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. 


Thursday, July 21, 2016

Guatemala: The Ground Rules (3)

One of the key lessons I have learned over the years here in Central America is that a gradualist approach pays dividends. 

You can usually tell the new arrivals from the so-called developed world. They are the ones that emanate a kind of residual momentum about them; the ones who still feel that if you lack something, now is always the best time to fill that need. 

But understanding that the best option is not always concurrently available 
— alongside all those not so great or plain mediocre choices  can be an important life skill here. In Guatemala, good things do eventually come to those who wait. 

Notes from inside the donut (1)

The misanthropic frisson of centrist politics right now comes from being able to share the hate pretty evenly between Left and Right. i.e.

The trouble is with socialism, which resembles a form of mental illness more than it does a philosophy. Socialists get bees in their bonnets. And because they chronically lack any critical faculty to examine and evaluate their ideas, and because they are pathologically unwilling to consider the opinions of others, and most of all, because socialism is a mindset that regards the individual — and his rights — as insignificant, compared to whatever the socialist believes the group needs, terrible, terrible things happen when socialists acquire power.

L. Neil Smith in Cambodian Road Trip. 

El Engaño Populista (1)

@crazyglorita and @axelkaiser promoting their new polemic in LAG's Parque Central. (No point in me commenting further until I have read it!)

Here Gloria explains how the populist politician and his or her victims share the mentalities of both participants in an abusive relationship. 

Forces of Nature

So tonight V and I watched part three of Brian Cox and his Forces of Nature

These programmes have represented some of the most televisually and educationally stunning content I have ever come across, but not always in the most joined up of ways.

I've wondered whether the order was fixed when the scripts were submitted, because the first episode was the most coherent. If the series had kicked off with Monday's third installment, I think it might have struggled to pick up an audience.

In truth the second half was profound and quite gripping, but the earlier sections had been a bit nerdy and Cox's efforts to descibe complex chemistry always seems to involve him waving his arms around and contorting his fingers in apparent bloody-minded determination not to have to resort to anything so Open University as a diagram.

In the end the moth (and its accompanying flame) came good as the gelling agent or recurring motif, but not quite as successfully as the snowflake in episode one, and some of the beautiful National Geographic-style digressions seemed just that, slightly indulgent asides without the obvious payload of a serious point delivered unequivocally at the end of each sequence.

Smothering his habitual smirk, the Professor finished with the observation that our common ancestor, our maker even, is the planet itself. This powerful conclusion felt non-pithy and well earned, and was rather cheekily illustrated by a moth tiptoeing over what looks like a valuable early edition of Milton. 

In fact the one time in the series Cox has resorted to a sort of diagram it muddied one of the profounder points he's just made in episode two: that the apparent forward motion of the fourth dimension of spacetime may just be an artifact of subjective experience. Or as he put it, 'all in our heads'. The diagram however showed the sun and the planets objectively moving through four dimensions without any reference to an observer. 

Wednesday, July 20, 2016


If I were to critique / mock the Donald or the Boris in a manner which referenced their appearance, I doubt very much whether I'd face the same barrage of criticism should my chosen target instead have instead been Saint Jeremy. i.e. 'It doesn't matter that it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck...we need to get beyond's a sad reflection on modern politics' etc. etc. 
Well, believe it or not, the leader of Her Majesty's opposition has to be more than any old convenient host for a pay-load of policies.

The yanquis are coming...

When I was last in Havana back at the start of 2015 the prices of state-owned hotels already seemed to be rising in anticipation of the coming onslaught of greenback-waving rubberneckers. 

I ended up staying a couple of nights at a somewhat frayed little establishment in Vedado that caters for local and second tier international business guests. 

The other day I speculatively checked the place's website and discovered that one night will now set one back 250 euros, close to a 300% increase since February last year. 

Now this is pricey indeed for a hotel where running water appears to be something of a rarity. 

The price hike seems to be quite widespread. And it is a great shame, because the grand old hotels of Havana  the Inglaterra, the Nacional, the Raquel, the Florida et al.  have been quite an experience during their underclocked three star communist epilogue.  

A little pricey, but no so much to deter the ageing French socialistes and rugged Russian middle orders  and, in the snow-laden months, the Canucks — who contributed so much to the city's atmosphere since the wall came down and Cuba itself almost collapsed shortly afterwards. 

Out of sheer greed the regime is quite possibly going to deplete this tried and tested source of demand in favour of a newer, richer influx who, once the thrill of the gawp has gone, may not find the place quite to their exacting standards. And their very presence will have spoiled much of what made this crumbly old city so appealing. 

UPDATE: Soon, they'll be chanting 'y'all have a nice day now...'. Grim. 

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Half Full / Half Empty

I suppose that on most days my outlook bears some resemblance to the existential status of one notoriously superpositional kitty.  

To wit, until someone opens my box, metaphorically speaking, I am never quite sure if my glass is half full or half empty.

It's as if I cannot decide which elcadejo I habitually inhabit: the nice one which follows people home to make sure they get back safely, or the sociopathic w%&?er. 

Anyway, I did one of these tests of FB today, presumably in my unboxed state, and have ended up feeling just a tad dull...

Tom Hiddleston

Practically the perfect choice to play your bog standard slippery outsider, yet also irreducibly posh.

Together these traits make him both so right and yet so wrong for two of his most notable recent roles: Jonathan Pine in The Night Manager and Dr Laing in High Rise.

American casting directors might be forgiven for an imperfect grasp of our class system, but these two productions were properly British, so the selection of leading man had to have been made on the grounds that his dazzling interloper charm outweighed his less appropriate aura of upper-crustiness...

Sunday, July 17, 2016

In the wake of modernity...

The War on Terror has never more clearly been a war on the mentalities that modernity wishes to leave behind. 

The trouble is that modernity, in the form of globalisation, is spawning ever more of these mentalities behind it - often in a particularly malignant hybrid form - even as it surges on. 

Anyone who thinks that modernity with smoother edges will somehow solve this problem is clearly delusional.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Location, location...

Been racking my brains all morning to come up with an equivalent combination of public space and public event in Europe which would have lent itself to this kind of atrocity....and I can't. The Americans are going completely hysterical, but how many of their major cities celebrate July 4 on a street like this? 

However primitive the methodology might appear, somebody picked this location and thought the desired carnage through very thoroughly. 

Importantly, it would have been fairly easy to prevent too. How did the lorry breach whatever barrier had been put up to divert vehicular traffic from the Promenade? 

Been there...

There is nothing wrong at all with focusing on an issue that matters to you.

Yet I am surely not alone in having noticed that many of the people that get the hump when some idiot screeches ¨all lives matter!¨ are the same ones who themselves express outrage when Facebook permits users to shade their profile picture with one particular flag and not the flag of say, every other country that recently experienced a terror attack.

I'm against this sort of ill-conceived relativism wherever it occurs, but having said that, I did notice that American politicians were not quite falling over themselves to declare a state of war after the recent attack in Baghdad. Maybe in that instance the belicose urge was offset by voices whispering ¨been there, done that¨. 

La Antigua's mendicants by - furry - proxy

I have a bookmarks folder on my Macbook entitled ANIMAL PARASITES. 

Within are the URLs of the - so far - 27 entities operating in and around LAG with a Facebook page promoting activities such as the rescue, adoption, curing, nourishing and neutering of animals, principally cats and dogs. 

27. I very much doubt there are a similar number of local projects with a more humanistic remit. I also doubt whether the majority are formally registered as charities or NGOs; but the urgent plea for donations is common to all. 

Residents of this city will be well aware of the deadbeats who dress up as bomberos (firemen-paramedics) and stand on street corners or even wander around the outer neighbourhoods with their collection boxes, but in some ways this burgeoning animal welfare scam is the bigger one. 

Now the parasites have acquired some barnacles of their own: scroungers that post pictures of supposedly needy creatures to the Facebook pages of the established organisations, usually accompanied by text written in ersatz uneducated Spanish (see example below). 

A little bit of legwork has revealed that many of these emanate from aliases belonging to a small group of individuals who,  in their non-pseudonym profiles, look anything but like the sort of person who would spell 'apoyo' as 'apollo' or 'concentrado' as 'consentrado'. etc. 

There are of course many street dogs and street cats in Guatemala that could benefit from a more conscientious culture. But 'charitable' activity on this scale and on this one issue is deeply suspicious. 

It used to be that the archetypal talentless foreigner washed up in LAG would open a bar or restaurant. Now bogus NGOs seem to be the preferred way of living off other people's generosity, with the animal welfare / social media combination in particular seen as the ideal way to manipulate an income here. 

In a number of cases they have co-opted an avaricious local vet into their scheme. Together they clean up with the medicines and minor operations involved in the adoption process in much the same way that restaurants do with their wine lists. 

One of the most visible of these organisations is run by a couple that had to flee the US and were then turfed out of Belize because its male component had been convicted for grooming a minor (exposed on US TV) and banned from using the Internet. 

As with many others, animals without apparent owners have become the substrate for a life in exile. 

Some of the second-tier mendicants by proxy appear to be keeping a substantial pack of malnourished animals in a state of utter squalor while they cynically appeal for outside assistance. In the UK these people would already have been investigated by the RSPCA. 

Yet consider this: 85% of the world's 1bn dogs are 'village dogs': canines that scavenge a life, often very successfully, from within human communities in the developing world. The notion that each and every one of these is in urgent need of adoption into a caring, affluent domestic environment is both spurious and vaguely hegemonic. 

Saturday, July 09, 2016

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

So, this is where we find ourselves...

Populism triumphs by telling barefaced lies to large sections of the population that have become vulnerable to such mendacity through bitter disenchantment with existing social and political power arrangements.

In the past couple of decades it has become the scourge of the developing world, particularly Latin America, where it undermines or infiltrates traditional two party arrangements based on class identity, borrowing from the rhetoric of both and adding its own nationalistic hyperbole that resonates within communities disconcerted by globalised neoliberalism. 

Now it has taken hold in the so-called rich world, thanks in no small part to the burgeoning wealth disparities within it worthy of the under-developed rich-poor world. 

The ideological extremists of the last century taught us that it was ultimately handier to tell big lies than little ones. Crucially however, they then acted as if they had come to believe many of their own audacious whoppers. 

Not so with the modern demagogic populists. Whether or not Trump's primary audience believes that there will soon be a big wall along the border paid for by Mexico, it is almost painfully obvious that HE does not believe it. Ditto Boris Johnson and the £350m that was going to be redirected to the NHS after Brexit. 

Populism has been most successful — and ultimately calamitous  in countries where the movement has been fronted by charismatic manipulators capable of transcending the political system which brought them to power. (Such as Hugo Chávez in Venezuela.) 

In Britain however, having engineered a political and constitutional crisis of historical magnitude, the populists have apparently lacked the courage of their lack of conviction; Boris in particular, looking, as one wit put it, like the dog that caught the car.

Meanwhile, the two main traditional parties have the appearance of rusty old hulks torpedoed beneath the water line. Both also seem far more concerned about patching themselves up than imaginatively engaging with the crisis unleashed by the cynical —  or some would say purist —  populist insurgents on their back-benches. 

It would appear that the current Conservative government will survive in some sort of reconfigured form, at least in the short term. Decisive leadership, of the sort the country now needs, is unlikely to result from this process. 

Indeed, murmering platitudes about 'the will of the people' it seems likely that our current political leadership-without-leaders will, out of a misplaced British sense of civic duty and a polite unwillingness to offend, proceed to consummate the catastrophe initiated by those irresponsible elements within who decided not to face up to the consequences of their words and actions.

It is highly likely that when we take into consideration both the younger demographic that didn't come out to vote in such large numbers and the growing number of people who are coming to realise just how badly they have been scammed (or at least abandonned by their scammers), 'the will of the people' is a dynamic phenomenon and there may well already be a small, underlying majority in favour of remaining in the EU, at least in terms of current opinion in a very fluid situation. 

Whatever happens now will set a dangerous precedent for our political system and leave roughly half the population with a sense of having been cheated by democracy. There is no hiding how damaging and dangerous this will be and how it will probably take at least a generation to fix, if at all. 

Dominic Lawson wrote in the Sunday Times this week that any failure to 'respect' the democratic will of the people, as expressed by the June 23rd plebiscite, would result in 'tanks on the streets'. Welcome to Venezuela.  

Those, like Lawson, with a long-term commitment to the abstract notion of Brexit before all the lies were deployed to bring it about, are showing signs of nervousness that only the irrevocable invocation of Article 50 will now dispel. 

They will have intuited that the ground is already shifting again, that the leaders of their movement are already dispersing, and that the bulk of Leave voters are just too old to come out and defy the (almost certainly metaphorical) tanks. 

If the Conservative government is likely to press on with the task of sailing into the storm out of fear of on-board mutiny should their new captain even suggest hauling the sails down, Parliament as a whole would probably favour turning around. 

Knowing that you will inevitably piss off half the country, it makes sense from a pragmatic perspective to elect piss off the half that is older, more used to being disappointed and losing momentum fast. 

Yet there's also a set of more high-minded arguments for disregarding the referendum result. Firstly, the moral one. Election fraud is usually taken to mean fiddly diddly at the polling station, but in this instance the chicanery and swindle took place at the level of the hustings and the basic propositions presented to the electorate. 

Secondly the constitutional and ideological objections. The referendum was called for highly expedient reasons which immediately posed an existential threat to the world's oldest parliamentary democracy. 

Some have tried to dress it up rather insincerely as a triumph of popular democracy, but these sort of consultations are actually a travesty of our age-old democratic process, as they expose us all to the dishonesty of demagogues. 

And, as I noted in a post earlier in the week, our parliamentary system has evolved to allow us to transcend our localised viewpoints —  to be more than the sum or our parts —  whereas these referenda pander to the sort of partial perspectives that the populists feed off. 

Anything other than prevarication is however unlikely in the short to medium term unless a return to normal service can be signalled via the calling of a general election.

In the meantime, Britain may itself become a mere sideshow in the hollowing out of western discourse: the emergence of the kind of 'donut politics' that results when the centre collapses as voters are drawn to the extremes. 

Across the pond Trump started with Mexicans, moved on to Muslims and now has Jews in his sights. The Brexit result suggests that nobody can afford to be complacent now about his chances of victory in November. (Anyone who wants to know what Trump really thinks about the uneducated proletariat should watch Anthony Baxter's 2011 documentary You've Been Trumped, which tracks the Donald's campaign to displace the 'horrible' plebs presenting a potential eye-sore around the fringes of his elite golf resort near Aberdeen.)

As well as giving a sense of renewed empowerment to our native xenophobes, the Brexit referendum result may further encourage insurgent politicians across the continent, which could mean that our own modest efforts to shore things up over the next couple of years are rendered irrelevant. 

The next big test would seem to be the French election in 2017. Spain's most recent stab at resolving its own political crisis —  a repeated general election which took place in the immediate aftermath of our referendum —  did seem to offer some cause for optimism as the populists failed to surge as expected. Perhaps the UK is already functioning, as Charlie Brooker puts it, as the world's leading cautionary tale

Nevertheless, populist engagement with ignorance and jingoism is a dynamic, catalytic process, creating ever greater shallowness and moronic disregard for facts wherever it operates. 

The more reticent, reasonable politicians of the centre have been written off as compromised and corrupt and the lessons of the last century —  the very rationale for open-minded, middle-of-the-road policies and complex, transnational institutions like the EU —  are rapidly being forgotten. 

That said, the hole in the middle of our donut may be as much opportunity as threat, and law-makers around the developed world urgently need to explore the potential for creating a new kind of knowledge-informed politics before things destabilise further.

Monday, July 04, 2016

Guatemala: The Ground Rules (2)

'Va a estar alegre'.


Guatemala: The Ground Rules (1)

Do something once and you will be expected to do it a second time.

Do it a second time and it will be a lifelong obligation. 

Friday, July 01, 2016

Flight to the far edges...

There is a flight from the centre towards the far left and the far right. 

Those involved in the flight to the left - Sanders and Corbyn supporters say - have to be aware that an equal and opposite movement to reactionary extremism is happening at the same time. 

And that the two phenomena may not be disconnected. History certainly seems to suggest otherwise. 

They can look back at the Spanish Civil War and think 'ooh I would have supported the Republic', but what they should be thinking is that the Spanish Civil War was something worth preventing at all costs. 

Another example of the wood and trees bias problem flagged up below. 

We need to temper our ideas and resulting actions with a sense of context. 

The most annoying of all cognitive biases...

In the course of the past week I may have referred to people who voted LEAVE on at least one occasion as ‘ignorant and stupid’. While some undoubtedly are, many surely are not.

The real problem is that many of them belong to the group of people who at almost every stage of my adult life - academic, professional and social - have made me want to shuffle off into a corner and spontaneously combust.

This is that group of people who are unable to see the wood from the trees. (Though sometimes its the trees from the wood!)

For many this does seem to result from some innate cognitive bias.

Some of these people will however be considered otherwise smart and cultured in many of the contexts in which they operate.

The majority within the group as a whole may suffer the condition only occasionally, and then as result of some sort of situational stimulus or distorted perspective.

And this is essentially the problem with trusting a referendum to resolve really vital issues like our membership of the EU. The very nature of the format is sure to produce a sort of compound of limited, localised perspectives, not entirely unlike that of the famous fable of the blind men and the elephant.

Parliamentary democracy is not there to act as some sort of sinister system of control, constantly thwarting our democratic urges, it is there to help our society transcend our individual limitations, to be something more than the sum of our parts.


In abandoning his plan to restore surplus by 2020, the Chancellor George Osborne said today that...

'We will fix the roof when the sun is shining.'

How very un-Chapin of him. 

The equivalent saying here would be something along the lines of...

'We'll cross that bridge when there's a flash flood and maybe the bridge isn't even there any more.'


There are two kinds of conspiracy. Firstly, those which are underpinned by an element of truth and secondly, those which can only either be spot on or spot off. 

So when Icke and his like say the EU is a faceless bureaucracy serving the interests of big business, they are tapping into the first kind. When they suggest that Hillary Clinton is a flesh-eating lizard in a rubber mask, or that Neocons brought down the twin towers, they are tapping into the second. 

Further examples of the first kind...

  • The internet is a playground for pervs and paedophiles
  • Islam is a dangerous religion
  • White working class people are missing out on housing and other social services due to uncontrolled immigration
  • Michael Gove is a flesh-eating lizard (Boom tish!)

The latter category of conspiracy is undoubtedly becoming more prevalent in contemporary discourse, perhaps because the purveyors of paranoia have seen how the impersonal forces of globalisation have left more and more people feeling disempowered, and thus susceptible. 

Even those who have specialised in Type II conspiracies - like David Icke - have widened their repertoire to include more of the Type I narratives. 

So, where does the whole 'Jeremy Corbyn is unelectable' conspiracy fit into this? First kind or second kind? 

Like chemtrails or 'the Mexicans are about to attack', it looks like a binary at first glance. However...

On it

Cats are surely the living embodiment of nature and its fundamental processes. Whenever something changes in their environment, whenever a new niche appears, however small, they are totally on it within minutes...