ofthewedge

rooting around for grubs in diverse soils

Tag: immigration

Es riß! (Notes on everything)

rope

When Trump was sworn in as President yesterday it started to rain on Capitol Hill, raining on the modest throng of snowflakes and deplorables clustered on the first five segments of white tarpaulin along the National Mall, barely reaching the Smithsonian Information Centre, so far as I could tell. The rain was a sign of God’s blessing, according Franklin Graham, Trump’s evangelical gimp.  (I wrote last about how American evangelicals with their obeisance before Trump have now squandered what little hope remained that they might still deep down, after all, be Christians.)

I remember Trump Day in November. The morning in Brussels was replete with objective correlatives, spitty rain, mist, dark greyness. Soon after it was Armistice Day, with its soggy leaves and desperate branches. Leonard Cohen died around the same time, and I played some of his latter songs which with his gravel voice went up like a dirge for 2016. Tough guys are in the ascendant. Death and decay was everywhere.

I was on my own that week, my family with the inlaws, nothing left but work and beer, may be a game of football.  On the plane heading over to bring them home, I wrote some notes trying to untangle these strange happenings, and I have added to them this week.

Why politics?

People want to be able to live, have a family, have prospect of social advancement, be generally left alone and generally free from fear. Some people by their actions harm other people.  There is the butterfly effect or the law of Cleopatra’s nose (which, said Pascal, had it been shorter, would have changed the course of human history). All actions have effects, impossible to predict. That is why we have invented government and politics, law and judiciary, the separation of powers, rule of law, human rights. All life is evolutionary and selfish. It wants to survive and prosper. It is difficult, may be impossible to prosper, except at the expense of other people, other sentient creatures and the environment. We step on insects unintentionally or trivially, we breath in microorganisms, we farm and slaughter animals. Most humans have lifestyles which systematically harm the environment and it is now in big trouble. So some things need to be provided or prohibited by the collective. Though there is nothing unique about human cruelty in the Universe.

It’s hard to conceive of a human life outside society. If you are outside society then you might expect to live with your family beyond the laws, no taxes. Trump channelled this instinct with his schoolyard tubthump of America First at the Inauguration. But even if you isolate yourself then you cannot be allowed to visit cruelty on animals and the rest of the environment.

Humans have invented rules, laws and conventions to legitimise and prohibit certain behaviours. These laws, to have effect, require enforcement.  So you cajole, punish or dissuade – Obama and Cameron wanted to believe you could just ‘nudge’.  A given society is made up of so many people that not all laws will be what you want, not all people to your taste will be in positions of power, not all referenda and elections will go the way you voted.  But in peaceable democratic society, you accept these outcomes, that is the Social Contract.

On welfare versus looking after one’s own

Life is swings and roundabouts, ups and downs, you win some you lose some. But certain excesses are considered to be unjust, so must be contested, restrained, outlawed. Over the long term a person can lose so much, take so many knocks that they end up in a nasty situation.  If such a person has reached that position through wilfulness, then they are considered reckless and you have little sympathy for them. Otherwise they may be compulsive, a gambler, and you think they need clinical assistance.

To varying degrees, depending on where they position themselves on the left-right political spectrum, politicians will say you need to support such people. To be your brother’s keeper is assumed best practice if you are in church or family but for the abstract political state it’s more controversial.  What should you do if an entire neighbourhood, region or country becomes an impoverished and unhappy place?

As animals, our instinct is to survive. Protect yourself, live as long and happily as possible, procreate yourself for your legacy. You know that you need a support group to protect you – that is your partner and your family and best friends.

Christ subverted this.  He told his disciples to give up everything and follow him.

And going on from thence, he saw other two brethren, James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, in a ship with Zebedee their father, mending their nets; and he called them.

And they immediately left the ship and their father, and followed him.

And he answered them, saying, Who is my mother, or my brethren?

And he looked round about on them which sat about him, and said, Behold my mother and my brethren!

For whosoever shall do the will of God, the same is my brother, and my sister, and mother.

Virtually none of us, least of all modern Christians, is capable of or willing to conform to these strictures. I could not and would not do this, partly because I don’t know what it implies.

Beyond family, you have an affinity with a wider network, your town, your school, your work colleagues, political party, nation, co-religionists. It is arrogant to assert that people are wrong in their beliefs and value systems, and require enlightening.  There is no objectively right or wrong value system.  But surely the human race has learned to seek to minimise harm to others in how we live our lives. So when you see someone strong hurting someone weak, you step in, or you at the very least feel as though you should step in. You disarm the strong man committing harm. You move him away, may be even put him in a prison. Sometimes the only way to stop the strong man behaving cruelly is to kill him, but since St Augustine we have developed theories on when such drastic action can be justified.  The classic radical left which now have their champion in Corbyn, says that states should not wage war.  What do you do if you are in England and you know that people are being abused tortured and killed somewhere else in the world?

Taxation

Taxation is taking things away from the people to enable the state to exist on behalf of the people.  What is a fair tax? If you have you should give. If you don’t have, you give less.  You should ideally tax things which are costly. For instance, unhealthy foodstuffs which make it more likely you will need state health care, pollutants which will damage the environment.  We ought to start taxing meat production and consumption. By any reckoning, we eat too much meat. It is intrinsically cruel and unnecessary, and the state should provide disincentives.

Inequality and unfairness

Hapless Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn stuck his neck out last week about European freedom of movement and then put it halfway back in again. Like me he cannot address immigration without talking about inequality.

When you sell something, you want to get as much from the buyer as possible, if you get a lot for nothing then you are a good businessman. If you get something for nothing you are an astute customer.

Everything always comes at someone’s expense.

You cannot escape the Selfish Gene. If you work for a non-profit organisation, the government, a civil society organisation, a church, you still want to be better than others, to advance. Not all can advance so you must advance at the expense of others.

Moreover, every job in every workplace is an attempt to be better at something than others. When you employ someone, you want to get more value from him than you pay him in salary. And when you are employed, you want to get away with minimum effort for what you are paid for. Or you put the extra effort in because you are using the job as a stepping stone. People who just work diligently for years in a single job are considered to be mugs, suckers and pigeons.

Inequality is usually the result of generations. Things are the way they are. When you are born, you get whatever your parents are able or willing to give or bequeath you. If my father gives me money, I take it. It’s for me. It’s not for anyone else.  Trump took millions from his dad.  It is a lottery.  It is not fair, but attempts by the state to interfere with this seem more unfair, and communist regime attempts to regiment family life have been barbaric and cruel – and have failed.

The laissez-faire politics espoused by politicians on the right means accepting the cruelties and harm of an unequal society from which they have benefited. They basically say that the way things are should be accepted. They use as leverage the predicament of poorer voters to pile blame on immigrants, and then cream off their votes. It is an extraordinary hoodwink, and it works every time.

This is exactly what Theresa May did in her Brexit speech last week:

In the last decade or so, we have seen record levels of net migration in Britain, and that sheer volume has put pressure on public services, like schools, stretched our infrastructure, especially housing, and put a downward pressure on wages for working class people. As Home Secretary for six years, I know that you cannot control immigration overall when there is free movement to Britain from Europe

There is pressure on public services because the government has not put enough money into them.Wages are low because of the market economy. Wealth in Britain is even more unequally divided than income. The richest 10% of households hold 45% of all wealth in the UK, the poorest 50% own 8.7%. May cannot talk about this. In her schizophrenic week of keynote speeches, her subsequent Davos speech implied that it that inequality was a problem of perception, not reality.

More May:

But just as we need to act to address the deeply felt sense of economic inequality that has emerged in recent years, so we also need to recognise the way in which a more global and individualistic world can sometimes loosen the ties that bind our society together, leaving some people feeling locked out and left behind.

Those ‘ties that bind our society together’ in her mind probably include the erstwhile sense of deference to social superiors which has always been relied on by Conservatives to hold the poor in check.

According to Thomas Piketty, American and European societies have become much more unequal as a result of the absence of full scale war for the past half century. To a degree, inequality is inevitable.  Everything is different. The fittest, the canniest, the best connected survive and thrive. It is not ‘fair’, it does not feel fair. Merit is also a fiction. But stark inequality destabilises society, so all suffer in a way.  Sixty-two people are as wealthy as half of the world.

Piketty and his former tutor, the recently-mourned Antony Atkinson (he was another to escape the world just in time), have proposed a global tax on wealth.  Global, because the French attempt at such a tax at national level has not worked.  You could instead have an upper and lower of wealth and income, set by Parliament and reviewed every year. The canny rich would move to another country. The canny poor will move to that country to enjoy the generous state.

What is the big deal with immigration?

Identity is important to us. We are generally wary of someone unlike you moving into space near to you.  People take possession of areas of the planet and become landowners. Their ‘right’ to such areas is a fiction, invented by humans.

People who want to improve their lives, may be even to save their lives, move around the world. Animals generally don’t want others moving into or close to your space. That’s why stags rut, and why blackbirds sing from the highest branch in the month of June. The social effects and grief felt as a result of immigration are exacerbated when new people move into densely populated areas with low wealth and income, and where the existing population have not experience inflows for some time. Immigration, from this localised perspective, threatens identity (intangible) and access to services that you want (tangible).

Objectively, peaceful movements of people enrich humanity. It makes lives more interesting and generates economic wealth. But most people do not have the luxury of enjoying objective, abstract truths.

How can you tell if a country is ‘full’? Let Parliament decide each year how many people are needed in the country.  Count the number of births and deaths and net migration. Then figure how many should be able to apply for residency and citizenship accordingly.

Responsible government wishing to improve the economy by mixing up the pool of labour with immigrants without exacerbating social tensions, could cause least damage by requiring immigrants to settle in wealthy, more sparsely populated areas. Germany has been trying to do this with refugees, though it is hard to square with EU law. The problem is that you cannot talk about immigration without talking about social inequality. So when you allow immigration to areas where people are already pissed off with life and politicians, you stoke the flames of social unrest and you play into the hands of right wing cynics.

People are also worried that immigrants do not share the ‘values’ of the host society. The Pavlovian first response whenever a lunatic goes on the rampage is to inquire of their ethnic origin and citizenship status.  So what can you do? Require them as a condition for crossing the border to take a solemn oath to respect women, renounce all violence, care for the natural environment etc.  Make it so if they are found to breach these undertakings they will be penalised and may be expelled from the country. But where do you expel them to?

Security

You cannot have 100% public security unless you instigate ‘1984’. Everyone is different and unpredictable. You cannot control them. They must be free as long as the harm they cause is not excessive: violence towards another person is clearly not acceptable.

In any case, the state should not control individuals. It should be local structures that keep nutjobs in check. But how can you force a man’s mother and father and wider family to take responsibility? How can the state assume responsibility for the deranged Tunisian who drove a lorry into a crowd in Nice on Bastille Day?

In the first half of the Prelude to Götterdämmerung, the three Norns, daughter of the Earth Goddess Erda, are weaving the rope of destiny. The women unwind and fasten singing of the past and present. The rope begins to fray; they struggle to grasp its strands. Then at last they try to stretch it and it breaks. Events are no longer following their expected course. The Norns disappear in terror.

No more speaketh our wisdom!

The world now shall hear us no more.

Let’s remain. Remain to complain

 

blame canada

Your prophets are like jackals among ruins. Ezekiel 13:4

I wrote three years ago that a plebiscite might lance the boil of the EU’s perceived undemocratic illegitimacy. But the choice needed to be on a clear prospectus: what are we actually voting for or against? What is going on in the UK at the moment is not what I had in mind.

First of all, this referendum is about the Tory party’s failure to exorcise their inner demons since immolating Thatcher 26 years ago. Our current overlords cut their political teeth in the 1990s and have needed to purge their collective guilt for the decision in November 1990 to slay their messiah on the altar of the European project. A few years ago people grumbled about the EU like they grumbled about politics in general, but it was never among the top concerns according to the opinion polls. But the Conservative Party has long considered itself the incarnation of Britain (the ‘natural party of government’ etc.) so it is only natural for Cameron, their most patrician leader since Alec Douglas-Home, once restored to government, to make his party’s internal problem into the whole country’s problem: except of course that now it is not just a problem for the United Kingdom but a problem for the whole of the shuddering edifice of the EU and probably beyond. This insular referendum cannot be isolated from globalised politics and capitalism.

The tenor of the referendum debate has become so jaundiced, polarised and bilious that the murder of Jo Cox last week by an extreme right wing loon has led to petitions for the whole business to be aborted. But we cannot go back now. David Allen Green’s elegant unpicking of the whole premise of the referendum as unnecessary and non-binding is legally sound but politically implausible. But he is spot on that, because there is no concrete proposal to focus on, the debate is about everything and nothing.

Second thing: the Leave campaign have struck a chord with a lot of people, mainly in non-metropolitan England, because politicians are not giving them what they want. The chord Leavers strike is a dissonant one, transferring the blame for domestic frustrations onto to foreign shoulders. So, in the minds of large sector of society which is frustrated and irritated, foreigners, immigrants, migrants, terrorists,  bureaucrats and the EU all meld into one. And as the global establishment, freaked-out at the prospect of yet more political and economic uncertainty, have rallied to cause of Remain, Leavers add ‘experts’ and the ‘elite’ into this demotic cauldron of the damned. It is a mild British equivalent of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. (The same thing explains Trumpmania in the US, though it’s more dangerous because they all have guns.)

David Cameron’s team have today drafted for him a splendid, optimistic plea for sanity, the sort of positive endorsement of the UK in the EU which was needed but which he shunned for years while he acted as tribune of the grumpy eurosceptics. (Mario Monti said this in an interview with the Economist last week.) Now he is the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, desperate to contain the mayhem which he has unleashed in a bid to keep his party together.

The referendum campaign has exposed and aggravated fault lines right down the middle of the electorate. England versus Scotland, city versus countryside, graduates versus school leavers, pensioners versus young adults (though not very old pensioners: surveys indicate that people who experienced the last World War are more likely to appreciate than to disdain the EU project), and even Hindu versus Muslim. It has exposed the castrated condition of the post-Brown/Blair centre-left of British politics.  Most of all, it has exposed the unscrupulous hypocrisy and imperiousness of the Tory ruling class, prepared to stoke tensions between the indigenous poor and first generation immigrants.

Brexit cheerleaders such as Daniel Hannan, Isabel Oakeshott, Tim Montgomerie, Toby Young, Julia Hartley-Brewer and – the toadiest of all – Louise Mensch have aimed an endless stream of blinkered, reductionist rancour against the EU, perpetuating the myth that membership of the EU is what holds Britain (they mean England, they are always from blessed shires of England) back from utopia. As if our own shit doesn’t stink. These educated, privileged individuals seem to have no moral compunction. I was perplexed at why, in the wake of the horrific murder of Jo Cox, they were desperately urging everyone not to ‘politicise’ the outrage or to ‘jump to conclusions’ that the assassin had far-right politics, that he was just a quiet gardener with mental health problems. Yesterday before the Beaks Thomas Mair gave his name as ‘Death to Traitors Freedom for Britain’ – what might easily pass as a drunken paraphrase of one of the familiar Leaver slogans. It is as if these people consider any criticism of the far-right as effective criticism of themselves.

(There are similar quirks across the political spectrum: speaking ill of Israel’s government is tantamount to antisemitism, while you cannot condemn violence by Palestinians at the same time as supporting their fight for human rights and statehood.)

Bizarrely in contemporary Britain it has become worse to insinuate that someone is racist than actually to be racist. Timothy Garton Ash has just published a book decrying the threat to free speech of today’s squeamish generation demanding a right not to be offended.

So senior Tories, former Eton and Oxbridge chums, take their high japes and repartee out of the quad and onto the high street, chucking around hyperbole and inventing big numbers to frighten the plebs into voting for them. ‘Take back control’ is the mantra.  Who is taking control from whom? Well, Johnson and Gove are trying to take control of the government from Cameron and Osborne, that’s the only certainty. They incite baser instincts, telling people that their lives, identity and self-esteem which have been undermined by globalisation can be restored simply by leaving the EU. Such is the brazen hypocrisy – since time immemorial – of one faction of the elite telling people  not to trust the other faction of the elite. No more room? There is room enough on the country estates of the prominent Leavers for refugees and people who want to make a better life for themselves and their families. If you object to all things foreign, then you should evict McDonalds and Starbucks from the high street, turf out oligarchs and oil sheikhs laundering their money in London’s property market, stop buying cheap stuff produced by the underpaid and overworked in Asian sweatshops. That would be taking back control.

Blaming the EU and immigrants is the equivalent of the expulsion of the Jews from England under Edward I: a sop to prejudice from a bankrupt state.

All the while they are trying to harness and to indulge their court jester Nigel Farage, who is basically one of their own but slightly off the rails, the man who at Dulwich College had a Hitler fixation and decided not to bother with university and instead to make a packet trading in the city. (That Farage and Cameron are fellow travellers is betrayed by their shared idiom and speaking style – a fluent duck-and-jab, sprinkling their pronouncements with ‘and franklies’ as if being ‘frank’ somehow equates to telling the truth.)

A few hours before Cox’s murder Farage unveiled his ‘Breaking Point’ poster, an image directly lifted from Nazi propaganda insinuating that hordes of darkies were about to overwhelm England: because of the EU. It was a calculated intensification of toxicity, a ramping up of the populist rhetoric which was scheduled to continue in the last week of the campaign until the slaughter on the streets of Birstall rudely intervened and occasioned a brief moment of national reflection. There were signals, logically enough, that Farage would be given a post in a post-Brexit Johnson administration.

In effect this is a right-wing putsch masquerading as a public policy plebiscite.

Once Britain has flounced out of the EU, the same Leavers will move on to their next scapegoat.

I am an EU official, part therefore of that privileged class, so I have a personal and direct interest in the EU’s success. When I arrived in Brussels in 2008 it was three weeks after the Irish had voted down the Lisbon Treaty. I remember the high dudgeon of Commissioners and other EU politicians at this petulant act of ingratitude by a small nation which been one of the biggest recipients of the EU’s largesse. The prevailing attitude was – How dare they! Well, they will have to vote again until they give the correct answer. Here you had the much vaunted EU democratic deficit writ large. At this time the strongest advocates of ever closer federal union were in their pomp: the technocratic will to harmonise everything, it was peak ‘more Europe’. This was also the moment when the inner core of EU decision-makers decided to leave Turkey’s application indefinitely out in the cold, on the grounds that they were not really European (i.e. they were Muslim). (Sarkozy is still at it.) Since then, Turkey has become an increasingly authoritarian and intolerant bastardised Ottoman Empire, which the EU now has to bribe to stop people from bloodied Middle East and central Asia crossing the EU’s borders.

Arrogance and strategic errors are inherent to human politics.  But the European Union represents the most ambitious of all post-cataclysmic endeavours in the 20th century to stop countries fighting each other. The armies which for centuries looted and slashed their way around the continent have been largely disbanded, and only partly replaced by a host of suited bureaucrats. Thanks to the EU. The EU’s bureaucracy is in my view badly structured, but with 55 000 officials in a continent of 508 million it is no more ‘bloated’ than other tiers of national administration. Almost all of them work in a second language with a sense of ideals which is almost quaint in these cynical times. Its internal procedures like its buildings are impersonal and prone to abstraction. Its Byzantine snake-like policy-making process lacks transparency. The members of the European Parliament are generally there because they have been selected for their party lists by party apparatchiks. The monthly decamping to Strasbourg is a comic travesty. But these are the results of compromise agreements between democratically elected governments and the democratically elected parliament. The underlying ethos of the whole extraordinary project is inclusive social democracy and care for the environment grounded in human rights.

I can guarantee that, if you codified everything about the governance of Great Britain and Northern Ireland into a single document and put it to the electorate in a referendum, in the current climate more than ever, the majority of British voters would reject it. The problem is politicians lacking vision and growing inequality and economic uncertainty. That is why I argued a couple of years ago for referenda in every country that is or that aspires to be a member of the EU, with a simple statement of values and objectives that all citizens in their busy or torpid lives can understand. Let them vote yes or no, and for those that vote yes there would be a democratic mandate to talk and draw up complicated constitutions. I also worried that without such a recourse to the popular will the far right will rise up from the debris of economic decline and stagnation and the victimisations would begin.

This is happening now. A Brexit vote will accelerate this trend. The world will continue to spin on its axis.  Humans will continue to consume, defecate and multiply as before. But as the last people to remember World War II pass away in the next few years, the post-cataclysm efforts to work together will have gone into reverse, and all because of the vaulting parochial ambitions of Boris and his chums. At best, Britain will remain but it will have been such a close run thing that a rocket will have been fired up the arse of complacent Europhiles. We clearly cannot go on like this.

It’s time to save England, this beautiful mongrel nation, from itself. Remain, complain and do something to make it better.

L’Union? C’est nous.

louie

 

A friend of mine recently told me that the artificial Brussels construct – of the EU institutions by day and the polite socialising by night – makes for relatively boring fayre, replete with platitudes, when compared to the bonhomie enjoyed with educated peers from his native Portugal. The air of society in the bubble feels cold and impersonal (emails to known individuals open with the frenchified ‘Dear colleague’). That suits me fine. After the chaos of my latter London years it gave me an opportunity to start something new.

Global capitalism may make the EU necessary, but not sufficient. It’s deficient because it was and remains a technocratic confection, the brainchild of several brilliant and progressive post war visionaries, determined to avoid another man-made catastrophe. Democracy, in the sense of direct accountability through an elected transborder parliament, was an afterthought. Now, as the wannabe superstate totters from crisis to crisis, the parliament provides a veneer of post hoc legitimation for the whole project, but it has little chance of placating a grumpy and pessimistic electorate. In the same way the laws that are churned out seem to lack a sense of (can I say this?) organic conviction – there are so many checks and balances that the solutions are at best beautiful compromises, fleeting like the seasons.

Take the latest capitulation to France and Italy for their unapologetic flouting of the fiscal rules which they themselves had foisted on Greece, Ireland and Portugal a few years ago. Une Europe solidaire? Chutzpah evident in, for example, Michel Sapin’s breathtaking pronouncement last month that ‘No further effort will be demanded of the French’, carried distant echoes of the Sun King and his successors. Such episodes make it easy to conceive of the EU as a bastard offspring of the French polity, perpetually condemned to pleading for its inheritance.

The compromise machine will no doubt also find a way to accommodate a truculent majority Tory UK government post-2015, for all the ostensible trench-digging about intra-EU immigration, a.k.a. the free movement of labour, a.k.a. a founding principle of neo-liberal capitalism. Britain owes its historic prosperity to this same right, arrogated to itself by its ruling class and merchants while they were hoovering up the land and resources of the empire. These were rights denied to colonials, and only reluctantly and slowly ceded when large numbers moved in from India and the Caribbean. It is not expedient for Farage, Cameron and Johnson to engage with this facet of Great British History. Anti-immigration is too useful a tactic for deflecting anger at political ineptitude and cowardice onto the least enfranchised members of society.

In the eye of the storm, meanwhile, boredom reigns largely unperturbed. I don’t know whether this is a good thing.