Book Review: How Democracy Ends

New York Journal of Books

Since the days of Athenian democracy two and a half millennia ago, the idea of “rule of the people” has acquired many versions. Under the extraordinary system of governance in the fifth to fourth century BCE, all male citizens of Athens had equal political rights, took part in direct democracy, lived by the decisions they themselves made, and by random selection were chosen to serve in the institutions that governed them.

Today, direct democracy is rare, replaced in most countries by a version of democracy whereby citizens, male and female, elect their representatives who govern on their behalf.

The collapse of Soviet communism heralded a new democratic spring in countries which had been under Moscow’s domination. But whereas democracy blossomed in Europe as the 20th century came to an end, the Arab Spring in the new century proved short-lived before it was crushed.

These examples inform us about the power as well as fragility of democracy.

Recent events in the United States, a number of European countries and India have raised serious doubts about the health of democracy even in the most advanced nations.

Potentially illegal data collection, targeting specific groups to influence them to vote in a certain way, and widespread suspicions of Russian interference in the American and European elections have poisoned the environment. Trust in public institutions and their ability to ensure free and fair elections has been a major casualty. Warnings are rife that democracy as a system of governance is under threat. Are we approaching the end of democracy? It is a question increasingly being asked.

How Democracy Ends

David Runciman, professor of politics at Cambridge University, raises the same question in his new book How Democracy Ends (Basic Books, 2018). Since his PhD thesis, which came out as Pluralism and the Personality of the State (CUP, 1997), Runciman has published several books about plurality in political systems and the crisis of trust in democracies.

The publication of How Democracy Ends coincides with a particularly turbulent period for Western democracies. Runciman describes it as democracy’s midlife crisis. Various democratic societies are at different points in their lives. But there is compelling evidence that the future is going to be different.

The book, saturated with information, is a study of the decline of democracy after its most successful century. Runciman explores the factors that make the current crisis unlike those democracy has faced when it was younger.

First, he maintains that “political violence is not what it was for earlier generations, either in scale or character.” Western societies are “fundamentally peaceful societies, which means that our most destructive impulses manifest themselves in other ways.”

Second is the change in the threat of catastrophe. Whereas the prospect of disaster once tended to produce a “galvanizing effect” on people to take action, now the effect is “stultifying”—a condition in which it all seems futile.

Third, the information technology revolution has made us dependent on communication and information-sharing which we cannot control or understand.

With these suppositions, Runciman has organized his work around three themes endangering democracy: coup, catastrophe, and technological takeover. His insights into challenges that confront democracies today are compelling. His suggestion that the threat to them is not from outside, but from subversion and power grab within is intriguing.

That populism breeds in democratic societies when conditions of economic distress, technological change and growing inequality exist is evident, though the absence of war is among those conditions is questionable. Attrition and low-level conflict do afflict democracies. And democracies have shown a propensity to go and fight wars abroad.

Catastrophe can strike in one of many forms. Runciman writes that “modern civilization could destroy itself by weapons of mass destruction, by poisoning itself or it could allow itself to be infected by evil.” Climate change, artificial intelligence or technological advances resulting in extensive calamity if technology falls under the control of ruthless individuals—all threaten us.

That the power of computers by pressing a button could bring the end of democracy no longer belongs to science fiction. Robots could wreak havoc in our societies if they fell into the wrong hands. Humans might not be able to stop robots once such machines went on a destructive spree.

As Runciman puts it in the final section of his book, the appeal of modern democracy is that it offers dignity to its inhabitants with an expectation that their views will be taken seriously by politicians. And it delivers long-term benefits. But with rapid changes taking place in societies at different stages of development, what alternatives are there to twentieth century democratic systems?

The author presents three models in the end. First, Chinese-type pragmatic authoritarianism which offers personal benefits underwritten by the state, but at the cost of opportunities of self-expression. Second, epistocracy, the rule of the knowers, arguing that the right to take part in political decision-making depends on whether you know what you are doing. The model is directly opposed to democracy in which each citizen has equal rights.

Third, societies offering liberation by technology—societies in which some people, those who can afford, will try to buck death without any help from the state.

How Democracy Ends is a thorough study of democracy and its trials and tribulations on approaching midlife. Inhabitants have enjoyed its fruits: freedom, prosperity, and longevity. Democracy offers us opportunities to do exciting things.

But it also brings stability and boredom and as time passes, fear that it may not continue. If it is not going to continue, what will our future be? Runciman, in this book, has made sweeping observations about democracy in the past and present. He has raised intriguing questions about the future in imaginative ways. The book is highly recommended for general readers, undergraduates and professionals.

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A Bloody Hot Summer in Gaza: Parallels With Sharpeville, Soweto and Jallianwala Bagh

CounterPunch

Gaza & Jerusalem 2.jpeg

It is a bloody hot summer in Gaza. And the events surrounding the killings of nearly 60 Palestinians and wounding of more than a thousand by the Israeli army on the day Israel and the Trump administration celebrated the relocation of the American embassy to Jerusalem are as shocking as they are of profound importance in Middle Eastern history. The one-sided nature of the encounter is illustrated by the fact that there were no casualties on the Israeli side.

Scenes of Palestinian men and women of all ages, barely armed with stones and burning tyres in a futile attempt to form a protective shield, were reminiscent of the massacres in Sharpeville and Soweto townships in apartheid South Africa in 1960 and 1976 respectively and the Jallianwala Bagh in India under British colonial rule in 1919.

These are three of the most infamous acts written in blood in history. But the truth is that when these massacres were committed, reaction was one of suppressed rage and resignation.

During the Cold War, the West viewed South Africa’s apartheid regime as a convenient bulwark against the expansion of Soviet influence. The African National Congress and its leaders were “terrorists”. In Sharpeville, the South African Police fired on a black crowd demonstrating against “pass laws” designed to control movement of people of other races. In the massacre which took place outside a police station, 69 black people were killed and nearly 300 injured.

The African National Congress and the Pan-Africanist Congress were accused of inciting violence and were outlawed. Both organizations went on to shift from passive resistance and formed a military wing to start a low-level armed struggle against the apartheid government. Today, 21 March is commemorated as Human Rights Day in democratic South Africa.

The Soweto uprising, led by black schoolchildren, began on 16 June 1976 after the imposition of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in schools. An estimated 20,000 students took part in demonstrations. Official figures spoke of 176 killed, but estimates of up to 700 deaths have been made. Stories of the Soweto killings are forever written in history. The Soweto massacre is commemorated on 16 June every year as Youth Day in South Africa.

The ANC remained outlawed as a terrorist organization, but its leading role in the anti-apartheid struggle was established after the Soweto uprising. Far from losing support, the ANC gained popularity among young South Africans, even though Western governments continued to shun the movement.

Immediately after the First World War nearly a century ago, a massacre ordered by Colonel Reginald Dyer, an army officer in British-ruled India, took the lives of hundreds of Indians in the city of Amritsar. It was 13 April 1919 and several thousand had gathered in Jallianwala Bagh near the Sikh Golden Temple.

The crowd began to demonstrate against the arrest and deportation of two Indian nationalist leaders. The protest, in defiance of Colonel Dyer’s order, enraged him. He ordered his troops to fire on unarmed protestors. The shooting continued until the troops had almost run out of ammunition. Official figures spoke of 379 dead and about 1,100 injured. Estimates by the Indian National Congress were of approximately 1,000 killed and 1,500 wounded. Colonel Dyer himself admitted that a total of 1,650 rounds were fired.

The Jallianwala Bagh massacre is seen by historians as the beginning of an unrelenting nationalist movement. Finally, the British withdrew from India in 1947.

The carnage in Gaza resembles massacres of historic proportions like those in Sharpeville, Soweto and Amritsar’s Jallianwala Bagh. They took place because provocative and wilful decisions taken by powerful rulers triggered rage which brought people out. And then those very same rulers used brute force to suppress the protests.

In Gaza, the worst of the carnage was on the day the American embassy was moved to Jerusalem, the city which Palestinians regard as their capital. President Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and relocate the embassy was the spark that ignited the fire.

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That decision was incendiary, but only part of the crisis. Let us make no mistake about it. Gaza is a huge refugee camp of two million Palestinians living in appalling conditions within a short distance of the villages, now in Israel, from where their ancestors were expelled seventy years ago. Gaza is a cage under land, air and sea blockade by Israel and Egypt collaborating with each other since 2007. The blockade itself is an act of war.

The effects of this blockade are truly awful. Population density in Gaza is more than 13,000 per square mile. Ninety-five percent of water there is undrinkable. Electricity is available only for about four hours a day. Just under half of Gazans are unemployed. The same proportion of children suffer from anaemia and say they have no will to live. The population has no freedom of movement.

The crushing blockade and frequent Israeli attacks mean that the two million Palestinians are victims of war by an overwhelming power. And as victims they have a right of self-defence.

Not surprisingly, the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights has decided to launch a war crimes inquiry into the Gaza carnage. Israel, certain of unqualified support from President Trump, insists that it will not cooperate with the inquiry. There are some who assert that Israel as a sovereign state has absolute right to use whatever force it regards as “necessary.”

The United States has already vetoed a critical resolution in the UN Security Council, where the American ambassador, Nikki Haley, made the astonishing assertion that Israel had acted with “restraint”.

As the carnage was taking place in Gaza, the new American embassy in Jerusalem was being inaugurated. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described it as a “glorious day.” Thanking President Trump, Netanyahu said, “By recognizing history, you have made history.” And representing the United States President at the ceremony in Jerusalem, his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, pronounced that “those provoking violence are part of the problem, not part of the solution.”

As it goes with all massacres, their justifications become more and more depraved as self-interest and hatred of others come to dominate mindset.

(Erratum: Line 1, paragraph 8, had “Second World War”. It has been corrected to read “First World War”.) 

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The United Kingdom in 2017: Divided, Scandalised and Lost

The Citizen

In 2017, the United Kingdom continued to experience the trauma of the previous year’s referendum on the country’s membership of the European Union. The advisory referendum in 2016 had split the country almost evenly. A year on, divisions brought out into the open have started to work through. We are witnessing the economic and social aftershocks of the earthquake which the narrow victory for leaving the EU produced. A new battle for Brexit is on.

Schisms are around us to see. Between those who want the UK to remain integrated with the rest of Europe — and those with a fanatical determination to disengage from Europe in all but trade. Europhiles, on the one hand, are nervous about becoming too dependent on the United States as President Donald Trump reshapes America in his own vision. Fervent Eurosceptics, on the other, have no qualms about that prospect. Voices of reason are often drowned in the shrill and narrow nationalist rhetoric of a disorderly group claiming to have a majority, albeit small, behind them.

Often described as “Remoaners”, “traitors” and “enemies of the people” by Brexiteers and the right-wing press owned by media tycoons, onetime pro-EU Britons are becoming resigned to the inevitability of the country leaving the European Union. British businesses, anxious about the prospect of tariffs and long queues at border points, have been warning the government repeatedly. The UK currency has declined sharply since the 2016 referendum. Economic growth, too, is declining as migrant workers from Eastern Europe leave Britain in significant numbers.

Foreign companies such as Honda, Nissan, Toyota and BMW, banks and financial services, are making contingency plans to relocate before the United Kingdom leaves the EU on 29 March 2019 if no free trade agreement appears in sight by the exit date. But negotiations, which normally take years, are not expected to begin at least until the end of March 2018.

The British negotiating team has just completed the first phase of talks with the European Union. The aim was to finalise a deal on three major issues: the UK’s financial settlement when it leaves; the status of open border between Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK, and the Irish Republic, an independent country within the EU; and protection of the rights of EU citizens in the UK as well as UK citizens in the 27 other EU countries.

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Brexit Secretary David Davis

No sooner than the UK Prime Minister, Theresa May, announced the agreement paving the way for the second phase in which complex trade negotiations could start, the Brexit Secretary, David Davis, said that promises made by the UK in just concluded talks were “not legally binding” and they were “meaningless”. His remarks made the remaining EU 27 members furious, for it meant a lack of good faith to the EU and perhaps the rest of the world.

The boast of Brexiteers since the 2016 EU referendum that “we will have our cake and eat it” has caused anger throughout Europe. Too many in the British government, in Parliament and the populace remain oblivious to the unalterable geographical fact that the United Kingdom is surrounded by EU countries and these countries remain united in their approach to Brexit.

Sharp divisions afflict the United Kingdom. Prime Minister Theresa May’s full cabinet rarely has discussions on government policy or the final destination when the country leaves the EU. Ministers express their disagreements openly in the public. Individuals freely announce what looks like policy without consulting others in government, sometimes to be rebuked by the Prime Minister.

Her cabinet is dogged by allegations of sexual misconduct. The Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, was forced to resign for “falling short of acceptable standards”. The International Development Secretary, Priti Patel, resigned after holding a series of unauthorized meetings with Israeli officials during a private “holiday” visit. Most recently, a third minister, Damian Green, has also resigned after an official investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct found that he had breached the ministerial code.

Theresa May’s Conservative Party MPs are uneasy about the high degree of control exercised by a right-wing minority of Brexiteers and 10 MPs of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) of Northern Ireland sustaining her in power. In early December, a small number of Conservative MPs rebelled. They voted against a clause of the EU Withdrawal Bill that would have given ministers sweeping powers to change laws without parliamentary approval.

Despite every conceivable tactic to entice, cajole and pressure those threatening to oppose, the government was defeated. Since that vote, rebel MPs have received death threats which are a matter for police investigation. Parliament regained power to scrutinise the terms of any withdrawal agreement negotiated with the EU. The opposition Labour Party is purposely vague about what kind of relationship it wants with the European Union after exit for fear of losing votes among both supporters and opponents of EU membership at the next general election.

The Brexit referendum whipped up a lot of hostility against immigrants. Crime statistics show a marked increase in attacks against, and harassment of, ethnic minorities such as Muslims and people of East European backgrounds. Angry Brexit nationalists and white supremacists tell those who do not look English, or who speak a foreign language, are told to “go back to your country”.

Under-the-surface tensions have always existed in British society and erupt from time to time. Following the referendum, unrestrained chauvinism, including official threats to make the environment hostile for immigrants, are becoming accepted norms. As the political debate degenerates, courts and European human rights instruments are left to serve as the main bulwark against further descent.

Steve Bell in the Guardian

A country in crisis due to political failures often tends to evoke the past and embark on a journey to imagined greatness once again. When those dreams are not realised, anger and frustration follow. As the United Kingdom approaches the New Year, the country is at that point. For a small country of 65 million, with about 150000 active military personnel in total, including a navy and an air force of some 30000 active personnel each, the Brexiteers’ vision of Britannia ruling the waves means having to carry heavy load indeed.

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Sex, Lies and Incompetence: Britain’s Ruling Establishment in Crisis

CounterPunch 

Photo: BBC

Barely five months after a general election in the United Kingdom, the government of Prime Minister Theresa May looks doomed. It could fall any day, next week or next month. Within her Conservative Party and elsewhere in the United Kingdom, in other European countries and beyond, speculation is rife that Theresa May’s days in office may be numbered. Scandals involving sex, lies and incompetence unfold day after day. The rot has set in at the heart of Britain’s power centre.

As the deadline for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union (March 29, 2019) approaches, rival factions in the government and the Conservative parliamentary party are engaged in fierce battles over what kind of Brexit they want. Once a Conservative Member of Parliament and now a distinguished commentator, Matthew Parris, says, “The sooner Theresa May goes, the better.”

Ministers operate like freelance diplomats and traders, not like members of a cabinet which has collective responsibility, without reference to the protocol and the Prime Minister’s Office. Claims of sexual misconduct by politicians of various parties, but more seriously by ministers, abound. Allegations of groping have ended the Defence Secretary Michael Fallon’s career, after his confession that at times his behaviour had fallen short. And the First Secretary of State (in effect deputy prime minister), Damian Green, has been accused by a much younger woman activist, Kate Maltby, of making sexual advances and sending “suggestive” text messages to her. These accounts are widely reported in the media.

Further, there are claims, backed by a former senior police officer, that pornography was discovered on Damian Green’s office computer some years ago. He denies the allegations, and the Prime Minister has ordered an investigation. But, unlike Michael Fallon, Damian Green remains in his post.

Sleaze at the heart of power goes back to the time when Theresa May’s predecessor, David Cameron, was in office. A well-known television producer, Daisy Goodwin, has alleged that she was groped by a staff member in the then Prime Minister David Cameron’s official residence. According to Goodwin, when she challenged the man who was much younger than her, he dropped his hand from her breast and laughed nervously. Ex-Prime Minister Cameron now says he is “alarmed, shocked and concerned.”

Photo: Canary.co

At the same time, it emerged that another minister, the International Development Secretary Priti Patel, went on “holiday” to Israel and held 12 meetings with Israeli officials, including the Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu. First, Patel said that she had informed the Foreign Office about her visit. It turned out that she had not. She apologised and was let off the hook. Then, news leaked out that she had had more meetings with Israeli officials and had not declared them. That was too much. Priti Patel was summoned back to London from a visit to Africa and left the Cabinet soon after.

Leaks also revealed that Patel had visited the occupied (Syrian) Golan Heights. She inspected an Israeli army hospital where Syrian “refugees” and anti-Assad rebels are treated. And she was in talks about ways to divert British foreign aid to the Israeli army. The United Kingdom does not recognise Israeli control in occupied Arab territories. British ministers do not visit those areas. When they do they have to maintain a strict protocol and meet Palestinian as well as Israeli officials to give the appearance of balance. The International Development Secretary broke all the rules.

Theresa May’s minority government is beset by crises of its own making. Having supported the option to stay in the European Union in the 2016 EU referendum, she has become a fervent Leaver since becoming Prime Minister. And her calculations have gone badly wrong. She called a general election in June 2017, dead certain of winning a big majority in Parliament and thereafter doing what she liked in exiting the EU and shaping the country in her own post-Brexit vision. Instead, she lost her majority in Parliament. A number of sitting MPs of her party were defeated. She snatched defeat from the jaws of victory many in her party had anticipated.

Now, she barely governs as head of a Conservative minority government. She is sustained in office by 10 MPs of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party which has promised to support her in any motion of confidence. She has bought the DUP’s support with a billion pound additional funding for Northern Ireland. But the deal has raised serious questions over the British government’s impartiality in the peace process and power-sharing between the province’s Catholic and Protestant communities that ended decades of conflict in April 1998.

In her party, Theresa May’s position is made even more precarious by about 35 hard-line MPs who would not accept any compromise in forging a new relationship with the European Union. Since triggering Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty in March 2017 to exit the European Union, she is under relentless pressure from these uncompromising anti-EU MPs to make no concessions to the other side. Whether it is about paying the exit fee to meet the UK’s commitments to current EU projects and pension liabilities etc., accepting the EU requirement of four freedoms (movement of goods, services, capital, people) in a future trade relationship or the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice for settling disputes between the UK and the EU.

A number of her MPs want the British government to simply walk away from the talks, arguing that it will be the EU that will come back to negotiate trade with the United Kingdom. Others want a soft Brexit and trading as open as possible thereafter. Still others insist that the UK must leave the EU in March 2019, and any transition arrangement must be as short as possible.

In a leaked secret letter setting out their terms of exit, the Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, and the Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, have written to the Prime Minister that after the UK ceases to be a member of the EU in March 2019, any transition period must end precisely on the last day of June 2021. Writing in the Guardian, the newspaper’s political columnist Rafael Behr called it ego-wrestling in the British cabinet. The Prime Minister can neither sack Boris Johnson nor Michael Gove, because by doing so she will risk bringing down her government.

The Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, has a history of making off-the-cough remarks, a bumbling style and public buffoonery. Currently, he is in serious trouble following his careless, and false, comments before a parliamentary select committee. Speaking about Iran and a British-Iranian dual citizen being held in jail on accusations of plotting to overthrow the Iranian government, the Foreign Secretary said that the woman was only teaching journalism there. Actually she had gone to see her elderly parents and was arrested by Revolutionary Guards as she was about to board a flight to return to Britain.

The Iranian authorities jumped on Johnson’s comments, claiming that his remarks proved that the woman was guilty, and are threatening to double her five-year jail sentence. In prison, Nazanin Zaghary-Radcliffe’s health is declining. Her daughter is being looked after by her parents while her British husband, Richard Radcliffe, battles to get them back home. For several days, Boris Johnson resisted calls to apologise for making a false statement which has caused a British family a lot of trouble. Finally, he did apologise, but the woman’s fate remains in the hands of the Iranian authorities.

So, the government of Theresa May stumbles from crisis to crisis as the United Kingdom approaches exit from the European Union, the biggest trading bloc which surrounds it.

When she succeeded David Cameron as Prime Minister in July 2016, many people had assumed that she would be a safe pair of hands. However, her actions, her dependence on a small number of advisers personally loyal to her and her inability to win the party’s and people’s confidence have proved otherwise. In the midst of scandals involving sex, lies and ineptitude at the highest level of her government, she now fights for her own political survival as Parliament scrutinises the EU Withdrawal Bill.

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Religion Does Not Mean Peace

Deepak Tripathi

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” — The Bible

“O You who believe! Enter absolutely into peace.” — The Qur’an

“Delusion is born in anger.” — The Bhagvad Gita

“Hatred will not cease by hatred, but love alone. This is the ancient law.” — The Dalai Lama

All religions have a message of peace and tolerance. So why are there conflicts involving followers of God? Maybe conflicts have little or nothing to do with religion, and violence by one against the other has another motive. What might it be?

Conflicts may seem driven by religious zealotry, or hatred against the other. Hatred based on one’s belief in cultural superiority over the other. Against minorities perceived to have amassed wealth. Or because one group thinks the other enjoys too much protection. It is often about privilege and wealth. However, wealth is frequently derived from privilege, so it is wealth in the end. Conflicts which are depicted as religious are actually about who controls how much in society.

Edward Said’s 1978 classic Orientalism is an overarching critique of the Christian West’s historical, cultural and political depiction of Islamic societies of the East. According to Said, Orientalism provides ways to rationalize interference by evoking self-serving history by portraying the targeted community as inferior and dangerous. Conflicts that acquire religious overtones often have economic objectives.

The Israel-Palestine conflict is about land and property; partition of British India in 1947 and Hindu-Muslim riots; Buddhist Sinhalese-led burning and looting of Muslim and Hindu Tamil businesses in the capital, Colombo, in 1983 that triggered a 26-year civil war. Lynching of Muslims by extremist Hindu vigilantes in India, ostensibly to protect cows from slaughter and to force a ban on eating meat.

Worse is happening in India’s eastern neighborhood. Since August 25, 2017, more than six hundred thousand mostly Muslim Rohingya refugees have fled to Bangladesh from Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. Their flight has halved the Rohingya population in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, and quadrupled the number of refugees in Bangladesh within two months.

The United Nations has described this as a crisis on a catastrophic scale. Women, children, old and infirm have given numerous accounts of murder, torture, rape and destruction of Rohingya villages by Myanmar’s military. Thousands, who are stranded, cannot escape. The United Nations and Human Rights Watch have said this is ethnic cleansing.

Rohingyas maintain that their indigenous heritage in Myanmar is over a thousand years old, bringing in Arab, Mughal and Portuguese influence. Despite this, they have suffered harsh persecution, first by Myanmar’s military junta, and now under a military-civilian ruling coalition under the de facto leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi, winner of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize “for her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights.”

Under the 1982 Burmese nationality law, Rohingyas are denied citizenship, because they are not recognized as one of eight “national races.” Aung San Suu Kyi’s government even refuses to allow the use of the term “Rohingya” and calls them illegal immigrants.

UN investigations have found evidence of incitement of hatred by ultra-nationalist Buddhists against Rohingyas. According to the United Nations special investigator on Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, the country wants to expel the entire Rohingya population.

Amid a chorus of international criticism, Aung San Suu Kyi has very little to say. When she feels compelled to break her silence, she denies there being any refugee problem. She demands that human rights and refugee organizations not use the term “Rohingya” in their reports. In occasional conversations with foreign leaders, she has insisted that the aim of military operations in the country is to clear out terrorists. And she has claimed that the crisis is being distorted by a “huge iceberg of misinformation.

Her remarks point to government claims that a Rohingya rebel group killed a number of border guards and policemen in August. Details of those encounters are sketchy, but very different from the humanitarian crisis in the region, and the price Aung San Suu Kyi is having to pay in lost reputation.

Among those who have pleaded with Suu Kyi to intervene to stop the atrocities, or at least speak out against them, are fellow Nobel laureates, the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Malala Yousafzai. Yet Aung San Suu Kyi remains in alliance with the military which kept her in detention for fifteen years, and Buddhist ultra-nationalist groups.

Sigmund Freud had a point when he said that religion is an illusion and it derives its strength from the fact that it falls in with our instinctual desires.

[END]

A Dis-United Kingdom: Brexit and Theresa May’s Pyrrhic Victory

CounterPunch

The political landscape of the United Kingdom has gone through upheaval in the general election on 8 June 2017, and the country is to begin difficult negotiations to leave the European Union by March 2019. Despite a small majority in the last Parliament, the Prime Minister, Theresa May, called a snap general election, asking the country to give her a landslide victory, and strengthen her hand in dealing with EU negotiators. She promised that she would be a “bloody difficult woman” in the negotiation, calculating that she would charm voters by so doing.

The British electorate denied her the mandate she wanted. From a modest but clear majority, the Conservative Party was reduced to a minority party with the largest number of seats in a hung Parliament. It was a pyrrhic victory, if it could be called a victory, causing heavy loss to her reputation and ability to make judgement.

Theresa May had to sacrifice two of her closest aides, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, described by cabinet ministers and Conservative parliamentarians as abusive and authoritarian. But the problem goes much deeper. Theresa May is a shy and secretive individual, reliant on a few loyal associates. Her spell as Prime Minister, and the seven-week general election campaign, demonstrated that she had difficulty articulating her vision, and how she would make it possible, to large audiences.

She avoided debating with opponents, and was often unable to address points directly. She either followed standard responses prepared in advance, or launched personal attacks on her rivals to deflect attention. For instance, she said that if she were not re-elected, the country would be sending Jeremy Corbyn “naked and alone” to the Brexit negotiation. And Jeremy Corbyn “will sneak into 10 Downing Street”, the Prime Minister’s official residence. Such remarks raised eyebrows.

Her tactical mistakes corroded her support base. The result of the June 2016 referendum on whether to exit the European Union was 52% – 48% in favour of leaving. An EU remainer before the referendum, her conversion into a fervent leaver was rapid. She became an advocate of severing all ties from the EU, the European Single Market and the European Court of Justice. She chose to pressure the EU into negotiating a new free trade agreement which would stop the current freedom of movement between the United Kingdom and the other 27 member-countries.

She threatened the other EU members that if she did not get her way in the negotiation, the United Kingdom could stop sharing intelligence with them. The Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, warned that British people would stop buying Italian wine. Several members of her cabinet warned that German car manufacturers would suffer if British customers stopped buying their automobiles. There was never a chance of that happening.

Irritated by attacks on the European Union for years, the EU’s patience seemed to be running out. A “divorce bill” as big as 100 billion euros was mentioned within EU circles. In London, some people talked of no payment at all. The status of several million European immigrants in the UK and British citizens living in the rest of the EU became a matter of contention. Threats were issued by both sides. As talks begin, the relationship between the two sides is far from congenial.

Theresa May played an overtly nationalistic card to draw the anti-immigration UK Independence Party’s supporters towards her. She told the British people: “If you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.” This rhetoric repelled many cosmopolitan voters often travelling or living abroad. Young voters were attracted towards the main opposition Labour Party. Under its left-wing leader, Jeremy Corbyn, Labour performed much better than expected.

Theresa May’s eagerness to cosy up with the United States President, Donald Trump, also did not help. Keen to show off the United Kingdom’s “special relationship” with America, she was hasty to fly to Washington, to be the “first foreign leader” to meet Trump, where they were seen hand-in-hand in the White House. She gave the clear impression that she was ready to abandon Britain’s EU membership, and accept ever more dependence on an erratic and unreliable American President.

She invited Trump for a state visit to the United Kingdom, generating considerable opposition at home. Trump’s frequent personal attacks on London Mayor Sadiq Khan, a Muslim, and Theresa May’s reluctance to express her disapproval of Trump’s remarks did not go down well in Britain. It all made her look weak. Trump’s state visit has now been put off.

Theresa May will now head a minority government, dependent on Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), a hard-line protestant group, to sustain her government. DUP backed leaving the European Union in the June 2016 referendum. But it does not want a hard border between Northern Ireland and the neighbouring Republic of Ireland, an EU member. With her government now reduced to a minority in Parliament, Theresa May has a very weak hand in the coming Brexit negotiation.

How her political calculations failed so spectacularly will be a matter for analysis for months or longer. Many commentators, including this one, had interpreted the narrow result to leave the EU in June 2016 primarily as a vote against immigration, and the perceived burden immigrants put on the public services – immigrants who work legally in the UK to do jobs British people would not do, and pay tax.

The reality was more complex, for it was the government’s obsession to make financial cuts that did not allow more spending to meet the extra demand on the public services. It was thought that the anti-immigration sentiment whipped up by the UKIP drove the vote to leave the EU. Less than a year after, Theresa May’s Conservative Party adopted the same anti-immigrant rhetoric in the general election campaign in the hope of wooing UKIP voters.

It did not happen. Most working class voters, traditional supporters of the Labour Party, returned to their old party. It now looks as though the referendum was actually a protest vote against deep cuts in the government spending year after year, causing hardship for ordinary people. In the general election just held, Labour came out with a manifesto that promised extra spending on public services, abolition of the University tuition fee and protection for senior citizens’ pensions, financed by an increase in the corporation tax, and income tax on high income earners.

Young people, many of whom did not vote in the past, registered in vast numbers and did vote this time. Labour captured almost 65% of all votes under 40 years of age. This turnaround is both about fact and perception. Two months ago, the focus was on the Labour Party’s infighting, the electoral unacceptability of its socialist leader Jeremy Corbyn, and the image perpetuated by the right-wing press of Theresa May as a “strong and stable” leader. The picture now is the exact opposite. The Conservative Party is in disarray, and the Prime Minister, Theresa May, is seen as the loser. Governing the country has suddenly become a lot more difficult, and the government is not sure what kind of exit from the European Union to negotiate.

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Shades of Victorian Britain in 2017

British society today has striking parallels with the Victorian (Dickensian) era. More children survived infancy; people lived longer; immigration was substantial, in particular large numbers of migrants coming from Ireland because of the potato famine. On top was the British government’s failure to provide adequate amenities for the growing, ageing population.

Britain needed more and more young and skilled people to run its expanding empire. Those at home were left to their own devices. The human cost was very high.

Governance in Victorian Britain was a failure, even though the Royal Navy ruled the waves, and Britain was the most powerful country in the world. 

Theresa May’s vision in 2017 is very Victorian. Leaving the old, the poor, and the vulnerable to their own devices, Theresa May has committed herself to embarking on a bold world venture. Claims that she has broken from Thatcherism, or moved to the Left, are misplaced. Anchored in her own Christian beliefs, Theresa May’s vision marks a return to something akin to Victorian Britain. Like in the nineteenth century, many people seem helpless, ready to go along and elect her Conservative Party on 8 June.

A fascinating aspect of the Victorian era was that Charles Dickens and Karl Marx lived through the period from the early to late nineteenth century. Their writings were inspired by the same social conditions – Dickens in his novels, Marx in his socio-political works, which came to be known as Marxism.

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