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Democracy Is a Way of Avoiding Violence

2016 May 17
by Ian Welsh

Democracy is intended to provide a legitimate way for change to occur, a way which does not require violence.

We vote, and what we vote for is done.

To the extent that the people get more or less what they think they are voting for, democracy is working.

When people do not get what they think they are voting for, democracy is not working.

If democracy does not work for long enough, the government comes to seem illegitimate–people may have voted, but they didn’t vote for what they got.

It is for this reason that endless austerity, or candidates who are hypocrites and do not do what they said (or very strongly implied) they would do, are a problem.

They destroy democratic legitimacy, and when that legitimacy is gone, people start wanting a government that “works.” They become willing to go to demagogues and men on horseback. They become willing to engage in revolution and violence.

They are correct to do so. Democracy which does not translate the will of the people into the acts of the government is not democracy worth having.

Or, more briefly:

Those who make peaceful change impossible make violent change inevitable.

— John F. Kennedy

This is why Trump. This is why LaPen. This is why the Golden Dawn.

Democracy can regenerate itself. FDR in 1932, for example. But then there were also Mussolini and Hitler. This is not a specious example; it can happen “here,” wherever here is.

Cynical elites, who do what they know won’t work to give people what they want (neoliberalism never providing prosperity), are doing profoundly evil work: They are undermining the very basis of democracy and in doing so they are destroying the peace.

They will reap as they have sowed.


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Seven Rules for Running a Real Left-Wing Government

2016 May 16
by Ian Welsh

So, we have had a right-wing coup in Brazil. In Venezuela, the left still controls the Presidency, but has lost control of parliament. In Argentina, the right has won the election.

I have been asked how to stop right-wing reversals.

First it’s worth noting that these three cases are somewhat different. Brazil is a coup in all but name. Venezuela saw massive deliberate fouling of the economy by internal right-wing forces. The situation in Argentina was the closest to fair; a reversal of electoral fortunes.

Still there are lessons to be learned from their experiences:

It’s Not You, It’s China (or, the World System)

All three left-wing movements in Brazil, Venezuela, and Argentina were associated with rising commodity prices. When those commodity prices collapsed, it was only natural for their fortunes to reverse. They are in power when the economy goes bad, now people want them out. They are willing to be complicit in actions to get them out, which are dubious.

Don’t Run Your Economy on Resources

Yes, okay, this is easier said than done. It is hard to bootstrap into something else if you’re a non-core economy. Heck, even many core economies are losing their manufacturing bases and while finance can “work,” it’s a shit way to run your economy. So are “services.” We’ll discuss this in more depth below. But the bottom line is this: You have to develop (or have plans to develop) your economy into a mixed economy, so that it can survive during the inevitable downturns, and, thus, so that your movement can survive them.

People expect you to be able to maintain prosperity. Given the world order as it stands, that may be like asking you to swim with a hundred pound weight strapped to your back, but you still have to do it.

Your First Act Must Be a Media Law

Break them up. Take them over. Whichever. Ignore the screams about media freedom from the usual suspects in the West, this is a case of “freedom of the press belongs to those who own one.”    In all three countries, the media conglomerates remained in the control of oligarchs (update: to be clear Venezuela did eventually expropriate them, but only after many years), and in all three cases, the majority of the media remained relentlessly hostile to the left.

This is just as true in countries like Britain, Canada, or the US as it is in Argentina, Venezuela, or Brazil, by the way. There is a reason why the post-war liberal regimes put strict media controls in place–including size limits–and there is a reason why those limits were removed by the neo-liberal regimes that replaced them.

You can win “against the media” for a time, but if you leave it in the hands of your enemies, they will eventually use it to bury you.

Take Control of the Banking Sector

The banking sector creates money. Money determines what people can and cannot do. This is the control mechanism for the economy in any state which runs on markets. You must control it. If you control it, you can use it to strangle your domestic enemies. If you do not, your enemies will use it to strangle you.

This is a great problem. The world economy has been designed so that countries need to trade, and they need foreign money. So you can take control of your banking sector, but you can’t control England’s or America’s or the payments system (this is what killed Argentina) and thus you cannot tell creditors to go fuck themselves. You need foreign money for necessities.

It is also problematic because the people who know how to run the market economy are not your people. You have get rid of the people who ran it before, so who is going to run it now?

Who Is Your Administrative Class?

You must have a class of people available to run the state and those chunks of the economy over which you are taking control (whether formally or informally). You must know who those people are. FDR reached into academia for many of his people; he pulled from the social gospel folks (who were used to administering large organizations), and he found a lot of fellow class traitors (for example, JFK’s father, whom he used to run the SEC–Kennedy knew all the tricks and was able to tamp down Wall Street’s BS).

Post-FDR, one of the reasons why factory line supervisors were made ineligible for union membership was so that union members couldn’t be used as easily to take over organizations–even the lowest level supervisors were no longer union members.

There are always people who know the business and believe the way it is being run is bullshit. But you have to know who they are, both as a class and individually. There are certainly people who can run TV stations and newspapers who are left-wing, but you’ve got to know who they are.  There are heterodox economists and people who have worked in the finance industry who are class traitors and just itching for a chance to put the boots to the assholes they worked for. Again, you must know who they are.

Take Control of Distribution and Utilities

Yeah, sorry, but no one said this would be easy. In Venezuela, you had the economic elite deliberately worsening shortages. Huge stocks of consumer goods buried and hidden.

These people have power. They are your enemies. They will use their power against you. They will not “play fair.”

In Egypt, under the Brotherhood, the deep state did things like cause electricity outages and blame it on the Brotherhood. Of course, the same bureaucrats as always were running the electrical system.

Again, this comes back to control: You have to take control and you have to have competent people you can trust who can do so. Do you know who they are?

Reduce Your Vulnerability to the World Trade System

The world system as it stands now is designed so that no nation can stand alone: They cannot make and grow everything they need. This was not always the case. In the past, many nations went out of their way to be self-sufficent. It was Keynes’ position, by the way, that nations should produce all their day-to-day necessities themselves, wherever possible, and import only what they could not produce and luxuries–but to strive not to need anything they couldn’t make.

This has been economic and political orthodoxy at various points.

But it isn’t now. You’re in hock to various foreigners for a lot of money, denominated in their currency. You probably can’t feed your own nation. You can’t make what you need (toilet paper, famously, in Venezuela’s case) and you can’t buy it without foreign currency. But the foreign financial system is not friendly to you if you’re genuinely left-wing, and the world trade system is set up to make it illegal to do what is required to produce goods domestically.

You’ll need subsidies or tariffs to make new domestic industries viable, and that’s illegal thanks to a web of trade deals meant to make you unable to control your own economy.

Venezuela tried to increase farming, but failed, precisely because the price of oil went through the roof and foreign food was cheaper than domestic. The classic response would be tariffs, but the kinds of tariffs sufficient to work would not be tolerated by the world trade system.

It’s hard to overstate how huge a problem this is. It goes back to the commodity issue. Maybe you have enough foreign cash for now, but you won’t always, and you must have it. This vulnerability must be reduced, generally.

No one has managed this in the neo-liberal era, not completely, and huge amounts of geopolitics are run based on this. Russia has its oil prices drop so it moves to selling military goods to make up the difference, for example, and its Syrian intervention is, in large part, a venue to show off how well its weapons work.

Workarounds have been tried: Cooperation with other left-wing nations is the standard one. Venezuela with Cuba, and so on. But this is the “south” trading with the “south.” The stuff they really need, generally none of them actually produce, and if they do they either don’t produce enough or they don’t really, i.e., it’s produced by some multinational with no loyalty.

So then you try to appropriate the multinational, but that runs you into all sorts of problems from getting replacement parts for the machines, the experts to run what you’ve expropriated, to effective embargoes, even if not declared as such.

Nonetheless this is a problem which must be solved. A full description of how to bootstrap an economy is beyond the scope of this article, and I’m not sure I have a full kit, but I will say this: There are a huge number of highly skilled first world workers, from the Ph.D.-level down to machinists who are unemployed or underemployed. They want to work. They hate their own system. You can bring these people in, give them new lives, and at least have the necessary expertise.

I know many extremely qualified pharma professionals who would love a chance to set generic factories and create new drugs without the pressure for palliatives they receive from their drug company employers (or ex-employers), as just one example.

This bootstrapping is a challenge which appeals to a lot of the very best and brightest.

Be Satisfied with What You Can Grow and Make

If your elites or population insist on fresh summer vegetables in winter, you’re done. What you can produce, you must have a taste for. This is especially true for elites. If they must have the latest Mercedes, a vacation in Paris, and a home in London, you’re screwed because to have those things they must have foreign currency.

When Korea was industrializing they had huge campaigns to not smoke foreign cigarettes: It was considered unpatriotic.

You need what foreign currency you have to stay earmarked for capital goods, and you need your elites to be local elites, not global elites. If your elites consider themselves global, you will never be able to create the necessary self-sufficiency to buck the world system.

Obey the Laws of Purges

Let’s not dance around. Your first steps will be breaking the power of current economic and political elites who are not willing to convincingly join you or at least let you rule without trying to sabotage you.

You must do this all at once. When it happens, it happens to everyone it is going to happen to. This is Machiavelli’s dictum, and he was right. After it has happened, those who weren’t broken know they’re safe as long as they don’t get in your way.

If the breaking keeps going on and on everyone who still has something to lose (and still, thus, has power) lives in fear. They must destroy you before you destroy them.

Let’s give a concrete example. Assume Obama was really a left-winger. He gets into power in 2009, and he really wants to change things. He needs to take out the financial elite: Wall Street and the Big Banks.

They’ve handed him the opportunity. Here’s part of how he does it: He declares all banks involved in the sub-prime fraud racket (all of the big ones most of the small ones) conspiracies under RICO.

He then says that all the individual executives’ money are proceeds from crime and confiscates it. (This is 100 percent legal under laws as they exist). He charges them, and they are forced to use public defenders.

They are now powerless. This is the second law of purges: Anyone you damage, you must destroy utterly. If you take away half their power, and leave them half, they will  hate you forever and use their remaining power to destroy you.

Leave them whole, or destroy them. The financial executives would have been destroyed, and win or lose in the courts, the next five to ten years of their lives would be consumed by personal legal nightmares.

Again, this is a Machiavellian dictum.

All of this will make many readers uneasy. It seems “mean.”

Get out of the game. You aren’t fit for it. This is all mean. Millions of people die every year and millions more are ruined by the current system. If you’re in this game to win it, rather than feel good about yourself, you will have to play real power politics by the actual rules of the game.

Too many left-wingers try to play by what they think the rules are. “We have a fair election every X years and the losers accept the result and don’t sabotage the winner (or do a coup).”

Those aren’t the real rules. If the right is really losing, they will cheat and cheat massively. They will think nothing of running death squads, making a deal with the US to support guerrillas, and so on.

You directly threaten their wealth and power if you are a real left-winger. Even if all you want is a 50s style social democracy with racial and gender equality, that would destroy almost all of what they have. They remember what FDR did to them, even if you don’t. They remember all the lost power and fortunes.

It is not possible to have a fair, egalitarian, prosperous society, and have very rich and powerful elites. It cannot be done. Brandeis was exactly right when he said you can have democracy or great wealth in the hands of a few, but you can’t have both.

Either you’re willing to do what it takes, including the ugly bits, or you aren’t. There are sometimes local exceptions, places where a lot of the ugly isn’t needed, but there aren’t a lot of those left in the world. This isn’t the post-war era and even then, for the South (as opposed to Scandinavia), actual egalitarian developed economies mostly weren’t allowed. You can ask Central and South America about that.

Most left-wing movements get into power without having properly thought out what they’ll do once in power and without a realistic understanding of the deep lack of belief in democratic norms by their right-wing opponents.

Break your enemy’s power. If you’re any sort of left-winger worth your salt, you ethically do not believe in huge concentrations of power and money in the hands of a few people anyway. Act on your beliefs.

And if they’ve committed a pile of crimes (and they almost always have), use those crimes against them.

Then remember the world system is set up expressly to stop what you are doing.

You’re tackling the dragon, and most people who do that get eaten. We tell the stories of the dragonslayers because they are so few.

So, know the odds are against you, and be willing to do what is required to improve them. If you aren’t, stay home.


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Surviving Climate Change

2016 May 15
by Ian Welsh

The news is all bad. You may have seen this graphic already, but it’s worth meditating on.

Climate Trend from NASA

Yes, this year has been breaking records. Every single month has been the hottest on record.

There is a chance we’ve “broken out” from the trend, and will now see full operation of the vicious cycle.

I am going to suggest that readers start taking this into account in their personal lives. Figure out how climate change is likely to effect where you live. It isn’t always obvious or linear (for example, there’s a chance that Europe could enter a cold-free if the Gulf Stream shuts off, and it’s already lost one-third of its strength).

Effects will also include movements of people from the worst affected areas. Is where you are, or are going to be, one of the places they will flee to? Are you in a “global city” where the richer citizens may want an “insurance property” driving up real-estate prices even more?

What do you want to do about this for yourself, your family, your nation, and/or the world?  The answer can be “little to nothing,” but it’s worth thinking on. Pushing for residence requirements for real-estate ownership could save your house or condo, as increased prices will increase taxes. It could also make it possible for your children or other young people to live in the nicer cities where the good jobs are.

Where are the refugee camps going to be set up? Does your country have any realistic possibility of settling refugees fairly rather than in camps?

Are you, conversely, in a place from which people are going to have to flee?

Move before you are required to flee. Really. Take the hit necessary and get out, unless you’re old and without dependents.

Is your area going to run out of water? I recently visited San Antonio, and that city will probably run out of water in a couple decades. It might be able to import enough, but it might not. Water is going to be in short supply all through the south.

As shortages hit, violence will increase. Are you on good terms with the local violent authorities, whoever they are? Dean Ing, the science fiction writer and survivalist, moved to a small town and then made sure to become friends with the police chief and the local base commander.

Are you considering how to get, at least partially, off the grid? Could you eat or drink for a few weeks if there were disruptions? What about alternate heating or cooling arrangements? Do you have a “bugout bag” and a “bugout plan” if you have to leave suddenly? The very basics can be cheaper than one might think.

Some of this may be overblown: yet. But it’s worth thinking this stuff through and making what precautions you can. And remember the #1 rule of surviving bad times and disasters.

Friends and neighbours. Make sure you have friends, locally, and that your neighbours know and like you. People who are well-liked by a lot of people are far more likely to survive bad times than those who aren’t. And having really good friends wherever you may have to flee to, if it comes to that, is wise.

Start cultivating.


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Hollande Continues to Prove that a Fake Left-Winger Is Worse than Most Right-Wingers

2016 May 11
by Ian Welsh

The majority of French citizens are opposed to the relaxation of labour standards that Hollande wants to push through, and there have been massive demonstrations against it. So what does Hollande’s government do?

France’s government announced Tuesday that it would empower Prime Minister Manuel Valls to bypass parliament and push through controversial labour reforms by decree despite widespread public demonstrations against the bill.

And the French people had a party at the Bastille when Hollande won! Hollande is a far more loathsome individual than, say, British PM David Cameron. Cameron ran as a right-wing pig-fucker who intended to destroy the social state.

There are other options than neoliberalism, but people like Hollande are too intellectually cramped and too much products of “there is no alternative” to even know what they are, let alone consider them.

The people who run France are a small and inbred group. They make Britain’s elites look inclusive. In 80s, the foreign aid community’s joke about the French system was that it produced the best second-raters in the world.

Hollande doesn’t even rate as a “second-rater.” He’s incompetent as a neoliberal technocrat, unable to game the system.

I am tired of very intelligent, highly-educated morons running the world.

I suggest the French go riot at the Elysee palace, and by riot, I don’t mean demonstrate outside.

Demonstrate inside. Perhaps explain, personally, to Hollande, a soft-handed courtesan born with a silver spoon in his mouth, who has never soiled his hands with hard labor, why his ideas are bad ideas.

This sort of bullshit will continue until it is stopped by ordinary people making a ruckus in the halls of power.

And they aren’t going to be allowed in because they ask nicely.


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Trump Starts His March Leftwards By Saying He’ll Tax Rich People

2016 May 9
by Ian Welsh

Donald TrumpAs I predicted.

Trump is not an idiot. He will go hard for the left-wing populists and he will get some of them.

Meanwhile Clinton is running after right wing money and endorsements. Max Boot endorsed her. The Koch brothers are considering her.

The standard rule in an election is you run to the primary voters during the primary, then you run to the rest of the people you want voting for you and funding you. Clinton is now running to oligarchs, neoconservatives and Republicans who despise Trump; while Trump is running left to get economic populists.

It’s next to impossible to vote Trump because of his racism. It is next to impossible to vote for Clinton because she is a war mongering oligarch whose economic policies guarantee stagnation and decline.

But Trump will be well to Clinton’s left on economic issues long before election day. And for all that people say Trump isn’t believable, Clinton is even less believable on those occasions where she tries to say left-wing things.

(Update: And, now he says he won’t.)


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Trump Suggests Restructuring US Debt

2016 May 7
by Ian Welsh

And fools rush to say this is a stupid idea.

No. Or not necessarily.

While we are in a period where countries have been absolutely hammered for defaulting or restructuring on debt, the historical record is that countries often benefit from doing so. Germany, for example, very much benefited from it after World War II.

US law controls. If the US government changes US law, creditors can go pound sand trying to collect.

There is a constitutional issue, of course, and as such it may not be possible, but it is not, de-facto, a stupid idea.

And yes, people will still lend to the US after a restructure. There is far more money in the world than there are investment opportunities.

Trump often says stupid and/or objectionable things, but something is not stupid and/or objectionable just because Trump says it. In many cases, he is making common sense statements which no one else has the guts to say.

And please shut up about how the Bush’s and McCain and Romney and so on are not going to be at the convention. Who cares? Trump said that Bush Jr., for example, failed to protect the US from 9/11 and then invaded Iraq when he shouldn’t have and then fucked up the war. You expect Bush to go to the convention after Trump told the truth about him?

A truth, I might add, that any left-winger worth his or her salt agrees with and has said repeatedly? Not to mention that any decent left-winger should despise Bush Jr. His not endorsing Trump after Trump ripped him a new one is not an indictment of Trump.


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“Voltaire’s Bastards” by John Ralston Saul, Review May 29th

2016 May 7
by Ian Welsh

Sunday May 29th, I will be publishing a review of Saul’s book. Voltaire’s Bastards is about how reason has slain purpose, sense and effective democracy. It was first published in the early 90s, but the trends he was observing have only become worse–far worse–since then.

It’s an infuriating book in many ways, despite being well-written, precisely because the idiocy and corruption he documents continues apace, but it’s a book worth reading.

If you want to read it before the review comes out, you have till the 29th.


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The Labour Vote Is Up Four Percent

2016 May 6
by Ian Welsh
Picture of Jeremy Corbyn

Picture of Jeremy Corbyn

The media and anti-Corbyn MPs had made this a referendum on Corbyn’s leadership and predicted massive losses.

No.

Because of geographic clustering, a few seats were lost, but the overall vote is up.

This is remarkable. Almost the entire media in Britain has been relentlessly anti-Corbyn. Half his own MPs are constantly sniping at him. There is a ginned-up anti-semitism “crisis” in the Labour Party (how dare members criticize Israel).

And the Labour party improves its vote.

This a sign that the elites in Britain, as elsewhere, are losing control of the narrative. Ordinary people do not believe their shit any more. And it’s really a sign, because the elites have been united in vituperative and never-ending opposition to Corbyn.

Let me give some advice to my British friends across the pond: You need to purge the disloyal MPs. Oh yes, there has been great talk about how one shouldn’t do that.

You are a fool if you listen. The MPs have been acting not just in opposition to Corbyn, but traitorously to the party. They have been deliberately trying to sabotage him.

This is up to rank-and-file Labour party members. Corbyn won’t put his fingerprints on this. But Labour still has nomination meetings.

Start now. Get control of the local ridings, and, when the time comes, get rid of them. Do not apologize for this: They refuse to represent the democratic will of the Labour party membership. If they want to run on neo-liberal Blairite policies, the Lib-Dems and Conservatives can have them.

And if Corbyn gets in power, he must then purge. Within the first 100 days, major figures in the BBC must be forced to step down, the civil service mandarinate must be broken and a media-breakup law instituted and carried through, while steps must be taken to break the power of the City.

This is because those sectors will oppose his plans relentlessly. They cannot be appeased, and a deal cannot be made with them.

This is the lesson, by the way, that people should be learning from what is happening in South America. Having been left with commanding control of the media and economy, the old forces of the right have been able to use that control to sabotage and destroy left-wing governments and they have done so in extraordinarily non-democratic ways and in Venezuela’s case, through clear-cut economic sabotage.

You cannot do business with these people. They are not trustworthy, and they will use every bit of power they have to destroy you.

Those who think this is not true in Britain but only in Third world countries are whistling in the dark.

And yes, the phone call came from inside the house.


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People Are Soooo Convinced Trump Can’t Win the Presidency

2016 May 5
by Ian Welsh

Just as people were soooo convinced that Trump couldn’t win the Republican nomination.

Let’s clear a couple things up.

  1. Trump is not stupid by any useful definition of stupid. He has spent his life getting what he wanted.
  2. Trump is not crazy, except in terms of being crazy like a fox. He knew what he was doing and it worked.

Trump has a basic critique:

Our elites are corrupt fuck-ups who work for rich people, screw over ordinary people, and couldn’t manage to a Taco Bell.

They have bungled the economy, they have lost multiple wars, and they allowed 9/11 to happen on their watch.

Trump, because he is rich and successful, is not politically corrupt; he does not need to take anyone else’s money. He owes no one anything.

Because he has played at the top of the game, he knows how politics and business works and because he needs nothing from anyone, he will use his skill and knowledge to help ordinary shmoes.

America’s economy will work under him. America will avoid stupid wars.

This is a strong critique, because it is true. America’s elites are corrupt incompetents whose only skill is funneling more money to rich people. They have lost multiple wars, bungled terrorism, and completely fucked up the economy for ordinary people.

Whether Trump is the right man to fix this is more questionable, but his critique works against Clinton. She was there for all of it and she was in favor of virtually all of it. Clinton is a corrupt, oligarchical tool who never saw a war she didn’t like, and whose reign as Secretary of State was an endless series of fuck-ups.

Maybe Trump isn’t all he says he is, but many Americans are very likely to be willing to take a flier on him, because his critique of Clinton will be right in the essence, even if it misses some of the details.

I shouldn’t have to point out, but apparently do, that Trump will now move to the center. He’s pandered to the right-wingers whom he needed to to win the nomination. Now, he’ll pander to the people he needs to win the presidency.

I do not know whether Trump will win. But I am quite certain he can win.

This is true, also, because Clinton is an incompetent executive and campaigner. She damn near lost the nomination to a socialist. She did lose in ’08 when she had everything going for her. She promotes cronyism, her entire campaign is, “No, we can’t, don’t be a child, you can’t have anything good,” and her instincts are terrible.

Clinton’s campaign premise will be, “I have ovaries and he’s crazy.”

That isn’t a good message against, “I’ll make America great again and give you a good job.”

Clinton’s entire hope comes down to Trump’s bigotry. She will rest heavily on the minority and female votes.  But if inroads are made there, she can easily lose. Women are not the monolith people act like they are: Married women often vote in their husband’s interests, seeing those interests as their own.

Also, it remains to be seen how much people will come out for Hillary. They won’t vote for Trump? Okay. But vote for Hillary? A different thing.

There’s plenty of time before the election, and Clinton does not seem to me to be a sure thing.


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Learning to Understand the World

2016 May 4
by Ian Welsh

I’m Canadian, but my father often worked overseas. My earliest memories are not of Vancouver, where I was born, but of Malaysia, where I spent my first five years. The person who took care of me then was not my mother, but Anna, the housekeeper.

She was a Chinese Malay and I spent most of my time with her. I ate the same food as her and thought that was great: The western fare my parents ate was not half so tasty as the fried noodles and soups that were her mainstay.

She had a son, maybe twenty or so, though it’s hard to say. He had a motorcycle and seemed to me the epitome of cool (though I didn’t know that word) and kindness. One of my clearest early memories is of him teaching me how to catch butterflies in the little net I had.

The secret is to not chase them, let them settle in the grass and put the net over them. It takes the challenge out of it, but it works.

My favorite person in the world was Dee, my father’s secretary, also Chinese Malay. She was wild, and young, and had a sports car and would seat me in her lap while she drove. When my grandmother came to visit, I steadfastly refused to call her Grandma or any such thing, until someone hit on the name of “Grand-Dee”. So she was ever after.

We moved back to Canada when I was six or so, after stays in Jakarta, Indonesia and in Singapore and I didn’t travel overseas again till I was twelve, when my father got a job running a project in Bangladesh.

We traveled extensively through the Indian subcontinent in those years: Kashmir before the troubles, Nepal before the troubles. Delhi. Calcutta where I had a great-aunt who had not left after partition.  Darjeeling, where my grandfather had been police chief under the Raj. Many other places. My mother, having spent much of her childhood in India, spoke fluent Hindi. This always surprised Indians, often to hilarious effect, as she would putter along like a typical white woman, letting them say whatever they wanted, then break into Hindi herself.

I remember someone cursing out our driver, and my Mother listening for quite some time before she leaned over, a round, little white matron and said, “That’s not very nice,” in Hindi.

The reaction was both funny and touching.

My father worked for Food and Agriculture, a United Nations organization. He often had guests over to the house, and if he went to someone else’s house, I usually went along. His compatriots were other aid workers: foresters, geologists, economists, agronomists, and so on. They’d sit and discuss trying to help the Third world; what worked and what didn’t.

The “what didn’t” list was a lot longer than the “what did,” but of more interest was why. Between them they had hundreds of years of experience.

I sat, listened, and learned.

Because I spent so much time around people with different beliefs, I became fascinated with how people could believe such different things. The Christians. The Hindus. The Moslems. The Secularists.

My father had a weird mix of white paternalism and deep respect for the locals and they generally seemed to like him. He was an asshole, but he was a fair asshole–and that was a vast improvement over the people they were used to working for and dealing with. He didn’t assume they didn’t know their own lives and he gave respect where respect was due.

I remember, back in Canada, being approached by Christian evangalists and my father telling them where to shove their beliefs. “You tell me that these good people I know who aren’t Christian are going to hell because they don’t follow Jesus?! Get off my property, or I’ll throw you off.”

He was a large, red-faced man who radiated anger and menace.

They got off his property.

People believe all sorts of weirdness. They believe contradictory weirdness, which doesn’t stop many of them from being good people, even though their beliefs are different.

It doesn’t stop them from being bad people, either.

Western scientific knowledge clearly mattered, but our ideological beliefs always struck me as as dubious as any theology. I remember, in grade eleven, reading an economics textbook which talked about rational man and utility optimization.

This was theology. Moral beliefs about how people should act and about how the universe must be, little different from Medieval Church scholasticism. Later I was to discover that the more a social “science” tried to pretend it was a science, the more dubious its insights, the greater the corruption, and the more massive the harm it did–and had done.

Economics, being the most “scientific” had done the most harm. Psychology was close behind.

I was a reader. From the time I was seven, until perhaps age thirty-two or so, I read more than a book a day on average. Often I would read as many as twenty in a week–two or three in a day.

Most of it was fiction, but amongst that was a fair bit of non-fiction. It’s not clear to me that I learned more from the non-fiction.

My main interests were in questions of knowledge: epistemology, cultural anthropology, comparative religion.  What did humans believe and why?

I didn’t really become interested in economics and political science (in the broadest sense) until the recession of the early 90s. It was so clear that those leading society, and most economists, had no idea what was going on that I turned my attention to learning how the economy worked.

They couldn’t fix it, so I’d see if I could figure out how.

I did not lack intellectual confidence.

And so I read the economists, trying to winnow some gems out of the trash and hoping to find the occasional economist who knew his (they were all men) discipline was an ideological garbage heap and thus was able to say something useful.

I went back to university, before illness and poverty drove me out, and while there I studied (and read) mostly philosophy, linguistics, and sociology. In sociology, I found a discipline which had a broad enough focus of view that amidst the crap (and there was plenty) were real insights into how society, power, and economics actually work.

This was because no one took sociology seriously and most had contempt for it. Freed from interest by those with wealth and power, some sociologists were actually able to do useful work.

Anthropology and cultural historians remained the best people to read to remind oneself that “It was not always thus,” “It is not always thus,” and, “People are really plastic and can believe all sorts of amazing stuff.”

Cultural anthropology remains the best antidote to the sort of fools who try and pronounce that everything a human does is because of selfishness, or utility, or any other one thing.

No one who is well read can believe such a thing without engaging in the sort of mental gymnastics which make a circus contortionist’s physical antics look like those of a gross amateur.

Sociology, anthropology, and the better parts of psychology and history are also excellent reminders that humans are only slightly rational, and that when they do manage to be more than slightly rational it is the irrational parts of their belief systems which determine whether or not the rationality will lead to anything good.

Any rationality which tries to rest itself entirely in rationality becomes monstrous, precisely because it fails to recognize its monstrous non-rational roots, or that rationality can never provide ethical ends, only means.

In the 2000s, I fell into the blog world. As I have said before, I started out writing about policy and war, often nerdy, weedy stuff. Twenty-seven mistakes made during the Iraq occupation (nine months in), and so on.

I should have remembered what Ian, at twenty-one, knew.

People can believe essentially anything. People are not rational. Knowledge systems are pre-rational, even if a huge mound of rationality has been piled up to bury the non-rational roots.

You can’t convince anybody of anything they don’t want to believe, and most people’s real need to believe is to believe in their tribe and the Gods of their tribe, whether those Gods are supernatural ones like YHVH and Zeus, or merely metaphysical entities like utility or pure reason shorn of ideology.

I came back, first, to try to explain the first principles of morality and ethics to people. Stuff like “killing less people is better than killing more people.”

That didn’t stick. Most people can’t get it. They believe what their tribe does is right and if a moral symbol has been violated, their anger and outrage is too high to do the math involved in “this ‘terrorist’ is far less of a criminal than George Bush or Barack Obama.”

Fine. Ethics and morality don’t work, shorn of tribalism.

This is where the great Axial reformers wound up, by the way. They tried to create universal religions which made everyone a brother (sadly leaving women largely out, with a few partial exceptions). They tried to extend the tribe to everyone.

Instead, they created super-tribes which spent the next 2,000 years fighting it out in bloody and spectacular fashion.

Then, we raised up national ideology as tribes and did the 19th and 20th centuries.

Because I promised in my fundraiser that I’d do twelve reviews of foundational books, I have spent the past three weeks re-reading some of them. To date, I have read mostly sociology, with a side of theories of justice and charisma.

I have been brought back to my early concerns with knowledge and belief: People can believe virtually anything, and they will do so well past the point where it kills them, or their entire society.

I have been hammering, for the last six months, the issue of the logic of capitalism: How it has destroyed the environment and will thus lead to the deaths of at least a billion people or more.

We knew it was doing so, and we kept on keeping on. We knew planned obsolesence was wasteful and we kept on keeping on. Lately, we’ve been engaged in economic austerity despite the fact is has worked for, maybe, one nation in the world (Germany).

Rational?

We are barely sentient.

We live inside knowledge systems in which we have created the world as very concrete (often literally–buildings are instantiated ideas). We are so enmeshed in them we are barely able to question their assumptions or where they are leading us. We will not stop till they lead to catastrophe, and, often enough, not even then.

Forget the present day; go read how the Reformation and Counter-Reformation went down.

So, I find myself today sifting through the books I have read before; the thoughts I have thought before. I look back at different Ians and each of their understandings of the world.

These grains have fallen through my fingers before, and I have stared at the sand looking to weave a pattern that explains the order humans create.

Leaving aside natural processes we mostly don’t control, what changes the human world in the most far-reaching way are ideas. Those ideas may be technological ideas, or scientific, or ethical. They may be religions or ideologies (little difference, really). But the change comes from ideas.

So many, many ideas. So many we could not even ennumerate them, though the encyclopedists and editors of dictionaries have tried.

These ideas were all created by us. Some are very close to the natural world; some are far removed, but they are our ideas.

And they control us. The hand of dead philosophers, scientists, and technologists rules us.

We thought Reason would free us. The Enlightenment project was to dispel illusions and hobgoblins and myths. But reason has not freed us, and by giving us great power without giving us that cliched great wisdom, it has led to a great extinction that may even claim us.

Answers?

I have a few. They seem to me inadequate against our vast will to believe in garbage and our unwillingness to admit that the garbage is all created by us, and corresponds little to effectiveness, let alone reality.

But I will write them. There will be the book reviews I promised. There will be the booklet on the Creation of Reality.

Perhaps we can point towards a way of becoming self-aware creators of our own reality. Because we already create our own reality, we simply do it like the blind men in the parable of the Elephant, save not describing what we feel but creating it with no mind to how it all fits together and what the consequences of adopting each idea will be.

Marx posited that we create our own chains, but denigrated the role of ideas. Nothing but our biology binds humans more than ideas, because, beyond the basics given us by nature, everything–including the power of the gun, comes from ideas.

Let us see whether my forty-eight-year journey has taught me anything useful about those ideas, and whether I can impart what I have learned to others.


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