Thursday, 30 July 2015

Why is Germany so tough on Greece? Look back 25 years

Dirk Laabs in The Guardian

Every drama needs a great baddie, and in the latest act of the Greek crisis Wolfgang Schäuble, the 72-year-old German finance minister, has emerged as the standout villain: critics see him as a ruthless technocrat who strong-armed an entire country and now plans to strip it of its assets. One part of the bailout deal in particular has scandalised many Europeans: the proposed creation of a fund designated to cherrypick €50bn (£35bn) worth of Greek public assets and privatise them to pay the country’s debts. But the key to understanding Germany’s strategy is that for Schäuble there is nothing new about any of this.

It was 25 years ago, during the summer of 1990, that Schäuble led the West German delegation negotiating the terms of the unification with formerly communist East Germany. A doctor of law, he was West Germany’s interior minister and one of Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s closest advisers, the go-to guy whenever things got tricky.

The situation in the former GDR was not too dissimilar from that in Greece when Syriza swept to power: East Germans had just held their first free elections in history, only months after the Berlin Wall fell, and some of the delegates from East Berlin dreamed of a new political system, a “third way” between the west’s market economy and the east’s socialist system – while also having no idea how to pay the bills anymore.

The West Germans, on the other side of the table, had the momentum, the money and a plan: everything the state of East Germany owned was to be absorbed by the West German system and then quickly sold to private investors to recoup some of the money East Germany would need in the coming years. In other words: Schäuble and his team wanted collateral.

At that time almost every former communist company, shop or petrol station was owned by the Treuhand, or trust agency – an institution originally thought up by a handful of East German dissidents to stop state-run firms from being sold to West German banks and companies by corrupt communist cadres. The Treuhand’s mission: to turn all the big conglomerates, companies and tiny shops into private firms, so they could be part of a market economy.

Schäuble and his team didn’t care that the dissidents had planned to hand out shares of companies to the East Germans, issued by the Treuhand – a concept that incidentally led to the rise of the oligarchs in Russia. But they liked the idea of a trust fund because it operated outside the government: while technically overseen by the finance ministry, it was publicly perceived as an independent agency. Even before Germany merged into a single state in October 1990, the Treuhand was firmly in West German hands.

Their aim was to privatise as many companies as possible, as soon as possible – and if you were to ask most Germans about the Treuhand today they would say it achieved that objective. It didn’t do so in a way that was popular with the people of East Germany, where the Treuhand quickly became known as the ugly face of capitalism. It did a horrible job in explaining the transformation to shellshocked East Germans who felt overpowered by this strange new agency. To make matters worse, the Treuhand became a hotbed of corruption.

The agency took all the blame for the bleak situation in East Germany. Kohl and Schäuble’s party, the conservative CDU, was re-elected for years to come, while others paid the price: one of the Treuhand’s presidents, Detlev Karsten Rohwedder, was shot and killed by leftwing terrorists. (Schäuble too became the victim of an attack that left him permanently in a wheelchair, only days after German reunification – but his paranoid attacker’s motives were unrelated to the political events)

But the reality of what the Treuhand did is different from the popular perception – and that should be a warning for both Schäuble and the rest of Europe. Selling East Germany’s assets for maximum profit turned out to be more difficult than imagined. Almost all assets of real value – the banks, the energy sector – had already been snapped up by West German companies. Within days of the introduction of the West German mark, the economy in the east completely broke down. Like Greece, it required a massive bailout programme organised by Schäuble’s government, but in secret: they set aside 100bn marks (£35bn) to keep the old East German economy afloat, a figure that became public only years later.

With prices for labour and supplies going through the roof, the already stressed East Germany economy went into freefall and the Treuhand had no chance to sell many of its businesses. After a couple of months it started to close down entire companies, firing thousands of workers. In the end the Treuhand didn’t make any money for the German government at all: it took in a mere €34bn for all the companies in the east combined, losing €105bn.

Wolfgang Schäuble led the West German delegation negotiating the terms of the unification with formerly communist East Germany. Photograph: Lionel Cironneau/AP

 In reality, the Treuhand became not just a tool for privatisation but a quasi-socialist holding company. It lost billions of marks because it went on paying the wages of many workers in the east and kept some unviable factories alive – a positive aspect usually drowned out in the vilifications of the agency. Because Kohl and, during the summer of 1990, Schäuble weren’t Chicago economists keen on radical experiments but politicians who wanted to be re-elected, they pumped millions into a failing economy. This is where parallels with Greece end: there were political limits to the austerity a government could impose on its own people.

The lesson Schäuble learned – and which is likely to influence his decision-making now – is that if you act the pure-hearted neoliberal you can still get away with decisions that don’t make perfect economic sense. If Schäuble is acting tough with Greece right now, it is because his electorate wants him to act that way; it’s not just that he doesn’t care about the Greek people, he wants people to believe he doesn’t care, because he sees the political advantage in it.

But Schäuble should have learned from history that the Treuhand gamble had catastrophic psychological consequences. Even though the agency was run by Germans, who spoke German, still it was seen by many in the east as an occupying force.

Schäuble’s idea of foreign countries controlling Greek assets and moving them abroad is an even more humiliating concept for any country. Schäuble comes across as a tough and sober accountant. In fact he is just an ordinary politician repeating old mistakes.

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis, but history suggests otherwise

Robert Fisk in The Independent

Hitler set a bad example. He was evil. His regime was evil. His Reich was destroyed, the Nazis vanquished, the Fuhrer dying by his own hand in the ashes of the European nightmare. Bad guys lose. Good guys win. Morality, human rights, law, democracy – though with the latter, we should perhaps speak carefully – will always prevail over wickedness. That’s what the Second World War taught us.

We have grown up in a Western society that believes in such simple, dodgy, history lessons. The world’s major religions teach us about goodness, humility, family, love, faith. So why should we not – however liberal, agnostic, cynical – cling on to our fundamental belief that violence and torture and cruelty will never outlast the power and courage of the righteous?

Isis is evil. It massacres its opponents, slaughters civilians, beheads the innocent, rapes children and enslaves women. It is “apocalyptic”, according to the Americans, and therefore it is doomed. Better still, Ash Carter – the US Secretary of Defence who accused the Iraqis of running away from Isis – lectured the Iraqi Prime Minister last week. His message – I could hardly believe this naivety – was Hollywood-clear. “Civilisation always wins over barbarism.”

But does it? We only have to go back to the lie about the Second World War in my first sentence. Sure, Hitler lost. But our ally Stalin won. The 1917 Russian Revolution gave rise to one of the Gorgons of our age: Soviet dictatorship, the mass starvation leading the to death of millions, barbarism – on an Ash Carter scale – and evil incarnate ruled in Russia and Eastern Europe for more than 70 years, 40 of them after the Second World War.

The Romans kept “barbarism” at bay for almost a thousand years, but in the end the Goths, Ostrogoths and Visigoths – the Isis of their time – won. Unless you were opposed to Rome, in which case Roman barbarism – crucifixion, slavery, torture, massacre (the whole Isis gamut minus the videotapes) – was victorious for almost a thousand years.

Attila the Hun, the Scourge of God, destroyed almost everything between Persia and the Mediterranean. Ghengis Khan, an inevitable actor in this sordid drama, kept going until his death in 1227 – 30 years longer than Isis has so far ruled. His grandson Hulagu was invoked by General Angus Maude when he “liberated” Baghdad in 1917 and brought “civilisation” to Mesopotamia. Ash Carter should read Maude’s proclamation to the people of Baghdad: “Since the days of Hulagu, your citizens have been subject to the tyranny of strangers, your palaces have fallen into ruins, your gardens have sunken in desolation and your forefathers and yourselves have groaned in bondage.” Pretty much like Isis, in other words. But, by Maude’s count, this “tyranny” lasted for around 700 years.

Now let’s go forward to the years immediately after we brought “civilisation” – again – to Baghdad, by illegally invading Iraq in 2003. Between daily trips to the city mortuary and visits to tents of mourning, angry families would tell us that the “freedom” we brought had given them anarchy. They hated the dictator Saddam who slaughtered his opponents – and who imposed 24 years of “barbarism” on his people – but at least he gave them security. If you have children, these people would tell us, you want them to come home from school. You do not want them to be murdered. So which do we prefer, they asked us? Freedom or security? Democracy or Saddam?

Fearful of the Shia-dominated Iraqi government, whose militias slaughtered them, and the corrupt Arab dictatorships, who suppressed them, many hundreds of thousands of Sunni Muslims appear to have found security under Isis. Not the Shias, nor the Christians, nor the Yazidis. There is no “freedom”, as we would call it. But Sunni Iraqi men in Beirut, for example, regularly travel to and from the Isis Syrian capital Raqqa and report that – provided they don’t smoke or drink alcohol, their women are covered, and they do not oppose Isis – they are left alone: to do business, to visit families, to travel in safety. (Much the same applied under the Taliban in Afghanistan.)

ID cards are issued in Isis-land, the river police have newly-painted boats, taxes are raised, and yes, punishment is barbarous. But that does not mean the “Islamic Caliphate” is going to be conquered by “civilisation”.

And how can we believe that it will, when our own public-relations boss raves on about “British values” – and at the same time worships the venal, hypocritical, immensely wealthy and dangerous men who have helped to inspire Isis. I refer, of course, to those Saudis whose crazed Sunni Wahhabist cult has encouraged Isis, whose grotesque puritanism has led them to adopt a head-chopping extremism, which lies at the heart of Isis’s own “barbarism”. Sure, the Saudi state arrests Isis cells. But these same Saudis are now killing thousands of Shia Houthis in Yemen in a bombing campaign supported by our Western nations. And what does David Cameron do when the desiccated old king of this weird state dies? Money talks louder than “civilisation”. So he orders that British flags should be flown at half-mast. Now that’s what I call British values!

Poor old Dave. He loathes Isis but adores one of its elderly “facilitators”. Yet fear not. “Civilisation” may yet win over “barbarism”. My own suspicion is that Ash, Dave and the rest will try to buy up Isis, split them into factions and choose the “moderates” among them. Then we’ll have a new, liberal Isis – people we can do business with, the sort of chaps we can get along with, sins forgotten – and we can then establish relations with them as cosy as those the Americans maintained with Hitler’s murderous rocket scientists after “civilisation” conquered “barbarism” in the Second World War.

So much for “civilisation”.

Jeremy Corbyn: The Jose Mourinho of politics is playing in the Premier League at last

Simon Kelner in The Independent

When he narrows his eyes and stares into the camera, there is something of Jose Mourhino about Jeremy Corbyn. “The Special One” of Labour’s left wing may be a bit older and have less of a confident swagger, but he has the tousled grey hair, the deep-set eyes and the craggy, unshaven look of the all-conquering Chelsea manager.

There the similarity may end, because Corbyn is not a natural born winner. It is true that he has lived much of his political life on the fringes of the Labour Party, the vocal champion of special interest groups like the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign, Amnesty International and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

He’s never played in the Premier League of politics, and the sense is that he rather enjoyed his position as something of a provocateur, a man who, when the occasion demanded, could act as Labour’s conscience, reminding his colleagues that this is the party that should look after the poor and the disadvantaged, not the rich and the privileged.

He’s “a romantic idiot who wants high taxes”, according to Labour peer Lord Sewel, although the opinion of a 69-year-old man wearing an orange brassiere while snorting coke off a prostitute’s bosom might be considered inadmissible.

Nevertheless, it’s true that Mr Corbyn is a romantic, and not just because the thrice-married MP seems to find it quite easy to fall in love. He’s a conviction politician, a man who has the rather old-fashioned notion that his ideals shouldn’t be compromised in the pursuit of power. And now he stands, almost accidentally, on the brink of the leadership of the Labour Party and people are suddenly asking: How the hell did that happen?

For the past few weeks, Labour stalwarts have been trying to discredit Mr Corbyn and his wild, left-wing views, like his wanting the railways to be renationalised or saying the wealthiest in society should pay higher taxes or campaigning against tuition fees. Tony Blair has warned that the election of Mr Corbyn as leader would be a gift to the Tories, while others have said that moving the party to the left would make it unelectable (they seem to have forgotten that there is recent evidence that Labour is pretty unelectable as it is).

Now, however, a new narrative is getting traction. Jeremy Corbyn is ahead in the race because he believes in something, and is consistent in those beliefs. Andy Burnham, one of his rivals, has acknowledged this by saying that Labour “has become a purveyor of retail politics, trading in the devalued currency of policy gimmicks designed to grab a quick headline”. He added: “It is in this context that we need to judge the current leadership race and ask why Jeremy Corbyn is having such an impact.”

Mr Corbyn, like Nigel Farage, is unafraid to say the unpopular, and both are brave enough to eschew middle-ground politics because it’s not where their heart is. Tony Blair gives the game away somewhat when he talks about politics in terms of winning and losing. “Personally, I prefer winning,” Blair said.

The irony is that because Jeremy Corbyn is a principled man (a legendary paltry expenses claimer) and is true to his values and beliefs, he might – in this election, at least – end up being a winner, too.

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Abolishing Annual Performance Appraisal

Lillian Cunningham in The Independent

As of September, one of the largest companies in the world will do all of its employees and managers an enormous favor: It will get rid of the annual performance review.

Accenture CEO Pierre Nanterme told The Washington Post that the professional services firm, which employs hundreds of thousands of workers in cities around the globe, has been quietly preparing for this “massive revolution” in its internal operations.

“Imagine, for a company of 330,000 people, changing the performance management process—it’s huge,” Nanterme said. “We’re going to get rid of probably 90 percent of what we did in the past.”

The firm will disband rankings and the once-a-year evaluation process starting in fiscal year 2016, which for Accenture begins this September. It will implement a more fluid system, in which employees receive timely feedback from their managers on an ongoing basis following assignments.

Accenture is joining a small but prominent list of major corporations that have had enough with the forced rankings, the time-consuming paperwork and the frustration engendered among managers and employees alike. Six percent of Fortune 500 companies have gotten rid of rankings, according to management research firm CEB.

These companies say their own research, as well as outside studies, ultimately convinced them that all the time, money and effort spent didn't ultimately accomplish their main goal — to drive better performance among employees.

In March, the consulting and accounting giant Deloitte announced that it was piloting a new program in which, like at Accenture, rankings would disappear and the evaluation process would unfold incrementally throughout the year. Deloitte is also experimenting with using only four simple questions in its reviews, two of which simply require yes or no answers.

Microsoft did away with its rankings nearly two years ago, attracting particular attention since it had long evangelized about the merits of its system that judged employees against each other. Adobe, Gap and Medtronic have also transformed their performance-review process.

“All this terminology of rankings—forcing rankings along some distribution curve or whatever—we’re done with that,” Nanterme said of Accenture's decision. “We’re going to evaluate you in your role, not vis à vis someone else who might work in Washington, who might work in Bangalore. It’s irrelevant. It should be about you.”

Though many major companies still haven’t taken the leap, most are aware that their current systems are flawed. CEB found that 95 percent of managers are dissatisfied with the way their companies conduct performance reviews, and nearly 90 percent of HR leaders say the process doesn’t even yield accurate information.

“Employees that do best in performance management systems tend to be the employees that are the most narcissistic and self-promoting,” said Brian Kropp, the HR practice leader for CEB. “Those aren’t necessarily the employees you need to be the best organization going forward.”

Brain research has shown that even employees who get positive reviews experience negative effects from the process. It often triggers disengagement, and constricts our openness to creativity and growth.

CEB also found that the average manager spends more than 200 hours a year on activities related to performance reviews—things like sitting in training sessions, filling out forms and delivering evaluations to employees. When you add up those hours, plus the cost of the performance-management technology itself, CEB estimates that a company of about 10,000 employees spends roughly $35 million a year to conduct reviews.

“The process is too heavy, too costly for the outcome,” Nanterme said. “And the outcome is not great.”

Interestingly, though, the decision to roll out an updated approach usually has little to do with reining in those numbers. Kropp said companies aren’t likely to save much time or money by transitioning away from their old ratings systems to a new evaluation process. Where they stand to benefit is, instead, the return on those investments. “The smartest companies are asking, how do we get the best value out of the time and money we are spending?” Kropp said.

That’s the question Accenture posed to itself. And its answer was that performance management had to change from trying to measure the value of employees’ contribution after the fact. It needed instead to regularly support and position workers to perform better in the future.

“The art of leadership is not to spend your time measuring, evaluating,” Nanterme said. “It’s all about selecting the person. And if you believe you selected the right person, then you give that person the freedom, the authority, the delegation to innovate and to lead with some very simple measure.”

Greek debt crisis: A tale of ritual humiliation

Mark Steel in The Independent

What a relief that the Greeks have finally seen sense, and agreed to Angela Merkel’s demand that their Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras must scrub Berlin with a dishcloth, and crawl along the banks of the Rhine in a thong barking like a dog.

The week before he’d agreed to dress as a fairy and sing “The Good Ship Lollipop” while German children poked him with stinging nettles, but now that isn’t enough. So he has to accept even more measures essential to stabilising the Greek economy, such as being hosed down with kebab fat while naming the German squad that won the 1954 World Cup.

Otherwise, as EU leaders made clear, there would be no way Greece could stay inside the solar system; they’d have to orbit a different star in a faraway galaxy, which could be extremely damaging to the Greek tourist industry.

Instead of inviting further chaos by leaving Greece in the hands of the Greeks, their finances have been handed over entirely to the only people we can trust to behave responsibly at all times: the banks. Thank the Lord we’ve got at least one institution that has never behaved irresponsibly or recklessly in any way.

Perhaps the Greeks should have gone to Brussels and said they were rebranding Greece, so it’s no longer a country, but a bank. They’d have been bailed out by lunch and given a free set of steak knives as an extra gift. Instead they’ve got to sell off their entire country. By Christmas you’ll be able to buy a family ticket for 300 quid to visit the Domino’s Parthenon, where you can watch a parade of philosophers dressed as your favourite pizzas, with Pythagoras pepperoni proving a particular favourite, then scream your way down the Acropolis on a log flume.

One of the main demands in the final deal is that the Greek state must sell off €50bn-worth of its assets, which amounts to everything it has. This is part of the drive to make the economy stable and efficient. This works as long as you assume privatisation unarguably makes an industry more efficient. Obviously there are examples such as the railways in Britain, where privatisation has resulted in cheap reliable trains on which you can always get a seat, it’s easy to buy tickets across different rail networks, and customers are even offered delightful unscheduled 40-minute stops outside London Bridge station to give you the opportunity to paint the view of a gasworks in Bermondsey.

The demands placed on Greece are so extreme that even the International Monetary Fund has declared them “unsustainable”. The IMF is the body that has spent 50 years forcing countries such as Tanzania and Haiti to cut wages and sell off its possessions, in return for loans it needs so it can pay off the interest on the last lot of money it borrowed (from the IMF). So when it says the demands on Greece are too harsh, it’s like making the leader of Isis say, “Steady on, that’s a bit too Islamic”.

Still, someone has to tell the Greeks they can’t expect to carry on getting something for nothing. And the European Central Bank and national central banks – who, according to the Jubilee Debt Campaign, “stand to make between €10bn and €22bn out of Greek repayments” – are exactly the right people to deliver that stern but fair message.

Christine Lagarde, managing director of the IMF, is paid a salary of €550,000 a year, and by special arrangement pays no tax on that whatsoever. So she’s certainly the right person to lecture the Greeks, because she’s never been behind on her tax payments once. Every month she dutifully pays her nothing bang on time; she understands the importance of behaving responsibly with public money.

The most perplexing part of this story is that, a few days ago, it seemed as if Alexis Tsipras and his party, Syriza, were set to resist the orders being thrown at them, especially as they’d gone to the trouble of winning a referendum on whether to accept the EU demands. I suppose Tsipras thought that when the majority of Greeks voted against, it was because they felt those demands weren’t harsh enough, and they deserved to be punished much more severely as they’d all been very naughty.

Because Tsipras went into negotiations making it clear he was desperate to keep Greece in the eurozone, the EU could demand whatever it liked, knowing he’d accept anything rather than abandon the euro.

That sounds like going into a car showroom and saying, “I desperately need a car right now and I’ll have anything rather than leave without one”. A salesman could say, “We’ve only got this one, it’s got no engine and the windscreen’s made of wood and it pongs as a family of weasels live on the back seat and the bonnet’s on fire, it’s £10,000”, and you’d have no choice but to take it.

But maybe he did have a choice, to tell the banks they’ve made plenty out of Greece as it is and so, on balance, the elected government had decided to go along with what the Greeks voted for twice in a few months – wasting their money on schools and old people in villages, rather than do the sensible thing and hand over every coin as interest payments to institutions such as Goldman Sachs.

They’d have been kicked out of the eurozone, and probably out of Uefa and the Eurovision Song Contest, and scratched off the Inter-rail map too. But they’d have been a little beacon for everyone across Europe who feels the banks aren’t acting entirely in our interests, probably enough people to worry Angela Merkel just a bit.

Monday, 27 July 2015

The greatest trick Michael Vaughan ever pulled

Rob Smyth in Wisden India
The greatest trick Michael Vaughan ever pulled was convincing England they could beat Australia. As brilliant as England’s 2005 side were, they had no real place beating one of the greatest sides of all time. Yet by convincing them they could win the Ashes, Vaughan kickstarted a series of events that enabled them to do just that. You can see why Steve Harmison called Vaughan “the best liar I’ve ever played with”.
The most important part of England’s win was not Andrew Flintoff’s cartoon superheroism, or Glenn McGrath treading on a cricket ball, or even Gary Pratt. It was one man’s relentless conviction that it was possible to challenge two intimidating opponents: Australia, and the entrenched caution of English cricket. Vaughan did not quite change the DNA of English cricket but, for a few beautiful years, he empowered the most exhilarating England side many of us will ever see. It is why he is the most important English cricketer since Sir Ian Botham.
England’s symbolic victories in the Champions Trophy semi-final of 2004 and the one-off T20 international at the start of the 2005 summer were very important, but the most significant backstory to the 2005 Ashes is the evolution of Vaughan from underachieving, defensively-minded county batsman to the world’s best attacking batsman, which in turn enabled him to become, as England captain, a kind of arrogant visionary who waged war on the received wisdom surrounding Australia.
A key moment in that development was Vaughan’s breezy 33 at Brisbane in 2002, the magical little acorn from which England’s 2005 Ashes win grew. Vaughan’s swaggering cameo in his first Ashes innings confirmed the view he had formed in the previous six months – that Australia, and particularly Glenn McGrath, not only could be attacked but had to be attacked. That attitude informed everything he did for the remainder of his Ashes mirabilis in 2002–03 and, even more importantly, what he did once he became Test captain the following summer.
England had a number of unlikely heroes who helped them win the Ashes in 2005, from Pratt to Ricky Ponting. We should probably add Darren Lehmann and Sachin Tendulkar to the list; maybe even give them MBEs. Lehmann started playing for Yorkshire in 1997 and began to broaden Vaughan’s mind. When Vaughan came into the Yorkshire dressing-room in the early 1990s, he says he found a culture in which you were slaughtered for “batting like a millionaire” if you got out playing an attacking shot. He thus grew up as a classical, defensive batsman who batted time. It was all he knew.
Lehmann was only four years older than Vaughan, yet in many ways he was his mentor: worldly, streetwise, ceaselessly positive and with the sharpest cricket brain. “Darren Lehmann really taught me how to play the game properly,” said Vaughan. “He gave me so much advice and made me into the player that I ended up being – and made me into a thoughtful, aggressive captain.”
When Vaughan returned from a promising first tour as an England player – to South Africa in 1999–2000 – Lehmann suggested he was hiding his light under a bushel. He encouraged Vaughan to play more shots and especially to always be on the look-out for quick singles – not to bat time, but to bat runs. “I loved Boof,” wrote Vaughan in Time to Declare. “He was everything an overseas player ought to be and a huge influence on me.”
That influence continued when Vaughan became England captain. He had two men “outside the England bubble”, as he put it, to whom he turned for advice on a regular basis: Lehmann and an unnamed businessman who “never played top-level cricket but always challenged me and came from a different angle”. Vaughan was always keen to pick as many brains as possible; crucially, he was extremely decisive at sifting through observations and advice from others.
He almost always listened to Lehmann’s counsel, never more importantly than when Lehmann told him to bring a one-day mindset to his batting in four- and five-day cricket. It was such a fundamental change in Vaughan’s batting philosophy that it took him a couple of years to fully retrain his brain. But his strike rate in his first four years of Test cricket, from 1999–2002, told a clear story: 27 runs per 100 balls in 1999, then 41, 42 and 64.
A series of annoying injuries – calf, finger, hand and knee – as well as Duncan Fletcher’s desire to give Graeme Hick a chance and the need to play five bowlers in India meant that Vaughan, despite a promising start to his England career, played only three out of 14 Tests between November 2000 and December 2001. At the age of 27, he could not afford much more lost time. Graham Thorpe’s personal problems allowed him back in the side in India, and then Vaughan was pushed up to open for the first time in the 1–1 draw against New Zealand in 2001–02. It did not start well; on some dicey pitches he made 131 runs in six innings. But he demonstrated his new approach. In the first Test, England were 2 for 2 when Vaughan hooked his second ball of the series for six. The death of Ben Hollioake during the second Test was “a decisive moment in my life” and made him even more determined to remember that cricket was sport and should be enjoyed.
At the start of the 2002 English summer Vaughan averaged 31.15 from 16 Tests. Before the first Test against Sri Lanka he sensed something wasn’t right against left-arm seam – of which he would be facing plenty that summer – and asked Duncan Fletcher to have a look in the nets. After four balls, Fletcher spotted that Vaughan was too open, with his shoulders and body facing towards midwicket rather than between mid-on and the bowler. “The subtle change paid instant dividends… defence and attack all clicked.” He made a century in the first Test of the summer against Sri Lanka, and then three more against India. In New Zealand his problem was getting out in the 20s and 30s; against India it was getting out in the 190s. It was life-changing stuff. Vaughan ran with the mood of that summer and kept on running until England had won the Ashes three years later.
As the summer developed, with the following winter’s Ashes in mind, Vaughan became sufficiently emboldened that he decided to attack Australia. “I was not intending to be totally gung-ho, slash and bash, but to be nothing other than positive.” It was his eureka moment.
When Vaughan returned from a promising first tour as an England player – to South Africa in 1999–2000 – Lehmann suggested he was hiding his light under a bushel. He encouraged Vaughan to play more shots and especially to always be on the look-out for quick singles – not to bat time, but to bat runs. “I loved Boof,” wrote Vaughan in Time to Declare. “He was everything an overseas player ought to be and a huge influence on me.”
If you mention Vaughan, Tendulkar and 2002 then people will think of the wonder ball with which Vaughan bowled Tendulkar at Trent Bridge. Far more important, in the long term, was the postscript to that delivery. At the end of the series, Vaughan asked Tendulkar to sign the ball and stump from that wicket. Tendulkar asked him to sit down and chat cricket, which they did for half an hour. The conversation inevitably moved on to Australia. Tendulkar told Vaughan of the Adelaide Test of 1999–2000, in which he and Dravid allowed McGrath to bowl a spell of 8-7-1-0. After that, Tendulkar decided he would never again show McGrath and Australia too much respect. “That confirmed to me what I had already been thinking about the winter to come: that I would not be holding back in taking them on,” said Vaughan. “It turned out to be one of my better resolutions in life.”
Every time Vaughan said he was going to attack McGrath, teammates looked at him as if he had said he was going to break into the Bank of England. He has having a coffee in Chelsea with his captain Nasser Hussain, who asked him what he planned to do against McGrath. “I won’t die wondering,” said Vaughan. “Oh, right,” said Hussain.
Vaughan remembers other players saying: “No chance; he just won’t give you anything to hit.” It irritated him to the point where bloody-mindedness started to kick in. “There was too much of the wrong mentality about,” he said. “The defeatism was plain to me.”
Even allowing for Vaughan’s great form in 2002, it was quite a conceit. He had never played an Ashes Test but he was going to take on McGrath, the king of individual contests, and Australia in their own manor, and in their own manner. Who the hell did he think he was?
Vaughan even went so far as to say in the press that he hoped McGrath would target him. Before he started predicting that every Ashes series would end 5–0, McGrath made a point of publicly announcing his target in the opposition team. It was pretty much a death sentence. McGrath called it “mind over batter”. He would identify his targets in an unnerving, matter-of-fact manner, with a couple of pertinent, indisputable facts and just a smidgen of smartarsery to get under his opponent’s skin. It was textbook mental disintegration.
In this case McGrath played on Vaughan’s abysmal record against Australia. He got a golden duck in his only innings against Australia, when he was bowled by Jason Gillespie in an ODI in 2001; he was also dismissed by the only delivery he had ever faced from McGrath, this time in a county match. “He’s obviously their form player if you look at the last season,” McGrath said. “I have had quite a lot of success in the past against guys I want to target. He hasn’t really got the form on the board against Australia, so we’ll see how he goes.”
Vaughan admitted that the reactions of other players to his intention of attacking Glenn McGrath irritated him to the point where bloody-mindedness started to kick in as the defeatism was plain to him. © Getty Images
Vaughan admitted that the reactions of other players to his intention of attacking Glenn McGrath irritated him to the point where bloody-mindedness started to kick in as the defeatism was plain to him. © Getty Images
Vaughan took it as a compliment. “I just thought, ‘this is a bit of all right, not bad at all. I’ve been picked out by the best in the world’… McGrath called me a grinder who could bat for long periods but who could be suspect to the short ball. It was my intention to alter this thinking.”
If you go at the king, you best not miss. “This will sound arrogant but I really quite fancied facing McGrath,” said Vaughan. “If the ball was seaming he was a bit of a nightmare, but if it was swinging I found him quite juicy.” Arrogance, like bacteria, is instinctively perceived as a bad thing but also comes in a good form. Throughout Vaughan’s career, that arrogance – and even entitlement – facilitated so much of what he and England achieved.
Before the 2002–03 tour, Vaughan didn’t so much cope with fear of failure as ignore it. He changed his mind about watching videos of the Australian bowlers as preparation because he was worried if he did that he would start playing the bowler, not the ball. His tour did not start well, however. He missed the first three matches because his knee took longer to heal than expected, though he struck 127 against Queensland in his only innings before the first Test at Brisbane. On the first day of the series he had a nightmare in the field; he let the second ball of the day through his legs, the usual depressing tone-setter, and later dropped a dolly at extra cover.
England eventually came to bat on the second afternoon after Australia posted 492. There was a hush of anticipation. “We were very interested in seeing Vaughan,” said Adam Gilchrist in Walking to Victory. “We’d heard a lot about him. He was the big name that Glenn McGrath had decided to target this summer.”
There were umpteen reasons for Vaughan to ease his way carefully into the series. He’d had a terrible time in the field. His knee was sore. There were only nine overs to tea. His fledgling record against both McGrath and Australia was awful. He averaged 27.94 in overseas Tests. Vaughan didn’t get a toss about any of it. That was then and this was now.
In many respects Vaughan was winging it. He was 28, but had only been opening for England for seven months. Yet he had the unshakeable conviction of a man who had recently had an epiphany. His state of mind was perfect. So was his state of gut; Vaughan has always been an advocate of gut instinct, and his kept telling him that, on an individual level, he could conquer Australia. His mind was fresh and uncluttered: “Keep things simple – eye on the ball, hit and look to run.”
Vaughan knew that first impressions are important in sport, which has a habit of perpetuating itself. One look at Shane Warne would have reminded him of that. Steve Waugh greeted him with six men in the cordon as well as the wicket-keeper Gilchrist. Vaughan saw the consequent gaps in front of the wicket, not the men behind him. He faced only a single ball in McGrath’s first two overs, which he pushed through mid-on for a single. During that time McGrath got into his usual groove and had Marcus Trescothick dropped in the slips. Vaughan then faced every ball of McGrath’s third over – and hammered it for 12. The second ball, fractionally short of a length, was pulled impatiently through midwicket for four. As Vaughan ran past, McGrath used the side of his mouth to scold him for his impertinence. The fifth ball was driven gorgeously through the covers for four.
He took nine more from McGrath’s next over, including a savage back cut for four, an extravagant, mis-hit pull into the open spaces for two and a back-foot drive for three. This time McGrath said nothing, just licked his lips. Even Vaughan’s leaves were aggressive, a last-minute decision to abort an attacking shot. It was the sporting equivalent of the head-turning arrival; he had the instant respect of the Australian commentators on Channel 9, who were fascinated to see somebody attack McGrath, and also the Australians on the field. “I sensed immediately that we were up against quality,” said Gilchrist. “There was something about Vaughan’s balance and composure.”
More than anything else, England won the Ashes because Michael Vaughan kept asking why. Why couldn’t Glenn McGrath be attacked? Why could Australia not mentally disintegrate like all other humans? Why couldn’t England win the Ashes with an inexperienced team? Whenever he was questioned, or had slight doubts himself, he kept returning to one simple point: that the alternative hadn’t worked for 16 years.
McGrath was taken out of the attack after that, with figures of 4-1-23-0. Vaughan said he got carried away with his attacking mood and was even more aggressive than he intended. He was playing the bowler not the ball – but in a good way. He slammed another exhilarating boundary off Andy Bichel, clouting a short ball over cover. McGrath returned to the attack after tea and got his man with a fine delivery that jagged back off the seam to take the inside edge as Vaughan shaped to pull. Vaughan had made 33 from 36 balls, within which he scored 25 off just 19 from McGrath – an unimaginable strike rate of 132. “A lot of people called it a ballsy effort to get after them,” said Vaughan. “I just called it positive.”
That, more than his eventual dismissal, was what Vaughan took from the innings – especially when Warne congratulated him after play for being the first Englishman he had seen go after McGrath. Such positive reinforcement was vital, and kept coming throughout the series. We didn’t realise at the time, but it was all crescendoing towards Vaughan creating a culture that would allow England to win the Ashes.
Vaughan got a golden duck in the second innings, with McGrath dismissing him again, but it was a poor LBW decision and he was able to rationalise it as irrelevant. “I am sure he thought he had a psychological edge on me, but he was mistaken,” said Vaughan in A Year In The Sun. “I looked at the positives. I had played well in the first innings and been unfortunate in the second.” Two weeks later Vaughan hammered 177 on the first day of the second Test at Adelaide; this time he attacked McGrath judiciously, with 50 from 87 balls. He should have been given out on 19, but the third umpire gave him the benefit of what doubt there was when Justin Langer claimed a low catch at cover. Had he failed then, maybe he would have started to have doubts or rethink his approach. Steve Davis, the third umpire, is another man who unwittingly helped England win the Ashes in 2005.
“That innings had a real impact on me,” said Gilchrist of Vaughan’s 177. “I remember thinking: ‘This is a class act.’” At the close of play, Gillespie came into the England dressing-room specifically to congratulate Vaughan. Yet more positive reinforcement. He had confirmed the promising impression of the first Test and achieved one of the most worthwhile things in cricket: the respect of the Australians. He had steel and skill or, in the parlance of our time, ticker and tekkers. This was not just another Pom to the slaughter.
When Vaughan became the captain, he transmitted the same attitude of standing up to the Australians, without which England would have had zero percent of winning the Ashes in 2005. © AFP
When Vaughan became the captain, he transmitted the same attitude of standing up to the Australians, without which England would have had zero percent of winning the Ashes in 2005. © AFP
Steve Waugh later said Vaughan was “the only guy I’ve ever seen succeed after Glenn McGrath made his annual declaration of intent upon the opposition’s key batsman”. Vaughan went on to make three huge centuries in the series, and ended it as the world’s No.1 batsman in the ICC rankings. Seven months earlier he had been 44th, behind, among others, Habibul Bashar and Mathew Sinclair. “He batted like the best player who had ever lived,” said his opening partner Trescothick. “I remember thinking they could not bowl at him, and the ‘they’ were bloody Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne.” He ended with 633 runs in five Tests; the manner of the first 33, in that first innings at Brisbane, made the other 600 possible.
“I can’t remember an opener playing McGrath, Lee and Gillespie the way Vaughan did that summer,” said Lehmann. “At times he was treating them with contempt… dare I say it, he was batting like an Aussie.” Vaughan’s geographical identity is different to most: he is a Lancashire-born Yorkshireman and an Englishman with the attitude of an Aussie. There was an infectious swagger about Vaughan which, along with the sheer beauty of his batting and the runs he scored in industrial quantities, gave England fans considerable pride despite the side suffering another 4-1 Ashes defeat. We had no idea that his performance would also inform the ultimate high in the next series.
“There was a huge amount on that trip that got stored away at the back of my mind for the purposes of tackling Australia in the future,” he said. “The basic lesson was that, if you were going to stand up to the Australians, you could not have anyone in the team who had this fear about them.”
When he later became captain, Vaughan transmitted that attitude to his team; without it, they would have had approximately 0.00 per cent chance of winning in 2005. “It’s amazing how once one player excels, his teammates find the leap from good to excellent to be not so difficult,” said Steve Waugh. “It suddenly becomes real rather than a dream.” It also made Vaughan one of the world’s leading authorities on how to play against Australia, which made the players listen to his every word.
More than anything else, England won the Ashes because Michael Vaughan kept asking why. Why couldn’t Glenn McGrath be attacked? Why could Australia not mentally disintegrate like all other humans? Why couldn’t England win the Ashes with an inexperienced team? Whenever he was questioned, or had slight doubts himself, he kept returning to one simple point: that the alternative hadn’t worked for 16 years.
Vaughan’s overall record against McGrath was not actually that good. Whose record was? In the 2002–03 series he scored 142 runs and was dismissed four times, a head-to-head average of 35.50; overall, including the 2005 Ashes, he made 205 and was dismissed six times. But in that first innings, he showed – to Australia, to himself and to all of England – that McGrath could be taken on. He had made his symbolic statement. There was a similar example during the 1997 Ashes: after his career-saving century at Edgbaston, Mark Taylor made four runs in the next four innings. But hardly anybody noticed, and those who did notice did not care. Taylor’s form was no longer an issue. So much of sport is about bluff, perception and symbolism, and Vaughan understood that better than most.
When he later became captain, Vaughan transmitted that attitude to his team; without it, they would have had approximately 0.00 per cent chance of winning in 2005. “It’s amazing how once one player excels, his teammates find the leap from good to excellent to be not so difficult,” said Steve Waugh. “It suddenly becomes real rather than a dream.” It also made Vaughan one of the world’s leading authorities on how to play against Australia, which made the players listen to his every word.
Vaughan’s approach in that 33 was a longer-term version of a tactic Steve Waugh employed in so many individual innings: take calculated risks to get to 20 or 30 as soon as possible so that you reverse the momentum and spread the field, and then you can settle in for the long haul. After taking on McGrath, he could then focus on easier targets (these things are relative) like Stuart MacGill and, in 2005, a flagging Gillespie.
Life is a complex, sprawling flow chart, in which apparently minor incidents usher us in a completely different direction, and it is fascinating – and a little terrifying – to reflect on all the little things that made Vaughan into the world’s best batsman, without which he probably would not have become an Ashes-winning captain: Lehmann joining Yorkshire, Thorpe’s personal problems, Hollioake’s death, Fletcher spotting that technical flaw, the ball to Tendulkar – and those injuries in 2001, which were so frustrating at the time but, with hindsight, were surely a blessing. Although Vaughan had started to modify his game, he was probably not quite ready to go after McGrath and the Australians that summer; a difficult series might have left him with mental scars like the other England players.
Even the timing of Vaughan’s ascent was perfect. Hussain, a man who was at his most comfortable with the feel of the wall against his back, was perfectly suited to dragging England out of the doldrums. Vaughan probably could not have done that, but between them, over a six-year period, they turned the worst team into a team who could outplay the best team in the world.
As Vaughan’s team developed in 2003 and 2004, everything he did was geared towards beating Australia. He became obsessed with mental scarring, and that Australia could only be beaten with aggression and fresh minds. It was reinforced when Lehmann, unprompted, made the same observation. When the 2005 Ashes started, England had five players making their debuts against Australia. Overall the team had made 25 Ashes appearances between them, fewer than Shane Warne on his own. In total Australia had 129.
“I wasn’t 100 per cent sure we were ready for them, wondering if perhaps they were coming a year too soon.” Not that he told anyone. He was far too good a liar for that.

Sunday, 26 July 2015

Tragic Illusion of an Islamic State - Tarek Fatah


‘Quarterly capitalism’ is short-term, myopic, greedy and dysfunctional

Will Hutton in The Guardian

It has been obvious for years that British capitalism is profoundly dysfunctional. In 1970, £10 of every £100 of profit was distributed to shareholders: today, under intense pressure from short-term owners, companies pay out £70. Investment, innovation and productivity have slumped. Few new companies grow to any significant size before they are taken over.

Exports have stagnated. The current account deficit is at record proportions. The purpose of companies now is not to do great things, solve great problems or scale up great solutions –why capitalism is potentially the best economic system – it is to become payolas for their disengaged owners and pawns in the next big deal or takeover. Not only the British economy suffers – this process has become the major driver of rising inequality, low pay and insecurity in the workplace as management teams are forced to treat workers as costly commodities rather than allies in business building.
Regular readers of this column will be familiar with the refrain, and the stubborn resistance from the British mainstream. There is absolutely nothing wrong at all with the British private sector, runs the Conservative argument: to the extent the British economy does have problems they are rooted entirely in taxation, regulation, unions and government. But in a week when the Financial Times – a great British asset and embodiment of the best of our journalism – has been sold to Nikkei for no better reason than to support Pearson’s short-term share price, powerful and public criticism of the way British capitalism operates has come from an unexpected quarter.

Last year, the governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, called on firms to have a greater “sense of their responsibilities for the system”, in particular the social contract on which market capitalism’s long-term dynamism depends. On Friday’s Newsnight, the chief economist of the Bank of England, Andy Haldane, built on the governor’s concerns. He began with the seven-fold increase in the proportion of profit distributed to shareholders in dividends and bought-back shares over the last 45 years, which he said necessarily “leaves less for investment”. The explanation was simple: British (and indeed American) company law “puts the shareholder at front and centre. It puts the short-term interest of shareholders in a position of primacy when it comes to running the firm.” He thought company law that placed shareholders on a more equal footing with other stakeholders – workers, customers, clients – would work better. Dare I say it – stakeholder capitalism?

He damned the way the public limited company has developed. “The public limited company model has served the world well from a growth perspective. But you can always have too much of a good thing. The nature of shareholding today is fundamentally different than what it was a generation ago. The average share was held by the average shareholder, just after the war, for around six years. Today, that average share is held by the average shareholder for less than six months. Of course, many shareholders these days are holding shares for less than a second.”

In New York, at almost exactly the same time Newsnight was transmitting its interview with Andrew Haldane, Hillary Clinton was speaking from the same script, attacking what she called “quarterly capitalism”. “American business needs to break free from the tyranny of today’s earning report so they can do what they do best: innovate, invest and build tomorrow’s prosperity,” the Democratic presidential front runner declared. “It’s time to start measuring value in terms of years – or the next decade – not just next quarter.” She does not want to reinvent the public limited company, but she proposed the most far-reaching tax reforms of any Democrat presidential nominee to change the incentives for shareholders and executives alike. In American terms this is a revolution.

It is long overdue and the argument is beginning to get traction in the US. Free-market apologists insist that the more cash is handed back to shareholders, then the more they have to invest in innovation. The stock market is doing its job: promoting efficiency. The trouble is that everyone can see it’s 100% wrong. The market is hopelessly inefficient, greedy and myopic. When Larry Page and Sergey Brin floated Google, they took care to insulate the company from “quarterly capitalism”: they accorded their shares as Google’s founders 10 times the voting rights in order to protect their capacity to innovate from the stock market – what they considered Google’s real business purpose.

From robots to self-driving cars, from virtual reality glasses to investigating artificial intelligence, Google is now one of the most innovative firms on Earth. Meanwhile the typical US Plc, like its counterpart in Britain, is hunkering down, investing and innovating ever less and distributing more cash to shareholders for the reasons Haldane explains. Far from market efficiency, the whole system is undermining the legitimacy of capitalism.

But bit by bit influential voices such as Haldane’s are having the nerve to declare the Anglo-American system does not work. A rich collection of reflections and commentary edited by Diane Carney (Mark Carney’s wife) was published after London’s Inclusive Capitalism conference last month. Yet, except for former business secretary Vince Cable, no leading British politician has entered the lists. It will be intriguing how George Osborne reacts: one instinct will be to sack Carney and Haldane, as he has done Martin Wheatley, the head of the Financial Conduct Authority, for being too tough on the City. Another will be to co-opt the argument for the one nation Tory cause before the Labour party does.

He needn’t worry too much. One of the reasons that Tony Blair dropped his advocacy for stakeholder capitalism back in 1996 after the publication of The State We’re In was because too many leftwing Labour MPs took the Jeremy Corbyn line that the party’s mission was to socialise capitalism rather than reform it, while too many rightwing Labour MPs such as Peter Mandelson and Alistair Darling were terrified of upsetting business, as today, it seems, is Liz Kendall. He had zero internal political support, business was distrustful and the Tories were accusing him of returning to 1970s corporatism. Today the Bank of England and the likely next US president are supporters. Will one of the contenders for the Labour leadership have the courage to make the case? So far, they have all been mute. If Andy Haldane has done nothing else, he will have dramatised the poverty of today’s thinking about capitalism – in both main political parties.

Saturday, 25 July 2015

The last thing Labour needs is a leader like Jeremy Corbyn who people want to vote for

Mark Steel in The Independent

At last sensible Labour politicians are injecting some maturity into the leadership debate. To start with, Tony Blair’s aide John McTernan called anyone who nominated Jeremy Corbyn a “moron”, which is such a refreshing change from the divisive and childish approach of the Left.

His next statement will be that Jeremy Corbyn smells like a poo-poo and anyone who votes for him has a tiny willy, because John McTernan understands the importance of Labour appearing grown up and united.

Now Blair himself has informed us Corbyn would be a disaster. This could cause a problem, because for giving his views in a speech Blair usually charges at least £200,000, and Labour’s finances are stretched enough as it is. Normally he’s advising the government of Kazakhstan or a Saudi Arabian oil company, or shaking hands with characters like Colonel Gaddafi so it’s surprising he didn’t suggest cancelling the election and putting the army in charge of the party, and sentencing Diane Abbott to 500 lashes. Even so it’s sweet of him to take time out from his busy schedule.

He said that if your heart is telling you to vote for Corbyn, you need a heart transplant. You can see how he thinks this, because the first word anyone thinks of when they see Blair is “heart”. Tony Heart Blair is what his friends President Assad of Syria and ex-military ruler Mubarak of Egypt call him.

When you’re responsible for all the heartfelt warmth and sunshine that resulted from invading Iraq, it’s understandable if you get angry with heartless types such as Jeremy Corbyn who opposed it all along, but not everyone can live up to Blair’s standards.

Blair’s supporters point out that although his current image is tarnished, we should remember he was hugely popular in 1997.

The Blair viewpoint has clearly affected Margaret Beckett, as she’s one of the MPs who nominated Corbyn, and her response to being called a moron was to agree. She regrets helping him to stand for the election, she says, as she never guessed he would win as much support as he has. This is a novel attitude towards democracy, that the worst thing you can do in an election is allow someone to stand if they might win.

Maybe Labour should change its rules for elections again, so that anyone who disagrees with Blair is only allowed to stand if they sign a pledge to get fewer than eight votes.

Luckily, Corbyn’s opponents are making a persuasive case for their own bids. Andy Burnham is especially clear that he’s opposed to the Tory’s Welfare Bill, as it will “Hit working families” and “hit children particularly badly”. Indeed he’s so opposed to it that he was determined not to vote against it. The most effective way to oppose it, he insisted, was to abstain rather than vote against it, because that way he can unite the party against it.

It’s so rare that a politician speaks clearly like that, in a language we can all understand. Presumably he’ll be telling all his supporters not to vote for him in the leadership election, but to abstain as that way he can win by even more.

Burnham is known as an Everton fan, so when he’s at their games he must try and persuade the Everton supporters to sing “Spurs and Everton, Spurs and Everton, we’ll abstain on this one evermore, we’ll abstain on this one ever-more”, rather than fall into the trap of supporting the team he supports by supporting them.

Maybe his plan is to make Labour electable again by supporting all the different policies. If he becomes leader, Labour will support the cuts and oppose them, and oppose fox-hunting but support it as well, and that way the party can win votes from everyone.

Labour Leadership cadidates, from left to right: Yvette Cooper, Jeremy Corbyn, Liz Kendall, Andy Burnham

It could be that the reason three of the candidates are struggling to make an impact is they don’t seem capable of expressing what they stand for.

Whenever they’re asked what they believe in they make grand replies such as “I want a Britain not of down but of up, for the always and not the never, that reaches out to all of us, not only people on the 133 bus, a Britain not just of the liver but also the kidney, a Britain that can care, can share, be debonair, fair, abstain on the austere, and say a prayer like Tony Blair.”

Liz Kendall makes some effort to stand for something definite, which is to be like Blair but more so, and next week she’ll probably criticise Blair for only invading Iraq once when he should have done it twice.

There are reports that Kendall has asked Yvette Cooper to drop out, as Liz stands the best chance of beating Corbyn. As every survey shows Kendall is by some distance last, that’s impressive and I might try this myself. I’ll suggest to Mo Farah that he drops out of the 5,000m in next year’s Olympics, as my time of two hours is the only one that stands a chance of beating the Kenyans.

All three are now squabbling, not about ideas or policies or even their favourite type of biscuit, but over which one has the best chance to beat Corbyn. And they must beat him, because by being capable of expressing his ideas clearly and simply, for example by voting against welfare cuts, he makes himself unelectable.

If you look at Corbyn’s record it’s clear he just can’t win elections. In his constituency of Islington North he inherited a majority of 4,456, which is now 21,194. He’s one of the few Labour MPs whose vote increased between 2005 and 2010, when he added 5,685 to his majority. This is typical of the man, defying the official Labour policy of losing votes and getting more of them instead, just to be a rebel.

So let’s hope one of the others triumphs, and at least wins back the votes Labour lost in Scotland, where so many people at the last election said “I canna vote Labour, they don’t abstain enough for me, the wee morons.”

Friday, 24 July 2015

How to think about Islamic State

Pankaj Mishra in The Guardian

Violence has erupted across a broad swath of territory in recent months: wars in Ukraine and the Middle East, suicide bombings in Xinjiang,Nigeria and Turkey, insurgencies from Yemen to Thailand, massacres in Paris, Tunisia and the American south. Future historians may well see such uncoordinated mayhem as commencing the third – and the longest and the strangest – of world wars. Certainly, forces larger and more complex than in the previous two wars are at work; they outrun our capacity to apprehend them, let alone adjust their direction to our benefit.

The early post cold war consensus – that bourgeois democracy has solved the riddle of history, and a global capitalist economy will usher in worldwide prosperity and peace – lies in tatters. But no plausible alternatives of political and economic organisation are in sight. A world organised for the play of individual self-interest looks more and more prone to manic tribalism.

In the lengthening spiral of mutinies from Charleston to central India, the insurgents of Iraq and Syria have monopolised our attention by their swift military victories; their exhibitionistic brutality, especially towards women and minorities; and, most significantly, their brisk seduction of young people from the cities of Europe and the US. Globalisation has everywhere rapidly weakened older forms of authority, in Europe’s social democracies as well as Arab despotisms, and thrown up an array of unpredictable new international actors, from Chinese irredentists and cyberhackers to Syriza and Boko Haram. But the sudden appearance of Islamic State (Isis) in Mosul last year, and the continuing failure to stem its expansion or check its appeal, is the clearest sign of a general perplexity, especially among political elites, who do not seem to know what they are doing and what they are bringing about.

In its capacity to invade and hold a territory the size of England, to inspire me-too zealotry in Pakistan, Gaza, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Libya and Egypt, and to entice thousands of camp followers, Isis represents a quantum leap over all other private and state-sanctioned cults of violence and authoritarianism today. But we are not faring well with the cognitive challenge to define this phenomenon.

For Obama, it is a “terrorist organisation, pure and simple”, which “we will degrade and ultimately destroy”. British politicians, yet again hoping against experience to impress the natives with a show of force, want to bomb the Levant as well as Mesopotamia. A sensationalist and scruple-free press seems eager to collude in their “noble lie”: that a Middle Eastern militia, thriving on the utter ineptitude of its local adversaries, poses an “existential risk” to an island fortress that saw off Napoleon and Hitler. The experts on Islam who opened for business on 9/11 peddle their wares more feverishly, helped by clash-of-civilisation theorists and other intellectual robots of the cold war, which were programmed to think in binaries (us versus them, free versus unfree world, Islam versus the west) and to limit their lexicon to words such as “ideology”, “threat” and “generational struggle”. The rash of pseudo-explanations – Islamism, Islamic extremism, Islamic fundamentalism, Islamic theology, Islamic irrationalism – makes Islam seem more than ever a concept in search of some content whilenormalising hatred and prejudice against more than 1.5 billion people. The abysmal intellectual deficit is summed up, on one hand, by the unremorsefullybellicose figure of Blair, and, on the other, the British government squabbling with the BBC over what to call Isis.


In the broadest view, Isis seems the product of a catastrophic war – the Anglo-American assault on Iraq. There is no doubt that the ground for it was prepared by this systematic devastation – the murder and displacement of millions, which came after more than a decade of brutalisation by sanctions and embargoes. The dismantling of the Iraqi army, de-Ba’athification and the Anglo-American imprimatur to Shia supremacism provoked the formation in Mesopotamia of al-Qaida, Isis’s precursor. Many local factors converged to make Isis’s emergence possible last year: vengeful Sunnis; reorganised Ba’athists in Iraq; the co-dependence of the west on despotic allies (al-Sisi, al-Maliki) and incoherence over Syria; the cynical manoeuvres of Assad; Turkey’s hubristic neo-Ottomanism, which seems exceeded in its recklessness only by the actions of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States.

The failure of the Arab Spring has also played a part. Tunisia, its originator, has sent the largest contingent of foreign jihadis to Iraq and Syria. Altogether an estimated 17,000 people, mostly young men, from 90 countries have travelled to Syria and Iraq to offer their services to Isis. Dozens of British women have gone, despite the fact that men of Isis have enslaved and raped girls as young as 10 years old, and stipulated that Muslim girls marry between the ages of nine and 17, and live in total seclusion. “You can easily earn yourself a higher station with God almighty,” a Canadian insurrectionist, Andre Poulin, exhorted in a video used by Isis for online recruitment, “by sacrificing just a small bit of this worldly life.”

It is not hard to see that populous countries such as Pakistan and Indonesia will always have a significant number of takers for well-paid martyrdom. What explains, however, the allure of a caliphate among thousands of residents of relatively prosperous and stable countries, such as the high-achieving London schoolgirls who travelled to Syria this spring?

Isis, the military phenomenon, could conceivably be degraded and destroyed. Or, it could rise further, fall abruptly and then rise again (like al-Qaida, which has been degraded and destroyed several times in recent years). The state can use its immense power to impound passports, shut down websites, and even enforce indoctrination in “British values” in schools. But this is no way to stem what seems a worldwide outbreak of intellectual and moral secessionism.

Isis is only one of its many beneficiaries; demagogues of all kinds have tapped the simmering reservoirs of cynicism and discontent. At the very least, their growing success and influence ought to make us re-examine our basic assumptions of order and continuity since the political and scientific revolutions of the 19th century – our belief that the human goods achieved so far by a fortunate minority can be realised by the ever-growing majority that desires them. We must ask if the millions of young people awakening around the world to their inheritance can realise the modern promise of freedom and prosperity. Or, are they doomed to lurch, like many others in the past, between a sense of inadequacy and fantasies of revenge?


 Returning to Russia from Europe in 1862, Dostoevsky first began to explore at length the very modern torment of ressentiment that the misogynists of Twittertoday manifest as much as the dupes of Isis. Russian writers from Pushkin onwards had already probed the peculiar psychology of the “superfluous” man in a semi-westernised society: educated into a sense of hope and entitlement, but rendered adrift by his limited circumstances, and exposed to feelings of weakness, inferiority and envy. Russia, trying to catch up with the west, produced many such spiritually unmoored young men who had a quasi-Byronic conception of freedom, further inflated by German idealism, but the most unpromising conditions in which to realise them.

Rudin in Turgenev’s eponymous novel desperately wants to surrender himself “completely, greedily, utterly” to something; he ends up dead on a Parisian barricade in 1848, having sacrificed himself to a cause he doesn’t fully believe in. It was, however, Dostoevsky who saw most acutely how individuals, trained to believe in a lofty notion of personal freedom and sovereignty, and then confronted with a reality that cruelly cancelled it, could break out of paralysing ambivalence into gratuitous murder and paranoid insurgency.

His insight into this fateful gap between the theory and practice of liberal individualism developed during his travels in western Europe – the original site of the greatest social, political and economic transformations in human history, and the exemplar with its ideal of individual freedom for all of humanity. By the mid-19th century, Britain was the paradigmatic modern state and society, with its sights firmly set on industrial prosperity and commercial expansion. Visiting London in 1862, Dostoevsky quickly realised the world-historical import of what he was witnessing. “You become aware of a colossal idea,” he wrote after visiting the International Exhibition, showcase of an all-conquering material culture: “You sense that it would require great and everlasting spiritual denial and fortitude in order not to submit, not to capitulate before the impression, not to bow to what is, and not to deify Baal, that is, not to accept the material world as your ideal.”

However, as Dostoevsky saw it, the cost of such splendour and magnificence was a society dominated by the war of all against all, in which most people were condemned to be losers. In Paris, he caustically noted that liberté existed only for the millionaire. The notion of equality before the law was a “personal insult” to the poor exposed to French justice. As for fraternité, it was another hoax in a society driven by the “individualist, isolationist instinct” and the lust for private property.

Dostoevsky diagnosed the new project of human emancipation through the bewilderment and bitterness of people coming late to the modern world, and hoping to use its evidently successful ideas and methods to their advantage. For these naive latecomers, the gap between the noble ends of individual liberation and the poverty of available means in their barbarous social order was the greatest. The self-loathing clerk in Notes from Underground represents the human being who is excruciatingly aware that free moral choice is impossible in a world increasingly regimented by instrumental reason. He dreams constantly and impotently of revenge against his social superiors. Raskolnikov, the deracinated former law student in Crime and Punishment, is the psychopath of instrumental rationality, who can work up evidently logical reasons to do anything he desires. After murdering an old woman, he derives philosophical validation from the most celebrated nationalist and imperialist of his time, Napoleon: a “true master, to whom everything is permitted”.


The bloody dramas of political and economic laggards can seem remote from liberal-democratic Britain. The early and decisive winner in the sweepstakes of modern history has guaranteed an admirable measure of security, stability and dignity to many of its citizens. The parochial vision of modern history as essentially a conflict between open society and its enemies (liberal democracy versus nazism, communism and Islam) can feel accurate within the unbreached perimeters of Britain (and the US). It is not untrue to assert that Britain’s innovations and global reach spread the light of reason to the remotest corners of the Earth. Britain made the modern world in the sense that the forces it helped to originate – technology, economic organisation and science – formed a maelstrom that is still overwhelming millions of lives.

But this is also why Britain’s achievements cannot be seen in isolation from their ambiguous consequences elsewhere. Blaming Islamic theology, or fixating on the repellent rhetoric of Isis, may be indispensable in achieving moral self-entrancement, and toughening up convictions of superiority: we, liberal, democratic and rational, are not at all like these savages. But these spine-stiffening exercises can’t obscure the fact that Britain’s history has long been continuous with the world it made, which includes its ostensible enemies in Europe and beyond. Regardless of what the “island story” says, the belief systems and institutions Britain initiated – a global market economy, the nation state, utilitarian rationality – first caused a long emergency in Europe, before roiling the older worlds of Asia and Africa.

The recurrent crises explain why a range of figures, from Blake to Gandhi, and Simone Weil to Yukio Mishima, reacted remarkably similarly to the advent of industrial and commercial society, to the unprecedented phenomenon of all that is solid melting into thin air, across Europe, Asia and Africa.

“Spectres reign where no gods are,” Schiller wrote, deploring the atrophying of the “sacral sense” into nationalism and political power. Fear of moral and spiritual diminishment, and social chaos, was also a commonplace of much 19th-century British writing. “The rich have become richer, and the poor have become poorer; and the vessel of the state is driven between the Scylla and Charybdis of anarchy and despotism,” Shelley wrote in 1821, blaming inequality and disorder on the “unmitigated exercise of the calculating faculty”. Coleridge, denouncing “a contemptible democratical oligarchy of glib economists”, asked: “Is the increasing number of wealthy individuals that which ought to be understood by the wealth of the nation?” Dickens did much with Carlyle’s despairing insight into cash payment as the “sole nexus” between human beings. DH Lawrence recoiled fruitfully from “the base forcing of all human energy into a competition of mere acquisition”. Proximity to British arguments helped shape Marx’s vision of a proletariat goaded by the inequities and degradations of industrial capitalism into a revolutionary redemption of human existence.

The actual revolutions and revolts, however, occurred outside Britain, where liberal individualism, the product of a settled society with fixed social structures, seemed to have no answers to the plight of the uprooted masses living in squalor in cities. Its failure first motivated cultural nationalists, socialists, anarchists and revolutionaries across Europe, before seeding many anti-colonial movements in Asia and Africa. In an irony of modern history, which stalks revolutions and revolts to this day, the search for a new moral community has constantly assumed unpredicted and vicious forms. But then the dislocations and traumas caused by industralisation and urbanisation accelerated the growth of ideologies of race and blood in even enlightened western Europe.

A militant Islamist fighter films a military parade in northern Syria celebrating the declaration of an Islamic caliphate. Photograph: Reuters


“The way of modern culture,” the Austrian writer Franz Grillparzer once lamented, “leads from humanity through nationality to bestiality.” He died too early (1872) to see another landmark en route to barbarism: modern European imperialism, whose humanitarian rhetoric was, like one of its representatives, Conrad’s Kurtz, “hollow at the core”.

In Asia, the usual disruptions of an industrial and commercial system that transcends political frontiers and destroys economic self-sufficiency, enslaving individuals to impersonal forces, were accompanied by a racist imperialism. The early victims and opponents of this ultra-aggressive modernity were local elites who organised their resistance around traditionalist loyalties and fantasies of recapturing a lost golden age – tendencies evident in the Boxer Rebellion in China as well as early 19th-century jihads against British rule in India.

Premodern political chieftains, who were long ago supplanted by western-educated men and women quoting John Stuart Mill and demanding individual rights, do not and cannot exist any more, however “Islamic” their theology may seem. They return today as parody – and there is much that is purely camp about a self-appointed caliph sporting a Rolex and India’s Hindu revivalist prime minister draped in a Savile Row $15,000 suit with personalised pin stripes. The spread of literacy, improved communications, rising populations and urbanisation have transformed the remotest corners of Asia and Africa. The desire for self-expansion through material success fully dominates the extant spiritual ideals of traditional religions and cultures.

Isis desperately tries to reinvent the early ideological antagonism between the imperialistic modern west and its traditionalist enemies. A recent issue of their magazine Dabiq approvingly quotes George W Bush’s us-versus-them exhortation, insisting that there is no “Gray Zone” in the holy war. Craving intellectual and political prestige, the DIY jihadists receive helpful endorsements from the self-proclaimed paladins of the west, such as Michael Gove, Britain’s leading American-style neocon. Responding to the revelation on 17 July of secret British bombing of Syria, Gove asserted that the “need to maintain the strengthand durability of the western alliance in the face of Islamist fundamentalism” can “trump everything”.

Clashing in the night, the ignorant armies of ideologues endow each other’s cherished self-conceptions with the veracity they crave. But their self-flattering oppositions collapse once we recognise that much violence today arises out of a heightened and continuously thwarted desire for convergence and resemblance rather than religious, cultural and theological difference.

The advent of the global economy in the 19th century, and its empowerment of a small island, caused an explosion of mimetic desire from western Europe to Japan. Since then, a sense of impotence and compensatory cultural pride has routinely driven the weak and marginalised to attack those that seem stronger than them while secretly desiring to possess their advantages. Humiliated rage and furtive envy characterise Muslim insurrectionaries and Hindu fanatics today as much as they did the militarist Japanese insisting on their unique spiritual quintessence. It is certainly not some esoteric 13th-century Hadith that makes Isis so eager to adopt the modern west’s technologies of war, revolution and propaganda – especially, as the homicidal dandyism of Jihadi John reveals, its mediatised shock-and-awe violence.

There is nothing remarkable about the fact that the biggest horde of foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria originated in Tunisia, the most westernised of Arab countries. Mass education, economic crisis and unfeeling government have long constituted a fertile soil for the cults of authoritarianism and violence. Powerlessness and deprivation are exacerbated today by the ability, boosted by digital media, to constantly compare your life with the lives of the fortunate (especially women entering the workforce or prominent in the public sphere: a common source of rage for men with siege mentalities worldwide). The quotient of frustration tends to be highest in countries that have a large population of educated young men who have undergone multiple shocks and displacements in their transition to modernity and yet find themselves unable to fulfil the promise of self-empowerment. For many of them the contradiction Dostoevsky noticed between extravagant promise and meagre means has become intolerable.


The sacral sense – the traditional basis of religion, entailing humility and self-restraint – has atrophied even where the churches, mosques and temples are full. The spectres of power reign incontestably where no gods are. Their triumph makes nonsense of the medieval-modern axis on which jihadis preening on Instagram in Halloween costumes are still reflexively defined. So extensive is the rout of pre-modern spiritual and metaphysical traditions that it is hard to even imagine their resurrection, let alone the restoration, on a necessarily large scale, of a non-instrumental view of human life (and the much-despoiled natural world). But there seem to be no political escape routes, either, out of the grisly cycle of retributive bombing and beheading.

The choice for many people in the early 20th century, as Rosa Luxemburgfamously proclaimed, was between socialism and barbarism. The German thinker spoke as the historical drama of the 19th century – revolution, nationalism, state-building, economic expansion, arms races, imperial aggrandisement – reached a disastrous denouement in the first world war. The choice has seemed less clear in the century since.

The mimic imperialisms of Japan and Germany, two resentful late-modernisers in Britain’s shadow, played out on a catastrophic scale the conflict built into the capitalist order. But socialist states committed to building human societies on co-operation rather than rivalry produced their own grotesqueries, as manifested byStalin and Mao and numerous regimes in the colonised world that sought moral advantage over their western masters by aiming at equality as well as prosperity.

Since 1989, the energies of postcolonial idealism have faded together with socialism as an economic and moral alternative. The unfettered globalisation of capital annexed more parts of the world into a uniform pattern of desire and consumption. The democratic revolution of aspiration De Tocqueville witnessed in the early 19th century swept across the world, sparking longings for wealth, status and power in the most unpromising circumstances. Equality of conditions, in which talent, education and hard work are rewarded by individual mobility, ceased to be an exclusively American illusion after 1989. It proliferated even as structural inequality entrenches itself further.

In the neoliberal fantasy of individualism, everyone was supposed to be an entrepreneur, retraining and repackaging themselves in a dynamic economy, perpetually alert to the latter’s technological revolutions. But capital continually moves across national boundaries in the search for profit, contemptuously sweeping skills and norms made obsolete by technology into the dustbin of history; and defeat and humiliation have become commonplace experiences in the strenuous endeavour of franchising the individual self.

Significantly numerous members of the precariat realise today that there is no such thing as a level playing field. The number of superfluous young people condemned to the anteroom of the modern world, an expanded Calais in its squalor and hopelessness, has grown exponentially in recent decades, especially in Asia and Africa’s youthful societies. The appeal of formal and informal secession – the possibility, broadly, of greater control over your life – has grown from Scotland to Hong Kong, beyond the cunningly separatist elites with multiple citizenship and offshore accounts. More and more people feel the gap between the profligate promises of individual freedom and sovereignty, and the incapacity of their political and economic organisations to realise them.

Even the nation state expressly designed to fulfil those promises – the United States – seethes with angry disillusionment across its class and racial divisions. A sense of victimhood festers among even relatively advantaged white men, as the rancorously popular candidacy of Donald Trump confirms. Elsewhere, the nasty discovery of Atticus Finch as a segregationist compounds the shock of Ferguson and Baltimore. Coming after decades of relentless and now insurmountable inequality, the revelation of long-standing systemic violence against African Americans is challenging some primary national myths and pieties. In a democracy founded by wealthy slave-owners and settler colonialists, and hollowed out by plutocrats, many citizens turn out to have never enjoyed equality of conditions. They raise the question that cuts through decades of liberal evasiveness about the cruelties of a political system intended to facilitate private moneymaking: “how to erect,” as Ta-Nehisi Coates puts it in his searing new book, Between the World and Me, “a democracy independent of cannibalism?”

And yet the obvious moral flaws of capitalism have not made it politically vulnerable. In the west, a common and effective response among regnant elites to unravelling national narratives and loss of legitimacy is fear-mongering among minorities and immigrants – an insidious campaign that continuously feeds on the hostility it provokes. These cosseted beneficiaries of an iniquitous order are also quick to ostracise the stray dissenter among them, as the case of Greece reveals. Chinese, Russian, Turkish and Indian leaders, who are also productively refurbishing their nation-building ideologies, have even less reason to oppose a global economic system that has helped enrich them and their cronies and allies.

Rather, Xi Jinping, Modi, Putin and Erdogan follow in the line of early 19th-century European and Japanese demagogues who responded to the many crises of capitalism by exhorting unity before internal and external threats. European or American-style imperialism is not a feasible option for them yet; they deploy instead, more riskily, jingoistic nationalism and cross-border militarism as a valve for domestic tensions. They have also retrofitted old-style nationalism for their growing populations of uprooted citizens, who harbour yearnings for belonging and community as well as material plenitude. Their self-legitimising narratives are necessarily hybrid: Mao-plus-Confucius, Holy Cow-plus-Smart Cities, Neoliberalism-plus-Islam, Putinism-plus-Orthodox Christianity.

 ‘Isis mobilises ressentiment into militant rebellion against the status quo’. Photograph: Reuters Photograph: Stringer . / Reuters/REUTERS

Isis, too, offers a postmodern collage rather than a determinate creed. Born in the ruins of two nation states that dissolved in sectarian violence, it vends the fantasy of a morally untainted and transnational caliphate. In actuality, Isis is the canniest of all traders in the flourishing international economy of disaffection: the most resourceful among all those who offer the security of collective identity to isolated and fearful individuals. It promises, along with others who retail racial, national and religious supremacy, to release the anxiety and frustrations of the private life into the violence of the global. Unlike its rivals, however, Isis mobilises ressentiment into militant rebellion against the status quo.

Isis mocks the entrepreneurial age’s imperative to project an appealing personality by posting snuff videos on social media. At the same time, it has a stern bureaucracy devoted to proper sanitation and tax collection. Some members of Isis extol the spiritual nobility of the Prophet and the earliest caliphs. Others confess through their mass rapes, choreographed murders and rational self-justifications a primary fealty to nihilism: that characteristically modern-day and insidiously common doctrine that makes it impossible for modern-day Raskolnikovs to deny themselves anything, and possible to justify anything.

The shapeshifting aspect of Isis is hardly unusual in a world in which “liberals” morph into warmongers, and “conservatives” institute revolutionary free-market “reforms”. Meanwhile, technocrats, while slashing employment and welfare benefits, and immiserating entire societies and generations, propose to bomb refugee boats, and secure unprecedented powers to imprison and snoop.

You can of course continue to insist on the rationality of liberal democracy as against “Islamic irrationalism” while waging infinite wars abroad and assaulting civil liberties at home. Such a conception of liberalism and democracy, however, will not only reveal its inability to offer wise representation to citizens. It will also make freshly relevant the question about intellectual and moral legitimacy raised by TS Eliot at a dark time in 1938, when he asked if “our society, which had always been so assured of its superiority and rectitude, so confident of its unexamined premises” was “assembled round anything more permanent than a congeries of banks, insurance companies and industries, and had it any beliefs more essential than a belief in compound interest and the maintenance of dividends?”

Today, the unmitigated exercise of the calculating faculty looks more indifferent to ordinary lives, and their need for belief and enchantment. The political impasses and economic shocks in our societies, and the irreparably damaged environment, corroborate the bleakest views of 19th-century critics who condemned modern capitalism as a heartless machinery for economic growth, or the enrichment of the few, which works against such fundamentally human aspirations as stability, community and a better future. Isis, among many others, draws its appeal from an incoherence of concepts – “democracy” and “individual rights” among them – with which many still reflexively shore up the ideological defences of a self-evidently dysfunctional system. The contradictions and costs of a tiny minority’s progress, long suppressed by blustery denial and aggressive equivocation, have become visible on a planetary scale. They encourage the suspicion – potentially lethal among the hundreds of millions of young people condemned to being superfluous – that the present order, democratic or authoritarian, is built on force and fraud; they incite a broader and more volatile apocalyptic and nihilistic mood than we have witnessed before. Professional politicians, and their intellectual menials, will no doubt blather on about “Islamic fundamentalism”, the “western alliance” and “full-spectrum response”. Much radical thinking, however, is required if we are to prevent ressentiment from erupting into even bigger conflagrations.