Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Love thy enemy

At the height of the civil war within the Labour party that eventually led the creation of the SDP, Shirley Williams issued a warning to anyone complacent about the danger of the extreme left.

‘I was brought up as youngster to learn about fascism. My parents fought against fascism, and they were both on the Gestapo blacklist, so I know something about it. But there can be fascism of the left as well as fascism of the right.’

I was reminded of that quote by events at the Oxford Union yesterday. What we saw was fervent anti-fascists being overtaken by a most fascist impulse. They were so intolerant of those who disagree with them that they were prepared to use force to get there way.

Let’s be clear about this. You have a right to object to Irving and Griffin being invited to speak. You have the right to protest about that decision. But at no point did anyone acquire the right to break the law in order to threaten people attending a perfectly legal meeting.

The views held by Irving and Griffin are indeed reprehensible but this will do nothing to help counter those beliefs. Trying to stop the fascists being heard is a strategy bound to fail. There are a regrettably large number of people who sympathise with them and they will make us hear them one way or another. The way to stop them is not through violent protest but by engaging in the kind of community politics that makes a difference to people’s lives and shows them that there is a real alternative. That requires us to be able to tackle the fascist’s arguments and that requires us to have heard them.

What makes someone a true anti-fascist is not joining unite against fascism or waving placards in the rain but the willingness, simultaneously, to tolerate and to challenge views we find repulsive.

P.S: The best account I have seen of what happend comes from Jonny Wright’s Hug a Hoodie blog. Please do read it, it will be worth your time.

Monday, 26 November 2007

The two faces of capitalism

Why you don't need to be selfish to believe in capitalism.

I wrote this article a couple of months ago but forgot to publish it. I have put it up now because having gone to the effort of writing it, it seemed a shame to let it go to waste. This is why some of it may seem a bit dated.

People who read this blog regularly will know that I do not have a high opinion of Naomi Klein. Her work rests on dubious assumptions and baseless attacks. Her latest article for the Guardian does nothing to change that.

In a previous blog on Miss Klein’s work, I attacked her claim that Milton Friedman was a fundamentalist by saying: “Market fundamentalists do exist but they tend to be marginal figures like Murray Rothbard and Ayn Rand rather than the architects of Machiavellian conspiracies on a global scale.” Little did I know that Klein, in fact considers Rand to be an influential thinker whose work has “liberate[d] entrepreneurs to pursue their narrowest advantage while claiming global altruistic motives - not so much an economic philosophy as an elaborate, retroactive rationale.”

Rand is certainly an extraordinary individual. A Russian immigrant to the United States who went on to become a hugely successful novelist and screenwriter, she also created her own political and ethical system with a band of disciples committed to advancing it. According to Rand morality is an illusion and truly great individuals act solely in their own interests without giving thought to the impact of their impact on others. If Rand were indeed typical of free marketers then capitalism would indeed be a dreadful creed. She is anything but. Rand is to capitalism what Osama Bin Laden is to Islam. Her ideas are extreme, intolerant and belong solely to a bizarre fringe. Klein pins her argument for the importance of Rand on her influence of Rand on the young Alan Greenspan. The problem is that he is (to my knowledge) the only policy maker of any note, who could be considered a Randian and even in his case the actual difference that Rand’s ideas have made is debatable. As Fed chair, he seemed less like a market zealot and more of a latter day Keynesian. Rand must have been turning in her grave as time and time again, Greenspan bailed out the US economy with cheap money.

Klein suggests that Rand is merely reproducing the ideas of Adam Smith. The reality is very different. The difference between these two thinkers shows just how little a market economy has to do with amorality. Both Smith and Rand explore how humanity can benefit from the actions of self interest individuals but Rand takes this principal much further. Smith is concerned principally with commerce and industry (his great book is called ‘the wealth of nations’), while Rand makes no effort to set a limit on self interest. Smith’s ‘Theory of moral sentiments’ is a hymn to the value of charity. By contrast, characters in Rand’s books that show generosity are scorned. To see the value of wealth accumulation as a driver of wealth creation does not require you to give up on the idea that in much of life concern for others is a great and noble virtue.

One thing that Klein does not seem to get is that there is a distinction between self-interest and selfishness. It is quite possible to do something that makes you better off but which does no one else any harm (and in fact may be benefiting them). To my way of thinking, this is not selfishness because that requires you to be causing harm to others. This is no semantic difference, it is key to how operates in practice. While self-interest is rewarded, there are laws to prevent selfish behaviour such as lying, stealing, bribery, breaking contracts and using violence. For the market to work there must be legally enforceable limits to the harm people can do to each others. Without them you will have anarchy (or Yeltsin’s Russia as it is otherwise known). This idea was not alien to Smith who imbibed against the power of monopolies, while Rand would doubtless have seen the competition commission as an undue restriction on the strong for the benefit of the weak.

At the root of the different viewpoints of Smith and Rand are fundamentally different views of morality itself. Rand’s philosophy simply turns the world on its head and makes virtue into a vice. Smith is attempting something much more complicated, to set how to create a good society composed of people who are not necessarily good. If we look closely at his famous saying that ‘it is not for the benefit of society that ‘It is not from the benevolence of the butcher the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity, but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities, but of their advantages.’ We see not a celebration of self interest but a statement of how Smith believed things were. Smith might wish us to be entirely virtuous but he knows we’re not. He understood that to try to build a socialist utopia on such shaky foundations was futile and we would be better off trying to turn mans vices into virtues through the market.

To be a free marketeer a la Adam Smith is miles away from being a cold hearted, Randian sociopath. Trying to win an argument by claiming that your opponents are greedy rather than misguided is low and even Naomi Klein should know better.

Thursday, 8 November 2007

The Shah Lives

Far from protecting Pakistan from extremists General Musharaff’s attack on democracy is making them far more dangerous.

The most perceptive and alarming comment on emergency rule in Pakistan has come from the former cricketer Imran Khan: "When you stop all legal and constitutional ways of people challenging [the president], then the only ones who challenge him are people with a gun". Pakistan is in danger of becoming the new Iran where the closing down of democracy leads to the suppression of liberal and reformist movements and leaves the way clear for a takeover by Islamist extremists.

Anyone in any doubt as to whether emergency rule is aimed at keeping out the militants or keeping Musharaff in power need only look at who the victims of the crackdown have been. We have seen lawyers beaten by riot police, judges under house arrest and the mass detention of opposition activists with no Islamist links. The Taliban by contrast are largely unaffected as they are safely ensconced in their strongholds in the tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan.

Religious extremists by and large fare better when opposition to the government is outlawed because they can meet and organise in places of worship in a way that their secular rivals cannot. If Musharaff pushes ahead with his desperate attempt to cling to power, he will most likely find that his main rival for power will soon not be Benazir Bhutto but Mullah Omar.

The possibility of an extremist take over in a country with a large stock of nuclear weapons is too awful to countenance and every pressure needs to be brought on Musharaff to restore democracy.

Rose tinted Rivers of Blood

‘Rivers of Blood’ was a deplorable attempt to inflame hostility to outsiders for political gain. Its author deserves condemnation not exaltation.

I am sorry to comment twice on the same speech in as many days but I am really angry. I have just read Simon Heffer’s latest rant in the Telegraph and it has left me with smoke billowing from my ears. Heffer's attempts to paint Enoch Powell as a visionary hero trying to save Britain from being destroyed by immigrant hordes is by turns laughable, infuriating and outrageous. He angrily instructs us to ‘Read the speech. Make up your own mind.’ Well I have and I am at a loss to see how anyone else, who has could be in any doubt that it is a truly shameful speech.

Heffer starts off with familiar claim that ‘Enoch was right’ not only about immigration but also about ‘the British peoples irreconcilability to the EU’ and ‘the destruction of the United Kingdom if devolution was allowed.’ Well last time I checked the UK was still united and still a member of the EU, so I am not quite clear why Mr Heffer thinks this demonstrates insight on Powell’s part. When it comes to immigration, Powell’s apparent Clairvoyance is not much more convincing. ‘We have 52 dead in attacks by Islamist fanatics in 2005 to prove how integration has failed’ exclaims Heffer. 7/7 was a horrendous event but we must bear in mind that it was carried out by just four people. There appalling actions should not and must not overshadow the fact that millions of people from ethnic minorities live peacefully in Britain, following the law and paying taxes. We are still very far from Powell’s predictions of the death of our nation.

Heffer goes on to claim Powell ‘had merely been highlighting the danger of the racism of others’ and to deny that Powell was a racist. For what it is worth I agree that it is unlikely that Powell was himself a racist for the reasons that Heffer presents. What he did do was deliver a speech that set out quite deliberately to associate him with racist sentiments for political gain. It is striking that at no point does Powell condemn racism and in many places he seems to actually condone it. A man who says that ‘in 15 or 20 years' time the black man will have the whip hand over the white man’ is described by Powell as ‘decent.’ The most powerful section of the speech deals with the persecution of an elderly woman by her black neighbours. It is a very emotive story and Powell lingers on it for a while. Yet when he adds in the little detail that she had refused to have black tenants, he does not pause for a second to suggest that this is anyway wrong. Such tricks inevitably left Powell open to charges of racism and justifiably so. Powell must have known this yet he left them in. The only conceivable reason to do so was that he hoped to be associated with racist sentiments and to derive some kind of political gain from that fact.

Probably the most bizarre claim in the entire article comes in a short paragraph towards the end. Heffer writes that: ‘In a smug observation last week, the equality tsar Trevor Phillips congratulated David Cameron on "de-racialising" the immigration question. But who racialised it in the first place? It wasn't Powell. It was the Left, whose aim of destroying our nation state not least by destroying our culture was furthered by attacks on Powell for telling the unpalatable truth.’ This comment moves Heffer from being simply misguided into the realms of the tin foil wearing nut jobs. The left is not on a mission to obliterate Britain or its culture. While you can quite legitimately oppose left wing ideas and policies, doing so on the basis that your political adversaries are the servants of some sinister plot is to lower yourself to Naomi Kleinesque levels of absurdity.

To compound the error he includes no evidence to support the notion that the left are to blame for the connection between race and immigration and he fails to mention that Powell most certainly did contribute to the blurring of the debates about race and immigration. He devotes as much of the speech to talking about racial discrimination laws as to immigration. Heffer tries to bolster his case by pointing out that Powell never says the word race in the speech, when in fact he does. For example, in the section about the harassed pensioner he says that: “When the new Race Relations Bill is passed...” He also talks about skin colour and ‘Negroes’. So to claim that the speech is not about race is bizarre.

It is entirely possible to talk about immigration with talking about race. If you want to see examples then look no further than David Cameron’s speech on immigration last week. The contrast between this and the hateful, provocative rhetoric of ‘rivers of blood’ could not be clearer. The Conservative leader certainly deserves the praise he has received for tackling the immigration debate in such a responsible way.

Heffer suggests that Cameron has ‘wilfully misunderstood Powell’ when in reality it is Heffer with his desire to exonerate his hero, who his mistaken. As Enoch Powell knew all too all well, words are weapons. And on April 20 1968 he unleashed a verbal arsenal against Britain’s vulnerable immigrant communities and the consequences of that callous decision are still with us today.

Anyway must be off, I’ve got nation states and cultures to be destroying....

Wednesday, 7 November 2007

The Evanomics of immigration

The BBC's ever informative economics correspondant, Evan Davis has written an interesting post on his blog about the economic impacts of immigration. While being careful not to take sides, he does a good job of slicing and dicing, the more ridiculous arguments of both sides of the debate. This is something that really needs to be done because the debate on immigration too often gets stuck on nonsensical arguments such as 'immigrants taking our jobs' that simply waste everybodies time.

Enoch was right

What Enoch Powell got right does as much to undermine the arguments of his imitators as his mistakes.

This summer, like much of the rest of Britain’s political class; I spent an awful lot of time pounding the pavements of Southall. The by-election that followed the tragic death of Piara Khabra could not have happened in a more interesting place. It did not take me long to realise that this corner of West London was far from ordinary. The local McDonalds sells Halal burgers, while the cinema appeared to show only Bollywood films and the pub by the station proudly declares that it was the first pub in Britain to accept Rupees. The most striking thing though was not the shops but the people. They were with a striking degree of uniformity, well, not white. It became a running joke amongst campaigners that you could spot other activists because they were the only Caucasians you would ever see.

A short visit to Southall should be enough to make anyone greet the statement, ‘immigration has changed Britain dramatically,’ with a dismissive exclamation of: WELL DUHHH! That the inflow of millions of people into Britain has had a big impact on this country is really beyond dispute, yet this is one of the comments that has got Conservative parliamentary candidate, Nigel Hastilow into a spot of bother.

I raise this because Mr Hastilow’s sin was to suggest that what Enoch Powell said in his notorious ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech was correct. This provides as good an opportunity as any other to test Powell’s predictions against what actually took place.

So was Powell right? In many important respects he was. But rather than vindicating his argument, that Powell got right a lot of things right serves only to demonstrate how fundamentally wrongheaded the case against immigration is.

An article in the Economist on racial conflict in Britain noted that: ‘In 1985, the MP Enoch Powell issued a prognostication of doom. By the end of the 20th century, he claimed, fully 8% of Britain's population would be black or brown-skinned, and a third of the residents of some cities would be non-white... Few took Powell's forecast seriously. He had been a familiar anti-immigrant bugbear since 1968, when he was exiled from the Conservative front bench for fulminating against “wide-grinning piccaninnies” and seeming to anticipate race war between blacks and whites. Powell's later prediction was almost spot on, though. At the time of the 2001 census, the ethnic minority population of Britain was, indeed, 8.1%. White Britons made up less than two-thirds of the populations of Leicester and Birmingham (and accounted for barely half of all children in those cities).’

What has not materialised are the rivers foaming with blood, the nations on funeral pyres and the other images of doom that Powell conjured up to support his case. Ever the sceptical conservative, he underestimated the basic decency of the British people. Rather than engaging in racial warfare, we have come not only to tolerate but to value these new Britains. While racial violence does exist, it is without a doubt the exception rather than the rule.

To boil this all down to a sentence, Powell was right that vast numbers of people would come to this small island but he wrong that this would lead to disaster. In other words, high levels of immigration have not and will not end in catastrophe.

This should put into perspective recent projected population figures that Powell's present day heirs have predicatably tried to use to portray us as on the road to ruin. Yes, we may see lots of inward migration but if immigration benefits Britain this is something to celebrate rather than fear.

Doomsayers, like Enoch Powell, will always be with us but when it comes to the questions that really matter, they are seldom right.