in denial, or that your ideas are simply uninteresting. And very often, being wrong is confused with just being unpopular.

But then, Harrowell, you’ve been very harsh on all sorts of people yourself. This is true, but I would claim that I’ve picked issues that are important and targets who can look after themselves.

To sum up, I would say that the notion of a right to be forgotten is worrying because we want it. This implies that we are scared of private bullying, and policed by elite consensus.

Beyond that, I am much more interested in the private use of public information, the deep-web stockpiles of ad-targeting metadata, which are worrying precisely because they are not directly observable. Then again, you have as much right to demand that you disappear from my notebook as from my mind.


I’ve recently been reading Peter Longerich’s biography of Heinrich Himmler (disclosure: I was Longerich’s student) and one thing that stuck out was that his translator seems to have solved a longstanding problem in Nazi-era translations, but not to have noticed. The problem is this: what do you do with völkisch?

This adjective was widely used as a self-identification by Nazis, and also by all sorts of people in the wider extreme-right movement in the German-speaking world from the late 19th century onwards. It’s sometimes translated as “nationalist”, but this is widely considered inadequate. Consider the main Nazi newspaper: Nationalist Observer is both clunky and also too harmless. It sounds like it might be a paper in provincial Ireland, competing with the famous Impartial Reporter of Enniskillen.

The problem is that the adjective is derived from das Volk, the people or the nation or the race or even the tribe or host, depending on context. The Warsaw Pact countries tended to describe themselves as People’s Republics, which translates as Volksrepublik. A Völkische Republik would have been a very different animal. Bees, in German, live in Bienenvölker – bee nations or bee tribes.

But this only expresses the incoherence of the content behind the name. To be völkisch is not the same as being nationalist. It wasn’t bound to a state or a government, or to a particular physical territory. Although it rejected civic nationalism, it excluded some members of the nation on the ground that they disagreed with it purely in terms of political opinion. It also included some foreigners, and never quite decided whether it wanted to include people who adopted German culture and served German interests, or to exclude them on essentialist grounds of race.

When the Nazis took over Alsace-Lorraine, they decided early on to reintegrate the provinces into Germany-proper, but they got hugely confused dealing with the people. If you were a blonde, German-looking, person with a German surname, but you opted to remain a French citizen, racial examiners might classify you as especially German precisely because of the stubbornness and determination you exhibited in insisting on Frenchness. Depending on who was politically in charge at that moment, they might either decide that you must be denied to the French enemy and reintegrated into the German nation, or else that you were racially German but politically probably a communist, and therefore you should be sent to a concentration camp. On the other hand, if you weren’t blonde enough but you insisted on Germanness you might be deported to France, which all things considered might have been the best thing that could have happened to you, while heaven help you if you were an unblonde who opted for France, and therefore both racially unworthy and a traitor to boot. But sometimes these last options were swapped, depending on power politics in Germany.

It wasn’t equivalent to “fascist” either. Unlike Italian fascism, a lot of völkisch people despised modernity. Unlike Spanish, Latin American, or Austrian versions of fascism, they tended to consider Catholicism the enemy. And it wasn’t even equivalent to “Nazi”. Albert Speer or Hermann Göring didn’t really fit with it, especially when the bit about hating modernity came around.

But Longerich’s translator briefly hit it out of the park by translating it as “racist”. The leading Nazi newspaper Racist Observer sounds just right to me. Although völkischkeit wanders about all over the place, race is always central to it. The varying worldviews on history, culture, policy, etc. are all organised around race and racism. An important point about völkischkeit is that it always had pretensions to the status of science, and the source of this pretended authority was the concept of race. It was racist in the sense that it demanded discrimination, apartheid, slavery, and eventually genocide. It was racist in that it claimed inspiration from other regimes it considered racist.

Of course, the notion of race is itself incoherent and pseudo-scientific. Völkischkeit incorporated poorly understood concepts from genetics, physiology, and statistics. The genetics was usually pre-Mendelian, the statistics pre-Fisherian (even if RA Fisher himself was more than a little racist), and the physiology already overtaken by genetics. Himmler, for one, had started looking for an escape-hatch by 1942 or thereabouts through vague notions of recessive genes and spontaneously emerging leaders among the subhumans. In many ways, this reminds me of bad science-fiction.

Völkischkeit might well be considered a genre fiction more than anything else. It consisted of poorly understood, not-quite cutting edge scientific concepts, plus a variety of myths and aesthetic tropes, organised into narratives by wishful thinking. This may remind you of H.P. Lovecraft, and it probably should as he was a prize racist. It should come as no surprise that, according to Longerich, Himmler was addicted not just to pseudo-science of every sort, but also to crappy genre fiction, consuming vast quantities of both.