Thursday, 30 June 2016

Jeremy Corbyn is the only man who can solve Britain’s post-Brexit problems

Youssef El-Gingihy in The Independent

The Brexit vote has precipitated the deepest political crisis in Britain in a generation. The nation is divided and the climate is lurching dangerously towards the far right. At this critical moment for the future of the country, the Blairites have opportunistically mounted an anti-Corbyn coup. They have been incubating this coup from day one despite Corbyn's overwhelming mandate.

They talk of Corbyn as an aberration. It is, in fact, the other way round. It is the Blairites, who represent a deviation in the history of the Labour party away from its values and eponymous constituency. The biggest threat to the Conservatives would be an alternative, viable anti-austerity manifesto.

Fortunately, the Blairites are outnumbered, in the wider party, by the massive influx of new members joining since the general election. This new membership alone is greater than the entire membership of the Conservative party. Contrary to the media narrative, Corbyn's victory has galvanised whole swathes of the electorate, particularly amongst young voters.

Blair may have won three elections, but in so doing he nearly destroyed his own party. In Scotland, millions felt they had been abandoned by New Labour's policies including the Iraq war and the embrace of neoliberalism. The same pattern has been repeated in the North of England with traditional working class voters in Labour heartlands defecting to UKIP. The UKIP vote went up from under a million in 2010 to nearly 4 million in 2015.

Labour did not just lose the election. It lost the previous five years by acquiescing to a bogus Tory narrative of excessive public spending as causing or exacerbating the crisis despite the IMF clearly rebutting this. Miliband tried to appease his base with attacks on predatory capitalism but, at the same time, he tried to out-tough the Tories on immigration and cuts. This schizoid approach did not convince voters. Why vote for austerity-lite when you can have the real thing?

The idea that Corbyn is unelectable or cannot be sold to the media is a strange one. Real politics and real leadership is about creating a vision for the country rather than merely chasing votes according to what is perceived to be flavour of the month. The post-war Labour government pursued its monumental achievements by being bold and radical. It set the agenda for a social democratic settlement, which shaped the future of Britain for decades, forcing the Tories to accommodate. When the neoliberals started out, they were in the political wilderness. They gradually transformed politics with the backing of powerful allies. For the worse admittedly. But Thatcher never asked the media or the political establishment for permission.

The notion that a return to Blairism would rescue Labour is completely out of touch. And dangerously so. Neoliberal economics is broken and we are in an era of perpetual economic stagnation and crisis. If the left does not offer a convincing, progressive alternative then UKIP and the far right will capitalise.

This is a battle for the soul of the Labour party between neoliberal Blairism and the progressive left. Certainly a split now looks almost inevitable. If that is what is needed to save the party then so be it.

The Conservatives are offering up a prospectus of more of the same - privatisation, financialisation, dismantling the public sector all in the guise of austerity. Now more than ever, we need a strong left with transformative policies to counter the dominance of the right and the framing of politics in the reactionary discourse of nationalism and racism. Only progressive forces can steer Britain away from the dangers of far-right fascism and offer working class people a better future.

Why elections are bad for democracy

David Van Reybrouck in The Guardian

Brexit is a turning point in the history of western democracy. Never before has such a drastic decision been taken through so primitive a procedure – a one-round referendum based on a simple majority. Never before has the fate of a country – of an entire continent, in fact – been changed by the single swing of such a blunt axe, wielded by disenchanted and poorly informed citizens.

But this is just the latest in a series of worrying blows to the health of democracy. On the surface, everything still seems fine. A few years ago, the World Values Survey, a large-scale international research project, asked more than 73,000 people in 57 countries if they believed democracy was a good way to govern a country – and nearly 92% said yes. But that same survey found that in the past 10 years, around the world, there has been a considerable increase in calls for a strong leader “who does not have to bother with parliament and elections” – and that trust in governments and political parties has reached a historical low. It would appear that people like the idea of democracy but loathe the reality.

Trust in the institutions of democracy is also visibly declining. In the past five years, the European Union’s official research bureau found that less than 30% of Europeans had faith in their national parliaments and governments – some of the lowest figures in years, and an indication that almost three-quarters of people distrust their countries’ most important political institutions. Everywhere in the west, political parties – the key players in our democracies – are among the least trusted institutions in society. Although a certain scepticism is an essential component of citizenship in a free society, we are justified in asking how widespread this distrust might be and at what point healthy scepticism tips over into outright aversion.

There is something explosive about an era in which interest in politics grows while faith in politics declines. What does it mean for the stability of a country if more and more people warily keep track of the activities of an authority that they increasingly distrust? How much derision can a system endure, especially now that everyone can share their deeply felt opinions online?

Fifty years ago, we lived in a world of greater political apathy and yet greater trust in politics. Now there is both passion and distrust. These are turbulent times, as the events of the past week demonstrate all too clearly. And yet, for all this turbulence, there has been little reflection on the tools that our democracies use. It is still a heresy to ask whether elections, in their current form, are a badly outmoded technology for converting the collective will of the people into governments and policies.

We discuss and debate the outcome of a referendum without discussing its principles. This should be surprising. In a referendum, we ask people directly what they think when they have not been obliged to think – although they have certainly been bombarded by every conceivable form of manipulation in the months leading up to the vote. But the problem is not confined to referendums: in an election, you may cast your vote, but you are also casting it away for the next few years. This system of delegation to an elected representative may have been necessary in the past – when communication was slow and information was limited – but it is completely out of touch with the way citizens interact with each other today. Even in the 18th century, Jean-Jacques Rousseau had already observed that elections alone were no guarantee of liberty: “The people of England deceive themselves when they fancy they are free; they are so, in fact, only during the election of members of parliament: for, as soon as a new one is elected, they are again in chains, and are nothing.”

Referendums and elections are both arcane instruments of public deliberation. If we refuse to update our democratic technology, we may find the system is beyond repair; 2016 already risks becoming the worst year for democracy since 1933. We may find, even after the folly of Brexit, that Donald Trump wins the American presidency later this year. But this may have less to do with Trump himself, or the oddities of the American political system, than with a dangerous road that all western democracies have taken: reducing democracy to voting.

Isn’t it bizarre that voting, our highest civic duty, boils down to an individual action performed in the silence of the voting booth? Is this really the place where we turn individual gut feelings into shared priorities? Is it really where the common good and the long term are best served?

By refusing to change procedures, we have made political turmoil and instability defining features of western democracy. Last weekend Spain had to hold its second general election in six months, after the first run did not deliver a government. A few weeks ago, Austria almost elected its first extreme rightwing president, while a Dutch referendum in April voted down a trade agreement between Ukraine and the EU. My country, Belgium, became the laughing stock of Europe a few years earlier, when it failed to form a government for 541 days. But nobody is laughing now that it seems that many western democracies are in the process of turning “Belgian”.

Two women enter a polling station to vote in the EU referendum in London. Photograph: Hannah Mckay/EPA

Countless western societies are currently afflicted by what we might call “democratic fatigue syndrome”. Symptoms may include referendum fever, declining party membership, and low voter turnout. Or government impotence and political paralysis – under relentless media scrutiny, widespread public distrust, and populist upheavals.

But democratic fatigue syndrome is not so much caused by the people, the politicians or the parties – it is caused by the procedure. Democracy is not the problem. Voting is the problem. Where is the reasoned voice of the people in all this? Where do citizens get the chance to obtain the best possible information, engage with each other and decide collectively upon their future? Where do citizens get a chance to shape the fate of their communities? Not in the voting booth, for sure.

The words “election” and “democracy” have become synonymous. We have convinced ourselves that the only way to choose a representative is through the ballot box. After all, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 states as much: “The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.”

The words “this will shall be expressed” are typical of our way of thinking about democracy: when we say “democracy”, we only mean “elections”. But isn’t it remarkable that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights contains such a precise definition of how the will of the people must be expressed? Why should such a concise text about basic rights, which is fewer than 2,000 words long, pay particular attention to the practical execution of one of these rights? It is as if the people who compiled the declaration back in 1948 had come to see the specific method as a basic right, as if the procedure was in itself sacred.

It would appear that the fundamental cause of democratic fatigue syndrome lies in the fact that we have all become electoral fundamentalists, venerating elections but despising the people who are elected.

Electoral fundamentalism is an unshakeable belief in the idea that democracy is inconceivable without elections and elections are a necessary and fundamental precondition when speaking of democracy. Electoral fundamentalists refuse to regard elections as a means of taking part in democracy, seeing them instead as an end in themselves, as a doctrine with an intrinsic, inalienable value.

This blind faith in the ballot box as the ultimate base on which popular sovereignty rests can be seen most vividly of all in international diplomacy. When western donor countries hope that countries ravaged by conflict – such as Congo, Iraq or Afghanistan – will become democracies, what they really mean is this: they must hold elections, preferably on the western model, with voting booths, ballot papers and ballot boxes; with parties, campaigns and coalitions; with lists of candidates, polling stations and sealing wax, just like we do. And then they will receive money from us.

Local democratic and proto-democratic institutions (village meetings, traditional conflict mediation or ancient jurisprudence) stand no chance. These things may have their value in encouraging a peaceful and collective discussion, but the money will be shut off unless our own tried-and-tested recipe is adhered to.

If you look at the recommendations of western donors, it is as if democracy is a kind of export product, off the peg, in handy packaging, ready for dispatch. “Free and fair elections” become an Ikea kit for democracy – to be assembled by the recipient, with or without the help of the instructions enclosed. And if the resulting piece of furniture is lopsided, uncomfortable to sit on or falls apart? Then it’s the fault of the customer.

That elections can have all kinds of outcomes in states that are fragile, including violence, ethnic tensions, criminality and corruption, seems of secondary importance. That elections do not automatically foster democracy, but may instead prevent or destroy it, is conveniently forgotten. We insist that in every country in the world people must traipse off to the polling stations. Our electoral fundamentalism really does take the form of a new, global evangelism. Elections are the sacraments of that new faith, a ritual regarded as a vital necessity in which the form is more important than the content.

This single-minded focus on elections is actually rather odd. During the past 3,000 years, people have been experimenting with democracy and only in the last 200 have they practised it exclusively by holding elections. Yet we regard elections as the only valid method. Why? Force of habit is at play here, of course, but there is a more simple cause, based on the fact that elections have worked pretty well over the past two centuries. Despite a number of notoriously bad outcomes, they have very often made democracy possible.

However, elections originated in a completely different context from the one that they function in today. When the supporters of the American and French revolutions proposed elections as a way of learning “the will of the people”, there were no political parties, no laws regarding universal franchise, no commercial mass media, and no internet. The forerunners of our representative democracy had no idea that any of these things would come into existence.

Elections are the fossil fuel of politics. Whereas once they gave democracy a huge boost, much as oil did for our economies, it now turns out they cause colossal problems of their own. If we don’t urgently reconsider the nature of our democratic fuel, a systemic crisis awaits. If we obstinately hold on to a notion of democracy that reduces its meaning to voting in elections and referendums, at a time of economic malaise, we will undermine the democratic process.

In the years after the second world war, western democracies were dominated by large mass parties, and they held the structures of the state in their hands. Through a network of intermediary organisations, such as unions, corporations and party media, they succeeded in being close to the lives of individual citizens. This resulted in an extremely stable system, with great party loyalty and predictable voting behaviour.

This changed in the 1980s and 1990s, when discourse was increasingly shaped by the free market. Party newspapers disappeared or were bought up by media concerns, commercial broadcasters entered the field and even public broadcasters increasingly adopted market thinking. Viewing, reading and listening figures became hugely important – they were the daily share price index of public opinion. Commercial mass media emerged as the most important builders of social consensus, and organised civil society lost ground. The consequences were predictable, as citizens became consumers and elections hazardous.

Donald Trump at a campaign rally in Phoenix, Arizona. Photograph: Ralph Freso/Getty Images

Parties began to see themselves less as intermediaries between people and power, and instead settled into the fringes of the state apparatus. To retain their places there, they had to turn to the voter every few years to top up their legitimacy. Elections became a battle fought out in the media for the favour of voters. The passions aroused among the populace diverted attention from a far more fundamental emotion, an increasing irritation with anything and everything pertaining to politics.

In 2004, the British sociologist Colin Crouch came up with the term “post-democracy” to describe this new order:
Under this model, while elections certainly exist and can change governments, public electoral debate is a tightly controlled spectacle, managed by rival teams of professionals expert in the techniques of persuasion, and considering a small range of issues selected by those teams. The mass of citizens plays a passive, quiescent part, responding only to the signals given them.

The Italy of Silvio Berlusconi came closest to fitting this definition of the post-democratic state but elsewhere too we have seen processes that tend in that direction. Since the end of the 20th century, citizens have started looking like their 19th-century predecessors. Because civil society has become weaker, a gulf has opened up again between the state and the individual.

After the rise of the political parties, the introduction of universal suffrage, the rise and fall of organised civil society and the dominance of commercial media, another factor has now been added: social media.

At the beginning of the 21st century, citizens could follow the political theatre, minute by minute, on radio, television or the internet, but today they can respond to it from second to second and mobilise others. The culture of immediate reporting now has instant feedback, resulting in even more of a cacophony. The work of the public figure, and especially the elected politician, is not made easier by any of this. He or she can immediately see whether new proposals appeal to the citizen, and indeed just how many people the citizen can whip up. New technology gives people a voice, but the nature of this new political involvement makes the electoral system creak at the joints all the more.

Commercial and social media also reinforce one another – picking up each other’s news and bouncing it back to create an atmosphere of perpetual mudslinging. Tough competition, loss of advertising revenue and falling sales prompt the media to produce increasingly vehement reports about increasingly exaggerated conflicts. For radio and television, national politics has become a daily soap opera, and while editors determine to some extent the framing, the script and the typecasting, politicians, with varying degrees of success, try to slant things this way or that. The most popular politicians are those who succeed in altering the script and reframing the debate – in other words, those who can bend the media to their will.

This collective hysteria has made election fever permanent and has serious consequences for the workings of democracy. Efficiency suffers under the electoral calculus, legitimacy under the continual need to distinguish oneself, while time and again, the electoral system ensures that the long term and the common interest lose out to the short term and party interests. Elections were once invented to make democracy possible, but in these circumstances they seem to be a hindrance.

Since we have reduced democracy to selecting representatives, and reduced representative democracy to mean simply voting, a valuable system is now mired in deep difficulties. Winning the next election has become more important than fulfilling the promises made in the last. Making the best of the system we have is becoming increasingly difficult.

What kind of democracy is appropriate to an era of fast, decentralised communication? How should the government deal with all those articulate citizens who stand shouting from the sidelines?

Imagine having to develop a system today that would express the will of the people. Would it really be a good idea to have them all queue up at polling stations every four or five years with a bit of card in their hands and go into a dark booth to put a mark next to names on a list, names of people about whom restless reporting had been going on for months in a commercial environment that profits from restlessness?

People care deeply about their communities and want to be heard. But a much better way to let the people speak than through a referendum is to return to the central principle of Athenian democracy: drafting by lot, or sortition as it is presently called. In ancient Athens, the large majority of public functions were assigned by lot. Renaissance states such as Venice and Florence worked on the same basis and experienced centuries of political stability. With sortition, you do not ask everyone to vote on an issue few people really understand, but you draft a random sample of the population and make sure they come to the grips with the subject matter in order to take a sensible decision. A cross-section of society that is informed can act more coherently than an entire society that is uninformed.

Experiments with sortition have been successfully applied in the US, Australia, and the Netherlands. The most innovative country so far is certainly Ireland. In December 2012, a constitutional convention began work in order to revise several articles of the constitution of Ireland. Its members were not just a committee of MPs working behind closed doors, but a mixture of elected politicians and ordinary people: 33 elected politicians and 66 citizens, drafted by lot, from both Ireland and Northern Ireland. This group met one weekend per month for more than a year.

An independent research bureau put together the random group of 66 citizens, taking account of age, sex and place of birth. The diversity this produced was helpful when it came to discussing such subjects as same-sex marriage, the rights of women or the ban on blasphemy in the current constitution. However, they did not do all this alone: participants listened to experts and received input from other citizens (more than a thousand contributions came in on the subject of gay marriage). The decisions made by the convention did not have the force of law; the recommendations first had to be passed by the two chambers of the Irish parliament, then by the government and then in a referendum.

By talking to a diverse cross-section of Irish society, politicians could get further than they could have by just talking to each other. By exchanging views with elected officials, citizens could give much more relevant input than they could have in an election or a referendum.

What if this procedure had been applied in the UK last week? What if a random sample of citizens had a chance to learn from experts, listen to proposals, talk to each other and engage with politicians? What if a mixed group of elected and drafted citizens had thought the matter through? What if the rest of society could have had a chance to follow and contribute to their deliberations? What if the proposal this group would have come up with had been subjected to public scrutiny? Do we think a similarly reckless decision would have been taken?

The leaders’ debate on ITV before the 2015 general election. Left to right: Ed Miliband, Leanne Wood, Nicola Sturgeon and David Cameron. Photograph: Ken McKay/ ITV / Rex/EPA

Sortition could provide a remedy to the democratic fatigue syndrome that we see everywhere today. The drawing of lots is not a miracle cure any more than elections ever were, but it can help correct a number of the faults in the current system. The risk of corruption is reduced, election fever abates and attention to the common good increases. Voting on the basis of gut feeling is replaced by sensible deliberation, as those who have been drafted are exposed to expert opinion, objective information and public debate. Citizens chosen by lot may not have the expertise of professional politicians, but they add something vital to the process: freedom. After all, they don’t need to be elected or re-elected.

Juries for criminal trials that are chosen by lot prove that people generally take their task extremely seriously. The fear of a chamber that behaves recklessly or irresponsibly is unfounded. If we agree that 12 people can decide in good faith about the freedom or imprisonment of a fellow citizen, then we can be confident that a number of them can and will serve the interests of the community in a responsible manner.

If many countries rely on the principle of sortition in the criminal justice system, why not rely on it in the legislative system? We already use a lottery like this every day, but we use it in the worst possible form: public opinion polling. As the American political scientist James Fishkin famously remarked: “In a poll, we ask people what they think when they don’t think. It would be more interesting to ask what they think after they had a chance to think.”

Democracy is not, by definition, government by the best, elected or not. It flourishes precisely by allowing a diversity of voices to be heard. It is all about having an equal say, an equal right to determine what political action is taken.

In order to keep democracy alive, we will have to learn that democracy cannot be reduced to voting alone. Elections and referendums become dangerously outmoded tools if they are not enriched with more sensible forms of citizens’ participation. Structured deliberation with a random sample of citizens promises to generate a more vital, dynamic and inclusive form of democracy. In Utrecht, the fourth city of the Netherlands, the city council now drafts by lot 150 citizens to co-create its sustainable energy plan. These processes may become a permanent feature of any modern democracy.

The most common argument against sortition is the supposed incompetence of the those who have not been elected. A body of elected representatives undoubtedly has more technical competencies than a body chosen by lot. But what is the use of a parliament full of highly educated lawyers if few of them know the price of bread?

Besides, the elected do not know everything. They need staff and researchers to fill the gaps in their expertise. In much the same way, a representative body chosen by lot would not stand alone. It could invite experts, rely on professionals to moderate debates and put questions to citizens. Legislation could arise from the interaction between it and an elected chamber.

The arguments put forward against sortition are often identical to the reasons once put forward for not allowing peasants, workers or women to vote. Then, too, opponents claimed it would mark the end of democracy. Do we think Brexit might still have been possible if citizens had been truly invited to express their grievances and search for solutions together with those they had voted for?

If David Cameron had opted for the genuine participation of citizens, he would have obtained a much clearer view of what people really wanted, a powerful list of shared priorities, an agenda for further negotiations, and created much less distrust between the masses and the ruling class. On top of that, he would have gained global admiration for daring to tackle a complex challenge by an innovative process that values people’s voices instead of counting their votes. He could have set a new standard for democracy, rather than serving as its gravedigger.

This is not Labour MPs vs Corbyn. They’re at war with party members

Diane Abbott in The Guardian

My colleagues should have been holding the Tories to account for the Brexit vote. Instead they’ve unleashed self-serving havoc on their own party
Labour supporters show their support for Jeremy Corbyn in Parliament Square earlier this week. Photograph: Toby Melville/Reuters

A swirling red mist has descended over the eyes of many Labour MPs. It is a mist that makes them blind to how their activities look to the world outside the Westminster village. If they don’t like Jeremy Corbyn (and despite their protestations to the contrary they give every appearance of not doing so) then they always had the option of a leadership challenge under the rule book. It could have been conducted in an orderly, perhaps low-key fashion, at least until parliament went into recess in just three weeks’ time. The aim would have been to try to concentrate on bringing the country together in a time of great peril after the Brexit vote. And it would have been important in these early days for the entire parliamentary party to focus on holding the Tories to account.

Instead Labour MPs chose to stage a blood-stained three-ring circus. Instead of putting their energies into fighting the Tories, colleagues have been concentrating on orchestrating waves of MPs – whom no one has ever heard of – into resigning from jobs that nobody knew they had. Colleagues could have been providing leadership against the resurgent racism that so many of their constituents are terrified by.

Instead Labour MPs have spent time in huddles with their fellow inhabitants of the Westminster bubble, lobby correspondents. These journalists, supposed political experts, did not see the Jeremy Corbyn phenomenon coming last summer and have never supported him. Accordingly they are now using their columns to tell him to walk away. Colleagues have contrived a “vote of no confidence” that has absolutely no basis in the rule book. There was no notice. It was tabled on Monday and the vote held the following day. No institution would run an important ballot in this way. And it was a secret ballot.
All this was necessary because some Labour MPs expressly did not want any time to consult with ordinary party members. On the contrary they were terrified that their members might actually find out how they voted. Hence the haste and the secrecy. But the climax of all this was Monday’s parliamentary Labour party (PLP) meeting. MP after MP got up to attack Jeremy Corbyn in the most contemptuous terms possible, pausing only to text their abuse to journalists waiting outside. A non-Corbynista MP told me afterwards that he had never seen anything so horrible and he had felt himself reduced to tears. Nobody talked about Jeremy Corbyn’s politics. There was only one intention: to break him as a man.

This attempt to hound Jeremy Corbyn out of the leadership has been planned for months and was entirely outside the rules. Blaming him for the Brexit vote was just a pretext. The truth is that Jeremy travelled thousands of miles mobilising Labour voters. Nearly two-thirds of Labour voted to remain.

If David Cameron had been able to persuade a similar proportion of his Tories to vote for remain, we would still be in the EU. But colleagues went for lynch mob tactics because they didn’t actually want a leadership election with Jeremy on the ballot. Their fear is that he will win. Which brings us to the heart of the matter.

This is not the PLP versus Jeremy Corbyn; this is the PLP versus the membership. It is the inhabitants of the Westminster bubble versus the ordinary men and women who make up the party in the country.

Now, finally, after a hugely destructive attempt to drive Jeremy out of office, his enemies are poised to do what they have struggled to avoid. A formal leadership challenge is imminent. Hopefully the wider Labour party will now begin to leave behind the hysteria that has engulfed the PLP these past few days. Once again party members will be asked what sort of party they want to be and what sort of leadership they want. It can be imagined that they will not look kindly on those who have unleashed the utterly self-serving havoc of the past few days.

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Brexit is a disaster, but we can build on the ruins

A voter leaves a polling station at the Elim Pentecostal church in Merthyr Tydfil, south Wales. Photograph: Matthew Horwood/Getty Images

 in The Guardian

Let’s sack the electorate and appoint a new one: this is the demand made by MPs, lawyers and the 4 million people who have signed the petition calling for a second referendum. It’s a cry of pain, and therefore understandable, but it’s also bad politics and bad democracy. Reduced to its essence, it amounts to graduates telling nongraduates: “We reject your democratic choice.”

Were this vote to be annulled (it won’t be), the result would be a full-scale class and culture war, riots and perhaps worse, pitching middle-class progressives against those on whose behalf they have claimed to speak, and permanently alienating people who have spent their lives feeling voiceless and powerless.

Yes, the Brexit vote has empowered the most gruesome collection of schemers, misfits, liars, extremists and puppets that British politics has produced in the modern era. It threatens to invoke a new age of demagoguery, a threat sharpened by the thought that if this can happen, so can Donald Trump.

It has provoked a resurgence of racism and an economic crisis whose dimensions remain unknown. It jeopardises the living world, the NHS, peace in Ireland and the rest of the European Union. It promotes what the billionaire Peter Hargreaves gleefully anticipated as “fantastic insecurity”.

But we’re stuck with it. There isn’t another option, unless you favour the years of limbo and chaos that would ensue from a continued failure to trigger article 50. It’s not just that we have no choice but to accept the result; we should embrace it and make of it what we can.

It’s not as if the system that’s now crashing around us was functioning. The vote could be seen as a self-inflicted wound, or it could be seen as the eruption of an internal wound inflicted over many years by an economic oligarchy on the poor and the forgotten. The bogus theories on which our politics and economics are founded were going to collide with reality one day. The only questions were how and when.

Yes, the Brexit campaign was led by a political elite, funded by an economic elite and fuelled by a media elite. Yes, popular anger was channelled towards undeserving targets – migrants.

But the vote was also a howl of rage against exclusion, alienation and remote authority. That is why the slogan “take back control” resonated. If the left can’t work with this, what are we for?

So here is where we find ourselves. The economic system is not working, except for the likes of Philip Green. Neoliberalism has not delivered the meritocratic nirvana its theorists promised, but a rentiers’ paradise, offering staggering returns to whoever grabs the castle first while leaving productive workers on the wrong side of the moat.

The age of enterprise has become the age of unearned income, the age of the market the age of market failure, the age of opportunity a steel cage of zero-hours contracts, precarity and surveillance.

The political system is not working. Whoever you vote for, the same people win, because where power claims to be is not where power is.

Parliaments and councils embody paralysed force, gesture without motion, as the real decisions are taken elsewhere: by the money, for the money. Governments have actively conspired in this shift, negotiating fake trade treaties behind their voters’ backs to prevent democracy from controlling corporate capital.

Unreformed political funding ensures that parties have to listen to the rustle of notes before the bustle of votes. In Britain these problems are compounded by an electoral system that ensures most votes don’t count. This is why a referendum is almost the only means by which people can be heard, and why attempting to override it is a terrible idea.

Culture is not working. A worldview that insists both people and place are fungible is inherently hostile to the need for belonging. For years now we have been told that we do not belong, that we should shift out without complaint while others are shifted in to take our place.

When the peculiarities of community and place are swept away by the tides of capital, all that’s left is a globalised shopping culture, in which we engage with glazed passivity. Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chainstores.

In all these crises are opportunities – opportunities to reject, connect and erect, to build from these ruins a system that works for the people of this country rather than for an offshore elite that preys on insecurity.

If it is true that Britain will have to renegotiate its trade treaties, is this not the best chance we’ve had in decades to contain corporate power – of insisting that companies that operate here must offer proper contracts, share their profits, cut their emissions and pay their taxes? Is it not a chance to regain control of the public services slipping from our grasp?

How will politics in this sclerotic nation change without a maelstrom? In this chaos we can, if we are quick and clever, find a chance to strike a new contract: proportional representation, real devolution and a radical reform of campaign finance to ensure that millionaires can never again own our politics.

Remote authority has been rejected, so let’s use this moment to root our politics in a common celebration of place, to fight the epidemic of loneliness and rekindle common purpose, transcending the tensions between recent and less recent migrants (which means everyone else). In doing so, we might find a language in which liberal graduates can talk with the alienated people of Britain, rather than at them.

But most importantly, let’s address the task that the left and the centre have catastrophically neglected: developing a political and economic philosophy fit for the 21st century, rather than repeatedly microwaving the leftovers of the 20th (neoliberalism and Keynesianism). If the history of the last 80 years tells us anything, it’s that little changes without a new and ferocious framework of thought.
So yes, despair and rage and curse at what ha
s happened: there are reasons enough to do so. But then raise your eyes to where hope lies.

All the good stuff that cannot be measured

Yannis Varoufakis

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

People are really, really hoping this theory about David Cameron and Brexit is true

A letter by Teebs to the Guardian

If Boris Johnson looked downbeat yesterday, that is because he realises that he has lost.

Perhaps many Brexiters do not realise it yet, but they have actually lost, and it is all down to one man: David Cameron.

With one fell swoop yesterday at 9:15 am, Cameron effectively annulled the referendum result, and simultaneously destroyed the political careers of Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and leading Brexiters who cost him so much anguish, not to mention his premiership.


Throughout the campaign, Cameron had repeatedly said that a vote for leave would lead to triggering Article 50 straight away. Whether implicitly or explicitly, the image was clear: he would be giving that notice under Article 50 the morning after a vote to leave. Whether that was scaremongering or not is a bit moot now but, in the midst of the sentimental nautical references of his speech yesterday, he quietly abandoned that position and handed the responsibility over to his successor.

And as the day wore on, the enormity of that step started to sink in: the markets, Sterling, Scotland, the Irish border, the Gibraltar border, the frontier at Calais, the need to continue compliance with all EU regulations for a free market, re-issuing passports, Brits abroad, EU citizens in Britain, the mountain of legislation to be torn up and rewritten ... the list grew and grew.

The referendum result is not binding. It is advisory. Parliament is not bound to commit itself in that same direction.

The Conservative party election that Cameron triggered will now have one question looming over it: will you, if elected as party leader, trigger the notice under Article 50?

Who will want to have the responsibility of all those ramifications and consequences on his/her head and shoulders?

Boris Johnson knew this yesterday, when he emerged subdued from his home and was even more subdued at the press conference. He has been out-manoeuvred and check-mated.

If he runs for leadership of the party, and then fails to follow through on triggering Article 50, then he is finished. If he does not run and effectively abandons the field, then he is finished. If he runs, wins and pulls the UK out of the EU, then it will all be over - Scotland will break away, there will be upheaval in Ireland, a recession ... broken trade agreements. Then he is also finished. Boris Johnson knows all of this. When he acts like the dumb blond it is just that: an act.

The Brexit leaders now have a result that they cannot use. For them, leadership of the Tory party has become a poison chalice.

When Boris Johnson said there was no need to trigger Article 50 straight away, what he really meant to say was "never". When Michael Gove went on and on about "informal negotiations" ... why? why not the formal ones straight away? ... he also meant not triggering the formal departure. They both know what a formal demarche would mean: an irreversible step that neither of them is prepared to take.

All that remains is for someone to have the guts to stand up and say that Brexit is unachievable in reality without an enormous amount of pain and destruction, that cannot be borne. And David Cameron has put the onus of making that statement on the heads of the people who led the Brexit campaign.

Labour, are you sure you want to kick out Jeremy Corbyn and become the 'nice face of the establishment' again?

Emma Rees in The Independent

This week, sections of the Parliamentary Labour Party, our elected representatives, are attempting to undemocratically oust Jeremy Corbyn, who received a historic mandate not ten months ago and has seen the Party membership double since. But, this isn't really about Jeremy Corbyn, as I'm sure he would agree. It's about much more than that.

It's about the crisis at the very heart of how we do politics, or more aptly, how politics is done to almost all of us.

For the past 35 years or more, neo-liberalism and free market fundamentalism have shaped our politics. In this system, power and wealth flow to and concentrates at the top. For the majority of us, it's not even clear who has power, or where it is held. All we know is that there is very little we can do to exercise any of it in our own lives. Whether it is zero hour contracts, spiralling rent or soaring utility bills, it's not us who are calling the shots. And what is more, the electorate have never been asked if this is what they want or not, of course, but it's certainly what they've got.

During this time, the Labour Party has not countered free market ideology enough. It has been too weak in challenging our disempowerment. A growing wedge has been driven between the Westminster Labour Party and our movements’ grassroots. This weakness has led many Labour MPs to be seen as the nicer part of the establishment, rather than being the empowering force for the overwhelming majority that we need.

Add six years of bruising, Tory austerity on top of all that, and now we're at breaking point. The backlash has taken many forms: the SNP, UKIP, Brexit, Corbyn.

Jeremy Corbyn's leadership campaign was a break on “business as usual”, Westminster politics. It tapped into, and inspired, a movement for social justice, a movement for a more equal and decent society and a movement to give ordinary people more power in their own lives. That energy now lives on in Momentum and was seen in Parliament Square last night, where, with just 24 hours’ notice, 10,000 gathered to give Jeremy a vote of confidence.

So, what do the so-called “coup plotters” think is going to happen? That flying in the face of the membership, they can take an unaccountable, illegitimate ballot, replace Jeremy with someone in a smarter suit, and we, the electorate, breathe a heavy sigh of relief that everything has returned to the good old days of May 2015 when we lost the general election badly? And what about the traditional, working class support base who Corbyn is “failing to speak to” despite huge numbers turning out to hear him speak in traditional working class towns? Will they suddenly, after years of structural disempowerment, realise that actually do feel represented and empowered in the political process after all?

Not only does this show a total disregard for democracy, but it highlights a profound lack of self-awareness, reflection or analysis of what has been going on over the last few decades.

Corbyn isn’t going to fix this on his own. That is his greatest strength, the surest sign of his leadership. The difference between him and the plotters is that Corbyn recognises we, the grassroots members, have to be involved in finding the solutions.

Secret discussions in parliament drive wedges between the political elite and ordinary people. Corbyn wants to open up the party to become more of a movement, more rooted in our communities and firmly committed to redistributing wealth and power to the overwhelming majority of us. In short, a Labour Party fit for the 21st Century that will make society more equal, more democratic and give the overwhelming majority control. That’s inspiring. A big internal conflict that talks politics and ignores the major issues facing a country steeped in crisis? Not so much.

Why bad ideas refuse to die

Steven Poole in The Guardian

In January 2016, the rapper BoB took to Twitter to tell his fans that the Earth is really flat. “A lot of people are turned off by the phrase ‘flat earth’,” he acknowledged, “but there’s no way u can see all the evidence and not know … grow up.” At length the astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson joined in the conversation, offering friendly corrections to BoB’s zany proofs of non-globism, and finishing with a sarcastic compliment: “Being five centuries regressed in your reasoning doesn’t mean we all can’t still like your music.”

Actually, it’s a lot more than five centuries regressed. Contrary to what we often hear, people didn’t think the Earth was flat right up until Columbus sailed to the Americas. In ancient Greece, the philosophers Pythagoras and Parmenides had already recognised that the Earth was spherical. Aristotle pointed out that you could see some stars in Egypt and Cyprus that were not visible at more northerly latitudes, and also that the Earth casts a curved shadow on the moon during a lunar eclipse. The Earth, he concluded with impeccable logic, must be round.

The flat-Earth view was dismissed as simply ridiculous – until very recently, with the resurgence of apparently serious flat-Earthism on the internet. An American named Mark Sargent, formerly a professional videogamer and software consultant, has had millions of views on YouTube for his Flat Earth Clues video series. (“You are living inside a giant enclosed system,” his website warns.) The Flat Earth Society is alive and well, with a thriving website. What is going on?

Many ideas have been brilliantly upgraded or repurposed for the modern age, and their revival seems newly compelling. Some ideas from the past, on the other hand, are just dead wrong and really should have been left to rot. When they reappear, what is rediscovered is a shambling corpse. These are zombie ideas. You can try to kill them, but they just won’t die. And their existence is a big problem for our normal assumptions about how the marketplace of ideas operates.

The phrase “marketplace of ideas” was originally used as a way of defending free speech. Just as traders and customers are free to buy and sell wares in the market, so freedom of speech ensures that people are free to exchange ideas, test them out, and see which ones rise to the top. Just as good consumer products succeed and bad ones fail, so in the marketplace of ideas the truth will win out, and error and dishonesty will disappear.

There is certainly some truth in the thought that competition between ideas is necessary for the advancement of our understanding. But the belief that the best ideas will always succeed is rather like the faith that unregulated financial markets will always produce the best economic outcomes. As the IMF chief Christine Lagarde put this standard wisdom laconically in Davos: “The market sorts things out, eventually.” Maybe so. But while we wait, very bad things might happen.

Zombies don’t occur in physical marketplaces – take technology, for example. No one now buys Betamax video recorders, because that technology has been superseded and has no chance of coming back. (The reason that other old technologies, such as the manual typewriter or the acoustic piano, are still in use is that, according to the preferences of their users, they have not been superseded.) So zombies such as flat-Earthism simply shouldn’t be possible in a well‑functioning marketplace of ideas. And yet – they live. How come?

One clue is provided by economics. It turns out that the marketplace of economic ideas itself is infested with zombies. After the 2008 financial crisis had struck, the Australian economist John Quiggin published an illuminating work called Zombie Economics, describing theories that still somehow shambled around even though they were clearly dead, having been refuted by actual events in the world. An example is the notorious efficient markets hypothesis, which holds, in its strongest form, that “financial markets are the best possible guide to the value of economic assets and therefore to decisions about investment and production”. That, Quiggin argues, simply can’t be right. Not only was the efficient markets hypothesis refuted by the global meltdown of 2007–8, in Quiggin’s view it actually caused it in the first place: the idea “justified, and indeed demanded, financial deregulation, the removal of controls on international capital flows, and a massive expansion of the financial sector. These developments ultimately produced the global financial crisis.”

Even so, an idea will have a good chance of hanging around as a zombie if it benefits some influential group of people. The efficient markets hypothesis is financially beneficial for bankers who want to make deals unencumbered by regulation. A similar point can be made about the privatisation of state-owned industry: it is seldom good for citizens, but is always a cash bonanza for those directly involved.

The marketplace of ideas, indeed, often confers authority through mere repetition – in science as well as in political campaigning. You probably know, for example, that the human tongue has regional sensitivities: sweetness is sensed on the tip, saltiness and sourness on the sides, and bitter at the back. At some point you’ve seen a scientific tongue map showing this – they appear in cookery books as well as medical textbooks. It’s one of those nice, slightly surprising findings of science that no one questions. And it’s rubbish.

A fantasy map of a flat earth. Photograph: Antar Dayal/Getty Images/Illustration Works

As the eminent professor of biology, Stuart Firestein, explained in his 2012 book Ignorance: How it Drives Science, the tongue-map myth arose because of a mistranslation of a 1901 German physiology textbook. Regions of the tongue are just “very slightly” more or less sensitive to each of the four basic tastes, but they each can sense all of them. The translation “considerably overstated” the original author’s claims. And yet the mythical tongue map has endured for more than a century.

One of the paradoxes of zombie ideas, though, is that they can have positive social effects. The answer is not necessarily to suppress them, since even apparently vicious and disingenuous ideas can lead to illuminating rebuttal and productive research. Few would argue that a commercial marketplace needs fraud and faulty products. But in the marketplace of ideas, zombies can actually be useful. Or if not, they can at least make us feel better. That, paradoxically, is what I think the flat-Earthers of today are really offering – comfort.

Today’s rejuvenated flat-Earth philosophy, as promoted by rappers and YouTube videos, is not simply a recrudescence of pre-scientific ignorance. It is, rather, the mother of all conspiracy theories. The point is that everyone who claims the Earth is round is trying to fool you, and keep you in the dark. In that sense, it is a very modern version of an old idea.

As with any conspiracy theory, the flat-Earth idea is introduced by way of a handful of seeming anomalies, things that don’t seem to fit the “official” story. Have you ever wondered, the flat-Earther will ask, why commercial aeroplanes don’t fly over Antarctica? It would, after all, be the most direct route from South Africa to New Zealand, or from Sydney to Buenos Aires – if the Earth were round. But it isn’t. There is no such thing as the South Pole, so flying over Antarctica wouldn’t make any sense. Plus, the Antarctic treaty, signed by the world’s most powerful countries, bans any flights over it, because something very weird is going on there. So begins the conspiracy sell. Well, in fact, some commercial routes do fly over part of the continent of Antarctica. The reason none fly over the South Pole itself is because of aviation rules that require any aircraft taking such a route to have expensive survival equipment for all passengers on board – which would obviously be prohibitive for a passenger jet.

OK, the flat-Earther will say, then what about the fact that photographs taken from mountains or hot-air balloons don’t show any curvature of the horizon? It is perfectly flat – therefore the Earth must be flat. Well, a reasonable person will respond, it looks flat because the Earth, though round, is really very big. But photographs taken from the International Space Station in orbit show a very obviously curved Earth.

And here is where the conspiracy really gets going. To a flat-Earther, any photograph from the International Space Station is just a fake. So too are the famous photographs of the whole round Earth hanging in space that were taken on the Apollo missions. Of course, the Moon landings were faked too. This is a conspiracy theory that swallows other conspiracy theories whole. According to Mark Sargent’s “enclosed world” version of the flat-Earth theory, indeed, space travel had to be faked because there is actually an impermeable solid dome enclosing our flat planet. The US and USSR tried to break through this dome by nuking it in the 1950s: that’s what all those nuclear tests were really about.

Flat-Earthers regard as fake any photographs of the Earth that were taken on the Apollo missions Photograph: Alamy

The intellectual dynamic here, is one of rejection and obfuscation. A lot of ingenuity evidently goes into the elaboration of modern flat-Earth theories to keep them consistent. It is tempting to suppose that some of the leading writers (or, as fans call them, “researchers”) on the topic are cynically having some intellectual fun, but there are also a lot of true believers on the messageboards who find the notion of the “globist” conspiracy somehow comforting and consonant with their idea of how the world works. You might think that the really obvious question here, though, is: what purpose would such an incredibly elaborate and expensive conspiracy serve? What exactly is the point?

It seems to me that the desire to believe such stuff stems from a deranged kind of optimism about the capabilities of human beings. It is a dark view of human nature, to be sure, but it is also rather awe-inspiring to think of secret agencies so single-minded and powerful that they really can fool the world’s population over something so enormous. Even the pro-Brexit activists who warned one another on polling day to mark their crosses with a pen so that MI5 would not be able to erase their votes, were in a way expressing a perverse pride in the domination of Britain’s spookocracy. “I literally ran out of new tin hat topics to research and I STILL wouldn’t look at this one without embarrassment,” confesses Sargent on his website, “but every time I glanced at it there was something unresolved, and once I saw the near perfection of the whole plan, I was hooked.” It is rather beautiful. Bonkers, but beautiful. As the much more noxious example of Scientology also demonstrates, it is all too tempting to take science fiction for truth – because narratives always make more sense than reality.

We know that it’s a good habit to question received wisdom. Sometimes, though, healthy scepticism can run over into paranoid cynicism, and giant conspiracies seem oddly consoling. One reason why myths and urban legends hang around so long seems to be that we like simple explanations – such as that immigrants are to blame for crumbling public services – and are inclined to believe them. The “MMR causes autism” scare perpetrated by Andrew Wakefield, for example, had the apparent virtue of naming a concrete cause (vaccination) for a deeply worrying and little-understood syndrome (autism). Years after it was shown that there was nothing to Wakefield’s claims, there is still a strong and growing “anti-vaxxer” movement, particularly in the US, which poses a serious danger to public health. The benefits of immunisation, it seems, have been forgotten.

The yearning for simple explanations also helps to account for the popularity of outlandish conspiracy theories that paint a reassuring picture of all the world’s evils as being attributable to a cabal of supervillains. Maybe a secret society really is running the show – in which case the world at least has a weird kind of coherence. Hence, perhaps, the disappointed amazement among some of those who had not expected their protest votes for Brexit to count.

And what happens when the world of ideas really does operate as a marketplace? It happens to be the case that many prominent climate sceptics have been secretly funded by oil companies. The idea that there is some scientific controversy over whether burning fossil fuels has contributed in large part to the present global warming (there isn’t) is an idea that has been literally bought and sold, and remains extraordinarily successful. That, of course, is just a particularly dramatic example of the way all western democracies have been captured by industry lobbying and party donations, in which friendly consideration of ideas that increase the profits of business is simply purchased, like any other commodity. If the marketplace of ideas worked as advertised, not only would this kind of corruption be absent, it would be impossible in general for ideas to stay rejected for hundreds or thousands of years before eventually being revived. Yet that too has repeatedly happened.

While the return of flat-Earth theories is silly and rather alarming, meanwhile, it also illustrates some real and deep issues about human knowledge. How, after all, do you or I know that the Earth really is round? Essentially, we take it on trust. We may have experienced some common indications of it ourselves, but we accept the explanations of others. The experts all say the Earth is round; we believe them, and get on with our lives. Rejecting the economic consensus that Brexit would be bad for the UK, Michael Gove said that the British public had had enough of experts (or at least of experts who lurked in acronymically named organisations), but the truth is that we all depend on experts for most of what we think we know.

The second issue is that we cannot actually know for sure that the way the world appears to us is not actually the result of some giant conspiracy or deception. The modern flat-Earth theory comes quite close to an even more all-encompassing species of conspiracy theory. As some philosophers have argued, it is not entirely impossible that God created the whole universe, including fossils, ourselves and all our (false) memories, only five minutes ago. Or it might be the case that all my sensory impressions are being fed to my brain by a clever demon intent on deceiving me (Descartes) or by a virtual-reality program controlled by evil sentient artificial intelligences (The Matrix).

The resurgence of flat-Earth theory has also spawned many web pages that employ mathematics, science, and everyday experience to explain why the world actually is round. This is a boon for public education. And we should not give in to the temptation to conclude that belief in a conspiracy is prima facie evidence of stupidity. Evidently, conspiracies really happen. Members of al-Qaida really did conspire in secret to fly planes into the World Trade Center. And, as Edward Snowden revealed, the American and British intelligence services really did conspire in secret to intercept the electronic communications of millions of ordinary citizens. Perhaps the most colourful official conspiracy that we now know of happened in China. When the half-millennium-old Tiananmen Gate was found to be falling down in the 1960s, it was secretly replaced, bit by bit, with an exact replica, in a successful conspiracy that involved nearly 3,000 people who managed to keep it a secret for years.

Indeed, a healthy openness to conspiracy may be said to underlie much honest intellectual inquiry. This is how the physicist Frank Wilczek puts it: “When I was growing up, I loved the idea that great powers and secret meanings lurk behind the appearance of things.” Newton’s grand idea of an invisible force (gravity) running the universe was definitely a cosmological conspiracy theory in this sense. Yes, many conspiracy theories are zombies – but so is the idea that conspiracies never happen.

‘When the half-millennium-old Tiananmen Gate was found to be falling down in the 1960s, it was secretly replaced, bit by bit, with an exact replica’ Photograph: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Things are better, one assumes, in the rarefied marketplace of scientific ideas. There, the revered scientific journals have rigorous editorial standards. Zombies and other market failures are thereby prevented. Not so fast. Remember the tongue map. It turns out that the marketplace of scientific ideas is not perfect either.
The scientific community operates according to the system of peer review, in which an article submitted to a journal will be sent out by the editor to several anonymous referees who are expert in the field and will give a considered view on whether the paper is worthy of publication, or will be worthy if revised. (In Britain, the Royal Society began to seek such reports in 1832.) The barriers to entry for the best journals in the sciences and humanities mean that – at least in theory – it is impossible to publish clownish, evidence-free hypotheses.

But there are increasing rumblings in the academic world itself that peer review is fundamentally broken. Even that it actively suppresses good new ideas while letting through a multitude of very bad ones. “False positives and exaggerated results in peer-reviewed scientific studies have reached epidemic proportions in recent years,” reported Scientific American magazine in 2011. Indeed, the writer of that column, a professor of medicine named John Ioannidis, had previously published a famous paper titled Why Most Published Research Findings Are False. The issues, he noted, are particularly severe in healthcare research, in which conflicts of interest arise because studies are funded by large drug companies, but there is also a big problem in psychology.

Take the widely popularised idea of priming. In 1996, a paper was published claiming that experimental subjects who had been verbally primed to think of old age by being made to think about words such as bingo, Florida, grey, and wrinkles subsequently walked more slowly when they left the laboratory than those who had not been primed. It was a dazzling idea, and led to a flurry of other findings that priming could affect how well you did on a quiz, or how polite you were to a stranger. In recent years, however, researchers have become suspicious, and have not been able to generate the same findings as many of the early studies. This is not definitive proof of falsity, but it does show that publication in a peer-reviewed journal is no guarantee of reliability. Psychology, some argue, is currently going through a crisis in replicability, which Daniel Kahneman has called a looming “train wreck” for the field as a whole.

Could priming be a future zombie idea? Well, most people think it unlikely that all such priming effects will be refuted, since there is now such a wide variety of studies on them. The more interesting problem is to work out what scientists call the idea’s “ecological validity” – that is, how well do the effects translate from the artificial simplicity of the lab situation to the ungovernable messiness of real life? This controversy in psychology just shows science working as it should – being self-correcting. One marketplace-of-ideas problem here, though, is that papers with surprising and socially intriguing results will be described throughout the media, and lauded as definitive evidence in popularising books, as soon as they are published, and long before awkward second questions begin to be asked.

China’s memory manipulators

It would be sensible, for a start, for us to make the apparently trivial rhetorical adjustment from the popular phrase “studies show …” and limit ourselves to phrases such as “studies suggest” or “studies indicate”. After all, “showing” strongly implies proving, which is all too rare an activity outside mathematics. Studies can always be reconsidered. That is part of their power.

Nearly every academic inquirer I talked to while researching this subject says that the interface of research with publishing is seriously flawed. Partly because the incentives are all wrong – a “publish or perish” culture rewards academics for quantity of published research over quality. And partly because of the issue of “publication bias”: the studies that get published are the ones that have yielded hoped-for results. Studies that fail to show what they hoped for end up languishing in desk drawers.

One reform suggested by many people to counteract publication bias would be to encourage the publication of more “negative findings” – papers where a hypothesis was not backed up by the experiment performed. One problem, of course, is that such findings are not very exciting. Negative results do not make headlines. (And they sound all the duller for being called “negative findings”, rather than being framed as positive discoveries that some ideas won’t fly.)

The publication-bias issue is even more pressing in the field of medicine, where it is estimated that the results of around half of all trials conducted are never published at all, because their results are negative. “When half the evidence is withheld,” writes the medical researcher Ben Goldacre, “doctors and patients cannot make informed decisions about which treatment is best.”Accordingly, Goldacre has kickstarted a campaigning group named AllTrials to demand that all results be published.

When lives are not directly at stake, however, it might be difficult to publish more negative findings in other areas of science. One idea, floated by the Economist, is that “Journals should allocate space for ‘uninteresting’ work, and grant-givers should set aside money to pay for it.” It sounds splendid, to have a section in journals for tedious results, or maybe an entire journal dedicated to boring and perfectly unsurprising research. But good luck getting anyone to fund it.

The good news, though, is that some of the flaws in the marketplace of scientific ideas might be hidden strengths. It’s true that some people think peer review, at its glacial pace and with its bias towards the existing consensus, works to actively repress new ideas that are challenging to received opinion. Notoriously, for example, the paper that first announced the invention of graphene – a way of arranging carbon in a sheet only a single atom thick – was rejected by Nature in 2004 on the grounds that it was simply “impossible”. But that idea was too impressive to be suppressed; in fact, the authors of the graphene paper had it published in Science magazine only six months later. Most people have faith that very well-grounded results will find their way through the system. Yet it is right that doing so should be difficult. If this marketplace were more liquid and efficient, we would be overwhelmed with speculative nonsense. Even peremptory or aggressive dismissals of new findings have a crucial place in the intellectual ecology. Science would not be so robust a means of investigating the world if it eagerly embraced every shiny new idea that comes along. It has to put on a stern face and say: “Impress me.” Great ideas may well face a lot of necessary resistance, and take a long time to gain traction. And we wouldn’t wish things to be otherwise.

In many ways, then, the marketplace of ideas does not work as advertised: it is not efficient, there are frequent crashes and failures, and dangerous products often win out, to widespread surprise and dismay. It is important to rethink the notion that the best ideas reliably rise to the top: that itself is a zombie idea, which helps entrench powerful interests. Yet even zombie ideas can still be useful when they motivate energetic refutations that advance public education. Yes, we may regret that people often turn to the past to renew an old theory such as flat-Earthism, which really should have stayed dead. But some conspiracies are real, and science is always engaged in trying to uncover the hidden powers behind what we see. The resurrection of zombie ideas, as well as the stubborn rejection of promising new ones, can both be important mechanisms for the advancement of human understanding.

Brexit - An Alternative Narrative

 John Pilger in The Hindu

The majority vote by Britons to leave the European Union was an act of raw democracy. Millions of ordinary people refused to be bullied, intimidated and dismissed with open contempt by their presumed betters in the major parties, the leaders of the business and banking oligarchy and the media.

This was, in great part, a vote by those angered and demoralised by the sheer arrogance of the apologists for the “remain” campaign and the dismemberment of a socially just civil life in Britain. The last bastion of the historic reforms of 1945, the National Health Service, has been so subverted by Tory and Labour-supported privateers it is fighting for its life.

Nothing but blackmail

A forewarning came when the Treasurer, George Osborne, the embodiment of both Britain’s ancien regime and the banking mafia in Europe, threatened to cut £30 billion from public services if people voted the wrong way; it was blackmail on a shocking scale.

Immigration was exploited in the campaign with consummate cynicism, not only by populist politicians from the lunar right, but by Labour politicians drawing on their own venerable tradition of promoting and nurturing racism, a symptom of corruption not at the bottom but at the top. The reason millions of refugees have fled the Middle East — first Iraq, now Syria — are the invasions and imperial mayhem of Britain, the United States, France, the European Union and NATO. Before that, there was the wilful destruction of Yugoslavia. Before that, there was the theft of Palestine and the imposition of Israel.

The pith helmets may have long gone, but the blood has never dried. A nineteenth century contempt for countries and peoples, depending on their degree of colonial usefulness, remains a centrepiece of modern “globalisation”, with its perverse socialism for the rich and capitalism for the poor: its freedom for capital and denial of freedom to labour; its perfidious politicians and politicised civil servants. All this has now come home to Europe, enriching the likes of Tony Blair and impoverishing and disempowering millions. On 23 June, the British said no more.

The London class

The most effective propagandists of the “European ideal” have not been the far right, but an insufferably patrician class for whom metropolitan London is the United Kingdom. Its leading members see themselves as liberal, enlightened, cultivated tribunes of the 21st century zeitgeist, even “cool”. What they really are is a bourgeoisie with insatiable consumerist tastes and ancient instincts of their own superiority. In their house paper, the Guardian, they have gloated, day after day, at those who would even consider the EU profoundly undemocratic, a source of social injustice and a virulent extremism known as “neoliberalism”.

The aim of this extremism is to install a permanent, capitalist theocracy that ensures a two-thirds society, with the majority divided and indebted, managed by a corporate class, and a permanent working poor. In Britain today, 63 per cent of poor children grow up in families where one member is working. For them, the trap has closed. More than 600,000 residents of Britain’s second city, Greater Manchester, are, reports a study, “experiencing the effects of extreme poverty” and 1.6 million are slipping into penury.

Little of this social catastrophe is acknowledged in the bourgeois controlled media, notably the Oxbridge dominated BBC. During the referendum campaign, almost no insightful analysis was allowed to intrude upon the clich├ęd hysteria about “leaving Europe”, as if Britain was about to be towed in hostile currents somewhere north of Iceland.

On the morning after the vote, a BBC radio reporter welcomed politicians to his studio as old chums. “Well,” he said to “Lord” Peter Mandelson, the disgraced architect of Blairism, “why do these people want it so badly?” The “these people” are the majority of Britons.

The wealthy war criminal Tony Blair remains a hero of the Mandelson “European” class, though few will say so these days. The Guardian once described Mr. Blair as “mystical” and has been true to his “project” of rapacious war. The day after the vote, the columnist Martin Kettle offered a Brechtian solution to the misuse of democracy by the masses. “Now surely we can agree referendums are bad for Britain”, said the headline over his full-page piece. The “we” was unexplained but understood — just as “these people” is understood. “The referendum has conferred less legitimacy on politics, not more,” wrote Mr. Kettle. “…the verdict on referendums should be a ruthless one. Never again.”

The kind of ruthlessness Mr. Kettle longs for is found in Greece, a country now airbrushed. There, they had a referendum and the result was ignored. Like the Labour Party in Britain, the leaders of the Syriza government in Athens are the products of an affluent, highly privileged, educated middle class, groomed in the fakery and political treachery of post-modernism. The Greek people courageously used the referendum to demand their government sought “better terms” with a venal status quo in Brussels that was crushing the life out of their country. They were betrayed, as the British would have been betrayed.

Perpetual forgetfulness

On Friday, the Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, was asked by the BBC if he would pay tribute to the departed Mr. Cameron, his comrade in the “remain” campaign. Mr. Corbyn fulsomely praised Mr. Cameron’s “dignity” and noted his backing for gay marriage and his apology to the Irish families of the dead of Bloody Sunday. He said nothing about Mr. Cameron’s divisiveness, his brutal austerity policies, his lies about “protecting” the Health Service. Neither did he remind people of the war mongering of the Cameron government: the dispatch of British special forces to Libya and British bomb aimers to Saudi Arabia and, above all, the beckoning of world war three.

In the week of the referendum vote, no British politician and, to my knowledge, no journalist referred to Vladimir Putin’s speech in St. Petersburg commemorating the seventy-fifth anniversary of Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union on 22 June, 1941. The Soviet victory — at a cost of 27 million Soviet lives and the majority of all German forces — won the Second World War.

Mr. Putin likened the current frenzied build up of NATO troops and war material on Russia’s western borders to the Third Reich’s Operation Barbarossa. NATO’s exercises in Poland were the biggest since the Nazi invasion; Operation Anaconda had simulated an attack on Russia, presumably with nuclear weapons. On the eve of the referendum, the quisling secretary-general of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, warned Britons they would be endangering “peace and security” if they voted to leave the EU. The millions who ignored him and Mr. Cameron, Mr. Osborne, Mr. Corbyn, Mr. Obama and the man who runs the Bank of England may, just may, have struck a blow for real peace and democracy in Europe.

Monday, 27 June 2016

How to stop Brexit: get your MP to vote it down

Geoffrey Robertson in The Guardian

It’s not over yet. A law that passed last year to set up the EU referendum said nothing about the result being binding or having any legal force. “Sovereignty” – a much misunderstood word in the campaign – resides in Britain with the “Queen in parliament”, that is with MPs alone who can make or break laws and peers who can block them. Before Brexit can be triggered, parliament must repeal the 1972 European Communities Act by which it voted to take us into the European Union – and MPs have every right, and indeed a duty if they think it best for Britain, to vote to stay.

It is being said that the government can trigger Brexit under article 50 of the Lisbon treaty, merely by sending a note to Brussels. This is wrong. Article 50 says: “Any member state may decide to withdraw from the Union in accordance with its own constitutional requirements.” The UK’s most fundamental constitutional requirement is that there must first be the approval of its parliament.

Britain, absurdly, is the only significant country (other than Saudi Arabia) without a written constitution. We have what are termed “constitutional conventions”, along with a lot of history and traditions. Nothing in these precedents allots any place to the results of referendums or requires our sovereign parliament to take a blind bit of notice of them.

It was parliament that voted to enter the European Economic Community in 1972, and only three years later was a referendum held to settle the split in Harold Wilson’s Labour party over the value of membership. Had a narrow majority of the public voted out in 1975, Wilson would still have had to persuade parliament to vote accordingly – and it is far from certain that he would have succeeded.

Petition for second EU referendum may have been manipulated

Our democracy does not allow, much less require, decision-making by referendum. That role belongs to the representatives of the people and not to the people themselves. Democracy has never meant the tyranny of the simple majority, much less the tyranny of the mob (otherwise, we might still have capital punishment). Democracy entails an elected government, subject to certain checks and balances such as the common law and the courts, and an executive ultimately responsible to parliament, whose members are entitled to vote according to conscience and common sense.

Many countries, including Commonwealth nations – vouchsafed their constitutions by the UK – have provisions for change by referendums. But these provisions are carefully circumscribed and do not usually allow change by simple majority.

In Australia, for example, a referendum proposal must pass in each of the six states (this would defeat Brexit, which failed in Scotland and Northern Ireland). In other countries, it must pass by a very clear majority – usually two-thirds. In some US states that permit voting on public legislative proposals, there are similar safeguards. In the UK (except, under a 2011 act in the case of an EU expansion of power), referendum results are merely advisory – in this case, advising MPs that the country is split almost down the middle on the wisdom of EU membership.

So how should MPs vote come November, when Prime Minister Boris Johnson introduces the 2016 European Communities Act (Repeal) Bill? Those from London and Scotland should happily vote against it, following their constituents’ wishes. So should Labour MPs – it’s their party policy after all.

By November, there may be other very good reasons for MPs to refuse to leave Europe. Brexit may turn out to be just too difficult. Staying in the EU may be the only way to stop Scotland from splitting, or to rescue the pound. A poll on Sunday tells us that a million leave voters are already regretting their choice: a significant public change of mind would amply justify a parliamentary refusal to Brexit. It may be, in November, that President Donald Trump becomes the leader of the free world – in which case a strong EU would become more necessary than ever. Or it may simply be that a majority of MPs, mindful of their constitutional duty to do what is best for Britain, conscientiously decide that it is best to remain.

There is no point in holding another referendum (as several million online petitioners are urging). Referendums are alien to our traditions, they are inappropriate for complex decision-making, and without careful incorporation in a written constitution, the public expectation aroused by the result can damage our democracy. The only way forward now depends on the courage, intelligence and conscience of your local MP. So have your say in the traditional way: lobby him or her to vote against the government when it tries to Brexit, because parliament is sovereign.

Perilous times for progressives

Opinion of The Guardian

Britain’s 27 erstwhile European partners will meet next week to discuss the UK’s future with the country itself locked outside the room. The constitutional ground-rules of our democracy are in contention as never before, with arguments raging about whether or not Westminster can block Nicola Sturgeon’s mooted Scottish referendum, or Ms Sturgeon can deploy procedural weaponry at Holyrood to frustrate the UK-wide referendum decision. Meanwhile the grave economic consequences are coming into view, with the Institute of Directors suggesting that a quarter of companies will cease hiring and a fifth may shift operations overseas.

What is so damaging for the orderly conduct of business is not only the prospect of a messy divorce from the continent, but an immediate political crisis. After David Cameron’s post-dated resignation, nobody knows who is in charge, still less what happens next. The Brexit brigade stormed to victory without a manifesto, or even agreement on what “leaving the EU” involves. Some, including Michael Gove, would cut loose from the single market, and damn the vast economic cost; others now concede the UK will have to stay in the market, even though that would betray the campaign promise to “take control” of regulation and migration. Wider pre-election promises have turned to dust at great speed. At sunrise on Friday, while the final few votes were still being counted, Nigel Farage conceded that it had been “a mistake” for Vote Leave to pretend that there would be an extra £350m a week for the NHS; at sundown, leading leaver Daniel Hannan MEP killed the other central campaign promise by conceding free movement of labourmight continue. Lesser gimmicks, such as Boris Johnson and Michael Gove’s promise to scrap VAT on energy bills, were always going to be hard to honour with an economy that is set to slow; they seem entirely irrelevant when we don’t know who will be presenting the next budget.

A country in peril, without a functioning government, needs an office-ready opposition – to ask the awkward questions, warn against wild swerves, and force somebody on the government side to explain what is going on. Britain, however, is saddled with a second party so beset by schisms, that – even as the union strains, the government crumbles, and the economy teeters – the thing making the headlines is Labour’s disintergation. Hilary Benn’s “sacking”, a dubious description seeing as the shadow foreign secretary constructed his own dismissal, was followed by the self-sacrifice of no fewer than 11 shadow cabinet ministers by late evening on 26 June, a run of career suicide bombs all detonated with the single aim of forcing Jeremy Corbyn out, just nine months after the leftwinger secured an almighty mandate from party members, taking more than thrice the votes of any of his three rivals, from the party’s centre and right.

This is a dismal pass that Labour was always likely to reach, because the overwhelming bulk of MPs have, from the off, been convinced that Mr Corbyn would drive them off a cliff. Many members are understandably furious with parliamentarians who never allowed him a chance. But there is no escaping that the day-to-day work of a party leader is fronting the efforts of a team of MPs. And when he was initially backed by fewer than one in 10 of that team, and not much interested in compromises to win more over, it was a job he was always going to struggle to do effectively. After the attempted coup, Mr Corbyn may attempt to fill his top team with other MPs. But there is now a real question about whether he can function in the job at all.

The PLP putsch looks shoddy for various reasons. For those MPs who have done nothing but plot since September, moving against him now is opportunism pure and simple. For others, it is an emotional spasm, made in rage against the painful loss of Britain’s place in Europe. But Mr Corbyn did not ask for this referendum, and it seems perverse to blame him for David Cameron’s loss. While Labour’s pro-Europeans were convinced they would win, many rather admired his qualified call for a remain vote, hoping that it might win do more to win over Eurosceptics than EU cheerleading. Even now, they should pause and ask whether a smooth-talking Europhile would have done more harm or good in Newport and Barnsley last week. One can argue that either way, but now – with the votes counted – anything that looks like pro-European regime change could appear disdainful of the public. Even more fundamentally, third-way social democracy has been in crisis ever since the crash. After the spectacular failure of the “mainstream” candidates last year, Labour’s centre-right should have earned its way back into contention with a fundamental rethink. Sadly, it hasn’t done that.

Set against this is the continuing failure of Jeremy Corbyn to look serious about becoming prime minister. There are fair-minded MPs who despair at the fact that so many constituents can never envisage their leader in No 10. It becomes harder to ignore such concerns after the Brexit vote, amid speculation that the next general election, which had not been scheduled until 2020, may now be brought forward to this autumn. This is the context in which deputy leader Tom Watson, who has his own mandate, is demanding talks about “the way forward”.

These are perilous times for progressive politics, perhaps the most perilous since the 1930s. It is incumbent on everybody to think before acting. Jeremy Corbyn needs to look into his soul and ask himself if he really wants to be PM, and get out of the way if not. His critics need to get on the phone and establish whether or not they can build the strength in the grassroots to topple him. Some say members are moving post-referendum; others dispute this. If the members remain loyal, then the mutineers could wound but not kill. The result would be to split the parliamentary party and the movement asunder, which would give the Tories a free run on a Brexit plaform.

Make the wrong call, and the results could be as ruinous as in 1931, when Ramsay MacDonald clung to office by giving up on the Labour movement, and a party of government was reduced to a rump of 52 seats. A half-complete coup would be worse than a clean defenestration or uniting behind Mr Corbyn. If the activists have moved, his time is up; if not, it is the MPs who must back off. Labour has sometimes failed dismally at moments of national crisis, as in 1931. But at others – think 1940 – it has proved equal to the hour. With an intolerant right wing on the rise, every progressive must be hoping that, whoever prevails in the left’s faction fighting, it will be finished soon.