Author Archives: Jochen Eisentraut

The European Union is an Empire of Peace and Democracy

The history of the world is littered with the debris of empires: Roman amphitheatres, Inca cities, the great wall of China. Empires have been very successful in many ways. They have facilitated trade, travel and communication, they have enabled innovators and artists to work, improve lives and inspire people. The ancient Romans and Arabs influence our lives and cultures in many ways to this day. The British Empire was the latest and greatest in the procession, and it has shaped the modern world most of all, leaving many benefits around the world, not least parliamentary democracy and an independent judiciary in North America and India.

Yet empires are not something to wish for. Historically they have been forged by bloody conquest. Usually a people, led by ambitious generals and power-hungry leaders, attacks, subjects, controls and exploits other neighbouring or far-away peoples, mostly against their will. That’s if they are lucky. If they are not they will find themselves forcibly converted to an alien religion, with their language repressed, not infrequently accompanied by ethnic cleansing in the form of forced removal or straightforward murder and genocide (such as in the formation of the modern US). Not a pretty picture, and a high price to pay for railways and trade with the wider world.

The European Union is an attempt to create the benefits of empire: cooperation between neighbours, free trade over a large area, easy travel, order, prosperity and internal peace and security; without the bloody conquest and draconian repression. Uniquely, the EU is the coming together, by choice, of democracies in a larger formation which is governed partly by elected representatives of the member states, and partly by its own institutions, such as the elected European Parliament. It is based on the idea that you can have a large scale geopolitical entity without the domination of one culture over many others, without the persecution of minorities or the eradication of languages. Inevitably there will be tensions as such an organisation develops. The United States (which is a kind of empire, too) has always been riven by competition between the power of the individual state governments and the federal government. That is part of the checks and balances of the system. In the same way it is inevitable that there will be tensions in the EU between Brussels and the member states over many issues, perhaps sometimes leading to certain countries leaving. It is actually an important aspect of the nature of the EU that a country should be able to leave peacefully, because it underlines that this is a union of choice, and not one of coercion, both in terms of joining and staying in.

Why EU Regulations Help Us

One of the common complaints of Eurosceptics about the EU is that there are too many regulations coming from Brussels. Some of these, such as those protecting employees from exploitation, or rules protecting the environment, are welcomed in certain quarters. Even Boris Johnson’s father is a strong supporter of the EU’s environmental work. But other types of regulation are often resented and the ‘outers’ say that they want the single market, but not all these rules.

What they seem to overlook is that the single market has to consist largely of such regulations. Let me explain. Protectionism, i.e. the opposite of free markets, is not just a matter of tariffs which make imported goods more expensive. It is also often something created because countries have particular rules about products and services which in effect make it difficult or impossible for outsiders to import them. All developed countries have rules about the standard of manufacture of certain items, the safety of toys, for instance, what chemical may or may not be present in domestic paint, or the permissible ingredients in processed foods. If you are a British manufacturer of toy trucks, for example, you have to comply with the standards in your own country to sell at home, and then you need to comply with the standards of any country you sell into. If you are going to export to a dozen countries and they all have different regulations about your product, this will make your life much more difficult, and your product more expensive.

But suppose your country belongs to an organisation in which many countries agree the product standards for toy trucks together. This means that all you need to do is to manufacture to the standards which apply in your own country and the trucks will automatically comply with those in all of the other countries, because they will be the same. Your life will become much easier, your toy trucks cheaper, and the likelihood that your company can export and grow, much greater. This is why many EU regulations are not a hindrance but a help to British businesses and therefore to the prosperity of the whole country.

Leaving the (EU) Club

Listening to the Brexit debate in recent weeks I have been struck by the negativity of the ‘inners’. They spend almost as much time saying they have no love for the EU as the ‘outers’. The argument generally is very much fought around ‘what is in Britain’s best interest’. This is inevitable in the run-up to the referendum I suppose, but it also misses the point. Staying in or leaving are about much more than short or medium term economic interest. The outers are really motivated by nationalism and a deep seated antipathy towards the EU which has been fed for decades by the British Eurosceptic press. This is also informed by nostalgia for the days of Empire, when Britain had superpower status. These campaigners like to talk down Europe as a failed project (as MP Kate Hoey did on tonight’s Any Questions). This is ridiculous considering that the EU collectively is the world’s largest economy, even bigger than the US.

But the ‘inners’ have a much more positive story to tell, and this is one which should contain much loftier concepts than economic self-interest. The EU is primarily about co-operation. It is about solidarity, and it is about the peaceful and voluntary pooling of resources. It is a relationship, it is a partnership, and anyone who enters into either one of these simply for what they can get out of it, is not going to be a good partner – and is not going to get the best out of it. In order be a good partner or club member, you have to be committed and you have to be prepared to work for the common good. That surely is how joining together with others works. You recognise that you have common ground and you decide to club together to share the benefits and face the challenges together.

It is not just Britain that seems to have a blind spot here. In the refugee crisis a number of countries have refused to help either the desperate people fleeing war, or their European partners. Such emphasis on apparent self-interest is very short-sighted. Because working together means that today I help you, and tomorrow you help me. And if there is something I do not like, we talk about it and find a compromise. And ultimately we know that it is worth belonging, not because we are going to be so many millions better off today or tomorrow, but because if we help our neighbours they will also help us. Whereas if we are constantly trying to get the better of our neighbours, we will have to watch our backs.

If we are part of a Union with our continent, we can compete with the US and China, face down Russia and help Africa in ways that are just not possible for any European country alone. But most of all, we can help each other.

On Being Welsh (Speaking)

I’m not Welsh. No Welsh Not for me. But I have some experience, a few decades, and a language acquired from friends and girlfriends, and many others, at work, in shops and pubs. Being Welsh involves a particular perspective. There is a small country, next to a big country. There is a language spoken by very few, next to one spoken by (it seems) nearly everyone. We can all see that. But it is seeing it from the Welsh point of view that is so different to seeing it as an outsider.

On face of it there is not much difference between English people and Welsh speakers. One of my Welsh nationalist friends was embarrassed to admit as much to me on moving to France. They share so many many of the same cultural references, from TV to food, to history and music. But it is the perspective on language which is so different. For English people, their language is like water to a fish. They hardly realise it is there, it is so all-pervasive. They do not think about its power and its reach, and when they do they tend to (wrongly) assume that it is universal. They are suspended between not realising it is there, to thinking it is everywhere. What is more, there is the supreme confidence, not only of the native speaker, in the sense of speaking one’s mother tongue, but also of being from the home of the language. In other words, an English person’s English has a kind of authentic primacy over that of those who grew up speaking it in the US, Australia or Nigeria. What this confers is a kind of enviable supreme cultural confidence, which unfortunately sometimes expresses itself as unthinking arrogance.

Perhaps the most important feeling that many Welsh speakers have towards their language is a sense of responsibility. There are so few speakers (about half a million) compared to English that the need to protect and nurture Welsh is felt very personally. They are the keepers of the flame, and if they let it go out, it will not revive. Their language is a remarkable cultural survivor. It has outlived others which, much further from the hub of the English Empire, have disappeared. Welsh is the main native language of Britain, which was here before, during and after the Romans, and of course before English. It was displaced by Anglo Saxon (which developed into English) after the invasions from the continent, and who can seriously doubt that such a major language shift would have taken place without horrific ethnic cleansing. Why else did Britons flee in sufficient numbers to Northern France to establish the kingdom of Brittany, where a language like Welsh still exists today?

Welsh is not a version of the majority language, like some outsiders presume. It is not a dialect of English, but belongs to a different language family, that of the Celtic languages, to which Irish and Scottish Gaelic, also belong. But of all the Celtic languages Welsh is the most widely spoken. It has a written literature that goes back to the Dark Ages and includes the first written sources of the Arthurian legends. Arguably, Welsh is the cultural trace of a Celtic culture that encompassed much of Western and Southern Europe in Roman and pre-Roman times. But when Welsh people use their language, they are not primarily thinking of it in those terms, they are simply expressing their living culture and identity. As a result of 20th-century political activism Welsh has a professional and lively presence in all modern media, from radio to TV and the internet. It is used in education and in government institutions. This is not a dying language, or a museum piece. It is very much alive, kicking and contemporary.

Indeed it is something of which all of us should be proud and protective, because this is an important part of the cultural richness and heritage of Wales, Britain and Europe. Unfortunately, however, outsiders often cannot see the point. Even the most liberal, ready to espouse every other minority cause, are quick to dismiss something so remarkable as pointless. This is where the gulf opens up, between insiders and outsiders. Welsh speakers are the guardians of a precious good, of which their more numerous and powerful neighbours are largely ignorant and intolerant, and on this point they could not be more different.

The Middle East and Western Policy

It is too easy simply to blame the West for the problems related to Islamic fundamentalism and the war in the Middle-East. Leaders and opinion formers in the Arab World clearly have to bear their share of the responsibility, as do moderate Muslims who have allowed a potential cuckoo to grow in their nest. But, without buying into far-fetched conspiracy theories, it is clear that our actions in the Middle-East have been inconsistent, short-sighted and venal. We have courted, armed and condemned fundamentalists, we have supported, installed or toppled murderous dictators, we have paid lip-service to reform, but not given it our whole-hearted commitment, and when it comes to peace, the Americans have always failed to play their whip-hand to bring about an Arab-Israeli settlement. Our interventions, from Iran to Afghanistan to Iraq and Libya have reacted to one problem and caused many more.

Sometimes one has to make a deal with the Devil in order to fend off a mortal danger. The West needed Stalin to vanquish Hitler, and in the process Stalin was also saved and strengthened. This led to the Cold War, but what choice did ‘we’ have? Hitler made it an easy decision because he himself attacked Russia. In this sense ISIL are indeed similar to the Nazis: they like to go around making enemies, and that will probably be their downfall. In the end they will bite off more than they can chew. But the West needs a vision and a strategy. An idea can be an incredibly powerful thing if you are prepared to stand up for it. This is what makes the extremists strong. They don’t have conventional armies or huge populations or a powerful military-industrial complex. But they have the idea of an Islamic State and they are prepared to kill and be killed for it. What is our idea? Democracy? Tolerance? Security? And what are we prepared to do for it? And what is our vision for the Middle East? And how are we going to promote it?

Not getting involved is not really an option. For a start; we are involved in any case, and we are being attacked, and it is not defensible to stand back and look on while people are massacred by their leaders or throat-slitting Islamists or in some sectarian pogrom. But make no mistake, this is a dangerous game and the stakes are high. Not only are there already frictions between NATO member Turkey and Russia and Iraq, which could turn into a nasty superpower head-to-head, but we risk getting embroiled in something with no good outcome, which sets up the next problem for decades to come. But at least we should know what we stand for, and we should be prepared to be clear and consistent about it, even if it means offending old ‘friends’ like Israel and the Saudis.


Paris Attacks

I was lucky enough to spend this summer in Paris. I rented a room through Air B n B in the 11th Arrondissement, a lively area of bars and music venues, patisseries, bookshops and markets. The inhabitants are mixed, with a large Muslim contingent, as well as Jews, Africans, Asians and so on. Whether talking of religion, nationality, race or geography, and I am consciously mixing these up here, the area is a coming together and a living together. On top of the locals, there are many visitors, and temporary residents, like myself, many from the US, UK and rest of the EU.

However, there were clear indications that all was not peace and love here. The Jewish primary school up the road a hundred meters from me had an army guard detail outside during school hours, vigilant and armed to the teeth. Other detachments patrolled the streets. This clearly was not enough to deter or stop the bloody massacre of last Friday, when well over a hundred people were mown down outside cafés and at a gig, with hundreds injured. Friday the 13th, Friday the Muslim holy day. I spent my time in music places, watching and playing, sitting outside cafés, eating in restaurants. With good friends sometimes, and for a while with my son, who joined me for a week. We regularly passed by those very places which last Friday ran with the blood of random revellers, like us.

During my time there I read a controversial novel Soumission (Submission), published at the time of the Charlie Hebdo attack earlier this year, which invents a near future where an Islamic republic is established in France. The author is Michel Houellebecq, who went into hiding for a while because of death threats. He had previously made derogatory remarks about Islam. I felt rather self-conscious reading the book in public places, although it turns out to be rather unexpectedly ambivalent in tone about the fictional Islamic take-over which is portrayed as a seductive return to traditional values.

It is difficult to know what to say about the recent attacks, other than to express one’s utter shock and disbelief. What is clear is that we are at war. The visitations of death which have been commonplace in the middle East for so long now clearly include us in their icy embrace. A large swathe of the world, from Pakistan to Nigeria, is embroiled in a complex chain of conflicts which have many causes (in both senses) including inter-ethnic conflict, liberation movements, religious sectarianism and intolerance, pro-democracy uprisings, the Arab-Israeli conflict, Western involvement, power games by various countries etc. etc. But Islamic fundamentalism is a common theme. And really this war has been going on since 2001. Since September 11th of that year, the Al Qaeda attack on New York and the retaliatory invasion of Afghanistan in that year, this has been going on. Its roots of course lie much further back. But just to take an overview like this is quite sobering: 15 years at war, a war spanning from Canada (check) and Boston to Spain, France, UK, to Mali, Egypt, Syria, to India, Bali and even Australia.

Election News:
Labour Increase Share of Vote by More than Tories!

You may have the impression that the Conservatives gained an absolute majority of the vote in last week’s election, and that Labour lost a great deal of support. Well, if you have a careful look at the official BBC results table you will notice that what actually happened is something quite different.

The Conservatives did improve their share of the vote compared to the last general election in 2010, but by less than 1%. Labour on the other hand did slightly better, they attracted 1.5% more votes than last time. However, our perverse electoral system has somehow turned these tiny changes into a difference of 50 seats between the parties: the Conservatives ended up with 24 more seats and Labour with 26 fewer.

And that’s not all. Only 37% of people who went to the polls last week voted Conservative, but with that total the party has captured 51% of the seats in parliament. ‘There’s something wrong there surely’ I hear you say. It gets better, or worse, I should say. The Scottish National Party gained just under 5% of the vote, but that got them nearly 9% of seats in the House – that’s 56 seats (of the 650 available). The Greens, however, received only one seat – with nearly 4% of the vote. So one per cent difference in voting share can give rise to 55 more seats!

Perhaps the most absurd part of the results is what happened to UKIP, and here you might think it’s a good thing. UKIP actually came third in terms of the votes cast, but they ended up equal 10th with the Greens because, like them, they got just one seat. With over 12% of the vote UKIP only managed 0.1% of the seats. Lucky it may be, but is it democratic?

Perhaps you remember that we had a referendum on electoral reform, which might have made a difference to this kind of absurd outcome, not long after the previous election, and that it was rejected. What happened was that the Liberal Democrats demanded electoral reform as the price for joining the coalition, because they had themselves been suffering the negative effects of the totally unfair ‘first past the post system’ for decades. But the Conservatives, who tend to benefit from it, managed to get a compromise system on the referendum ballot which pleased no one really. The Liberal Democrats (and the press) also totally failed to communicate the importance of reform to ordinary people, paralysed by the stupid mantra that most voters can’t be bothered with that kind of thing. As if someone who goes out to vote will not really mind that their vote will probably end up being binned.

This brings me to one aspect of last week’s results that does appear just. The Lib Dems lost 15% of the vote compared to last time, and are 49 seats down (on 8). They had a once-in-a-generation chance to change the voting system, and they messed up. I think they had it coming.

Third part of Atomised review

The satire of the passage quoted in the previous post only shows the more benign side of Houellebecq’s prose. His distaste for contemporary life goes beyond making fun, and even beyond breaking the strictures of political correctness. His venom goes as far as being sexist, racist, misogynistic and downright misanthropic. Is this just an author wanting to shock? Is it the voice of the characters or his own? Is he giving voice to animosities which many people feel but are usually afraid to voice? Are they attitudes from an earlier age which still course deeply in Western culture, or are they even more deeply rooted in us? Or is it just the resentment of the neglected child, angry at people in the now because they were wronged long ago. Is it the frustration of being locked in a cycle of dysfunction caused by hurt, which leads to more hurt? Continue reading

Houellebecq’s vicious satire of New Age culture

Houellebecq makes a clear connection between the individualisation, secularisation and rationalisation of society on the one hand, and the growth in New Age beliefs and practices on the other. He describes a centre in rural France which, having started as a place of hedonistic revolutionary idealism in the sixties, has turned by the nineties into a commercialised refuge for middle-aged hippy types, desperately looking for meaning and connection in their empty lives: Continue reading

Review of Atomised by Michel Houellebecq

Read my review of this book over several posts

I couldn’t face the desperate last minute search for Christmas presents this year. The trying to find something for people who want for nothing material, squeezed in amongst a throng of other shoppers driven by the rampant seasonal imperative to consume. So I decided to just go to a bookshop I like. I could face that. And I should be able to find a book for everyone.

As often happens when buying presents though, I also picked up a couple for myself. Holiday reading really. Something to take my mind off work, Christmas, and to cheer myself up. One book I randomly bought for myself was Michel Houellebecq’s Atomised. Well, in a way I chose badly, because this is certainly not a cheerful tome (although there is some dark humour). And although it contains a great deal of sex, it did not make me forget my work, because it happens to be largely about my current research themes. Continue reading