Of Brexit, elites and the hoi polloi

The tragedy of Jeremy Corbyn and Labour plays out in the most public fashion. I addressed this in my last blog post. The working class is being sold down the river by a misguided Labour elite thinking in purely ideological terms and overlooking both what the working class wants and what can be achieved realistically. Perhaps the ideologically pure heart sleeps better, but the class that the pure heart seeks to serve will pay dearly for the pure one’s untroubled sleep. Michael Foot looked like a pragmatist compared to Mr. Corbyn!

But there is another tragedy playing out very publicly, yet where the distress is not so clear, and that is the one where Theresa May is the absolute star. Poll numbers conveniently shroud the tragedy.

Mr. Corbyn can be accused of miscalculating, but the same is even more true for Ms. May and the Leavers with whom she is siding so assiduously. Rarely, if ever, has large parts of a domineering elite assessed its own best interest so wrongly.

Brexit is without a doubt going to be a disaster for the well-to-do classes in England. England will not become a leader of free trade in the world by leaving its leading free trade group. The Commonwealth is obviously not a replacement for the EU, and free trade and the US seem to be antonyms currently. If the US will find its way back to free trade it will not be because of England, and the ’special relationship’ will bring few benefits for England. And obviously Germany and the EU are much more important for China than England, particularly now that London’s role as the world’s financial centre is up for grabs.

The net sum of the English tragedies is that the working class is heading for an even harder time than now, that the youth of England will become more vulnerable again, and that the capitalist class will yearn for the golden times of EU membership. ‘Make England great again’, they will say. ‘Let us re-join the EU’.

Do not expect a warm embrace!

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Brexit and the lessons of Habsburg

Jeremy Corbyn is obviously not a great student of history. Had he been one he would not have been a lukewarm campaigner for Remain, he would not have ordered the three-line whip in support of invoking Article 50, and in the midst of the Brexit chaos he would not have agreed to a new election when the Fixed-term Parliaments Act protects his party, and democracy, against undue exploitation of the tides of popularity. Mr. Corbyn’s failing is both tactical and a complete misunderstanding of the role of the EU in reigning in national elites.

The European project is in the final analysis an attempt to build a benevolent multicultural and multi-national empire. It is a project of peace-building and creation of broad prosperity.

How an empire can work towards prosperity for all is, perhaps ironically, illustrated best by the Habsburg empire of Maria-Theresia and Joseph II. Whilst the Habsburg empire, like all dynastic systems, suffered from the ’bad emperor’ risk (Francis I), it demonstrated nevertheless how empire can be a tool for the disenfranchised to overcome the oppression by regional elites – the feudal local nobility. Time after time peasants resisted nationalistic ambitions by the nobility for more freedom from Vienna, because they saw the emperor as the protector against ravenous local lords.

What is truly depressing is that Jeremy Corbyn, surely an idealistic man, has not understood that his Eurosceptic attitude is delivering his flock, the working class, to the animal spirits of a local English elite whose opposition to the EU has much less to do with sentimental longing for a glorious past than with a hankering for the elimination of the protections of workers and citizens imposed by Brussels. The British working class has been much helped by EU membership, even if it has also brought painful economic dislocations. Germany, the Nordic countries, France, have made sure that economic liberalism has been tempered by strong solidarity measures, and even if more needs to be done in this respect it is without question that having Germany, Sweden, France on the side of the British worker is far more effective than the British worker facing unbridled liberal economics protected by Labour only.

It is a disconcerting that two Conservative prime ministers, Benjamin Disraeli and Margaret Thatcher, understood the British working class much better than Mr. Corbyn. They understood that British workers are deeply conservative and they understood that this could be exploited for elite interests. The task of Mr. Corbyn was to shake the British worker out of their conservative reverie and explain to them that their interests are with the European workers, not with their national elites. Now it will be a loss-loss situation. The British elites will find themselves much poorer by leaving the EU and the British worker will in return be exploited much more. All the elements of a Greek tragedy are in place, and it is increasingly becoming unavoidable!

Time

Immanuel Kant taught us that space and time is necessary for human understanding. Einstein told us that time and space are inseparable, hence space-time.

Despite these insights it can be argued that we in the final analysis understand time as little as we understand gravity, another of Einstein’s favourites. We do not understand time, because we tend to think that time is measurable as a flow. We talk about time as something with a heartbeat, seconds, minutes, hours, years. Yet, time has no heartbeat, it is us imposing our heartbeat on time. We divide time in fragments, in seconds and minutes, because this is the only way we can understand the passing of time. But, of course, time does not progress according to Einsteinian physics, all time is there all the time in the spacetime structure. Every suggestion of continuity of time is highly questionable, as David Hume in a sense argued 150 years before Einstein, when he questioned continuity of experience in a logic that is not too dissimilar to the time concepts of modern physics.

It is in the human condition to think that time is an unwritten sheet of paper that the life of the universe will fill with scribble. And although Einstein has convinced us that time is not an unalterable quality, that time is relative, even Einstein assumed that time was predictably variable according to the laws of physics that he defined. But is it so?

Time is a dear companion, but one of which we know less than about tomatoes. For tomatoes we know about their inception, their end, their uses and non-uses. About time we might think that it is finite, but without beginning and end, if we believe Einstein’s spacetime structure – spacetime just exists. Yet, we do not know if our spacetime structure might be part of a much larger structure, we do not know about all the various permutations of time and spacetime that might exist in other universes, we do not know if in some contexts time might be infinite. In the many-worlds theory of Hugh Everett it is assumed that anything that is possible will be reality in some universe, and if one stretches that theory beyond its moorings in quantum mechanics one might argue that if endless time is possible then it will exist in at least some universe, and, perhaps, as a higher order reality.

We assume that time is colourless and odourless, in the sense that it has no qualitative quality. Time is what we make of it is our credo. We believe that we condition time, but that time does not condition us. But how we know that it is so? Is time necessarily a quality that we ingest and use, that we endow with quality, or is time also imposing quality on us. The Chinese talk about unrest under the heavens. That can be taken to mean that it is time that brings the unrest at that specific point, could mean that time does have colour and odour. Perhaps there are sometimes fortunate times for humankind, sometimes unfortunate times. Although it is sacrilege to say so, perhaps the relativity theory is too limitative.

Perhaps some universes are without time, or operates on different dimensions than time, dimensions we might not be able to understand given our evolutionary conditioning, and given that we do not even really understand time. In fact, our own universe might have started out as one without time, perhaps this was the starting point for the Big Bang – all reality compressed in one immensely dense mass. The Big Bang might have been caused by the addition of the dimension of time. Physicists talk about the Big Bang releasing tremendous energy, but given that the effects of energy are predicated on time, and that time might be predicated on energy, it is not so unlikely that our universe was originally timeless, and that the Big Bang was a function of the addition of time to our universe. Other universes might have had same starting point but might exist differently because another dimension than time might have been added to the immensely dense mass that was the starting point. And, marvelously, the same immensely dense mass that was the starting point for the Big Bang might have been the starting point for all those other universes featuring different dimensions than time and different permutations on time. This might be so, because according to quantum mechanics the mass at the time of the Big Bang would have been in superposition because more than one way ahead was possible. Every different dimension, every different permutation of time would be in superposition, and according to the many-worlds theory every such alternative would play out in its own universe, and each combination of dimensions in their own parallel universes in addition.

I hope I have convinced you that we know little about time, and nothing about its alternatives!

Existentialism and Quantum Mechanics

Quantum mechanics has given rise to the many-worlds theory of Hugh Everett. According to the many worlds theory everything that can happen will happen in one universe or the other. As explained in my book this means that if god is possible then he will exist at least in some universes. If it is possible that god does not exist, this will also be true in at least some universes. If it is possible that god bestows eternal life on his creations this will be true in some universes, and in others not, if it is also possible that god does not bestow eternal life on his creations.

In a very radical interpretation of the many-worlds theory, possibly loosening its moorings in current physics, it could perhaps be assumed that if it is possible that a universe is created, custom-made, just for each individual being (however defined) then an immense number of such universes will exist or have existed, and it may mean that each individual through her choices can steer the destiny of her specific universe.

Since each choice spurns a parallel universe occupied by the discarded choice, and since even for this cohort of universes all possibilities will ultimately play out in some universe, some version of each individual will occupy a universe where there is a god, and a god who will bestow eternal life on her.

We then come back to the me me problem also discussed in my book. What does it help the me with a continuing consciousness of self (the me me) that other versions of me with their separate continuing consciousness might come into possession of a universe with a god gifting eternal life? That another me will gain eternal life is not the same as if the me me is gaining it.

This, in turn, might bring us to a truly Kierkegaardian existential issue. Since every choice the me me makes steers my specific universe, is it possible that the me me can steer my specific universe towards a god that will give eternal life? Is it possible that I can make sure through my choices that the me me will be one of the versions of me that will occupy a god-filled universe featuring eternal life?

When we make our choices we might assume that we steer their immediate and perhaps even their medium term consequences. However, in the ultimate long term perspective, if it is us steering towards god, and god’s universe, and not god steering us, how do we understand our choices to be the ones that bring us towards god’s universe? How can we calibrate our choices to be apt to bring the long term consequences we so hope for? Is that ultimately by exercising our choices as expressions of a search for god, for the good? In the Kierkegaardian sense, is it thus faith, and living the faith, that will steer us towards a universe of god?

Maybe, but since in the many world’s theory all possibilities will play out, there will also be a universe in which a version of me will be with god and receive eternal life, although that version of me exercised many choices without regard to god and the good. Not a great comfort, since that me might well not be the me me!

Related to this, see also:

  • Belief, 4 March 2016
  • Free Will and Possibility, 23 July 2016
  • Free Will and Wave Function Collapse, 30 October 2015
  • A Theory of Free Will, 24 October 2015

Refugee transport – legalise it!

Trying to get to Europe has so far cost more than 25.000 refugees and migrants their lives. Like many European citizens of good will I am not ready to accept this cost of allegedly protecting my privileges. A radical rethink of how we approach the refugee situation is required.
Fact is, that most of those dying die because they are in the hands of unscrupulous human traffickers. Traffickers have golden times because demand is high and service requirements are low to non-existent. Main requirement is ‘don’t get me killed’, yet, this very reasonable demand is often not met. Getting to Europe is associated with entirely unreasonable risk.
The time-honoured remedy for this sort of situation is to legalise! This is what we have done with alcohol, what some states have done with soft drugs, with prostitution. We know it works.
Everybody seeking our shores are entitled to a test of whether the conditions for asylum are met. Access to this test should not be associated with high risk of death. And, in our own interest, it should not be associated with our implicit support of criminal gangs making Al Capone and consorts look like choir boys.
If you as a refugee or migrant, with lots of residual hazard, can make it to the rim of the Mediterranean you should have the right to board a ferry to Europe and, upon arrival, have your entitlement to asylum checked. This would be humane and orderly, and those offering such services should only be subject to criminal sanctions if they would expose their clients to unsafe conditions.
This, of course, would not kill the human trafficking trade, because those who know that they are not entitled to refuge will still try to get in. If, however, we would only criminalise unsafe human trafficking, but allow Underground Railroad type organisations to assist the desperate, we would see much fewer deaths. And, importantly, we would be unlikely to have many more migrants trying to make their way to Europe, since we have seen that those who are determined will try to make their way no matter the risk! And governments would, of course, still have the right to deport those not entitled to asylum, even if we do not criminalise the transport.
What is deeply regrettable is that European countries, without exception, have abandoned another time-honoured asylum institution, and that is being able to seek asylum at European consular facilities in the refugees‘ home countries. We have abandoned this essentially because it works, and that is heartless and unacceptable.
In our effort to protect Fortress Europe we deny consular protection to genuine refugees, forcing them to accept the (further) risk of death to get in possession of their right of refuge. How shameful is that? Worth remembering that if we sow the wind we shall reap the whirlwind!

Jens Vejmand

The father of a friend of my wife recently died. The father had worked all his life for a medium-sized company in provincial Germany. The outrageous slings of fortune meant that he had held a modest job despite education and intelligence. Nevertheless, he was always happy, always smiling. The company for which he worked with such modesty and devotion fostered loyalty in the paternalistic way many companies in Germany used to do. One of the features of this paternalistic care was that when a former employee died, no matter rank, the company would put a death notice in the local newspaper. Loyalty between company and employee until death!

The medium-sized company in question was acquired by a much larger company quite a few years ago, and in moved the management consultants with lots of disruptive advice, some of it surely good, some of it surely bad. One result was that the bonds of loyalty between company and employees started to loosen. Lately this has meant that the company no longer sponsors the mentioned death notices. 10 or 20 thousand Euros per year may have been saved, but the hurt to loyal employees is deep. How stupid can employers be? One management seminar on the building of corporate culture will cost more that the annual cost of the death notice ritual, but will surely bring less corporate culture, will bring much less staff loyalty. So really bad business. But more importantly, so inhumane! 50 years of service not meriting the small cost of a death notice. Saving a few Euros appearing more important than allowing a working life to have its final exclamation mark.

It brings to mind a sentimental Danish song about a poor stone mason, Jens Vejmand, who after a long and hard life of cutting stone does not even get a head stone on his grave, only a measly wooden cross. The song was created by Jeppe Aakjaer and the world-famous composer Carl Nielsen in the proud tradition of social agitation – the same tradition that created the photos of turn-of-the-century New York slums by Jacob Riis and the literary masterpiece Pelle the Conqueror by Martin Andersen Nexoe. In fact, Aakjaer himself wrote a book, Anger’s Children, that led to considerable improvement in the living conditions of agricultural labourers in Denmark. This tradition of social agitation is not something exclusive to Denmark, of course. In Germany Georg Büchner declared Friede den Hütten! Krieg den Palästen!, in the US we had Steinbeck and, surprisingly, Elvis Presley with In the Ghetto. Bob Dylan’s Blowing in the Wind is of ever-lasting relevance, and it is sad that Dylan gave in to self-indulgence instead of using the Nobel Prize pulpit to address our current manifold inhumanity.

Yet Dylan’s silence reflects how the arts have fallen silent generally in the face of social issues. We lose a generation of the young in Spain, Greece, Italy and the United Kingdom, but politicians are mostly quiet and so are the arts. The arts seem to have little to tell us about the plight of the refugees apart from what emanates from the photographers’ lenses, despite the shocking abundance of dramatic material. The economists are, at long last, starting to wake up to the reality of the proletarisation of the middle class and the despair of the traditional proletariat. But where is the novel that describes the sadness of the middle manager seeing his social situation eroded along with his economic prowess, where is the poem that eulogises the despair of the Rust Belt destitute?

The arts seem to have taken refuge in the intensely private, in the sexual, in the fantastic, in the experimental. Dickens, Zola, Victor Hugo, Eisenstein, Goya would have had things to say. But their heirs are silent.  

Why do we not understand that loyalty is a many-splendoured thing that we should honour in the small, as well as in the big! Why do we not understand that rejection is repaid with rejection, and loyalty repaid with loyalty? Why are the arts not showing us the pitfalls and the right way?


 


 

 

 

 

The Logic of Egoism

350 years ago Thomas Hobbes taught us that in a state of nature it is war of all against all. Donald Trump is unlikely to have read Hobbes, yet his inauguration address was an incantation of the Hobbesian world. All nations should look only at their own interest according to Trump. Nations should be set against nations in a terrifying zero sum game. In such a world the US would compete against all other countries and would take its disproportionate slice of a cake that does not grow.

This is not the whole story, of course. America First is a Pandora’s box. If one stresses national egoism it demonstrates allegiance to egoism in a broader sense. For Donald the interests of Donald are the starting point. What Donald fights for ‘with every breath’ is Donald. Donald then has a communality of interest with his family, so he fights also ‘with every breath’ for his family; he has a communality of interest with his fellow billionaires, so he fights with all his might for them. One of the outer circles of his communality of interest is America, so also there he engages passionately. But make no mistake, when there is a conflict of interest between those of Donald and those of America, the logic of egoism means that the interests of Donald will always win. This is the path we are on now. The path Hobbes warned about!

In contrast, civilization is predicated on cooperation; cooperation beyond a narrow definition of egoism. Civilisation assumes a degree of altruism, although this altruism many be tainted by self-interest – ‘we do justice that justice shall be done to us in return’. Civilisation embodies a belief that life and society are not zero sum games – a belief that has been borne out by millennia of evidence. It is the cornerstone of our unprecedented current wealth. How sad that we are now condemned to a period of zero sum games and war of all against all!

Perhaps one can hope that the current wave of xenophobia and populism in the Western world is just the last spasms of an old regime stemming itself against the dislocations of a changing, interconnected and wealthier world. But sadly it may be the last spasms of the era of liberal democracy! Pray that we shall not give up the gains of enlightenment in the pursuit of inhumanity and self-defeating egoism!