Rhetoric and Reality

The Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein famously said ‘The limits of my language mean the limits of my world’. The US ambassador said a week ago in the Security Council that Kim Jong-un is ‘begging for war’. This was preceded by President Trump’s ‘fire and fury’ threat a couple of weeks earlier.

This language is now starting to expand the limits of our world. The possibility of war on the Korean Peninsula, nuclear war even, starts to become part of our reality. We are starting to make ourselves acquainted with the thought that millions of people might die as a result of military action against Kim Jong-un.

The ramifications of this new reality are horrifying. History has shown us that words have their own logic; that possibility often turns into fact. We sleepwalked into WWI, as historian Christopher Clark has explained, and there is a real risk that we will do something similar again. We might lull ourselves into the illusion that a limited military strike is possible against North Korea – that Kim Jong-un will not risk everything if faced with a targeted military strike. But he will, perhaps step by step, but escalation in these situations tends to be frightfully quick. Seoul is on North Korea’s doorstep, and Seoul will be the first victim of military action.

In principle the United States cannot act on its own. Society has tried to put limits on everybody’s world by demanding that military action against a state will have to be authorised by the Security Council, except in cases of self-defence. Unfortunately the effectiveness of this limit is doubtful, as we saw during the second Gulf war.

The task of everybody scared of the power of language, and scared that haphazardly millions of lives will be sacrificed, is to use the power of language to resist the inflation of war rhetoric, and to make clear to the United States that North Korea is not only an issue for Mr. Trump, but for the community of states. We must do all we can to empower the Security Council, must make sure that this does not become a shoot-out at the OK Corral in which millions of human lives are sacrificed at the altar of temperament, impatience and lack of cool thinking!

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The Globalisation Misunderstanding

We live in the era of migration because it is a logical consequence of globalisation. All those who leave their country in search of a better life, rather than fleeing because of the horrors of wars and oppression, do so because the world has grown smaller and more interdependent. Economic migration mirrors Economics 101: free movement of labour makes for most effective production.

When capital flows freely and production can seek optimum conditions by moving from country to country, it is not strange that labour seeks the same.

We accept the free movement of labour within our countries and within the EU, and we have seen that free movement of labour tends to flatten remuneration differences for same work within each country or region. The migration pressure the ‘rich’ world is experiencing is ultimately a push for global free movement of labour. If it is achieved, as it should, the world would not implode on workers in the rich world, but it would, for a time, mean that their wages would stagnate. It is thus natural that there is resistance. However, the reality is that the world cannot have a globalised economy without globalised free movement of labour. It might come step-by-step, so that economic displacement effects are softened. But come it will – or globalisation in general will be dismantled, as President Trump so assiduously and short-sightedly is trying to do.

Fact is that global free movement of labour in the longer term will mean increased wealth for all, will lead to wealthier and bigger markets. Abandoning globalisation or trying to stop rather than manage migration flows will lead to disaster and war.

Jeremy Bentham talked about the greatest happiness of the greatest number. This is what globalisation and global free movement of labour should be all about!

 

Bernie Sanders – Leader of the Opposition?

In the current desolate state of US politics there are two opposition voices that are often heard, those of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Elizabeth Warren speaks rather narrowly on banking and consumer protection, Bernie Sanders on everything. What Bernie Sanders does is admirable, but not enough in terms of opposition politics.  

The tandem of Schumer and Pelosi is completely ineffective and remarkably tone-deaf. In their defence one should perhaps remember that opposition is hard when both the Presidency and the two chambers of Congress are in the same hand. Democratic opposition is made even harder when the Republican Party is so disunited as to form its own opposition groups. 

The Democratic Party could learn from the mother of all parliaments, that of the UK. Although British democracy is also in dire straights at present, there is something that is worth emulating, and that is the system of shadow cabinets. Such a system might come more easily to a system where the government emanates from the Parliament, but it can, of course, also operate in a presidential system. 

What the Democrats should do is to formally designate shadow cabinet secretaries that could always be the counterpoint to the actual cabinet secretaries. This would move opposition politics a bit away from being only no, and would allow a broader front towards the ruling party. Relying on the senior member of the individual committees does not work, even if shadow ministers, of course, could come from those ranks as well. 

But, most importantly, a shadow cabinet would force the Democrats to start to coalesce around a leader already now, and would give that leader an opportunity to lead the party before it gains power. The Republicans are currently a classical example of how easy it was to be a party of no, and how hard it is to become one of yes. 

Choosing a leader now would not mean scrapping the primaries system, but would set the scene for it. Choosing a leader now would make it hard to change horses later on. But given the advantages that is a price worth paying! Letting the unprepared assume the mantle of the most powerful office in the world is really not a good idea!

 

The Federal Gaelic Republic?

When you travel in the Republic of Ireland you will often be hard-pressed to tell the difference to Scotland, let alone to Northern Ireland. The nature is very similar, the architecture too, and the friendliness and sociability certainly as well. The Gaelic heritage shows. You are much more likely to be able to tell an Irish face from an English one, than an Irish face from a Scottish. Remarkably, 700 years after Edward, Hammer of the Scots, and more than 250 years after Culloden, Scotland still seems to have more in common with those on the Emerald Isle than with the English.
The English wishing to leave the EU has left the constitutional structure of the UK in limbo. Brexit has fuelled a desire for independence in Scotland, and Scotland clearly wants to remain in the EU if at all possible.
Tongue-in-cheek one can perhaps suggest that the dreams of Scotland are perfectly possible, particularly if one shows a bit of constitutional creativity, and looks at the pieces on the chessboard of the British Isles without assuming that England must always be the centrepiece. On the British Isles the Republic of Ireland is currently the odd man out, no part of the United Kingdom. Now that England has invoked its uniqueness, perhaps it is time for England to leave the unity and allow Ireland to enter instead. A federal republic of Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland would actually be entirely sensible. Similar culture, similar nature, many similarities in terms of economy and economic outlook.
A Federal Gaelic Republic would potentially also resolve the Northern Irish question in a sustainable fashion. Northern Ireland has, of course, always been riven by the Catholic/Protestant issue. With Scotland solidly Protestant, but with Catholic history and Catholic minorities, a Federal Gaelic Republic could provide a balance between the two religions, with the Republic of Ireland overwhelmingly Catholic, Scotland overwhelmingly Protestant, and Northern Ireland in between. Of course, this does not resolve entirely the ‘loyalist’ concern, the loyalists being loyal ultimately to England. But frankly that loyalty cannot play out as it used to if Scotland gains independence. A Federal Gaelic Republic would resolve many of the most difficult issues for Northern Ireland arising from Brexit. It would resolve the hard border issue with the Republic of Ireland (and Scotland), it would resolve many economic concerns, many cultural concerns.
We live in radical times, yet a Federal Gaelic Republic may still be too radical. But it would make perfect sense!

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!

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!