Wednesday, 30 October 2019

On Freedom of Religion in India - Brilliant talk by Faizan Mustafa

In Urdu

If we’re serious about changing the world, we need a better kind of economics to do it

The pursuit of rapid growth won’t solve the huge challenges we face. A more honest, humane approach is the answer write Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee (joint winners of the 2019 Nobel prize in economics) in The Guardian

Rubbish pickers at the municipal site in Maputo, Mozambique. Photograph: Gianluigi Guercia/AFP/Getty Images

In 2017, a poll in the UK asked: “Whose opinion do you trust the most when they talk about their field of expertise?” Nurses came first – 84% trust them. Politicians came last. Economists were second from bottom on 25%.This trust deficit is mirrored by the fact that the consensus of economists (when it exists) is often systematically different from the views of ordinary citizens. The Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago regularly asks a group of about 40 prominent academic economists their views on core economic topics. Working with the economist Stefanie Stantcheva, we ran a survey: we selected 10 of the questions that were asked of the Booth panel and put them to 10,000 Americans.

On most of these issues, our respondents were sharply at odds with economists. For example, every single member of the Booth panel disagreed with the proposition that “imposing new US tariffs on steel and aluminium will improve Americans’ wellbeing”. Only a third of our respondents shared their view. And the gap is not only because people are not informed of what economists think: telling them does not seem to change their opinion one bit.

Economists are often too wrapped up in models and methods, and sometimes forget where science ends and ideology begins

This is troubling, because questions of economics and economic policy are central to the present crisis. Is migration actually threatening the livelihoods of poor workers? Has international trade worsened inequality? Should we worry about the rise of artificial intelligence or celebrate it? Why are our societies becoming increasingly unequal, and what can we (or should we) do about it? How can society help all those people whom the markets leave behind?

Economists have a lot to say about these big issues: they study immigration to see what it does to wages, taxation to determine if it discourages enterprise, redistribution through social programmes to figure out whether it encourages sloth. They have long worried about what happens when nations trade. They have worked hard to understand why some countries grow and others don’t, and what, if anything, governments can do to help. They gather data on what makes people generous or wary, what makes a man leave home and migrate to a strange place, how social media plays on our prejudices. The most recent research often has surprising things to say about all these issues – especially to those used to the pat answers coming from old high school textbooks and TV “economists”.

It’s not that when economists and the public have different views the economists are always right. We, the economists, are often too wrapped up in our models and methods and sometimes forget where science ends and ideology begins. But good economics can be a source of hope – a way to understand what went wrong but also to explain how our world can be put back together, as long as we are honest in our diagnosis of the problems.

‘How can society help all those people whom the markets leave behind?’ A child wait for a plate of food at a soup kitchen in Salta province, Argentina. Photograph: Javier Corbalan/AP

For that to happen, we need to understand what undermines trust in economists. Part of the problem is that there is plenty of bad economics around. The self-proclaimed economists on TV and in the press – chief economist of Bank X or Firm Y – are, with important exceptions, primarily spokespeople for their firms’ economic interests, who often feel free to ignore the weight of the evidence. Moreover, they have a relatively predictable slant towards market optimism at all costs, which is what the public associates with economists in general. It does not help that there is a class of economists who make predictions about broad trends in the economy, which often turn out to be wrong.

Another part of the problem is that, especially in the UK and the US, a lot of the economics that has filtered into government thinking is the most beholden to orthodoxy, and the least able to pay attention to any fact that does not square with it. Economists are therefore naturally seen as those who keep repeating that regulations, taxes, and public spending all need to be slashed to let the market be, and that eventually everything will all “trickle down” to the poor, even as we watch inequality exploding.

But good economics is much less strident, and quite different. It is less like the hard sciences and more like engineering or plumbing: it breaks big problems into manageable chunks and tries to solve them with a pragmatic approach – a combination of intuition and theory, trial and acknowledged errors. Good economics starts with some facts that are troubling, makes some guesses based on what we already know about human behaviour and theories that have been shown to work, uses data to test those guesses, refines (or radically alters) its line of attack based on the new set of facts and, eventually, with some luck, gets to a solution.

We have spent our careers studying the poor, trying to apply this kind of experimental approach to the problems they face. Instead of relying on our intuition, or that of others, we set up large-scale, rigorous randomised controlled trials to understand what works, what does not work, and why. We are not alone: this movement has taken hold in economics. The Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), the network we co-founded in 2013, has 400 affiliated or invited researchers, and together they have finished or are working on nearly a thousand projects on topics as different as the impact of sleep on productivity and happiness, and the role of incentives for tax collectors.

 ‘Economists have a tendency to adopt a notion of wellbeing that is often too narrow – some version of income or material consumption.’ A homeless man outside Victoria Station in London. Photograph: Victoria Jones/PA

This work is starting to make a difference. To date, 400 million people have been touched by policies that J-PAL affiliates have shown to be effective. Just as importantly, although no single project offers a definitive answer, together they allow us to understand much better some of the mechanisms behind the persistence of poverty. While our own beat has mostly been the poor countries, there are many others doing good economics in countries like the US, which can help shed light on the big issues our societies are grappling with.

Economists have a tendency to adopt a notion of wellbeing that is often too narrow – some version of income or material consumption. Yet we know in our guts that a fulfilling life needs much more than that: the respect of the community, the comforts of family and friends, dignity, lightness, pleasure. The focus on income alone is not just a convenient shortcut – it is a distorting lens that has often led the smartest economists down the wrong path, and policymakers to the wrong decisions. This is a big part of what persuades so many of us that the whole world is waiting at the door to steal our well-paying jobs. It is what has led to a single-minded focus on restoring the western nations to some glorious past of rapid economic growth. It is also what makes the trade-off between the growth of the economy and the survival of the planet seem so stark.

A better conversation must start by acknowledging the deep human desire for dignity and human contact – and treating it not as a distraction but as a better way to understand each other, and to set ourselves free from what may appear to be unresolvable contradictions.

Restoring human dignity to its central place has the potential to set off a profound rethinking of economic priorities and the ways in which societies care for their members, particularly when they are in need. At the very least, this should help persuade some of the disaffected that economics is about them as well, and that we economists have useful contributions to make to the rebuilding that must happen.

Friday, 25 October 2019

A Bharat Ratna for Veer Savarkar?

Why do people hate vegans?

It has left the beige-tinted margins and become social media’s most glamorous look. But why does veganism still provoke so much anger asks George Reynolds in The Guardian

From the hunger strike to the edible projectile, history offers abundant examples of food being used for political ends. Even so, the crowd of vegans who gathered in central London earlier this year are unlikely to forget the moment when Gatis Lagzdins skinned and ate a raw squirrel.

Along with his co-conspirator Deonisy Khlebnikov, Lagzdins performed his stunt at the weekly Soho Vegan Market on Rupert Street. He would subsequently demonstrate at VegFest in Brighton (although this time his snack of choice was a raw pig’s head) as part of a self-proclaimed “carnivore tour” intended to highlight the evils of a plant-based diet. At the London event, he wore a black vest emblazoned with the slogan: “Veganism = Malnutrition.”

The war on vegans started small. There were flashpoints, some outrageous enough to receive press coverage. There was the episode in which William Sitwell, then editor of Waitrose magazine, resigned after a freelance writer leaked an email exchange in which he joked about “killing vegans one by one”. (Sitwell has since apologised.) There was the PR nightmare faced by Natwest bank when a customer calling to apply for a loan was told by an employee that “all vegans should be punched in the face”. When animal rights protesters stormed into a Brighton Pizza Express in September this year, one diner did exactly that.

A charge commonly laid against vegans is that they relish their status as victims, but research suggests they have earned it. In 2015, a study conducted by Cara C MacInnis and Gordon Hodson for the journal Group Processes & Intergroup Relations observed that vegetarians and vegans in western society – and vegans in particular – experience discrimination and bias on a par with ethnic and religious minorities.

Illustration: Lee Martin/Guardian Design

Once a niche interest group parodied in TV shows such as The Simpsons (in which a character describes himself as a “level five vegan” who refuses to eat anything that casts a shadow), in the past two years, vegans have been thrust into the limelight. A philosophy rooted in non-aggression has found itself at the heart of some of the most virulent arguments on social media. In November 2018, Good Morning Britain hosted a debate titled “Do people hate vegans?”; the political website Vox tackled the question in even more direct fashion a week later, asking: “Why do people hate vegans so much?”

These recent displays of enmity towards vegans represent a puzzling escalation in hostilities, just as a consensus is starting to form that eating less meat would almost certainly be better for everyone – and the Earth. Of course, eating less meat does not mean eating no meat whatsoever, and the extreme prohibitions associated with going vegan (no animal products, no eggs, no leather, no wool) suggest it could have been just another Atkins diet or clean-eating fad – a flash in the pan that blows up and then dissipates, leaving behind nothing more than a dose of mild regret. Instead, just when the growth might have been expected to plateau, it kept on growing. A 2016 Ipsos Mori survey suggested the total number of vegans in the UK had increased more than 360% in the preceding decade, to more than 500,000.

Big business has been quick to cash in. The Los Angeles-based company Beyond Meat, producer of plant-based burgers whose taste and texture are as much like minced beef as possible, recently went public and soon afterwards hit a valuation of $3.4bn; huge conglomerates such as Nestlé and Kellogg’s are moving into the fake-meat market; supermarkets and restaurant chains have introduced vegan ranges. Yet perhaps the definitive proof of veganism’s mainstreaming – and the backlash against it – came in January this year, when the beloved high-street bakery chain Greggs announced it was launching a Quorn-based vegan sausage roll. It was pilloried by Piers Morgan, who tweeted: “Nobody was waiting for a vegan bloody sausage, you PC-ravaged clowns.” It turns out Morgan was mistaken: the vegan sausage roll was such a hit that the company’s share value leapt by 13%.

Of course, what we grow, harvest, fatten and kill is political. A Tesco advert showcasing vegan produce met protests from the National Farmers Union who claimed it “demonised” meat, while Shropshire deputy council leader Steve Charmley unleashed a tweet-storm when confronted with pro-vegan advertising in a county he claimed was “built on agriculture”. This moment, and this conflict, were a long time coming. The rise of veganism is a question less of personal taste than of generational upheaval; less about meat and fish and dairy than the systems that put them on our tables in such excessive quantities. Ultimately, the vegan wars are not really about veganism at all, but about how individual freedom is coming into conflict with a personal and environmental health crisis.

In many cultures, the practice of abstaining entirely from animal produce has an established history: with their belief systems rooted in nonviolence, many Rastafarians, followers of Jainism and certain sects of Buddhism have been swearing off meat, fish, eggs and dairy for centuries. In large swathes of the west, though, public awareness of what veganism actually entails has been sketchy. There wasn’t even a commonly accepted English-language name until 1944, when a British woodworker called Donald Watson called a meeting with a handful of other non-dairy vegetarians (including his wife, Dorothy) to discuss a less cumbersome label for their lifestyle. They considered alternatives such as dairyban, vitan and benevore before settling on the term we use today, a simple contraction of vegetarian on the grounds that “veganism starts with vegetarianism and carries it through to its logical conclusions”.

But those logical conclusions did not stop at abstaining from certain foods. The original vegans were not pursuing a diet so much as a belief system, a wholesale ideology – one that rejected not just animal protein but also the way animals had become part of an industrial supply chain. In the 1970s, Carol J Adams started work on the book that would appear, two decades later, as The Sexual Politics of Meat: a seminal feminist text that positioned veganism as the only logical solution to a social system that reduced both women and animals to desirable, but disposable, flesh.

In the early 70s, other activists were considering how veganism might provide a viable alternative to existing food systems. In 1971, Diet for a Small Planet by the social policy activist Frances Moore Lappé introduced an environmental justification for going vegetarian or vegan to a global audience (it eventually sold more than 3m copies). In the same year, counter-culture hero Stephen Gaskin founded a vegan intentional community, The Farm, in Lewis County, Tennessee, bringing together some 300 like-minded individuals. Four years later, The Farm Vegetarian Cookbook by Louise Hagler announced: “We are vegetarians because one-third of the world is starving and at least half goes to bed hungry every night,” and introduced western audiences to techniques for making their own soy-based products such as tofu and tempeh.

The Farm Vegetarian Cookbook fixed a certain vegan aesthetic in the minds of mainstream meat-eating culture for decades to come. Veganism became synonymous with soybeans and brown rice, with ageing hippies spooning beige bowlfuls of worthy grains and pulses – not the glamorous, vibrant, youthful practitioners that now radiate positivity from their Instagram feeds.

BBQ pulled jack fruit tacos with avocado and lime: a long way from the beige vegan food much parodied in the 70s. Photograph: LauriPatterson/Getty Images/iStockphoto

It is hard to overstate the role social media has played in transforming veganism’s image, with its facility for fostering an instant sense of community. Witness any number of viral internet phenomena – from Woman Laughing Alone with Salad to acai bowls and this generation’s staple, avocado toast – that have helped free it from its musty old associations. Instagram in particular gave vegan food mainstream exposure, repackaging it (good for you and photogenic!) for the low-attention-span internet age. Not everyone sees this as a positive development: the vegan writer and podcast host Alicia Kennedy considers it troubling that the internet has transformed something with such a rich political history into “a wellness thing” that allows would-be consumers to label themselves vegans without having to engage with the “excess baggage” of ideology. Another American writer, Khushbu Shah, has argued that the popularisation of veganism via social media has erased non-white faces and narratives from the dominant discourse, as white bloggers and influencers fashion a lifestyle in their image.

At the same time, a similar transformation was happening to the food vegans were eating. A blossoming street food scene in major cities influenced a dirtier, trashier vegan aesthetic that gave the diet a further boost. Recipe channels on YouTube and Facebook such as BOSH! – a glossy young male duo – used video to make stunt dishes (apple pie tacos; a plant-based take on a McDonald’s McMuffin; a watermelon “Jaegerbomb”) that injected some much-needed fun into the diet. (Tellingly, the BOSH! dudes, Henry Firth and Ian Theasby, refer to themselves not as chefs but “food remixers”.)

The language began to reflect a new, more approachable veganism. Descriptors such as “plant-based” gained in popularity, effectively rebranding the worthy brown stodge of popular imagination into something green and vital. Other neologisms such as “flexitarian” (a term denoting someone who is predominantly vegan or vegetarian but who occasionally eats meat or fish, added to the Oxford English Dictionary in June 2014) recast daunting vegan ideology as a fun, healthy, casual thing to try.

Cultish initiatives like Veganuary (an annual campaign encouraging people to go meat-free for the first month of the year, launched in 2014) and Meat Free Mondays tapped into this spirit – moving away from wholesale dietary transformation and towards something more manageably sporadic, with the added gloss of being able to share (that is, brag about) the experience online. Beyoncé declared an interest in veganism – at least, for breakfast – while athletes such as Venus Williams (who took up a raw vegan diet to combat a health condition) and Lewis Hamilton played a vital role in raising awareness and turning something once seen as weird and a little annoying into a desirable lifestyle.Get the Guardian’s award-winning long reads sent direct to you every Saturday morning

Helping the cause was the growing body of scientific literature suggesting that some of the processes that produce the modern western diet were catastrophically bad for us. Bee Wilson wrote in these pages about the health effects of processed pork in a piece titled “Yes, bacon really is killing us.” Food in the Anthropocene, a report commissioned by the Lancet in conjunction with the global nonprofit Eat (a startup dedicated to transforming the global food system) concluded that “unhealthy diets are the largest global burden of disease”, and that meat-heavy food production is “the largest source of environmental degradation”. A major study led by a team from Oxford University, published in the journal Nature in October 2018, showed that huge reductions in meat-eating are essential to slow the rate of climate change. Livestock production has been shown to lead to dangerous levels of deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions. Factor in pop-science phenomena like the documentaries Cowspiracy! and What the Health – available on Netflix – and your diet suddenly seemed like a way you could save the world.

Big Meat continues to lobby aggressively in favour of our God-given right to eat animal flesh, resulting in a series of legal prohibitions surrounding what can and cannot be called “meat”’ or even – in one US state – a “veggie burger”. But veganism’s virality has proved irresistible. From about 2015, vegan and plant-based cookery manuals started to proliferate at a dazzling rate, with the BOSH! boys selling upward of 80,000 copies and spending four weeks on the Sunday Times bestseller list (today, Amazon lists more than 20,000 results for the search term “vegan cookbook”). Sales of plant milks skyrocketed; financial results at the manufacturer of plant-based protein Quorn soared as what one analyst referred to as the “battle for the centre of the plate” began to draw (fake) blood. By 2018, Byron, M&S and Pret had invested heavily in vegan ranges. It was, this paper proclaimed, “the year that veganism moved out of the realms of counter-culture and into the mainstream”. In 2014, Veganuary’s inaugural campaign had attracted just 3,300 participants; by 2019 the number was greater than 250,000, with 53% of them under the age of 35.

But veganism’s explosive growth alone does not explain why it attracted such controversy. There is something inherent to veganism and vegans that arouses deeper feelings. What is it about the vegan lifestyle that stirs such strong emotion in those who don’t happen to share it? Why do people hate vegans so much?

Early attempts to establish a vegan utopia did not go well. In the 1840s, the transcendentalist philosopher Amos Bronson Alcott (father of the author of Little Women, Louisa May) founded Fruitlands in Harvard, Massachusetts – a vegan community intended to be nothing less than a second Eden. But Alcott’s insistence that crops had to be planted and fields tilled by hand meant that not enough food could be grown for all of the members (even though the population peaked at just 13); a diet of fruit and grains, typically consumed raw, left participants severely malnourished. Just seven months after opening, Fruitlands closed – derided, in the words of one biographer, as “one of history’s most unsuccessful utopias”.

The timing was unfortunate for American vegetarians, who were already engaged in a pitched battle with public opinion. Vegetarians and vegans in the 19th century – known as Grahamites after the Presbyterian minister and diet reformer Sylvester Graham, who campaigned against meat-eating on the grounds that it was both unhealthy and morally repugnant – were the subject of frequent vitriolic editorials in the popular and medical press of the day, which described them as “cadaverous”, “feeble”, “half-crazed”, “sour-visaged” and “food cranks”.

In the 21st century the terminology may have changed but the sentiment remains much the same. The 2015 study conducted by MacInnis and Hodson found that only drug addicts were viewed more negatively among respondents. It concluded: “Unlike other forms of bias (eg, racism, sexism), negativity toward vegetarians and vegans is not widely considered a societal problem; rather, [it] is commonplace and largely accepted.”

In 2011, sociologists Matthew Cole and Karen Morgan observed a phenomenon they called “vegaphobia”, demonstrating that the British media consistently portrayed vegans in a negative light. In the days after her story broke, Selene Nelson, the freelancer at the centre of the Waitrose magazine row, was called “humourless”, “combative” and “militant”. In 2017, residents of the Swiss town of Aargau reportedly called for a vegan foreign resident to be denied citizenship because she was “annoying”, and the glee with which the global media retold the story revealed a widespread and casual prejudice.

  Beyond Meat’s Beyond Spring burger.

Veganism’s opponents outline a host of objections to the lifestyle to justify their hostility. Per a now-familiar joke (Q: How do you know if someone’s vegan? A: Don’t worry, they’ll tell you), vegans are portrayed as preachy and sanctimonious, a characteristic that rankled among MacInnis and Hodson’s respondents in particular, who viewed “vegetarians/vegans more negatively when their motivations concern social justice rather than personal health”.

There are rational motives to oppose vegan diets on health grounds. They can be deficient in crucial nutrients such as vitamin B-12. This is especially notable in the case of extreme diets (such as fruitarianism) advocated by some vegan bloggers or Instagram influencers with unorthodox approaches to nutritional science. Various supermarket chains have also attempted to meet the burgeoning demand for vegan products with highly processed vegan ready meals – from the Impossible Burger to plant-based meatballs, goujons and hot dogs. As Bee Wilson argued in these pages, the high proportion of processed ingredients in these products means the so-called health halo they enjoy may well be illusory.

Perhaps all we are doing, as veganism truly goes mainstream and companies such as Beyond Meat reap windfalls, is replacing one kind of industrialised system with another. Evidence suggests that intensive livestock farming is a poor solution to world hunger, given its impact on personal health and the environment, but intensive industrialised farming of soya, maize and grains comes at a significant carbon cost, too – as does flying in the ingredients to keep berries and nut butters on acai bowls or avocado on toast.

Veganism, of course, is rooted in social justice – a detail that has faded from view as it has gone mainstream. But even in its dilute 21st-century form, veganism remains confrontational: it casts people’s dietary choices in harsh relief, and people are by nature defensive. In countries where meat is prohibitively expensive for many, people are sometimes vegetarian or vegan by necessity; in the affluent west, not eating meat is an active choice. This makes it a rejection of a lifestyle and a rebuke to the majority’s values – especially in a country (such as the UK) still struggling to escape the long shadow of rationing. We are conditioned to like animals and decry animal cruelty, and yet we are also brought up in a culture that revels in the bacon sandwich, the Sunday roast, fish and chips. One simple explanation for why people don’t like vegans is because they show how confused humankind is about food choices and how illogical its decision-making can be.

And yet none of this really gets to the heart of what it is about vegans that makes people so upset. Calling them humourless or militant, sanctimonious or annoying or hypocrites – all of these terms are just smokescreens for what it is that people really feel, which is fear. Vegans are unsettling and uncanny: they live among us, speak like us, behave like us – but for one significant exception. Meat may be murder, but to some people, the prospect of life without it is even worse.

There is no justification for the amount of meat we eat in western society. The resources that go into humanely rearing and butchering an animal should make its flesh a borderline-unattainable luxury – and, indeed, in the past, it was. Meat always used to be the preserve of the wealthy, a symbol of prosperity: “A chicken in every pot” remained an aspirational but impractical promise across the best part of a millennium, from the days of Henry IV of France (when the term was invented) all the way through to Herbert Hoover’s 1928 presidential campaign.

It was only through the technological advances of modern agriculture that meat became attainable and available at supermarket prices. From the mid-1800s onwards, farmers could raise animals bigger, better and faster than in the past; kill them quicker; treat their flesh to prevent it from spoiling; transport it further and store it longer. A commonly cited psychological turning point was the second world war, which engendered what Russell Baker, writing in the New York Times, later described as a kind of “beef madness”. GIs were sent to the front with rations of tinned meat; once peace had been declared, there was no better symbol of the brave new world than a sizzling celebratory steak. In the course of just over a century, meat went from unattainable luxury to dietary cornerstone; these days, we feel entitled to eat meat every day.

In March this year, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was discussing the Green New Deal on Showtime’s Desus & Mero US TV talk show when she observed: “Maybe we shouldn’t be eating a hamburger for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Like, let’s keep it real.” An apparently innocuous comment, rooted in the same common-sense good science that informed the Lancet report on meat and environmental degradation published around the same time? Not if you asked the Republicans, it wasn’t.

Representative Rob Bishop of Utah seized on Ocasio-Cortez’s comment, claiming that under the Green New Deal the eating of burgers would be “outlawed”. Former White House adviser Sebastian Gorka went one better, using a speech at the Conservative Political Action conference to proclaim: “They want to take away your hamburgers! This is what Stalin dreamed about but never achieved!”

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez announcing the Green New Deal, part of which would aim to reduce meat consumption. Photograph: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty

Stalin was, in fact, full of admiration for the American burger, going so far as to send his minister of foreign trade to the US on a fact-finding mission (the result, the so-called Mikoyan cutlet, would remain an affordable Soviet staple for decades). But “they’re taking our meat” is as evocative a rallying cry as “they’re taking our jobs” or “they’re taking our guns” – it conveys the same sense of individual freedoms being menaced by external forces, a birthright under attack. Ted Cruz (wrongly) alleged that his Democrat rival Beto O’Rourke planned to ban Texas barbecue if elected senator in his place: like the personal firearm, animal flesh has become an emblem of resistance against the encroachments of progressivism, something to be prised from your cold, dead hand. Men’s rights advocate Jordan Peterson is famed for following a beef and salt diet; Donald Trump is renowned for his love of fast food and well-done steak with ketchup; there is even a subset of libertarian cryptocurrency enthusiasts who call themselves Bitcoin carnivores.

In the internet age, the consumption of meat is visibly aligned with a certain kind of conservative alpha-masculinity. Before he found infamy eating raw flesh, Gatis Lagzdins was best known for hosting a YouTube channel peddling racist ideology and rightwing conspiracies about the Illuminati. Among the alt-right and affiliated circles online, the derogatory term “soy boy” has been adopted along with other terms such as “cuck” and “beta” as a way of mocking so-called social justice warriors for their perceived lack of vigour. This echoes a finding in the MacInnis/Hodson study, in which respondents from a rightwing background, who seek to uphold traditional gender values, see something alarmingly subversive and worthy of derision in any man who prefers tofu to turkey.

This loaded use of food-derived epithets cuts both ways. In the UK, the term “gammon” gained currency in the early 2010s as a pejorative apparently inspired by the puce skin tone of enraged, middle-aged middle Englanders. Food has always been bound up in personal identity, and thus inextricable from politics. In their etymology, common terms such as “diet” (Greek for way of life) and “regime” (Latin: rule) are metaphors for a struggle over what it means to lead one’s life correctly. The very concept of orthorexia (whose sufferers obsessively exclude foods from their diet that they consider harmful) has at its root a corrupted idea of “correct” eating. It is impossible to talk about diets without also talking about the implied inadequacies of those who do not follow them; to paraphrase Brillat-Savarin, tell someone what to eat and you tell them who to be.

The vegan conversation, then, is a stand-in for much bigger things. When we talk about veganism we are talking about environmental and social change; we are also contemplating the erasure of tradition (Texas barbecue! The Sunday roast! The sausage roll!). We are also tabling a long-overdue referendum on how our food choices affect us and the world around us. And as much as its popularity has been pumped up by concepts like flexitarianism, ultimately veganism’s goal is a world in which the annual per-capita consumption of animal products is precisely zero. No wonder things have got so heated.

Food can be a powerful conduit for our anxieties, too. Half a century ago, a letter published in The New England Journal of Medicine described a terrifying new condition whose symptoms – headache, sweating, heart palpitations – were associated with a common ingredient of dishes served in Chinese restaurants: monosodium glutamate, or MSG. The flavour-enhancing additive was so demonised that it was banned in some US cities. Despite multiple studies conclusively proving otherwise, the belief in so-called “Chinese restaurant syndrome” remains widespread today: Asian-American chefs still find themselves having to justify the use of MSG despite its widespread use in non-Asian foods too. It is a neat example of the persistence of food-related urban legends. There was no doubt a racist element to the way the MSG myth spread; those involved in its dissemination were also motivated by a gnawing fear of obsolescence as a new threat to their existence began to gain popularity.

Those opposing meat-eating have a struggle ahead of them. It is clear that what is at stake here is not steak, but identity. A movement that preaches such wholesale change is bound to stir up anxieties, chief among them the sense that vegan dishes such as the Greggs Quorn sausage roll are being positioned not as alternatives but as replacements.

With a few notable exceptions – most of them religious – meat has retained its primacy in cultures across the world. It originally became a status symbol because it was harder to obtain than plant matter – even a small animal could run away, and if caught, was capable of inflicting wounds that could prove fatal in a world before antibiotics. As society became hierarchical, there was no greater token of status than the ability to eat meat on a whim. In her 2016 book Meathooked, Marta Zaraska records the discovery of Egyptian tombs in which the pharaohs had been buried alongside “meat mummies”, baskets of beef and poultry that had been embalmed in preparation for the afterlife. Our fetishisation of meat has not lessened – on the contrary, forecasters predict rapid increase in meat consumption in developing countries over the next decade. As a ready source of protein, meat remains the great aspiration, the surest proof of prosperity.

As Carol J Adams wrote, the words we use shield us from the moral consequences of carnivory: we eat beef, not cows, pork, not pigs, while a cabbage remains just a cabbage wherever it is in its life cycle. Our language ennobles meat at the expense of veg: strong, muscular types are “beefy”, lazy people are “couch potatoes”, unresponsive ones “vegetables”. Turning our back on meat-eating is not as simple as changing from pork to Quorn: it requires us to reject some entrenched values.

Already, there are signs that a great migration is underway. The UK university caterer Tuco recently reported that record numbers of canteens are going meat-free, describing the adoption of vegan or vegetarian diets among students and staff as a “mega-trend”. On the high street, too, there is a growing recognition that vegan ranges are not just opportunistic cash-grabs but potential best-sellers. After the success of Greggs’ vegan sausage roll, Tesco announced it would be increasing its range of dedicated plant-based products by nearly 50% to keep pace with demand.

Sales may be growing fast, but they are barely making a dent in the $1.7tr global market for animal-derived protein. Certainly, a change of culture will not happen without the involvement of government, industry and science; as the past few years have shown, widespread change is also unlikely to happen without a fight. This makes the current field of conflict an unfortunate one – in the real world, we can practise moderation, emotional flexitarianism. Online – where many of the vegan wars’ most intense skirmishes are currently being fought – we do not find compromise or even look for it. The internet has made communication highly charged and polarised; the only way to be heard in such a screaming vortex is to shout louder.

But the body of evidence suggesting that we eat too much meat is approaching the point where it becomes undeniable. This summer, a UN report identified destruction of forests and emissions from cattle and other intensive farming practices as major factors driving the climate crisis towards a point of no return.

Some are proposing urgent action, such as the QC Michael Mansfield, who recently suggested (in a speech given at the launch of the Vegan Now campaign) that meat-eating could become illegal. He drew a parallel with the smoking ban, and it is indeed eminently possible that in time meat (especially red meat) becomes the new tobacco – a vice enjoyed by a small number of people in full awareness of its negative health consequences.

But in coining the term “ecocide” – and classing it as a crime against humanity – Mansfield framed the debate in different terms. We might portray the current moment as a precipice, and the growing interest in plant-based diets as the surest way back to safety. In this interpretation, the war on vegans is the act of a doomed majority fighting to defend its harmful way of life. Vegans might well be vociferous and annoying, holier-than-thou, self-satisfied and evangelical. But as their numbers grow beyond the margins, perhaps the worst thing they could be is right.

Poisoned Chalice

by Najam Sethi in The Friday Times

Nawaz Sharif is reportedly at death’s door. He has been treated in a most inhumane and callous manner while in custody. This is a thrice-elected prime minister who voluntarily returned from London and went to prison. This is a man who was kept in jail while his wife was dying in London. This is a man who has been convicted by the Supreme Court on the thread of a loose definition of “assets” in an unauthorized reference dictionary in the prejudicial context of “Sicilian Mafia”. This is a man who has been convicted by a judge who was blackmailed to get his conviction. This is a man who has resolutely resisted the various offerings of the Establishment to leave Pakistan and quit politics. His crime: he ran afoul of the Establishment by mistaking the elected office of prime minister for the font of power in Pakistan. Worse, he refused to learn and repent.

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Popular opinion holds that Imran Khan is personally responsible for Nawaz Sharif’s deteriorating health. His government has tightened the screws by withdrawing all manner of decent prison and medical facilities befitting an ex-prime minister. Yet when a reporter recently confronted Mr Khan with this perception, “he threw his arms up with a bewildered look on his face: ‘Am I the doctor? Am I the court’?” The reporter added that shortly thereafter Mr Khan called up the Punjab Chief Minister Usman Buzdar and ordered him to arrange a meeting between Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Mariam. A day earlier, Mariam’s request for such a meeting had been denied by a NAB accountability court. Clearly, Mr Khan has answered his own questions.

Mr Khan also told reporters that there was a “foreign hand” behind Maulana Fazal ur Rahman’s long march and dharna. Incredibly enough, he pointed a finger at India! If he had hinted at another foreign power with which the Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam and its leader has had traditional religious relations, he might have been less incredible. But how could he have summoned up the courage to bite the hand that feeds him?

The Maulana is still talking tough. But suspicions have arisen about his aims and objectives. It has been reported that he met Establishment Big Wigs recently and was told flatly that there would be no minus-Imran solution and that there might be other “minuses” amongst politicians. Curiously, opposition party activists are being arrested daily even as Mr Khan has belatedly allowed the dharma to proceed to Islamabad. The Establishment has reportedly told the Maulana that his dharna should be short and peaceful, otherwise it would do its “constitutional duty” to protect the “lawful” government. This is in sharp contrast to what it did during Mr Khan’s long drawn out dharna.
The fate of Nawaz Sharif hangs in the balance. Some “connected” journalists are claiming that both father and daughter will be allowed to go to London without an NRO because Nawaz is precariously ill and the Establishment doesn’t want his blood on their hands – they are still reaping the political backlash from the assassinations of two Bhuttos. The popular mood in the Punjab – the recruiting ground and bulwark of the Establishment – has palpably turned against it. This is unprecedented.

We – people and institutions – are all drinking from a poisoned chalice. Imran Khan is guzzling from the poisoned chalice of a rigged election. The people are choking on the poisoned chalice of the IMF. The opposition parties and leaders are swallowing from the poisoned chalice of their corruptions and commissions. The Establishment is gulping from the poisoned chalice of its regional adventures and internal interventions. The judiciary is swigging from the poisoned chalice of its great betrayal of the lawyers’ movement.

This need not have been the case. Only six years ago, we witnessed a peaceful transfer of power, the second consecutive handing over of the baton from one elected government to the next. The judiciary gave hope with its newly grown spine courtesy the successful lawyers’ movement. The media, though raucous, was reverberating with the din of democracy. Nawaz Sharif’s government was making regional alliances and reaching out to neighbours. The 18th Amendment had devolved power to the provinces, fulfilling a long-standing demand of Pakistan’s alienated ethnic populations. This was in the natural order of things: the system growing, changing, adapting, on the road to cleansing itself.

But these very changes threatened to whittle down the power of Pakistan’s deep state. The latter’s response was concerted and fierce. We all know what happened thereafter but it is deeply ironical that we are once again desperate for the reprieves that were all within grasp only a few years ago – peace at home and goodwill abroad, relief from international punitive actions, a buoyant economy, a developing democracy worthy of respect. We cannot upturn the natural order of things and expect to come up trumps again and again. Our chalices will remain poisoned until we purge ourselves.

Thursday, 24 October 2019

Why ‘the will of the people’ is a myth in British democracy

British people are fundamentally disempowered by our political system. Other countries show that there’s another way writes George Monbiot in The Guardian

Illustration: Sebastien Thibault

They promised sovereignty, but at first it was unclear which variety of sovereignty they meant. Were the politicians who swore we would regain it when we left the European Union referring to parliamentary or popular sovereignty? Now we know they didn’t mean parliamentary sovereignty. Boris Johnson’s government has sought to trick, rush, ignore and prorogue parliament at every turn.

“People v parliament” is Johnson’s pitch to the nation. So where do the people come in? If he is a champion of popular sovereignty, why does he propose no improvements to a 19th-century model of democracy that permits no popular engagement other than an election every few years, and a referendum every few decades? There is a tension between parliamentary and popular sovereignty. A lively, meaningful democracy would achieve a balance between the two. It would combine parliamentary (representative) democracy with participatory democracy. But no such balance is sought.

Rather than encouraging an informed, nuanced politics, Brexit has made our system even more adversarial

Representative democracy is a remarkably blunt instrument. Hundreds of issues are bundled together at every election, yet the vote tends to swing on just one or two of them. The government then presumes consent for its entire programme and, if it commands a parliamentary majority, for anything else it wants to introduce in its term of office. We don’t accept presumed consent in sex. Why should we accept it in politics?

I’ve often been asked, when I complain about a government policy, “So why don’t you stand for election?” This suggests that the only valid political role a citizen can play is to become a representative, so that only a tiny proportion of the population has a legitimate voice between elections. This is the shallowest and weakest conception of democracy. 

I do not want to abandon representative democracy. I want to see it balanced by popular sovereignty, especially the variety known as deliberative democracy. By contrast to the adversarial nature of representative democracy, in which politicians try to dominate and vanquish their opponents, deliberative democracy means drawing citizens together to solve problems. It means creating forums in which we listen respectfully to each other, seek to understand each other’s views, change our minds when necessary, and create the rich, informed democratic culture currently missing from national life.

Perhaps the best example is the participatory budgeting programme in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre. Between 1989 and 2004, citizens were able to decide how the city’s entire investment budget should be spent. The process was designed by government and people working together, and was allowed to evolve as citizens suggested improvements. Some 50,000 people a year participated. 

Instead of being captured by corrupt politicians and local mafias, the people’s decisions ensured that the money went where it was needed most, greatly improving sanitation, clean water, green space, health and education, transforming the lives of the poor. Porto Alegre became the Brazilian state capital with the highest ranking on the human development index. The more people engaged, the wider and deeper their political understanding became. Short-termism was replaced by long-term thinking: essential if we are to confront environmental breakdown.

There are plenty of other ways in which deliberative democracy can change our lives. In Ireland, a citizens’ assembly on abortion law turned an angry debate into a considered one. It tested competing claims and ideas, and led eventually to a referendum. The Better Reykjavík programme allows the citizens of Iceland’s capital to put forward ideas for the city’s improvement, which other people vote on. The 15 most popular ideas every month are passed to the city council to consider. The programme has remodelled Reykjavík in fascinating ways.

Constitutional conventions can be used to draw up principles of government, on which the rest of the population can then vote. Some of the best models are those developed by the Canadian provinces of British Columbia and Ontario. Members of the convention are drawn by lot and informed by experts, field trips and submissions from other citizens. The UK is in urgent need of one.

But for all the rhetoric about the people’s will, nothing of the kind is on offer in Britain. The so-called citizens’ assembly on climate change proposed by parliament is a cynical caricature of participation. It has a restrictive agenda, a narrow range of advisers and no time for effective deliberation. Digital tools offer massive opportunities for fine-tuning political decisions, but our cod-medieval system – all Black Rods and serjeants at arms – is stuck in the age of the quill pen. The only new form of participation we have been granted this century is an enhanced right to petition parliament, introduced by Tony Blair in 2006. Did it seem radical and innovative? Only until you remember that a similar concession appears to have been made by Edward I in 1275.

The European referendum, that apparently represents the people’s will, was reduced to such a crude choice that no one knows exactly what the majority voted for. Rather than encouraging an informed, nuanced politics, it has made our system even more adversarial, binary and reductive.

I could see the point of Brexit if it meant returning power to the people. But Johnson is as contemptuous of popular sovereignty as he is of parliamentary sovereignty. He seeks sovereignty of a different kind: autocratic control over both parliament and people.

I would love to see Labour placing radical democratic reform at the heart of its manifesto, seeking not to take power but to give it away. I suspect its offer will be limited, until we can build movements big enough to force our governments to let the people speak. Participation in politics is a not a gift. It is our right.

Sunday, 20 October 2019

Boris Johnson’s Saturday drama turns to farce – and it was all his own fault

MPs rightly resisted an attempt to bounce them into blindly rubberstamping his deal writes Andrew Rawnsley in The Guardian 

‘After his defeat he fixed a smile to his face and spoke as if “nothing has changed”.’ Photograph: -/PRU/AFP via Getty Images

Everything that could be done had been done to secure a victory for Boris Johnson on what had been billed as “Super Saturday”. He had come back from Brussels with his so-called “new deal” to the sound of the massed brass bands of the pro-Brexit media trumpeting praise for a “stunning achievement”/“personal triumph”/insert more sycophantic hyperbole here. Some European leaders tried to help him frame the choice before parliament as “new deal or no deal”. Suggestions that the EU might not grant another extension to the withdrawal date were designed to spook MPs into voting yes for fear of hurling Britain into a crash-out Brexit.

Cabinet ministers were deployed to “man-mark” any Conservative MP whose vote was doubtful. Heavy-breathing Tory whips said they were going to get “medieval” with rebels. The self-styled Tory Spartans, who would have spat out the Johnson deal as treachery if it had been presented by Theresa May, had fallen into line. Some of them had begun to see the ridiculousness of being Brexiters who never actually vote for Brexit.

Then there was the timetabling. To further ratchet up the pressure, the government staged the crackling drama of an “emergency” Saturday sitting of parliament, the first time that MPs had met at the weekend for nearly 40 years. This meant that everyone had an absurdly limited amount of time to get their heads around the latest tortuous iteration of Brexit. Concluding yesterday’s debate on behalf of the government, Michael Gove declared: “Our democracy is precious and this parliament is a special place.” They had a funny way of showing this supposed reverence for democracy and parliament. MPs were being asked to make a decision with huge consequences less than 48 hours after the deal had been unveiled. Were you able to conduct a confidential survey, guaranteeing to parliamentarians that their responses would remain anonymous, it is my strong suspicion that well under half of them have actually read the legal text and the rewritten political declaration. The government’s desperation to stampede parliament into signing off on the deal was further illustrated by its point-blank refusal to publish any analysis of its economic impact.

FacebookTwitterPinterest Oliver Letwin greets supporters in Whitehall after his amendment succeeded in the Commons. Photograph: Simon Dawson/Reuters

These tactics ultimately backfired. There was too much resistance to the attempt to bounce MPs into agreement. The debate was peppered with complaints that a prime minister who couldn’t be trusted was seeking a blank cheque from a parliament being kept in the dark. Justine Greening, the former Tory cabinet minister, tellingly complained that this was like being asked to buy a house without being allowed to see it.

By 322 to 306, a 16-vote defeat for Boris Johnson, MPs thwarted him by backing Sir Oliver Letwin’s amendment to withhold approval of the deal until MPs have had the chance to properly scrutinise the withdrawal legislation. For the prime minister, so-called Super Saturday turned into Squelched Saturday.

To understand why he was defeated, you first have to consider his deal. It bears no resemblance to the have-your-cake-and-eat-it promises peddled to the country by him and his fellow travellers during the referendum campaign in 2016. He succeeded in getting rid of the “backstop”, the element of the old deal so aggravating to the Tory Brexit ultras, but at the cost of inserting a frontstop that will keep Northern Ireland largely aligned with the single market and customs union for at least five years. The creation of an economic border down the Irish Sea made it impossible for him to gain the support of the Democratic Unionists. The other major difference with Mrs May’s deal is that it envisages moving to a much more distant relationship with Britain’s most important trading partners. The Johnson deal is one of the rock-hardest forms of Brexit. That diminished his chances of attracting support from Labour MPs.

In his speech to the Commons yesterday, the Tory leader said it was time to “move on”, a mantra parroted ad nauseam from the benches behind him. But as some of the more clued-up MPs observed, his deal does not “get Brexit done” at all. It covers only the divorce and a period of “transition”. Where Britain ultimately lands is still hugely uncertain. It is merely the prelude to a tougher stretch of bargaining about the terms of trade, customs, tariffs and standards with the EU. These negotiations come with another deadline attached. The cliff edge moves to the end of 2020. Caroline Lucas, the Green MP, put it wittily when she remarked that it was “a bad deal with a backdoor to a no deal.”

FacebookTwitterPinterest ‘Justine Greening, the former Tory cabinet minister, tellingly complained that this was like being asked to buy a house without being allowed to see it.’ Photograph: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP via Getty Images

The fundamental trouble with this deal is the same as with all the many versions of Brexit floated by two Tory prime minsters over the past three-plus years. None offers terms as favourable to the United Kingdom as remaining within the European Union. A study by the UK in a Changing Europe thinktank projects that the Johnson deal will shave up to 7% from the per capita income of Britons over a decade. Other forecasts are available. None of the credible ones suggests that Britain will be better off outside the EU.

There were other reasons why Mr Johnson could not assemble the coalition of support that he needed. The 10 votes of the Democratic Unionists played a decisive role in his defeat. They radiated the fury of people betrayed. Mr Johnson attended their party conference last year to pledge that “no British Conservative government could or should sign up to” regulatory checks and customs controls between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. Now he is pushing a deal that does this very thing.

Without the DUP, it was always going to be a very hard scrabble for the government to command a majority in the Commons. Its hopes depended on convincing enough Labour MPs to vote with the Tories. There is a band of Labour MPs who have their reasons for wanting to “get Brexit done”, but most had even more compelling reasons for not helping Mr Johnson to do it. He gave them less incentive to support him and more reason to distrust him by moving assurances on workers’ rights and environmental standards out of the binding withdrawal agreement and into the non-binding political declaration. His behaviour in his 88 febrile days as prime minister made it yet harder for Labour MPs to lend him their support.

The unlawful prorogation of parliament and the use of incendiary language to attack parliamentarians alienated some of the very Labour MPs he needed to persuade. The fact that it was a Johnson deal was a very big problem for them. The intense loathing he arouses among Labour people is much more visceral than their feelings about Theresa May. It is a very big step for a Labour MP to enable a Tory prime minister, especially when an election is looming. When that Tory prime minister is Boris Johnson, it proved just too much.

'Those hoping to take the question back to the people have more time to convince parliament to embrace a fresh referendum.

In response to his defeat, the prime minister rose to the dispatch box, fixed a smile to his face and spoke as if, to use a phrase made notorious by his predecessor, “nothing has changed”. Of course, quite a lot has changed. By the time you read this, the government will have sent a letter to the EU requesting an extension to the Brexit deadline, something Mr Johnson has repeatedly sworn he would never do, or he will be in breach of the law.

His deal is not necessarily dead. He mustered 306 votes, 20 more than Mrs May ever got for her deal. This leaves him 14 short of what he needs for a majority. Some of the MPs who defied him over the Letwin amendment, including Sir Oliver himself, have said they will support the government when it comes to votes on the Brexit legislation. There’s not much doubt, though, that the road ahead has become a great deal more rocky for Mr Johnson. Parliament will be able to seize the opportunity to subject his deal to the searching and detailed scrutiny that the government sought to evade yesterday. Pressure can be increased on ministers to reveal the true costs of the Johnson deal. Those hoping to take the question back to the people have more time to convince parliament to embrace a fresh referendum.

Boris Johnson called this special Saturday sitting in the hope that it would give him a reputation-boosting, momentum-building victory to flourish. He wanted to be able to claim that Brexit was done and dusted. Instead, Brexit is not done and he is dusted.

Much is in flux after another “historic” parliamentary vote that failed to settle Britain’s future. One thing is certain. Our long national nightmare continues.

Wednesday, 16 October 2019

Today, I aim to get arrested. It is the only real power climate protesters have

By putting our bodies on the line and risking our liberty, we make this great neglected issue impossible to ignore writes George Monbiot in The Guardian 

‘In the current wave of Extinction Rebellion protests, more than 1,400 people have so far allowed themselves to be arrested.’ Environmental activists are arrested in central London on Monday. Photograph: Ollie Millington/Getty Images

A few hours after this column is published, I hope to be in a police cell. I don’t yet know what the charge will be, where I will be arrested or when, but I know that if I go home this evening without feeling the hand of the law on my sleeve, I will have failed. This may sound like a strange ambition, but I believe it is a reasonable one.

If I succeed, I will be one of many. In the current wave of Extinction Rebellion protests, more than 1,400 people have so far allowed themselves to be arrested. It’s a controversial tactic, but it has often proved effective. The suffragettes, the Indian salt marchers, the civil rights movement and the Polish and East German democracy movements, to name just a few, all used it as a crucial strategy. Mass arrests are a potent form of democratic protest.

They work because they show that the campaigners are serious. When people are prepared to jeopardise their liberty for their cause, other people appear more likely to listen to what they say, and more likely to recognise its importance. Those who founded Extinction Rebellion researched these histories and sought to apply their lessons to the greatest predicament humanity has ever faced: the gathering collapse of our life support systems.

Nowhere on Earth does government action match the scale of the catastrophes we face. Part of the reason is the remarkably low level of public discussion and information on this crisis. Another is that the political risks of action are higher than the perceived rewards – a balance the protesters want to redress. But perhaps the most important factor is the brute power of the pollutocrats driving this disaster. As the Guardian’s The polluters series shows, the big fossil fuel companies have used political funding, intense lobbying and gross deceptions of the public to overwhelm environmental protections and keep harvesting their massive profits.

FacebookTwitterPinterest ‘Large numbers of people in Somalia, Mozambique, Bangladesh (above), the Caribbean and many other parts of the world are already losing their homes and livelihoods.’ Photograph: Zakir Hossain Chowdhury/Barcroft Media

Those who confront them have no such power. We cannot buy television channels and newspapers, pour billions into political lobbying or seed dark ads on social media. We have only one strength: our vulnerability. By putting our bodies on the line and risking our liberty, we make this great neglected issue impossible to ignore. 

So far, the campaign has been remarkably successful. Alongside the youth climate strikes, Extinction Rebellion has changed the global conversation about climate and environmental breakdown. These movements are directly responsible for the declaration of a climate emergency by the UK parliament and many other political bodies. But this is not enough. It is one thing to recognise an emergency, another to act on it. We must do more. I cannot justifiably say “we” if I don’t mean “I”.

I know this action will expose me to criticism as well as prosecution. Like other prominent activists, I will be lambasted for hypocrisy: this is now the favoured means of trying to take down climate activists. Yes, we are hypocrites. Because we are embedded in the systems we contest, and life is complicated, no one has ever achieved moral purity. The choice we face is not between hypocrisy and purity, but between hypocrisy and cynicism. It is better to strive to do good, and often fail, than not to strive at all.
Other criticisms carry more weight. Extinction Rebellion is too white, and too middle class. Both charges are true, as the organisers recognise: they know that they must do more to break down the cultural barriers the movement unconsciously erects, engage with community leaders, and listen to voices that have not been heard.

But I cannot help who I am. I accept that the costs of arrest for people like me – a white, middle-class man with an established career – are lower than for other people. But this means I have a moral duty to use my privilege.

The victims of climate breakdown have so far been mostly voiceless and invisible to us. But we know that, even with just 1C of global heating, climate chaos is already a bigger cause of forced migration than either poverty or political oppression. Large numbers of people in Somalia, Mozambique, Bangladesh, the Caribbean, Central America and many other parts of the world are already losing their homes and livelihoods. The poor parts of the world are the least responsible for climate disaster but the most likely to suffer its effects. They carry the cost of our consumption. We have imposed this crisis on others, and must do what we can to curtail it.

Since I began writing this article, getting arrested has become easier: the police have imposed a blanket ban on “any assembly linked to the Extinction Rebellion autumn uprising” across London. This looks to me like a breach of article 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.” Over the past four decades, the police have acquired an extraordinary array of powers – enabling them, in effect, to shut down any protest. But they deem even these insufficient: at a recent press conference they demanded new “banning orders” for “habitual” protesters. Given that regular protest has proved throughout history to be an essential mechanism for political reform, this looks like a direct attack on democracy.

Far from deterring me, the draconian ban this week and the police demand for even greater powers has strengthened my determination. Now I feel I am standing not only for the habitability of the planet but also for the continued right to protest. This is my duty, and I intend to fulfil it.

Wednesday, 9 October 2019

If we can’t call racism by its name, diversity will remain a meaningless buzzword

As Naga Munchetty’s experience at the BBC shows, challenging inflammatory language can be hazardous writes Priyamvada Gopal in The Guardian 

Brexit opponents clash. ‘Inflammatory language is increasingly the norm, yet the word racism remains muffled under a curious omerta.’ Photograph: Teri Pengilley/Guardian

Politicians accuse each other of being cowardly collaborators who surrender, betray and capitulate. Commentators on television warn of riots. Inflammatory language is increasingly the norm in public life, yet one word remains muffled under a curious omertà. The BBC presenter Naga Munchetty was only the latest to discover that describing something as racist, even in a measured way, can get you into a lot of trouble.

For many people of colour in largely white institutions, this is a familiar prohibition that works to shut down much-needed discussion and create a repressive and demoralising silence.

Racism is that strange phenomenon, apparent everywhere and apparently nowhere. People believe that not “seeing” race, or being “colourblind”, is progressive, when it is merely evasive. What might happen if we took it as given that after six centuries of European imperial rule it would be astounding if most of us – including people of colour – were not shaped by the racial hierarchies put in place? The term white supremacy may invoke images of hooded Klansmen burning crosses, but it actually refers to an entrenched system of racial domination that once justified colonisation and slavery, the legacies of which still shape economic, political and social orders, particularly in the west.

Racism is emphatically not a matter of subjective “experience”. It has objective structural force that can be identified not just in discriminatory practices but in differing entitlements and unequal access to resources, representation and opportunities. “Go back to where you came from” is not just a wounding phrase that almost all people of colour and migrants have heard. Its material consequences include actual expulsions such as those of the “Windrush children” and, of course, discriminatory travel, migration and citizenship policies.

Another way of deflecting engagement with race is to personalise matters. As the sociologist Robin DiAngelo notes, insisting that there was no “intent” to be racist or asking, “how can you say I’m racist, you don’t know me”, are manifestations of “white fragility”. In this scheme, only exceptionally “bad” people can be racist, and therefore the mere suggestion of racism is often treated as more serious and hurtful than racism itself. DiAngelo makes the important point that discussions about race are bound to be uncomfortable for members of dominant communities who have to come to terms with their own entanglement in an unfair system.

To avoid such discomfort and difficulty is to refuse change. I know this from personal experience as an upper-caste woman from India who has also benefited from a deeply iniquitous system. I too have felt defensive, but there’s no way to change things without admitting to the existence of caste or race supremacy, and dealing with the fact of inevitable complicity and the inherited privilege that disadvantages others.

At the same time, “whataboutery” leads nowhere. Whenever I speak of race and empire in the British media, I receive emails asking: “What about caste” and inviting me to “go back” to India to address the caste system instead. People not normally known for a deep interest in class matters will also suddenly ask “what about the working classes?”. A now retired female manager once told me that, although sexism was still an issue at Cambridge University, racism was not. There’s no need to pit race, class, caste, gender, ability or sexuality against each other: there are no free passes in an inequitable world where each brutality shapes the others. 

There are also no “race cards”. People who raise issues of racial exclusion or abuse are not demanding special treatment; on the contrary, they are arguing against the special privileges bestowed on the majority or dominant group. Most of us who raise issues of racism do so with hesitation, feeling vulnerable as we do so and fearing inevitable social and institutional reprisals. Meet a race whistleblower and you meet a deemed “troublemaker”, a position with unpleasant institutional consequences.

Discussion of race is often derailed by bogeys such as “reverse racism”. Of course it’s possible for people of colour to display hostile or denigrating attitudes towards other races, Asian anti-blackness being one example. “Racism towards white people” is not, however, systemic and does not have policy consequences. Certificates from “best friends” of colour declaring a person to be “not racist” are also void. Just as having a mother does not make men free of sexism in a patriarchal world, having a black best friend, spouse or even child cannot absolve individuals from complicity in racist language and actions. Indeed, ethnic minority politicians may themselves be used to justify such things as blackface or xenophobia.

No one is claiming that victims of racism are pure or noble. People are never purely victims and everyone has to ask tough questions of themselves. It is perfectly possible, for example, to be at once homophobic yourself and a victim of racism. Both must be tackled.

Far from “wallowing in victimhood”, people who challenge racism are acting as responsible agents of change. At a time when the forces of violent racism are globally in the ascendant once again, we can help them along by refusing to name it as such.

Alternatively, we can do the right thing: actively acknowledge racism’s existence and try to rein in its power. If we don’t choose to have difficult and urgent discussions openly, then “diversity” will remain a meaningless buzzword where people’s bodies are included in institutions but their voices are silenced.

Brexit is a necessary crisis – it reveals Britain’s true place in the world

A determined ignorance of the dynamics of global capitalism is bringing about a long-overdue audit of British realities writes David Edgerton in The Guardian

The Commons in 1966: ‘The Conservative party was the party of national capitalism.’ Photograph: Bentley Archive/Popperfoto via Getty Images/Getty Images

Who backs Brexit? Agriculture is against it; industry is against it; services are against it. None of them, needless to say, support a no-deal Brexit. Yet the Conservative party, which favoured European union for economic reasons over many decades, has become not only Eurosceptic – it is set on a course regarded by every reputable capitalist state and the great majority of capitalist enterprises as deeply foolish.

If any prime minister in the past had shown such a determined ignorance of the dynamics of global capitalism, the massed ranks of British capital would have stepped in to force a change of direction. Yet today, while the CBI and the Financial Times call for the softest possible Brexit, the Tory party is no longer listening. 

Why not? One answer is that the Tories now represent the interests of a small section of capitalists who actually fund the party. An extreme version of this argument was floated by the prime minister’s sister, Rachel, and the former chancellor Philip Hammond – both of whom suggested that hard Brexit is being driven by a corrupt relationship between the prime minister and his hedge-fund donors, who have shorted the pound and the whole economy. This is very unlikely to be correct, but it may point to a more disconcerting truth.

The fact is that the capitalists who do support Brexit tend to be very loosely tied to the British economy. This is true of hedge funds, of course – but also true for manufacturers such as Sir James Dyson, who no longer produces in the UK. The owners of several Brexiter newspapers are foreign, or tax resident abroad – as is the pro-Brexit billionaire Sir James Ratcliffe of Ineos.

But the real story is something much bigger. What is interesting is not so much the connections between capital and the Tory party but their increasing disconnection. Today much of the capital in Britain is not British and not linked to the Conservative party – where for most of the 20th century things looked very different. Once, great capitalists with national, imperial and global interests sat in the Commons and the Lords as Liberals or Conservatives. Between the wars, the Conservatives emerged as the one party of capital, led by great British manufacturers such as Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain. The Commons and the Lords were soon fuller than ever of Tory businessmen, from the owner of Meccano toys to that of Lyons Corner Houses.

After the second world war, such captains of industry avoided the Commons, but the Conservative party was without question the party of capital and property, one which stood against the party of organised labour. Furthermore, the Tories represented an increasingly national capitalism, protected by import controls, and closely tied to an interventionist and technocratic state that wanted to increase exports of British designed and made goods. A company like Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) saw itself, and indeed was, a national champion. British industry, public and private, was a national enterprise.

Since the 1970s things have changed radically. Today there is no such thing as British national capitalism. London is a place where world capitalism does business – no longer one where British capitalism does the world’s business. Everywhere in the UK there are foreign-owned enterprises, many of them nationalised industries, building nuclear reactors and running train services from overseas. When the car industry speaks, it is not as British industry but as foreign enterprise in the UK. The same is true of many of the major manufacturing sectors – from civil aircraft to electrical engineering – and of infrastructure. Whatever the interests of foreign capital, they are not expressed through a national political party. Most of these foreign-owned businesses, not surprisingly, are hostile to Brexit.
Brexit is the political project of the hard right within the Conservative party, and not its capitalist backers. In fact, these forces were able to take over the party in part because it was no longer stabilised by a powerful organic connection to capital, either nationally or locally.

Brexit also speaks to the weakness of the state, which was itself once tied to the governing party – and particularly the Conservatives. The British state once had the capacity to change the United Kingdom and its relations to the rest of the world radically and quickly, as happened in the second world war, and indeed on accession to the common market.

Today the process from referendum to implementation will take, if it happens, nearly as long as the whole second world war. The modern British state has distanced itself from the productive economy and is barely able to take an expert view of the complexities of modern capitalism. This was painfully clear in the Brexit impact sectoral reports the government was forced to publish – they were internet cut-and-paste jobs.

The state can no longer undertake the radical planning and intervention that might make Brexit work. That would require not only an expert state, but one closely aligned with business. The preparations would by now be very visible at both technical and political levels. But we have none of that. Instead we have the suggestion that nothing much will happen on no deal, that mini-deals will appear. The real hope of the Brexiters is surely that the EU will cave and carry on trading with the UK as if nothing had changed. Brexit is a promise without a plan. But in the real world Brexit does mean Brexit, and no deal means no deal.

Brexit is a necessary crisis, and has provided a long overdue audit of British realities. It exposes the nature of the economy, the new relations of capitalism to politics and the weakness of the state. It brings to light, in stunning clarity, Brexiters’ deluded political understanding of the UK’s place in the world. From a new understanding, a new politics of national improvement might come; without it we will remain stuck in the delusional, revivalist politics of a banana monarchy.