Saturday, October 22, 2016

Brexit lie of the moment...

There were plenty of lies circulating before the EU referendum, but the biggest porky doing the rounds in the new Brexit reality is that the collapse of Sterling is really quite a good thing, as it will boost Britain’s exports. 

Last week the Economist pointed out that there is in fact no evidence from recent times that the UK’s exports get any sort of leg up from a devaluation in Sterling. If we were largely in the business of pushing commodities out into the global market like say Chile, the Pound’s tribulations might have a silver lining of sorts, but most of what we sell abroad has been made with stuff we have earlier had to buy from Johnny foreigner. 

More expensive Marmite may soon by the least of Britons’ gripes. BA for example appears to base many of its fares on the dollar. Right now the basic economy ticket between Gatwick and Cancún costs more than $1000 which, given the Brexit exchange rates and the fact that this has always been the discount route between Europe and Central America, probably means there will be fewer Brits soaking up the rays on the Mayan Riviera this winter. (The peso will probably also attempt to rise from the ashes on firm news of Trump’s demise.) 

British equities look cheap, but foreign investors probably fear a further devaluation that will make them even cheaper. Many will already have been burned by the fall since June which has made the concurrent surge in the value of the FTSE index largely meaningless. 

Monday, October 17, 2016

Winner and losers

As part of the wider dawning that even if Trump were to lose, some 60m Americans will have voted for him, Obama has just spoken of the GOP's 'swamp of crazy' and its responsibility for the rise of the demagogue; the suggestion being that this all politicians' doing, a dial that can be turned back. 

Yet surely it was inevitable that in a society that has so unashamedly celebrated winning, and in a manner divorced from ethical concerns, that the losers would eventually congeal into a fairly serious cultural problem. That it took so long is actually remarkable. 

Perhaps the losers had been assuaged by the perception that other ‘communities’, were losing more bigly, or that loserdom was always just a temporary state of affairs in the greatest nation on earth. Neither of these propositions have quite the firmness of yesteryear now. 

And so they have adopted Trump, the self-conscious winner who appears more than able to think and talk like a loser. 

Friday, September 23, 2016

El Desengaño Anti-Populista

On balance it probably would have been better if Gloria Álvarez had screeched ‘this shitty country’ or even ‘our shitty country’ as opposed to ‘your shitty country’. 

Maybe the slip occurred because she has been promoting her book in Argentina, where there just might be something in the air that tends to inflate one’s pelotas. But she claims it happened a while back. 

Slighting the patria is the big red button in all of Latin America and she should have been aware of this before calling the journalist; along with the intuition that most hacks tend to record phone calls and then sit around polishing these little gems.

But it isn’t really the affront to the hemisphere’s hyptertrophied patriotism that bothered me when I listened to La Glow’s invective. It was the barely-concealed threat at the end, which suggested to me that she is possibly more part of the problem than the solution. 

The possession of multiple faces is very much a national trait. At the very least, most Chapines appear to have a public face plus a more private brincón persona, which sometimes escapes into the public sphere. (Viz. current Presidente). 

In my own experience people who state 'You don't know who you are dealing with / No sabés con quien te metés! really ought to have framed this as a question for themselves in the first instance. 

On at least one occasion someone I know very well, but who was at the time unaware that they were addressing me online, has invoked a whole host of largely imaginary wing-men, including AK wielding narcos who were supposedly going to come and fuck me up, tout suite. 

The irony here is that Crazyglorita's use of huevos is indicative of how the term has become a euphemism in this region for an often pathetic display of power by the otherwise powerless. So, in the context of El Engaño Populista, the question one obviously faces is what happens when these individuals actually achieve some sort of power?

And whilst you might need the common touch to win votes here, on the other hand, sacando lo corriente can end up being a longish-term handicap.  (Viz. current Presidente; again.) 

Up until this SoundCloud leak, the worst that could be said of Gloria was that her tirades were full of rather too obvious redactions, as if her cherished ideology were wielding an unconscious black marker pen. 

Yes, she tended to 'parrot' the sage pronouncements of her intellectual idols such as Hayek, but I was always loath myself to parrot the 'Crazy Lorita' put down, because I detected a nastier, more dismissive edge to its use on social media in Guatemala. There's an all too obvious tendency to respond to her polemics with barely-concealed sexism or class-chippery. (Even this blog post is not entirely free of it.)

I come from an academic tradition which abhors dogma in all forms, and this has left me with the abiding impression that ideologies should be sternly interrogated and then, if necessary, rubbished. 

However, another lesson I learned as an historian was that bias and loudly ground axes are everywhere, and that the truth isn't something that can be said to exist apart from all these partial sources; it is something one has to try to piece together from them. 

Buscandoasyd accuses Gloria of being manca, but one-armedness is surely the abiding characteristic of those on the Left that her public positions most discomfit. 

Yes, somewhat ironically, there is a degree of populist rhetoric within her critiques of Latin American populismo, but maybe this is just a consequence of her attempt to do something a tad unusual: address, from the right, the widest possible audience with a quirky, vernacular, on-the-verge-of-popular touch. 

Yet she is not, as far as I can tell, attempting to use the politics of resentment to snatch power. What she might be accused of doing however, like many of her apparent opponents on the Left, is using hostile language that, whilst appearing to be directed at those on the opposite extreme of the political spectrum, actually serves to undermine the centre. 

We see this in the manner with which Latin American lefties deploy the term neoliberalismo for example. Meanwhile, Gloria Álvarez's support for Gary Johnson in the US election is 'deplorable', as HRC might say, because voting for third parties in America has been compared to sending out a prayer, something which Gloria would no doubt disapprove of. It also has the potential to skew the result towards more unpleasant agendas. 

Anyway, in spite of the fact that Gloria has been rather publicly found out using palabras soeces - rather like the possibly Crazy Lorita that was supposed to sing Alabaré, Alabaré and instead mouthed Que perra es mi amiga - I do still think she can perform a public service as an often lone voice here against the notion that political change (e.g. a redistribution of state power) can deliver a full package of solutions. 

I constantly aver that the deeper problems of this nation are cultural not political. What the country surely needs is not to much to dismiss Gloria's 'propaganda’ outright, but to develop a citizenry that can see through it in such a way that they can find their way through - intellectually - to the middle way on their own, at least when necessary. 

So, hard though it might be for me to admit, in some ways we might actually need the partiality of unmistakeable dogmatists. 

And here in Latin America it is especially handy when the right appears to be offering its own alternative to leftist universalism, instead of adopting a position which keeps its head below the parapet or seems otherwise grounded solely in vested interests and selfishness.

Unfortunately however, Gloria appears to have wound up in much same situation as this bird...

Thursday, September 22, 2016


Fresh off their BREXIT success, 375 'top' scientists have warned the masses not to vote for Trump. 

As Einstein probably didn't say, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. 

Exhbition (2013)

A slice of London life from Joanna Hogg, but more of the negative sort of nostalgic experience for us.

We ended up ticking off all the background peculiarities we's almost forgotten and which had once seemed ever-present parts of the panorama: pneumatic drilling, leftover Xmas prezzies like scented candles, poncy estate agents, scaffolding and scaffolders, cramped lifts, internal intercoms, venetian blinds down during the daytime, radiators, duvets, sash windows, tiny tables packed with framed family pics, etc. etc.

And that worrying sense that only a city like London could provide status to such obviously useless people.

Free Movement of People

Liberal cosmopolitans, amongst whose number I suppose I should include myself, tend to warm to the idea of free movement. People should be permitted to live and work where they choose, shouldn't they? If I thought anything different I'd be open to the charge of humungous hypocrisy. the context of the EU, the theory faces some of the same headwinds in practice as the single currency. If the situation on the ground - opportunity, growth, working conditions, benefits etc. - varies between member states, and there is only a semblance of central control, then some sort of political backlash from the 'natives' (in GB's case largely former Labour voters) is almost inevitable. 


The USA’s status as the most religious nation in the West has numerous upshots, but one that perhaps goes less examined is its more marked tendency to muddle economics and politics with ethics. 

Hence the rather absurd inquiry as to whether society’s unfortunates are somehow morally superior or inferior than the norm still arises in many modern nations, but in none more so than gringolandia

If you are a Democrat it is fine to emphasise the relative highmindedness of the disadvantaged, as long as they are minorities of course; for if the downwardly-mobile are white, they are deplorable. And for the Republicans, well, we know how deplorable they tend to think the minorities are. 

To a slightly lesser extend, both blocks also tend to view the upwardly-mobile through ethically-tinted goggles. 

Rich people, poor people, middling people...we're all just people. Any political discourse which suggests that some of us are better or worse than the average owing to our socioeconomic status is plain phoney. 

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Bogotá Street Art

An album of arresting street art from the Colombian capital...

Street Art Bogotá

Mercado de Bazurto

Some pics taken on a recent wander around Cartagena's Mercado de Bazurto...

Mercado de Bazurto

Saturday, September 10, 2016

The C Word

The free market economy is the only economic system that has ever delivered prosperity to the masses. This is simply historical fact. To deny it is like denying evolution or the holocaust.

In much the same way I would tend to avoid holding a philosophical discussion with committed creationists, it is also pretty tiresome to debate politics or economics with people who won't start by acknowledging the implications of this basic premise.

Just take at GDP per capita in Western Europe in the 1000 years before 1700 and then in the roughly 300 years since. Prior to the industrial revolution the majority were living on the equivalent of $2 a day or less i.e. in extreme poverty. And there was no aid coming in from abroad.

I suppose we can tussle over the present day case of China, but the fact is that within the context of a single party state and the deeper culture, the Chinese Communist Party has liberalised its economy just enough to drag millions out of long-term poverty in a comparatively short space of time. 

Nevertheless, there are people out there  be they at the summit of the Catholic church or the UK Labour party  who more than occasionally use the term Capitalism as if it were wholly synonymous with the system of divided labour and free market exchange as described by Adam Smith.

And as the C word has obviously negative connotations in many quarters, this subterfuge of political vocabulary has enabled countless ideologues to unleash the inverse proposition that free market economics inherently create poverty, and not just sometimes, but always.

This is nothing less than a modern dressing up of the old Marxist fallacy that wealth creation is essentially a euphemism for poverty creation. 

Many still show a degree of intellectual caution by prefixing capitalism with 'unfettered', but post-2008 others have become more emboldened. 
(And when they plead that it's not all of capitalism, just the bad bits, it's a bit like listening to Trump attest that he didn't mean ALL Mexicans, when you sort of have to know that he did.)

Of course there are many aspects of modern capitalism that appear to reverse the historical thrust towards more equitable prosperity. Some of these may be under political control, others might not be. A good few may be more cultural or even geographical.

These structural problems within the unevenly globalised system present some of the most serious challenges we face in this century, but they do not represent any sort of justification for a full system reboot based on illiberal economic principles which have time and again been shown to fail, and yes, create poverty. 

In other words, if the game is rigged, it is our collective duty to attempt to un-rig it, not dig an old abandoned game out of the cupboard and brush the dust off it.

But the notion that it is liberal economic systems that create poverty per se persists, along with the parallel absurdity that free market is inherently a zero sum game. 

Many of those who espouse it have benefitted their entire lives from the material conditions and education that liberal systems provide, and yet still appear to peddle a discourse that appears to favour North Korea lite over any version of South Korea.

Here in Latin America generations of unscrupulous politicians and intellectuals have almost certainly denied the masses the prospect of real prosperity by turning them against the free market with the old chestnut about how they would be fabulously rich if they hadn't been robbed, first by the Portuguese and Spanish and then by the Gringos.

Hogwash of course  and it would be almost impossible to build a credible academic case for such a position using a balanced selection of historical sources.

Yet it is by transcending this rather callow sense of historical grievance that many other nations in the developing world, particularly in Asia, have adapted liberal economic principles to their own requirements and duly prospered.

Wednesday, September 07, 2016

The extremist bent...

Extremists always end up more in conflict with moderates on their own side than their fellow extremists on the other side. You see this with terror groups, guerrilla movements, even Corbynites in the British Labour party today.

Extremists’ goals fall into two categories. The essentially unachievable (the larger of the two) and the might-be-achievable-with-a-bit-of-compromise sort.

Moderates are habitually blamed for the non-achievement of the non-achievable goals, but the real source of conflict comes from extremist fear that moderates might actually be capable of achieving some of their more achievable goals.

So all forms of compromise are thoroughly stigmatised and in some cases extremists work hard to derail initiatives that might deliver some of the results they have claimed to hanker after.

In Spain for example, ETA intensified their terror campaign once non-violent nationalists had started working with the central socialist government to grant significant autonomy to the Basque region.

When Corbynites refer to neoliberalism, one might be forgiven for thinking they are referring to a a virulent strain of liberalism which has taken hold at the opposite end of the political spectrum, but in fact they are referring to all forms of classical liberalism, especially those that occupy the moderate zone of said spectrum.

Their intention is to vilify all forms of private initiative and indeed the very notion that social and economic progress can be trusted to anyone but politicians of their own ilk.

Tuesday, September 06, 2016


A couple more thoughts on the ultimately fairly dreadful Ixcanul

This was the second film we've watched in a week which featured the on-screen slitting of an animal's throat. It's something I'd always struggle to approve of, but under some circumstances I can see how an actual death can be shot in such a way that the director doesn't seem to be seeking a short-cut to authenticity. 

If Ixcanul had featured a cast of non-professional actors, full-on hillbilly indigenes of the type represented in the movie, then it might perhaps have 'earned' that scene, but instead, given the mood of inauthenticity that was already taking hold, it further soured my relationship with the narrative. 

But the most glaring failure of this film was in the way it handled stereotypes. There are two rather obviously wrong ways to do this. A) pepper your story with a set of some of the most simplistic, non-nuanced, non-ironic versions of the prevalent ones. Or B) pepper it with clusmy inversions of the latter, which ultimately has broadly the same effect. In this way subverting stereotypes can end up reinforcing them. But Ixcanul just stuck to plan A. 

As an Englishman I could make a film about French people in which all the men were pseudo intellectuals who are deluded about their prowess in the bedroom and generally don't bathe a lot. There are ways I could get away with this. It could be done by way of comedy or perhaps it might be achieved by making it clear to the audience that I understand that I am poking fun at a minority, and even at my own xenophobic attitudes along the way. But Ixacanul's representation of Mayan stereotypes ended up being about as subtle as Jimmy Morales's Negrito Pitaya. (Viz the scene where Maria appears to be trying to get it on with a tree.) 

Similarly if I took off to Louisiana to make a movie about the African American underclass there and all of my characters were crudely-drawn stereotypes, questions would surely be asked. It wouldn’t make much of a difference if my honest intention had been to draw attention to social issues, if right wing white people could use the material to feed their prejudices without any kind of cognitive dissonance. If an outsider portrays a minority within a minority as if it were the majority, then he or she is doing that minority a massive disservice. 

How could anyone unfamiliar with this country not be inclined to conclude that the lifestyles and mentalites of the protagonists of Ixacanul are broadly universal within the country's Mayan community? 

The scene where El Pepe explains to Maria why he wants to go to the USA could have formed part of a Trump campaign infomercial, entitled 'They don't send us their best people!' 

It matters little that the film's intended target audience can be assumed to be Democrats, because that scene would work in an equally if not more powerful way for those of a wide-eyed Republican bent as well.

Sunday, September 04, 2016

Guatemala: The Ground Rules (4)

Here 'lights are on but nobody's home' all too easily becomes 'lights are off but everybody's home'. 


What an absurd little film this is. Just suppose someone had decided to make a movie about a comparatively underdeveloped subculture within north american society,  say a tale of African American life in Louisiana directed by a non African American, which pandered to every available stereotype. It would be booed at every screening rather than held up as a darling of the festival circuit or indeed submitted as Oscar bait. 

On so many levels Ixcanul is a classic example of the Indie film gaze, a jāgerbomb of otherness for a certain type of first world audience. 

This is Guatemala as inframundo. Rampaging poisonous snakes, unadulterated unmodernity, people talking about cars as if they’ve never seen one, no TV, no cellphones, no Internet, no real knowledge of the world outsude this artificially represented bubble. The young men are drunken wasters, the young girls are cójelonas, their elders helpless and ignorant within Ladino society. 

This is no showcase of Mayan culture; it is a snow-globed version of it that sits somewhere between patronising and offensive. I can just imagine the conversation I’d have been forced to have with my mother if she had seen that film or even a trailer. 

And so much of all this is so transparently phoney. 

One can start with the phoney remoteness. How many Cakchiquel speakers living along the Intermericana corridor actually exist like this? Certainly not the two female leads who hail from Santa Maria de Jesús,  and yet have been paraded around European film festivals like exotic specimens in much the same way that returning conquistadors used to parade the indios they'd picked up on the other side of the Atlantic. 

But this is par for the course for serious films about Guatemala. We are back in the world of El Norte, except that 30 years haven't passed and there's no sense of humour on display. 

One can recall that even the blurb for Looking for Palladin (which has sunk without trace) begins ‘in a remote place...’. 

The scenario here might better have been handled as a fly-on-the-wall mocumentary, because creatively little was done to present us with believable fictional characters with a truthful individuality of their own. I wanted to see behind the overblown otherness and the stock situations, but there was never much of an opening. 

Guatemalan cinema will have come of age when it doesn’t feel the need to dress itself up in this sort of outlandish garb to gain international recognition. 

It’s the old McOndo posing as Macondo trope: e.g. López Bruni posing as a Mayan sacerdote whilst performing bizarre pagan rituals for the benefit of Stephen Fry’s camera crew and then taking them out for a night of partying and rock music in Antigua off camera. The latter would have made more entertaining, more truthful television. 

Thursday, September 01, 2016

17th Century Corruption

Such is the habitually moralistic tone of post-2008 social and political commentary that it is now basically taken for granted that behavious that are ethically dubious for individuals are also collectively wrong. And crucially, that even when beneficial to unscrupulous individuals, they are inevitably deleterious to society as a whole.

In Latin America we see these notions driving the various anti-corruption movements. Latin Americans look around and conclude that corruption is largely responsible for their relative lack of development compared to say the US or the UK.

Yet just the other day I came across this reference in Samuel Pepys's diary to some advice his patron Lord Montagu had given him as he began his new post in government.

"In general speaking that it was not the salary of any place that did make a man rich, but the opportunity of getting money while he is in the place".

The London of 1660 was the world's largest and fastest-growing commercial centre. Yet this kind of attitude to graft was highly prevalent and could hardly be said to be seriously shackling the developmental potential of seventeenth century British society.

Friday, August 26, 2016


Finding it strangely irksome that some Guatemalan media (e.g. El Periódico) still refer to Mexico City using its old title of 'Distrito Federal'. It just seems to highlight the clumsiness and carelessness of much of what passes for journalism in this country. Between the hacks writing the articles and their editors, there ought to be someone  in the office informed enough to correct this. 

We're not talking about some distant foreign metropolis - this is the nearest 'alpha' global city. I then get annoyed with myself for getting so anal about these small details, but my first proper job after university was in magazine publishing and was driven hard by people whose attention to detail was single-minded to the point of fanatical.

Thursday, August 18, 2016


I have never really approved of austerity. In the UK at least it was implemented in a way that tried to disguise an ideological urge as a practical need. It is thus both ironic and appropriate that the Cameron-Osborne regime was ultimately undone by Brexiters who, with varying success, went about dressing up their baser instincts as a highminded crusade.

Anyway, I am fairly sure the British economy would have done better under the sort of economic policies implemented by Obama in the wake of the great crash.

It should be noted that here in Latin America the two nations undergoing the most stringent austerity regimes are Venezuela and Cuba, ostensibly the most socialist. It's a bit of a dance of death for this pair now, as one sinks to new depths the other has to adjust and fall with it.

A month ago President Castro told the Cuban National Assembly that growth had fallen from 4.7% to just 1% in the past year and that big cuts would be required to turn things around, including a reduction in energy consumption of 6% and fuel consumption by 28%, plus fewer imports. The government would also reduce credit and liquidity across the state sector i.e. most of the economy.

Bound to work.

The less said about Venezuela the better.

Perhaps austerity has been widely adopted as the appropriate corrective to perceived socialist-induced mayhem, which is why it didn't happen in the USA and why in Latin America it has to be done by socialists themselves - because the people don't have so many opportunities to vote them out.

One thing that can be said about ideological conservatives is that they are less prone to blaim the failures of their boneheaded policies on the likes of 'exploiters, manipulators, speculators and opportunists' along Cuban and Venezuelan lines.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Not sending their best...

This one has been doing the rounds...

"They’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you...They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us"  > The Donald. 

Wednesday, August 03, 2016

Progress is NEVER inevitable...

One of the most obvious errors regularly committed by right wing thinkers of the libertarian sort is the assumption that ‘free’ markets inevitably lead to prosperity. If they did, they would not be free at all, would they? 

This is exactly the kind of teleological thinking these sophists mock the likes of Marx for. Yet free markets no more lead to inevitable economic progress than natural selection leads to intelligent life. 

Free markets are in fact just as prone to errors, to marching up cul-de-sacs as Nature is. There might be a greater underlying probability of positive consequences over negative ones, but the term free by its very nature implies that you get some sort of mixture of the two. 

It goes without saying too that nature's system for correcting mistakes is generally not considered apt for economic predicaments. So, this is why we have governments. 

Tuesday, August 02, 2016

Gold Star Trap

So Donald took the bait, as they must have known he would. 

This has all the hallmarks of a deliberate ruse and falling for it so publicly has already cost Trump 8 points according to a CNN poll released today. 

There's no doubt that the Democrats know that they can keep setting these booby traps and the GOP candidate will surely keep triggering them, but it's hard to imagine that they have a better ambush device up their sleeve than Mr and Mrs Khan. 

It's a shame in a way, because some swing voters may have forgotten what a total idiot he has just made of himself come November. 

In truth, Obamas aside, almost all the headline speakers at the DNC, especially all the various Clintons, were lacklustre, but this didn't matter so much, because the job of composing the underlying, almost subliminal message was handled with real aplomb. 

Crucially the Democratic strategists have demonstrated an understanding that zombies, once turned, cannot easily be turned back into ordinary human beings capable of generally independent, non-herd-like ratiocination, at least not until someone comes up with a general cure. 

So, as a bullet to the head is politically non-viable, the only way to handle the likes of Trump zombies and Brexit zombies is to confuse and slacken them a bit by presenting as a lure some alternative basic impulses for them to slaver over. 

So the plan unveiled in Philadelphia was to take all these newly-turned Trump zombies and see if they could be retro-fitted into either 'Patriotism' or 'Praise the Lord' zombies: the sort that have been around a lot longer in US politics, but never quite threatened a complete apocalypse. It may well work. 

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Reassuringly expensive?

There are various obvious reasons why goods and services in La Antigua can sometimes appear to be more expensive than they ought to be. 

One of the most obvious reasons is the general over-exploitation of opportunity relative to demand. So, in restaurants which are largely empty almost every day of the week, you pay for all the people who aren't dining with you. 

The second reason is more subtle, but equally prevalent. This is a pricing system in which quetzales are disguised as dollars. In this way businesses enjoying developing world rents and overheads charge developed world prices and pocket the difference. 

This has the effect of creating a disguised de facto dual currency system along the lines of the one that operates in Cuba, with its convertible pesos pegged to the dollar and its moneda nacional, which is what ordinary Cubans are paid in. It is utterly deplorable because it extends the gap between the living standards of the masses and those of the middle classes and thus makes it harder to breach, which in turn has a negative developmental effect on the country as a whole. 

The worst offenders are big, foreign-owned chains like Domino's and McDonald's, but it appears to be going on down at the level of supposedly 'ethical' retail too. 

El Panorama is bookended by a pair of farmers' market-style emporia which take place on Saturdays. There is nothing wrong with these in principle I have to say. Indeed we get our eggs (and more occasionally gallina criolla) from this outfit, which is run out of a small finca on the outskirts of town by a Chapin couple and their product is both superior in quality and competitive in terms of price compared to anything we have been able to source elsewhere. 

However, you don't have to browse these markets for long before you get a glimpse of something a bit less admirable - foreigners selling locally-produced goods to other foreigners at premium prices. The pretext is usually 'ethical consumption' (organic greens etc.) but the reality is actually morally questionable, because this trade is diverting income away from the local economy in a completely unnecessary manner. 

It's not just because people who are too snooty or too lazy to source criollo produce in the mercado municipal are being siphoned off into this alternative market, it is also because comestibles are being sold at gringo prices, but you can be damn sure the producers are predominantly local and being paid at local rates. Why would you come here to Guatemala to buy honey from a retired old lady from Texas or Bavaria?

These profits may find their way back into the local economy by other means, but the immediate effect is to remove a potential source of income from locals who grow and sell some of the best fresh produce in the world.  

And by way of a side effect it also encourages inveterate snobs : whom I would define as individuals with a firm idea of what sort of things other people ought to want. These people are actually inveterate amateur snobs, because they look down on those of of their peers who shop at Walmart and Costco in Guatemala City, yet what they do is in some ways worse. 


I know that for many people not having all the things they want, like right now, is a source of anxiety, yet the longer I live in Guatemala the more readily I indulge in the delectations of delayed satisfaction. 

I see people from abroad coming and going, and their comings and goings bookended in the main by buying a lot of stuff and then selling a lot of stuff. In fact a lot of them seem to spend time selling stuff in the interim because they bought it and then quickly found they didn't need it. There are at least three local Facebook groups now mediating this endless shuffle. 

We have been living in a half-finished house for a couple of years now and it turns out that this somewhat fractionary existence has come to feel like its own source of consummation, a pleasingly tolerable sufficiency rather than any kind of deficiency. 

I recently read what I discovered was a truly insightful piece by Adam Phillips on Marcel Proust, whose In Search Of Lost Time can be taken a book about 'the unexpected gifts of time' as well as a meditation on how the objects of our desire can sustain us by not satisfying us.

It contains the following sentence which would strike horror into the hearts of the sellers of self-help tomes in airports the world over..

The desire to make your dreams come true is a fatal misunderstanding. You have to find something you really want to do and find ways of not doing it. 

I have always been quite adept at wasting time, but it wasn't until I properly settled here that I discovered how lastingly satisfying a lifestyle it might underpin.  

In my former life, being called a lightweight would have seemed the most trenchant of taunts, but the comparative lightness of being here is anything but unbearable. 

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Peron and his example...

There’s definitely a view out there - in 18th century terms a Jacobin one compared to my own more Whiggish perspective - that economic freedom is necessarily exploitative until the material bases of society have been appropriately ‘socialised’.

This is a point of view that, even when confronted with the developmental disparities between North and South Korea, insists that rising tides NEVER lift all boats. 

Perhaps in order to better appreciate how prosperity waxes in developing nations, it is instructive to look at what happens when the process shifts into reverse. 

Argentina was wealthier than France and Germany as WWI got under way: today it is poorer than Mexico. As far as I am aware no other modern nation has done the first to third world descent.

Long before a son of that land became the region’s long term poster boy for hardcore communist ideals, Argentina had, in the person of Juan Perón, an autocrat who bears resemblance to modern populists like Donald Trump. 

There are many different reasons for Argentina’s decline, but Perón is as good place as any to start the inquiry. His was a personal autocracy that mobilised the ‘dispossessed’ and other malcontents, right wing politics in the garb of the left which converted the will of the people into the power and inefficiency of the state, and featured a rigorously anti-trade economic nationalism paired with vigorous bouts of foreigner baiting and blaming. 

Today it is the example of Perón not of Guevara that presents the most clear and present danger to our democratic freedoms.

El Engaño Populista (3)

Parts of the book are very well written and others seemingly a bit less so. 

In public Gloria has an eloquence that Axel lacks. But then I am a fair scribbler, but an appalling public speaker. 

So, who wrote the good bits? Axel seems to have the track record as a published polemicist, but Gloria an an unusual agility of mind, and perhaps also the greater passion. 


Cambridge is a self-consciously elite institution: as such, often a difficult mirror to hold oneself up to. 

Some undergrads arrive with massive chips, others with massive inverse chips. 

Many of those with chips seemed to swap them for inverse chips pretty quickly. But others hold on and end up leaving the university even chippier, having spent three years griping about all the elitism. 

One friend of mine at Girton (very much on the inversely-chippy extreme of the spectrum) compared this to the barbarians turning up in Rome and moaning about how everyone speaks Latin. 

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Navel Gazing

It's no big secret that the French also think they live in the greatest nation on earth. They do tend to drop the hint every now and again, but at least they don't bang on about it so boorishly as the Yanks. And you might also add that they make navel gazing look like an intellectually worthy activity.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Bros forever?

The bromance between Donald and Vladimir is ever more intriguing. If and when they finally sit down face to face, it could go pear-shaped fast along Hitler-Franco lines...

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Diverse yet homogenous

I came across a reference in the Sunday Times today to some research done by Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam - which he himself attempted to suppress - which indicates that societies with lower levels of immigration are happier. 

What intrigues me about many of the countries of Central America and the Spanish Caribbean is that they are extremely diverse, at least in terms of ancestry; self-consciously so. Puerto Rico is said to have the world's most extensive mix of human genes from different continents. 

These countries also feature consistently near the top of global 'happiness' surveys, such as they are. And this might be because they are having their cake and eating it: widespread, obvious miscegenation, and yet also a palpable sense of homogeneity.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

El Engaño Populista (2)

Disclaimer: this is not a full review. Instead it is part of an on-going dialogue with the text of the book as I make my way through it. 

I write this whilst still immersed in chapter one. I am of the age whereby by the time I get to the end a particular tome, many of the useful impressions I might have made will have taken a trip down the rio Lethe, so there is no better time than now to address them. 

It's also quite likely that I may have developed alternative preoccupations at that stage, or indeed find myself lacking in the time to sit down and plot out a more thorough report. 

To begin with, a few words on the front cover, which features a somewhat fractional selection of populists past and present, and perhaps future. That two of them are no longer around and one at the top of the pile is at best a sort of political zombie, leads one to suspect that the book may involve some bayonetting of corpses. 

It occurred to me that an interesting thought experiment might involve swapping out some of these faces with others from a more international crowd of suspects: Palin, Schwarzenegger, Farage, Le Pen, Erdoğan, Bin Laden even. At what stage does the very notion of populism start to lose precision as the faces in the montage change? 

It is analytically simpler to assume that all the things you don't like in political thought and action are really just manifestations of the same phenomenon. Let's face it, we are all tempted to do this. So here we have a pair of Latin American political thinkers, both committed libertarians and committed anti-populists, who slip straight into the assumption that all populists are idolaters of intervention and the swollen state. 

Some surely are, especially in their chosen Latin American context, but you only have to pan out a bit to take in gringolandia and you find populists dis-informing on the basis of what is supposed to be a close reading of Ayn Rand or perhaps just a hagiographic take on Adam Smith. 

Across the pond in the U.K. we have, regretably, witnessed a disparate group of politicians with some sort of recognisably populist instinct attempting to exploit an amorphuous need for change in some sections of the population. 

The Brexit referendum presented them with a once in a lifetime opportunity and they duly tricked many people into coming out to vote on issues that were only indirectly related to Britain's EU membership. 

The political establishment over there seems dumfounded but is standing firm (so far) on the notion that 'the will of the people must be respected'. So, people voted for some sort of change, but the change they will actually get isn't the one they really wanted, but the political elite now feels obligated to give it to them anyway. 

An analogous engaño beckons for Trump's eventual voters. 

Many have remarked that the RNC and Trump's acceptance speech was 'scary' with the inevitable comparisons with the Nazis. Yet when the Third Reich analogy is dredged out, it usually comes with the implication that the subject of this supposed affinity between now and 30s Germany is deeply unpleasant, but not that deeply unpleasant. 

Yet in at least one important respect, Trump's performace in Cleveland last night should be taken as 'scarier' than anything that happened 80 years ago. When Hitler stood up and spoke it did not require a panel of CNN punters like Van Jones to point out that his message was 'relentlessly dark'. The Nazis were a nihilistic death cult and knew it, and when Hitler came to power he delivered on this election promises, and then some. 

What makes the spectacle of the Donald playing to his adoring public so disturbing is the fact that so many cannot see that they are tapping into the darkness. 

So, comparisons between contemporary populist rhetoric and twentieth century totalitarian discourse will only take us so far. There's a twisted utopian vision behind the Bolsheviks, the Nazis and ISIS which is of a different order of magnitude compared to the nostalgic hooey that drives Trump's 'Make America Great Again' or Farage's 'Take Back Control'. (Fidel is I suppose an interesting hybrid case, both throw-back and throw-forward, straddling as he does the former era of ideological purity and the new one of saying any old thing to acquire and then hold on to power.) 

Nevertheless, the extremists of the last century coined the notion of the 'big lie' and thus bequeathed to us the modern system of political mendacity. The polarities which gave us the Spanish Civil War, WWII and then the Cold War appeared, albeit briefly, to have been contained, but this involved trade-offs across the board, and the populists have had some noted successes around the globe when they suggest that all types of compromise are a form of corruption. 

The end result is a hollowing out of the political spectrum: in Britain and elsewhere amongst so-called mature democracies, a collapse of the centre; in Guatemala the demise of the business-friendly, oligarchal figurehead. 

This has freed up the populists to adopt a scattershot platform borrowing positions and methodologies from the old extremes of Left and Right and adding their own nationalist (and increasingly xenophobic ) inflections. The end result is a form of politics which presents itself as post-compromise, post-trade-off, but of course in reality, there are always compromises and trade-offs. 

Just this morning I was listening to a discussion on the BBC World Service about how one might go about changing the attitude and behaviour of bankers. This is a bit like the problem of changing mentalities within any given society, but in microcosm. (In theory it should make the bigger problem easier to grasp, though when my wife compares changing the mentalities of her own family to changing those of the country as a whole, it actually makes the problem seen even more intractable!) 

Anyway, regulation has been tried, but this seems to involve ticking boxes in an environment where there is always another box or two you haven't thought about, so the preferred option to giving bankers an ever expanding list of things you'd like them not to do, is to make them able to instictively behave ethically in the first place. 

There still seems to be a system of incentives that will combine to undermine this approach, such as when the upside goes to the bankers, but any potential downside falls on society as a whole. Up until now the only solution to this seemed to be to allow the banks to fail, so that the consequences of perverse risk taking could be properly felt, but there has also been a more left-field suggestion of late: the proposition that we make senior bankers personally responsible for their investment decisions. 

This got me thinking how interesting it would be if we could somehow find a way of making our politicians personally liable for those of their promises that have financial implications for the state as a whole. 

Bankers do seem like a hard enough nut to crack first. Meanwhile, the problem of prevaling mentalities in Guatemala has always seemed to be one that game theorists should be allowed to have a crack at, though I think they would be gobsmacked at just how many people here appear to play the game in a way that is conspicuously against their rational self-interest. 

Axel Kaiser and Gloria Álvarez declaim their 'profound faith' in the ability of a committed minority to bring about change. This makes me feel a bit old, frankly. But as I noted in a post earlier in the week, my glass is not always half-empty. So while there seem to be deep historical and demographic factors in this nation that would discourage overt optimism, the fact that many different societies around the Americas have found widely differing historical pathways towards broadly the same endemic political malady suggests that the solution might also be more generic than one might initially anticipate. 

I've been thinking too how Michael Reid's Forgotten Continent: The Battle for Latin America's Soul could make an interesting companion piece to El Engaño Populista

Reid is very much the outsider looking in, whereas Álvarez and Kaiser are clearly addressing an audience of insiders, and thus present their polemic from the outset as the case for not emigrating.  

As an emigrant myself, one that has in some ways travelled in the opposite direction to the one suggested in the preface here, I am aware that exile is a deliberate expulsion from the body politic and that the voluntary form is no less so. This book catches me at a moment when I have been feeling simultaneously more entangled and yet also painfully cut off from the mess that populist misinformation has made of my native land's venerable political system. 

It also features one minor misconception that I will pick up on before ending this first page of notes. It comes in the same context of grappling with what kinds of change may or may not be politically possible, and takes the form of a logical statement along the lines of...IF Marx thought history was predetermined AND we all know what a wong'un he was THEN it stands to reason that we are free to remake the world as we see fit. 

Trouble is, this is a misrepresentation of Marx, or at least a compression of his thinking.  Like almost everyone else, he was deeply conflicted on this matter and tried to hedge his bets. He pilfered a teleological view of history from Hegel whereby all the hurly-burly at the sharp end of politics was in a sense determined by the deeper structural arrangements of economic and social relations and their inherent momentum. 

When he was in a rather coldly analytical (i.e. German) state of mind, such as when he wrote Das Kapital, it did apparently seem to him that only dialectical processes in this cultural undercarriage could bring about real change. But when he palled up with Engels and wrote The Communist Party Manifesto he seemed to be enthusiastically shouting out an alternative model where individual and collective action would force history's hand. 

Any modern professional historian not tied to the grand narratives of yesteryear, knows that neither of these perspectives is ever going to give you a complete explanation, and that beyond human beings and the distinct cultures they inhabit, random processes also present both barriers and gateways. 

One last thing for now. I am something of a techno-optimist in a state of apostasy. So when Álvarez and Kaiser assert that 'disinformation is less and less costly to combat' my soul aches, and I recall all the pieces I have read recently about Internet echo chambers and social media filter bubbles. 

PD: the author of the prologue, Carlos Rodríguez Braun, makes a reference to a quip by Churchil that I felt obliged to google. 

It took me a while to locate it and I am not sure it sheds a particularly positive light on the great man's understanding of entomology, but it seems he did compare communists to white ants or termites. The way Rodríguez Braun embelishes the remark however, it comes out that socialists are in effect termites who think they are bees. 

This in turn made me wonder if we can think of populists as termites who want everyone else to think they are bees, while knowing full well they are termites.