Monday, December 9, 2019

free-market communists in space

One of the odd things about science fiction as a genre is the attraction it holds for libertarians. Or perhaps it’s the odd attraction that libertarianism has for science fiction writers.

When you think about it though it does make sense. Science fiction is all about creating imaginary universes. If you don’t like the laws of physics you just ignore them. Faster-than-light travel might be impossible but if you want faster-than-light travel in your story you just pretend it’s possible. It’s a game of make-believe. And libertarianism is of course a game of make-believe. Libertarianism could never work in practice but libertarians just pretend that it would work.

Which brings us to Ken MacLeod’s 1995 cyberpunk science fiction novel The Star Fraction. MacLeod is an interesting figure. He was a Trotskyist activist back in the 1970s. When the Left ceased to exist he had to find some kind of ideology that would offer the same attractions - a better and more just society. Perhaps he’d done too many drugs in the 70s because he seems to have invented a kind of amalgam of libertarianism and Trotskyism.

The hero of the novel is a security  mercenary who is a good and loyal communist. He hates socialism and he loves capitalism. Because capitalism apparently equals freedom and will therefore magically bring about an ideal communist world. This will happen because, well just because.

It’s no coincidence that the characters in the story smoke a lot of dope. Because if you really want to believe that libertarian capitalism will achieve communism you have to smoke a prodigious amount of dope.

The novel appears to be set around the middle of the 21st century. Like most of MacLeod’s work it deals with multiple futures - Britain is a multiplicity of different statelets, even including a fundamentalist Christian one (which surprisingly isn’t mocked or derided quite as much as you’d expect). This idea of nation states fragmenting into semi-independent quasi-state entities has popped up quite a bit in science fiction since the 80s and of course it’s an idea with a certain appeal to some modern right-wingers. It’s interesting to see the idea approached here from a left-wing perspective.

Of course it has to be noted that MacLeod is most definitely not a conventional left-winger.

One of the more interesting ideas in the book is a rogue computer virus that is a kind of self-contained revolutionary program, but the question is what kind of revolution? This is a question that exercises the hero of the story quite a bit. Being a good communist he think the Party should control the political program. This is a program that seems to have the ability to control the Party.

Like most of MacLeod’s work the book is packed with ideas. Some are, it has to be admitted, quite silly (although no more so than the ideas you’ll find in the works of right-wing science fiction writers of an earlier generation, such as Poul Anderson). But others are genuinely provocative and intriguing. It's not as good as his later Newton's Wake but The Star Fraction is an odd little science fiction novel but quite interesting from a political point of view.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

quotes for another day

"The great charm in argument is really finding one's own opinions, not other people's." - Evelyn Waugh

"An artist must be a reactionary. He has to stand out against the tenor of the age and not go flopping along." -  Evelyn Waugh

"You have no idea how much nastier I would be if I was not a Catholic. Without supernatural aid I would hardly be a human being." - Evelyn Waugh

Evelyn Waugh: How do you get your main pleasure in life, Sir William?
Sir William Beveridge: I get mine trying to leave the world a better place than I found it.
Waugh: I get mine spreading alarm and despondency and I get more satisfaction than you do.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

social attitudes and the arty set

Since the end of the Second World War social attitudes have changed dramatically. They have changed so dramatically and so fast that it’s naïve to think that this has been entirely a natural development. It has been, to a very large extent, manufactured. Manufactured consciously and deliberately. But how and why?

Right-wingers blame the commies, or the Cultural Marxists (they mostly seem to think that commies and Cultural Marxists are pretty much the same thing). On the dissident right opinion is divided. Some think it was the commies. Some think it was an international Jewish conspiracy. Some think it was the Freemasons. Or immigrants. These are not very satisfactory explanations so I’m going to propose an alternative explanation. It was the Romantics. Before you start taking up a collection to buy me a tin-foil hat just bear with me for a moment.

The Romantic Movement emerged at the end of the 18th century and flourished until the mid-19th century but it never really went away. Many of the assumptions and attitudes of the Romantics became permanent fixtures of western culture. One of the most dangerous was the cult of the Creative Artist as Outsider and Social Rebel.

Lord Byron provided the template. Byron was also the first true celebrity. He was famous for his poetry but mostly he was famous for being Lord Byron, Poet Superstar. He was the first artist or poet to live a rock star lifestyle. Byron also added an essential element to the newly emerging Artist as Social Rebel cult - sexual deviance and sexual promiscuity. The Creative Artist had to break the social rules and the easiest and most obvious rules to break were those governing sexual morality.

Those who followed in Byron’s footsteps were inevitably hostile to tradition in general and to Christianity in particular.

But something else happened during the 19th century and accelerated dramatically during the first half of the 20h century. The worlds of art and literature and the theatre went from being fringe worlds to being very influential and very powerful worlds. In the 1790s a bestselling author like Ann Radcliffe could expect to sell maybe 5,000 copies of her latest novel. By the 1950s bestselling authors were selling millions of copies of their novels. While this may have benefited mostly the writers of popular fiction yet another development was happening. The massive expansion of education meant that millions of people were being exposed to the works of the writers of literary fiction.

And the world of the theatre was supplemented by the world of the movies. A play might reach thousands of people. A movie would reach millions. Public museums and the emergence of rock star artists like Picasso and Pollock and Warhol created a mass audience for the visual arts. Pop music increased the reach of the arty crowd even further.

The arty/literary/theatrical/cinematic world was now immensely powerful and immensely influential. It was a world that was in a position to promote agendas, if it chose to do so.  And it most certainly did choose to do so. It was a world still very much dominated by the cult of the Creative Artist as Outsider and Social Rebel. It was inevitable that the agendas it was going to promote were going to be based on breaking social rules. It was even more inevitable that these agendas were going to be based on attacking traditional sexual morality.

Social attitudes towards sexual morality did not change. They were actively and deliberately changed. The arts/entertainment world played a huge rôle in this. It wasn’t a communist plot and it wasn’t Cultural Marxism. The idea of Cultural Marxism was that the Cultural Revolution would prepare the ground for a political revolution. That idea was effectively abandoned decades ago. The Cultural Revolution became an end in itself.

It also wasn’t a Jewish plot. Of course there were Jews involved since Jews gravitated towards the arts/entertainment world.

Mostly the Cultural Revolution and the manufactured changes in social attitudes that have accompanied it were driven by the heirs of Byron - misfits who see themselves as courageous social rebels and persecuted outsiders. Misfits with an aura of glamour. Misfits out for revenge.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

removing politics from politics

In the past few years we have witnessed a frightening rapid shift in popular views on issues such as immigration. Open borders is now on the political agenda in a big way. Belief in immigration restrictionism is increasingly a marginal belief.

The shift is equally dramatic on all social and cultural issues. Added to which support for freedom of speech is declining rapidly.

What’s really interesting is that there is pretty much no debate or discussion at all on economic issues. Economic issues are now things that you simply don’t talk about.

There is no actual political debate at all. We live in a post-politics age. Everything now is a moral issue. Opposing immigration is morally wicked. Questioning feminism is morally wicked. Expressing doubts about the tranny stuff is morally wicked. Expressing anything less than absolute support for homosexuals is morally wicked. Questioning affirmative action is morally wicked. Expressing even mild scepticism about racial oppression is morally wicked.

But questioning the current neoliberal economic order is something that cannot even be imagined. It would be like questioning the existence of gravity.

The real achievement of the neoliberals has been to remove politics entirely from politics.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

is meritocracy a good idea?

Ideas that are taken for granted tend to worry me. One idea that is certainly taken for granted by most right-leaning people is that meritocracy is a good thing. Within the dissident right meritocracy is increasingly linked with IQ fetishism. People with high IQs are regarded as being better than people with low IQs, so therefore when it comes to areas such as employment, university admission, immigration, recruitment to the bureaucracy and even politics it is assumed that if we can select the best and the brightest the results will be as close to optimum as it is possible to get.

Mainstream conservatives are reluctant to talk openly about IQ but broadly speaking they share the assumption that rule by the best and the brightest is a very good thing. Believers in meritocracy do not necessarily see it purely in terms of IQ of course. They will talk about hard work and possibly even thrown in terms like creativity and talent although they probably won’t be able to give a satisfactory definition of those terms. But it’s clear that they see meritocracy as a system that rewards the best and the brightest and it’s clear that they see intelligence as a very major component of being the best and the brightest.

Most people on the Right see meritocracy as being one of those sacred values, along with freedom and democracy, that should never be questioned.

But is meritocracy really such a great idea?

For one thing there is no actual connection between freedom and democracy and meritocracy. Imperial China was to a large extent a meritocracy. The key to advancement was to pass the civil service exams and the better your result in those exams the better your chances of advancement. And the exams were extremely fair. Imperial China was a very successful advanced civilisation with a high degree of stability and social cohesion. But Imperial China clearly was neither democratic nor free.

Meritocracy probably is a good idea in some fields. It’s reasonable to assume that a nuclear physicist or a mathematician with an IQ of 160 will achieve more than a nuclear physicist or a mathematician with an IQ of 120. But is meritocracy a good thing in other fields? Will a bureaucracy made up of the best and brightest produce a successful society? Would we necessarily be better governed if our politicians were selected from among the best and the brightest? Will selecting immigrants on a meritocratic basis give us immigrants more likely to make a positive contribution to society?

I’m not convinced. In most areas of life it seems to me that there are other qualities that are at least as important as being among the best and the brightest. It’s nice to have bureaucrats who are honest. It’s desirable to have immigrants who are prepared to show some kind of loyalty to their adopted homes. It’s a good thing to have a society in which broadly speaking those who hold positions of power and influence are more concerned with the good of society than with their own wealth and personal advancement. I’d rather have a prime minister of average intelligence who sincerely wants the country to be a good place to live than a brilliant prime minister who puts his own career first. I’d prefer to have honest policemen than smart policemen.

Meritocracy may in fact be something that tends to dissolve social cohesion rather than enhancing it. To me it seems to be part and parcel of the cult of individualism that has done so much harm to our society. Maybe meritocracy isn’t so great after all.

Friday, November 15, 2019

China, Britain and the Opium War

I’m reading Frederic Wakeman’s 1975 study The Fall of Imperial China, which is fun since my knowledge of Chinese history is close to non-existent.

At the moment I’m reading the sections of the book dealing with China’s unfortunate 19th century encounters with European imperialism, in particular the wars waged against China by Britain.

I don’t accept and never have accepted the idea that colonialism was pure evil, or that it was motivated entirely by wickedness. The motivations of colonialism were various and complex. The end results were sometimes disastrous, sometimes beneficial.

But having said that, it has to be admitted that the behaviour of the British towards China was breathtakingly cynical and represents one of the most shameful passages in British history. The Opium War really was exceptionally evil. Not just profiting from the drug trade, but creating the drug problem from which they went on to profit. And was there ever a more vicious politician than Lord Palmerston?

History is always fascinated but it’s not always inspiring!

Friday, November 8, 2019

Kim Philby's My Silent War (book review)

Harold “Kim” Philby was the most famous spy of the 20th century, and arguably the most successful. A few years after defecting to the Soviet Union he wrote his autobiography, My Silent War. He wasn’t sure that the KGB (for whom he still worked actively) would allow the book to be published but in 1967 a series of articles in the British press revealed so much about his career that there was no longer any point in suppressing his memoirs. My Silent War was published in both the Soviet Union and Britain in 1968, and was a major success.

It’s not just fascinating for its insights into Philby’s extraordinary career. It’s also a vastly entertaining account of the reality behind the espionage business. Philby was a man of considerable wit and charm and this comes across in the book.

Of course it’s almost impossible for any reader to approach this book without confronting the issue of betrayal. For some the fact that he was a KGB agent who successfully infiltrated the British Secret Intelligence Service (the SIS or MI6 as it’s more commonly known) simply makes him a traitor. But there are many different kinds of betrayal, and many different kinds of loyalty. You can betray a friend, or a lover. You can betray a country. You can betray a religion, or a political ideology. Philby certainly betrayed his country but he never betrayed his political beliefs. Having become a communist at the age of 21 he remained steadfastly loyal to those beliefs, beliefs which he believed would in the long term be in Britain’s interest anyway. You can certainly believe that Philby was wrong, but there’s no doubt that he sincerely believed he had made the morally correct decision. For Philby also class loyalties trump national loyalties and it’s probable that for many people in Britain at the time it was his perceived betrayal of his class that was most disturbing.

Philby was recruited by the KGB (or at least it’s predecessor as the organisation underwent several name changes) in 1933. He worked as a journalist and was a war correspondent during the Spanish Civil War and in the early stages of the Second World War. He candidly admits that he wasn’t a particularly useful agent. In fact the KGB had pretty much written him off as a dead loss. That all changed when he managed to get himself recruited (largely by his own efforts) by the SIS. He was recruited by a chap named Guy Burgess.

Amusingly, when he sent his first reports back the Soviets thought he must have joined the wrong organisation. They could not believe that the farcical comic-opera outfit he described could actually be the famous British Secret Intelligence Service. But, sadly for the British, it was indeed the SIS. To be fair they became marginally more professional as the war progressed.

Philby did more than get himself recruited. He rapidly became a rising star in the bizarre secret world of British intelligence. By the early postwar period he was head of Section IX, in charge of operations against the Soviet Union.

Depending on your point of view it’s either depressing or amusing that the picture painted in Our Man in Havana by Philby’s friend and fellow SIS member Graham Greene of the SIS as a bunch of absurd bungling amateurs was very close to the truth. Mind you, Philby’s opinion of the CIA was even lower and he regarded the FBI as a complete joke. On the other hand he considered MI5 to be efficient and professional.

When he wrote the book Philby was still working for the KGB so obviously he had to be extremely reticent about KGB methods and about revealing hints as to the identity of still-active KGB agents in Britain. So if you’re hoping for revelations about the inner workings of the KGB you’ll be disappointed. What you do get are extraordinarily interesting insights into the workings of British and American intelligence agencies, and into the precarious world of the double agent. Philby’s problem was that he had to advance himself into a senior position in the SIS so he had be an efficient SIS officer, whilst at the same time he had to do whatever he could to ensure that SIS operations were unsuccessful.

Even if you consider Philby to be a bad man you’d have to admit that he was a brave, intelligent, resourceful bad man. He displayed extraordinary coolness and quick thinking even in situations that seemed hopeless. When his cover seemed to have been irretrievably blown after the defections of Maclean and Burgess he kept his head. He knew he was very strongly suspected but he gambled (correctly) that there was no evidence against him that would stand up in a court of law. So although his escape plan had been carefully worked out he waited for a decade to put it into action.

One thing that is rather amusing is that the success of the Cambridge spy ring was made possible by class prejudices. When it was discovered that there were major security leaks from the British Embassy in Washington the British intelligence services wasted years investigating menial embassy staff because it was unthinkable that the leaks could have originated with Donald Maclean, who was after all a gentleman and had been to the right schools. This class prejudice worked in Philby’s favour as well.

Philby offers no apologies for his conduct. He made his choice and he stuck to it. I emphasise that I'm not in any way arguing that he was right. But whatever you might think of him My Silent War is essential reading for anyone with an interest in the subject of espionage. And it’s incredibly entertaining.