Tuesday 24 October 2023

The Putin Paradox


1948 marked the Nakba, the expulsion of 700,000 Palestinians from their homes by the new Israeli state, driving them into the small wedge of land that is Gaza, where the population is now 2,200,000 - half of them children. It has been under blockade for 20 years and now there are fears that the Netanyahu government's objective is to expel the Palestinians completely.

Last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin waded into the appalling carnage visited by the IDF on Gaza, the West Bank and south Lebanon, supposedly promoting peace. His hypocrisy however sadly matches Biden's and Netanyahu's.   

Putin of course is currently waging his own bloody war, including bombing Ukrainian hospitals, partly over the Crimean peninsula. He has put about a myth that this historically is a Russian land. But it is not. 

Just four years before the Palestinian Nakba, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin ordered the Sürgünlik - the deportation of the entire population of the Crimean Tatars. This was a Muslim community that had lived on the peninsula for several centuries before the Russian Empire conquered it in 1773, annexing it a decade later. Stalin falsely claimed that the entire population were Nazis (sound familiar?), but in truth this was one of several forced mass deportations to make way for the Russification of the Soviet Republics. 

As well as the Tatars, around 40,000 Estonians, the vast majority of them women and children, were moved to Siberia in 1941 and 1949, with other big forced transfers of Latvians, Lithuanians, Turkomens, ethnic Germans and Armenians around the same time. In all cases, large numbers of Russian settlers replaced the deportees.

And so, pictured above, in May 1944 up to 423,000 Tatar people - literally the entire population - were deported from their historical homeland of Crimea and sent to Central Asia and Siberia. Uzbekistan was the main destination.

According to the files of the NKVD, the predecessor to the KGB, around 10% of the deportees died in transit or in forced labour camps over the next five years.  Meanwhile, as the Tatars were removed, in 1944 alone, 51,000 Russians moved into collective farms vacated by deportees. More than a quarter of a million acres of land was forcibly transferred.

This was how Russian settlers achieved an overall majority in the population of the peninsula. 

Yet while Stalin's successors condemned the policy, they did not allow the Muslim Tatar deportees to return home and those who tried were quickly removed again. 

It wasn't until 1989 that the ban was lifted by Mikhail Gorbachev, the Russo-Ukrainian who was the final leader of the Soviet Union. The Supreme Soviet declared the deportations illegal. Initially a small number of Tatars finally made the journey back to the Crimea but faced violent riots against their return by Russian nationalists, particularly in Yalta where the Soviet army had to intervene to stop escalation. 

In 1954, the peninsula had been brought under the Ukrainian Republic within the Soviet Union. Although on a low turnout, in spite of the Russian majority, 54% of Crimean voters backed Ukrainian independence in the 1991 referendum.  

In 1999, the small Tatar population was accorded a level of self-governing status via the Mejlis, an elected council, by the independent Ukrainian constitution, which also granted automatic Ukrainian citizenship to around 150,000 exiled Tatars across the former USSR. Over 100,000 gradually returned to the Crimea - not without some bureaucratic opposition from Ukrainian officials - and by 2004, they had regrown to around an eighth of the population of the peninsula.

However, the Mejlis was turned into an appointed body by pro-Russian President of the Ukraine Viktor Yanukovitch in 2010 and following the Russian occupation of the Crimea in 2014, many Tatars complained about renewed persecution. According to the UN Human Rights agency they have often faced harassment and disproportionate levels of arrest. Most of the 10,000 people who left the Crimea in the subsequent year after the Russian occupation were Tatars. 

Putin's slaughter of some 8,000 Muslim civilians in Grozny at the turn of the millennium and his fostering of Russian Christian nationalism doubtless did little to reassure them. Similarly, the approving description of him as "the key to white survival" by former KKK leader David Duke and other supportive white supremacists inside and outside Russia may not have helped.

The Russian authorities banned the Mejlis in 2016, declaring it an extremist organisation.

One of the Tatars elected leaders, Rustem Umierov, is now Ukrainian Minister of Defence, organising resistance to the imperialist Islamophobe Putin, a man who should be in the dock in the Hague. 

He should of course be there alongside, among others, fellow pseudo-Middle East "peace envoy" Tony Blair and his criminal confederate George Bush. As the old anarchist saying goes - neither Washington nor Moscow.

The Sürgünlik,1944

Wednesday 17 March 2021

Statues and Statutes


If we needed any more proof of the Government's inherent illiberalism, and the range of prejudice and bigotry that accompanies it, the last week has surely provided a surfeit. The awful murder of Sarah Everard was a shocking example of how, allegedly, the mere impression of acting on state authority can be misused to appalling ends. 

Yet the response of Boris Johnson and Home Secretary Priti Patel has been to seize the moment to propagandise and push through even stronger laws to control and squash the citizenry - literally hours after the terrifying image of a 5foot2 woman thrown to the ground and cuffed face down by police as they broke up the vigil for Sarah on Clapham Common, one of the last places she passed through alive. The apparent circumstances of her murder prompted women and men to come to remember her and to "reclaim the night", just as women did decades ago when Peter Sutcliffe's killings in Yorkshire led to the authorities telling women not to go out alone, a suggestion echoed in the wake of this latest murder. The same authorities had the option of allowing an organised, socially distanced gathering, but chose instead to deploy public health rules to forcibly break up the spontaneous one that took place anyway.

In as tone deaf an example of misogyny as you could get, the Government's proposed initiative to protect women now is to deploy large numbers of undercover police to trawl post-lockdown pubs and clubs to identify and supposedly detain potential rapists and murderers. With the endorsement of Opposition Leader Keir Starmer, the alleged misdeeds of one police officer will apparently be solved by having more police officers mixing secretly with the public.

Except we know how that has gone in the past. Police spies infiltrated a wide range of peaceful groups, particularly in the environmental movement but also trade unions, race justice groups and others pursuing perfectly legal aims. 

Supposedly to remain undercover, some of them developed relationships with women activists, living with them and even fathering children before disappearing. Some acted as agents provocateurs, initiating others to commit often trivial offences but offences nevertheless that got them criminal records and were used by the state to tighten legislation against its opponents. One case, highlighted repeatedly by Green Party MP Caroline Lucas using parliamentary privilege, allegedly involved a police officer setting off a bomb outside a department store in order to frame an animal rights activist.  

In this new paradigm, how far will undercover duties involve officers mingling in night clubs acting "in role"? What potential is there for abuse of position and power to do quite the opposite to protection? Rather than acting to counter the cultural objectification of women, it seems more a very conscious misrepresentation of a terrible event to enable an ever-creeping interference in normal social life and activities.

Yet this same week's Policing bill uses precisely the zeitgeist of peaceful activism as a national secruity threat to enact the most draconian legislation in our history - now past its second reading in the Commons, the new laws as they stand will make it illegal to protest too loudly, or to "cause annoyance" to even one person. If you commit such an appalling excess, you can face ten years in jail.

The legislation is clearly pitched at environmental protests such as Extinction Rebellion - demonised by a former police officer's report for the rightwing Policy Exchange thinktank in 2019 and listed as an extremist ideology by Counter-Terrorist police a few months later. Also in sight are initiatives like the Black Lives Matter protests last summer and many of the anti-fracking protests that spiked the attempts to destroy swathes of the English countryside in the entirely unnecessary search for shale gas. While most fracking is now cancelled or on indefinite hold, the Tories' funders have long and unforgiving memories and a long backstory has been created all the way back to David Cameron's Coalition era pledge to crackdown on "non-violent extremism"

Be too different (travelling communities will now be required to have special identity cards), or too radical and it doesn't matter how pacific or law abiding you are, you are still an annoyance - a decade in the clink beckons.

Attack a woman, of course, is a different matter. Almost simultaneously to passing the policing legislation, the Government turned down a range of proposals to make it easier to protect women facing domestic violence and to turn misogyny into a hate crime, although a very recent concession will involve recording gender and sex-based crimes where these are judged to be factors. In a blatant lie, the ill-titled Safeguarding Minister appeared on TV to claim that hate legislation is "mainly for minority groups" and  as women are the majority, it couldn't apply to them.

Never in the field of British politics have so many been misled so much by the guardians of the few. To paraphrase that Tory icon, Winston Churchill.

Unlike women, though, this much "white"-washed character, with his very mixed legacy of wartime leadership, anti-Indian racism and sexist jibes about women's faces, is carefully protected: deface Churchill's statue, or those of any of

the slave traders and mercantilist thieves that grace our cities, and a special place awaits you in Patel Hell. For, it seems, these lumps of Victorian marble that stare down silently on largely disinterested people, who barely give them a passing glance, are integral parts of our national culture. And the snowflake fascists can't bear the idea of anyone disrespecting them by doing something like drawing attention to the historical facts of their icons' lives and deeds - leading to a police guard being set around Churchill's image near Scotland Yard this week, just in case. 

It seems that when the Left disagree vocally with something, such as Rees Mogg speaking at a university or an AltRight candidate speculating about raping a Labour MP, this is "political correctness gone mad" and "cancel culture" - even although the perpetrators are pretty free to carry on sounding off as much as they like: witness the oaf Piers Morgan's tantrum when he was criticised by a weather presenter over his highly personalised attack on Meghan Markle last week. He chose to walk, but no one made him. No one actually shut him up - someone simply disagreed with his pompous bombast.

But now, block a road with a demonstration, shout too loudly or spoil someone's enjoyment of their day by warning about climate catastrophe, or campaigning about racism - or remembering a murdered woman...  and the freedom-loving Tories will lock you up for the next decade. The same people who wax lyrical, tearfully even, about the Magna Carta and mythical English rights to avoid wearing face masks during a deadly pandemic will incarcerate those who offend or annoy them. Cancel culture deluxe.

So we face what so many of us have long feared and warned about - post-purple wave, the Conservatives are no longer small state advocates, but rather Big Statists. Not the sort who want to use the state to better lives, or at least not the lives of all. Instead, they are seizing and deploying state power to embed themselves and their friends and funders into the ownership of the nation. 

The market system, bad though it was, is decaying, replaced not with the common good, but instead with the rise of  the nobility of Varoufakis' "techno-feudalism". This is now a place where an Etonian chumocracy acquires the state and its authority to preserve and extend their writ indefinitely, and where  the last serious socialist challenge to its ascendancy is demonised into a hate-filled totem of fear and loathing; Jeremy Corbyn channelled as the Emmanuel Goldstein of the 21st century.

A place where the future is a boot - a copper's boot - stamping on the face of change, the face of hope. Forever.

And yet, thousands commemorated Sarah Everard around the country; thousands turned up outside Parliament to oppose the new legislation. And hundreds of thousands joined the BLM protests and XR actions. You can kill the canary if you like, but the fires are still burning - our species and our planet are at severe risk; people still demand justice - for racial minorities, for the female majority and for all society. No politician can legislate these truths away. 

And we won't let them.

Tuesday 2 February 2021

Suits You, Sir Keir!

Behind You! - The allegedly scruffy Jeremy Corbyn followed by Man in an Empty Suit

Reeling from a 7% swing to the Tories in the latest opinion poll, haemorrhaging members and money and struggling to be heard even in the silence of the depleted Covid Commons, Labour's leader Sir Keir Starmer has taken a leaf not so much from the Biden as the Trump Playbook to try to revive his flagging fortunes.

In the true spirit of neoliberalism and new Nu-Labour, a leaked report recommends the party needs to "make use of the (union) flag, veterans and dress smartly". 

In an unsurprising triumph of form over content, the report from the party's Research team has found that after nearly a year of the startled Starmer regime, the vast majority of voters have no idea what the party is about or what it stands for. Possibly seeking to consolidate this vacuum, the proposal seems that the party should become even more indistinguishable from the Conservative Government, to whom Sir Keir has repeatedly leant his support or, failing that, his abstention on issue after issue through their dreadful mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic.

Supposedly intending to hold Boris Johnson to account via his lawyerly "forensic questioning", he has rarely landed so much as a light smack on the fingers to the Old Etonian prefect as now over 106,000 citizens have died. The supposedly lame Ed Miliband has been the only Labour frontbencher to come anywhere near embarrassing this laziest of Prime Ministers during these historic days, only to have to hand back in time for Starmer to try to outdo the Tories in demanding schools stay open in the face of union fears - until of course he heard Johnson was going to close them and so rushed out a closure demand just ahead of the PM's announcement.

Similarly, he has singularly failed to challenge the appalling nepotism and pork-barrel politics of this most corrupt of government and he has backslid on a raft of legislation. The latter has included notably supporting the Brexit Deal in spite of doggedly insisting on opposing the almost identical Theresa May deal two years ago and later dragging his party to supporting a second referendum - this latter step was a fatal move that drove millions of Labour voters over to the Tories and Brexit Party, shearing the party of dozens of seats. More recently and even more shockingly Starmer failed to oppose new powers granted to the espionage services including the right to torture and kill, in spite of his past fairly good record as a challenger for human rights in the courts. 

His time as Director of Public Prosecutions though perhaps pressaged his true or maybe changed self.  Quite aside from the failure to prosecute Jimmy Saville (not his direct decision, but on his watch), his tightening of the criteria for viable prosecutions for sexual assault led to a marked and immediate decline in rape prosecutions which remains the case today, a decade later.

But of course, the one thing that does seem to set the wooden knight aflame is attacking the Labour Left and in particular Jeremy Corbyn, now expelled from the Parliamentary Party (though readmitted to wider party membership by the National Executive Committee). In spite of campaigning for the leadership election on a promise of keeping the socialist, transformational policies of the Corbyn era, he and his Shadow Cabinet have now backed away from tax reform, from ending student fees and have even signalled a move away from the radical Green New Deal. Once the pandemic crisis is over, it seems only a matter of time before his Shadow Chancellor Annaliese Dodds will be out-austeritying the Tories on balancing the budget after the months of furloughing employees (a policy adopted by Sunak and Johnson after their one and only meeting with Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell in the early stages of the crisis).

So as he waves his flag and patronises veterans in his best pinstripe, Starmer seems unlikely to see the truths staring him in his seemongly ever-startled face: that when Labour previously embraced this Tory-lite strategy under Tony Blair, it was in the backwash of the collapse of the USSR and the "end of history", where voters were however uncertainly willing to accept neoliberalism and the benign guidance of the liberal "Political Class" in return for some meagre share of the Dream. 

But we are twenty years on now and Cool Britannia is buried under thick icy sheets of  personal debt, broken promises and shattered lives. The Tories have successfully played the new landscape by setting neighbours against neighbours and sharpening conflict everywhere. Even their ludicrous, vicious predatory purchase at above-the-odds prices of over seven times the quantity of covid vaccines needed to innoculate all of the UK has been driven by an attempt to stymmie other countries' efforts to vaccinate and save the lives of their citizens. 

Yet from Starmer, there is nothing. Some level of complaint that some things haven't been done well enough, or soon enough; or a bizarre notion that he can bring down Boris by pointing out some time or other that the PM muddled his figures - when anyone knows he can't even count his children properly but his voters don't care.

Just as Biden needs Bernie Sanders, AOC and others in the USA to drive him hard if the grievances that Trump leeched off are ever to be resolved, so here we need more than a Man in a Suit - especially this particular man (after all, even Corbyn managed to wear a suit with "for the many, not the few" pinstripes during the last General Election). Voters will not be won back by some well-scrubbed liberal with excess hair gel oozing his support for the incumbent. Rather, they want the transformational politics skewered in December 2019 by the vitriol of the billionaire press, the bias of the BBC and the rampage against their own party by the Labour Right - quietly among them, perhaps, Starmer himself with the more than obviously suicidal strategy of his insistence on Corbyn backing a second Brexit referendum.

Like the rest of the world, we are at a historic crossroads. The death and devastation of the pandemic demand something better than the "business-as-yesterday" Blairite revanchists. We do well to remember that the last time Labour lauded veterans in this way, it ended with scores of sons and daughters of some of the poorest communities in the UK lying dead or maimed in Iraqi deserts or on Afghan hills. True love of country, or of community, involves challenging its wrongs and making it into something better. It isn't about the flim-flam of waving flags and putting on a tie.

Above all, it isn't about being another Tory Party. We've already got one. And that's already more than enough.

Wednesday 20 January 2021

Intermezzo Americana?

Maybe some of us, many even, will sleep a little better tonight. Just that tad more restfully. It's been a good day. Some big symbolic changes.

But what we mustn't do is think we can turn off the alarm clock. Nor turn it back. Because we've had our wake up call and now, somewhat unusually, our world has a second chance, of sorts.
But for others, the same desperate fears and frustrations that led to their giving all their hopes and trust to a snarling sociopath grip their hearts and minds tonight as they have for years, decades, whole lives. We may condemn them for their bad choice, laugh and sneer at their credulity, denounce their apparent bigotry. 
Except, one in five of them would have voted for Bernie if the Democrats had run him, and many more were originally part of the New Deal Coalition targeted by Reagan and dismissed as deplorables by both Clintons. Many were Latin Americans. And many more than last time were black.
They will still be there in four years. Will they still be angry, still afraid? Still as many?
The people who destroyed their worlds, closed their factories, poisoned their water, sent their kids to desert wars and shut down their futures - they are as much in the Oval Office tonight as they were four years and forty years ago. They promise to listen more, to heal better and certainly progressive voices are louder than before. 
Yet they have always promised so, and power is seductive and elites so terribly good at absorbing real challenges. It's not conspiracies or cults; it's just what happens when authority is based on rank and hierarchy, greased of course by filthy lucre. It has been so ever since we were persuaded to give our grain to the priests to store in the temples. And then the priests gave the grain to soldiers and made themselves into kings and emperors and built palaces and capitols. Primus inter pares
But senators need tribunes to call time on their deeds. Symbols need to be more than themselves. You don't "speak truth to power". You tear it down and share it out. Otherwise, nothing ultimately changes until the all that is left to make it happen is the whim of the mob and the rumble of the tumbril. Biden quoted Kennedy today but not to the extent of repeating his not particularly radical but still prescient predecessor's warning that "Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable."
So the monster is gone. And perhaps we can sleep. But not too deeply or too long. 
The world may have a second chance, but it only gets one wake up call.
And we've just had it.


Monday 28 December 2020

Pandemic: A Century of Capitalism and Complacency


Women wearing face masks against the 1918 flu pandemic

It is a well-hackneyed, over-used nostrum that those who do not learn from history are bound to relive it; yet it is as relevant as ever in 2020 as the world reels from the impact of the first truly global pandemic since the 1918 to 1919 H1N1 “Spanish influenza”.

Covid-19 and H1N1 are both viruses that likely have their origin in poor animal husbandry, and both posed strikingly similar challenges to governments. The rapid onset of a new disease combined with gross economic inequality, ever faster modes of mass transit and increasingly diverse sources of information are also notably similar.

Influenza is a long-recognised disease recorded as far back as Hippocrates and Livy in classical times, but its pathology remained a mystery. By 1500 its range of symptoms, normally involving increased body temperature, sweats and nausea, were attributed by Italian doctors to the influence or “influenza” of either the cold or the stars. From the Enlightenment onwards, mass outbreaks were studied more scientifically and after the 1891 Russian flu epidemic doctors had formed the view that it was caused by a germ - anything from bad water to smog was seen as a potential breeding ground for what one medical professor referred to as “very clever little beasts”.

Influenza isn’t a germ, but rather a virus – Latin for poison – a tiny, non-cellular agent that is not alive but replicates inside the living cells of a host organism. They are sub-microscopic – 100,000 would just cover a fingernail. In 1918, before the invention of electron microscopes, this meant scientists were finding germ cultures that caused secondary infections rather than the primary viral source. Consequently, although some of the precautionary measures that were implemented were effective for both types of threat, there was a significant lack of understanding about how flu was transmitted.

The pandemic originated in the mid-West of the USA where in January, an unusually aggressive strain of flu emerged among livestock farmers in rural Haskell County in Kansas. The outbreak disappeared after 7 weeks, but one local farmer, Albert Gitchel, was shortly after drafted into the army ahead of deployment to the Great War front in Europe. He worked at Fort Riley as a cook before falling ill on 11 March. By the end of the month, 1126 of his comrades had joined him and 46 had died.

The disease was far more virulent than previous influenzas – tingling fingers led rapidly to high temperatures and severe vomiting. While many recovered quickly, the symptoms were more persistent in others and after 5 or 6 days developed into fatal respiratory infections. Although some medical scientists and doctors like William Welch urged quarantine measures, the US Army continued deploying infected regiments across the Atlantic Ocean on cramped troop ships where the virus spread exponentially.

In this way, the flu reached Europe. Army bases such as the British at Etaples became centres of infection as men moved to and from the cramped conditions of the trenches to equally packed barracks before embarking on crowded trains and ships back to England for leave. By July, Manchester recorded its first cases, while the German army delayed its final major offensive as the virus decimated its’ ranks.

The virus reached neutral Madrid and the King of Spain succumbed. Ironically, his death and the uncensored debate about it in the Spanish press led to the unwarranted moniker of the “Spanish flu” (resulting in hostility to Hispanic people back in the USA where the “Spanish Lady”, a skeleton in a black flamenco dress, became an icon of both the disease and naked racism).

Dr James Niven took the initiative in Manchester
The British Government censored anything they felt might damage wartime morale –  Arthur Newsome, the closest equivalent to a Chief Medical Officer, decreed it important to “keep calm and carry on.” Concerned to maintain munitions production, the government took few steps to counter the disease, even when Prime Minister Lloyd George nearly died from it – he was secretly treated in Manchester City Hall for several weeks after attending a crowded war bond rally.

Yet it was a Scots-born Manchester doctor, James Niven, who from the outset identified that this flu was far more aggressive and needed a proactive response. He lobbied to close schools, distributed at his own expense over half a million posters urging personal protective measures and presented the first public health films with a character called Dr Wise advising on social distancing and masks. The city’s death rate was possibly as low as one eighth of the norm, though it didn’t spare Niven from eventual suicide.

After a summer lull, an even more virulent strain emerged in September. Victims were much more prone to fatal secondary infections, many dying with a characteristic deep blue skin tone resulting from pus-filled lungs starving the body of oxygen.

Cities like Sheffield and mining communities across Yorkshire were particularly badly affected owing to the close working and badly ventilated conditions in heavy industry and mines, as well as often cramped housing. The illness led some to desperation – Joseph Meek, a Normanton miner, in a curious harbinger of 2020, drank carbolic disinfectant not to cure but to kill himself, while some parents facing their own deaths killed their children for fear of no one being left to care for them.

Yet the government continued with its complacency, advising treatments such as rest – impossible for people scraping by in a time with no sick pay – consuming Bovril and opium, or even inhaling potash. Trains and trams ran unaffected and shops, pubs and theatres stayed open. Where local authorities did take measures, these were half-hearted – in York, for example, American soldiers were banned from cinemas, but locals were free to attend.

Other countries similarly had at best disparate and inconsistent responses: in the USA, municipalities often took responsibility for public health and were often at odds with the preferences of state governors. While some areas had draconian rules on, for example, mask wearing, others were much more lax and in several cities demonstrations were held to complain about measures viewed as affronts to American individualism. All the same, the Federal government passed the Defense of the Realm Act to censor any stories in the press that it deemed could spread “fear or dismay” – a bizarre line of reasoning not unknown to the President of the USA in 2020’s pandemic.

Nevertheless, the USA reeled from the disease. Cities became ghost towns as it spread and mass graves became commonplace. In all some 550,000 US citizens were to die of the flu – 40% of all the US military casualties in the Great War succumbed to it rather than German guns. And the end of the conflict brought little lasting relief - armistice celebrations in November led to a further round of infections, unwittingly causing many more deaths around the world.

By the turn of the year however, the virus had largely run its course in Europe and North America. A final wave in Spring 1919 was much milder as the virus had by then infected most of those it could – cleverly, they know not to completely destroy their hosts, although in June one of its final victims was Yorkshireman Mark Sykes, of Levantine Sykes-Picaud infamy. (He was dug up in 2008 to recover viral remains to help treat the Swine flu outbreak, a variant of H1N1.)

Of course, alongside France and the USA, Britain was an imperial power and trade and military activities carried it round the planet to their colonies. India, where British military railways injected the virus across the sub-continent, was to endure over 17 million casualties, while one in fifty Africans – one in ten in Tanzania – perished. China and Russia were also badly affected, though civil wars in both countries meant only estimates are possible.

Notably, Australia quarantined itself, banning all entrants – like its New Zealand neighbour now, it consequently avoided the devastation wreaked elsewhere. At home, working class civilians and troops were by far the worst affected. Over 30,000 British troops had succumbed, while in the UK itself around 200,000 people died, with many others facing long-term problems.

In all one in three of the global population was infected and between 2.5% and 10% of those died – btween 100 million and as many as 200 million people, depending on the estimate. The normal flu death rate was about 0.1% by comparison.

Angela Friedman survived both pandemics  

Today, there are parallels with 1918 but differences too. Covid emerged suddenly. The UK Government was more focussed an international crisis than on public health and social media has spawned a range of debate from the highly intellectual to the dangerously ill-informed. 

However, viruses are much better understood and treated infintely more effectively by modern medicine, leading to a significantly lower death rate. Parallel to this, the implementation of social distancing, protective face masks, and proper quarantines - rather than the confused, partial ones in the UK - clearly make a significant difference. 

This is borne out in many places, but perhaps most poignantly by Sweden's ultimately awful death totals following its decision to avoid large-scale lockdowns. Per capita, with 36 covid deaths per million, Sweden stands between the UK (35  deaths pm) and USA (43 deaths pm) in having a high level of deaths - in contrast, its more precautionary neighbours in Norway (6 deaths pm) and Denmark 10 deaths pm) have very substantially lower mortality rates. (Source - Statista)

One heartening personal story of how things have changed is that of Angela Friedman, who was born on a migrant ship from Italy to New York during the 1918 pandemic. Aged 101, she survived contracting covid-19 earlier this year - in spite of previously suffering cancer, sepsis, internal beleeding and several miscarriages. Angela may have superhuman genes, as her daughter proudly declared, but even with these her chances of survival were doubtlessly much better this year than when she was born.

While the current pandemic is dreadful, having taken over a million lives and blighted millions more, and has been badly managed by many governments, the death rate is much lower than 1918-1919: a year which now stands as a striking example of what happens when almost nothing is done at all. It is a lesson right-wing politicians in the UK, USA, Brazil and India would have done well to have learned rather than indulging conspiracy theories about Big Pharma or secret Chinese biological warfare - both with striking antecedants in 1918 when either asprin manufacturers or the Kaiser were blamed for the flu.

Fortunately, most countries have taken a more collective and interventionist approach to the current public health emergency, otherwise there is no doubt the death toll would be much, much higher. Strong public health systems have proven their efficacy: such as the one in socalist Cuba, the South Korean track and trace process and the remarkable achievements of the west African country Senegal which, with few medical resources, has achieved the second lowest death rate on the planet by drawing on its long experience of fighting infectious diseases such as ebola and dengue fever.

Yet so too remain the true causes of our maladies – the exploitation of our environment and animals; the inequality of our health, housing and welfare systems; and politicians who advocate for profit over people and planet. We live in a world where, in the middle of this pandemic, water, that most natural and life-essential substance, has become a tradable commodity on the Futures market - this means people are now speculating on its availability to profit from its anticipated (and from investors' perspective, its preferred) scarcity. 

This is the same world where an invisible dot with some nasty prongs has almost brought our system to its knees in a matter of weeks, so you might be forgiven for hoping we would have learned to treat our habitat with greater respect and vow to pursue new ways of living in harmony with each other and our environment. Yet so far, such a change is, to put it mildly, elusive. 

Covid is not so much an existential biological threat to our species as a piercing wake up call we ignore perhaps literally at our peril. The next pandemic may well be much worse, and much sooner than we imagine, as we continue to degrade our world and tangle and tear and transform the very threads of existence. All for cash.

Capitalism remains the true virus - and socialism the only effective vaccine.


Below: from the British Film Institute; a colourised version of the 1918 public health film Dr Wise

Tuesday 27 October 2020

Biden and Business As Usual - Liberal Delusion Number 119

 One week out from the US Presidential election and, not entirely unlike last time, the so-called progressive wing of the Establishment, the liberals and social democrats, their sponsors and media mates, have perhaps a little more cautiously than last time more or less called it for Joe Biden. Trump is toast, disintegrating faster than bone spurs in an X-ray machine.

Yet, while yesterday's Rasmussen national poll giving the incumbent Trump a 1% lead is still something of an outlier, most other polls, while giving Biden a lead of around 7% on average all show things tightening. With the impact of the efforts by Republican governors to effectively disenfranchise poor and black voters over the last two years, a tack seen on balance as favouring Trump, and the robust efforts to impair voting by mail in this virus-ridden poll, the result may yet be much, much closer than the broad left, and some traditional conservatives, might like to wish. 

Certainly, it is far too soon to call the result – especially once you factor in the massive pile up of Democrat votes in relatively few big states set against the need to balance that with wins in smaller states to tilt the winner-takes-all maths of the Electoral College (the body that actually elects the President). As we know from 2016, the President does not need a majority of votes cast to carry the college. He just needs to come close and come ahead in the right places.

Taking a hunch, Biden on balance may probably win; and yet his victory will be a truly hollow one; less the routing of far right, neofascism and rather more the temporary stopgap Hindenburg provided against Hitler’s Nazis in their 1932 contest. That even now the outcome is actually still in question with Trump averaging the support of around 9 in 20 voters demonstrates that this vote will not conclude anything in spite of all the pious hopes of liberals for the USA to return to being “a normal country” and of their counterparts everywhere for “politics as usual”, a resumption of the comfortable spin of two sides of the same capitalist coin taking buggins turn at squandering people’s hopes and dreams and our planet’s resources and biosphere alike.

Biden’s legacy is toxic – from his active  backing of crime legislation that has incarcerated almost 3 million predominantly black people to work for free on behalf of the military and big corporations in a form of modern slavery under Bill Clinton to fostering the continent-wide fracking rolled out under Obama. Like many liberals his stance is that of a chameleon, from cold blue to hot red and back again depending on circumstances. And, in Biden’s case, it seems to also be who he listened to last - Bernie or Barack, Kamala or Hillary.

Trump has made much play of Biden’s memory issues. Some have seen this as a 74 year old man trying to disingenuously portray a 78 year od man as “past it”. But in truth Joe’s memory lapses extend far back in time to much younger days: this is a man who in his first run for President, way back in 1988, forgot to credit Bobby Kennedy when he used his words to invoke patriotism, forgot to mention he was quoting UK Labour leader Neil Kinnock when he asked why his wife was the first in her family to go to college and who somehow forgot that rather than topping his law class, came 74th out of 86 and, in a strikingly Trumpian outburst, told a questioner he almost certainly had the higher IQ.

Biden’s 1988 primary candidacy collapsed with his hubris and lies, but this year it seems the Democratic National Committee was so fearful of a truly transformational candidacy in the shape of Bernie Sanders that they set aside everything. From Joe’s economy with actualite through his son’s unquestionably dodgy dealings in Ukraine to the outstanding, un-investigated claim of sexual assault by him on a young female intern working in his office in the 1990s, it doesn't matter - all that does is that he isn't Trump.

And it shows.

Biden was credited as the winner of the final debate last week: most polls found him to have stood up to Trump, though relatively few were enthused by him. The debate was seen as treading water and unlikely to shift more than a handful of voters. And yet a throw away comment by Biden in the closing moments may yet prove to be disastrous.

Asked about climate change, Biden seemingly boldly announced he would close down the oil industry. Unsurprisingly, Trump suggested this was the big news of the night, leaving Biden stumbling to correct himself that this would be done “over time.”

It is true we need to shut down oil, but the fact is Joe Biden has no particular interest in doing so. Nor does he have much understanding of what might replace it. Where Bernie Sanders (or the Green Party Presidential candidate Howie Hawkins) might have talked about transitioning jobs in oil into renewables, Biden betrayed his lack of knowledge and even belief in the need to change by having little to nothing to say. It was after all, under the Obama-Biden Administration that the plug was effectively pulled on the previously burgeoning US renewables industry in favour of opening up the country to fracking - so much so that his now running mate, Kamala Harris, sued them unsuccessfully in her capacity as Attorney-General of California to stop them drilling off the seismically sensitive Pacific coast.

In the crucial swing state of Pennsylvania, once a Democratic bastion but in many counties now with a registered Republican majority, Biden’s confusion and slipperiness may be his undoing. For this is where liberal managerialism comes unstuck – it was precisely its detached elitism, foisting fracking on poor communities and now after they have made some modest economic gain from it in spite of their environmental catastrophes deciding to shut it down, that turned voters away from the likes of Hillary Clinton to Donald Trump. 

Biden had established a narrow lead with the prospect of winning the state's vital Electoral College votes back, but on the ground Trump’s campaign by all accounts is reaping a swift dividend from Sleepy Joe’s apparent wish to now shut down the very industry he and Barak Obama imposed on the state. The very latest Pennsylvania statewide poll, out tonight, gives a 2% advantage to the President.

Donald Trump is an appalling, nasty, greedy, sociopathic narcissist. It is truly difficult to find any redeeming features in the man at all. Yet like Hitler, he has fed on genuine grievance and directed it to his advantage, however dissembling and disingenuously. Unlike Hitler, he has no ideology and is not as well organised, but that is not to say that, once he is gone, someone more coherent won’t emerge at the head of his huge and still very much intact base vote and the armed militias he has told to “stand by”. 

That the Democrats have singularly failed to destroy him and his creed is proof enough that they have yet again failed to even begin to understand the forces that created him in the first place – because they and the corrupt elitism they represent and buttress are perhaps the primary force. They, like New Labour under Blair in the UK,  saw so many working class Democrats as having nowhere else to go and so eminently betrayable to the corporate interests that have bought the Dems lock, stock and barrel – so much so that a movement like Sanders’ socialist one was seen as a threat rather than the once-in-a-generation transformational opportunity that it was.

And if in the end Joe Biden just squeaks in, with a half-baked programme, a promise simply to not-be-Trump and a Supreme Court soaked in Tea Party bigotry, the next four years are already lost and the next forty seriously at risk.