Tuesday, 29 January 2013

The Golden Sands of Mali

How quickly things can change. Harold Wilson is credited with saying a week is a long time in politics. Well, two months is an eternity.

Back in November, a book was published showing that Britain has attacked 90% of the countries of the world at some point in our history. Only 22 countries had escaped our ire.

Now, after the UK Government's declaration that it is sending 240 military "trainers" to war-torn Mali and its neighbours, arguably that total is now down to 21. As if desperate not to miss out on the action, the Cameron Coalition has pledged support to the French-led force that has arrived in the country and is driving northwards, taking the legendary city of Timbuktu just yesterday.

The official narrative, of course, is that the western troops are saving a moderate regime which until their intervention was at the mercy of foaming, bloodthirsty al-Qaeda terrorists - Islamists, the news reporters keep parroting. And yet, as ever, the truth is far more complicated.

The official Mali government is in fact a military dictatorship that seized power in 2013 and whose troops stand accused by international human rights monitors of the same atrocities as its opponents. Its coup d'etat sparked long-oppressed Tuareg tribes in the north to declare their independence and within a short time fighting broke out. Always ready for conflict in the name of religion, there is no doubt that a fair number of mujahadeen turned up to aid the Tuaregs - but to characterise the northern insurgency as some sort of jihad is overstatement of the highest order and indeed northern Mali (renamed Azawad) has also seen heavy conflict between the Tuaregs and the Islamists. Rather, the issue is the declaration of independence being viewed as a threat to the corporate interests of French mining and mineral companies operating in the country - because Mali literally is a gold mine. As well as being the third largest producer of gold in Africa, it additionally has large deposits of uranium, diamonds and other precious metals.

And so, yet again, our troops are being sent off on a dubious mission creep, placing them in harm's way and our nation at risk for the benefit of multinationals under the guise of a war for freedom and faith. Along with a range of other western countries, we are supporting the bombing of towns by French and Malian aircraft - precisely the same tactic we have condemned the Syrian regime for deploying in its bloody civil conflict. But yet again, under cover of nobler aims, we excuse the excess and justify it by anathematizing the other side. So the blood continues to flow - and so do the profits.

21 countries to go (these are the only countries in the world never invaded by Britain):

Central African Republic
Congo, Republic of
Ivory Coast
Marshall Islands
Sao Tome and Principe
Vatican City

Monday, 28 January 2013

Government by Psychopathy

psy·cho·path  (sk-pth)
A person with an antisocial personality disorder, manifested in aggressive, perverted, criminal, or amoral behavior without empathy or remorse.

In the popular imagination, the psychopath is a bloody serial killer, typified by characters like Norman Bates from "Psycho" or Kevin Spacey's character, John Doe, in the film "Seven". Yet, in the real world, such extreme characters are relatively few and far between - rather than stalking and physically slicing a string of victims, most psychopaths find different outlets for their needs: business and politics being major fields for them to live out their psychologies.

Dr Paul Babiak, the psychologist who developed the "psychopath test" popularised by the Guardian's Jon Ronson in his recent book of the same name, has through extensive research estimated that around 1% of the population is psychopathic - broadly in line with the definition above, these are people usually with a massively inflated ego state who function in complete self-interest with no empathy or social constraint beyond doing something self-evidently counter-productive to their ends (although even then, they will sometimes take extreme risks). Adept at smooching and charming their way on the backs of others who they will first befriend, then suck dry and finally discard, their key traits are often confused with positive skills of leadership and decisiveness. It is not a mental illness - it is a psychological state. Scientific American put it this way in 2007:

Superficially charming, psychopaths tend to make a good first impression on others and often strike observers as remarkably normal. Yet they are self-centered, dishonest and undependable, and at times they engage in irresponsible behavior for no apparent reason other than the sheer fun of it... Psychopaths routinely offer excuses for their reckless and often outrageous actions, placing blame on others instead.

In pre-modern societies, often these people found an outlet for their urges in killing - in hunting and in warfare. Their pathology has come particularly to the fore in civil wars which so often, even more than conventional wars, lead to ever more extreme behaviour as, by default, social order and conventions collapse.

In more settled times, other avenues have to be pursued and perverted to their self-centred ends and their superior sense of entitlement. These are the people who, in the workplace, will be quite eager to "make difficult decisions" when it comes to parting others from their livelihoods, chirruping simultaneously that only they understand the real world and rewarding themselves substantially for their hard work. 

Consequently, Babiak and his colleague Hare have found that, among people in senior management roles, the proportion of psychopaths rises from the average of 1% to around 3.5%.  Around the same time, Board and Fritzon identified a higher rate of psychopathy among the very top levels of management than among criminals.

No test exists for politicians, but by default similar traits to those prized in management tend to be promoted positively among successful politics: decisiveness, coupled with charm - the "magnetism" of candidates who promise so much, so sincerely, who go to endless lengths to assure voters of their identification with them, but, once in office, renege so completely on their promises. Or, alternatively, leaders who happily divide society against itself to maintain themselves in power.

Scapegoating, a trait of many individual psychopaths in having others take the responsibility for their own failures, can be transposed to whole groups: the Jews in Hitler's case; more recently, Muslims by rightwingers in many European states; or, in the UK, welfare claimants, whose support is being chopped up and significantly reduced or withdrawn. Through repeated propaganda, this is being done with the apparent approval of large swathes of the populace, who seem to have concluded that they themselves will never be out of work, face homelessness, be sick or grow old. The fearful selfishness at the core of a lot of rightwing thinking - of "man mind thyself", or Thatcher's infamous "there is no such thing as society" - emphasises a lot that is core to psychopathic thinking and, while not all rightwingers are psychopaths and the Left is not immune to or devoid of psychopaths, there can be little doubt where the psychology of an ego that views itself as superior to others sits politically.

It is in this context that, in the last week, a few episodes in British politics have thrown into sharp relief the psychopathic nature of the Coalition Government, which lies easily with its doublespeak of efficiency cuts and "targeting resources where they are really needed" (implying by default that when they are withdrawn, they are not actually needed). Like individual psychopaths, a soothing message is given out to the majority - cuts are necessary for the greater good so that, by default, those in need are  selfish obstacles to common betterment.

So we had these dreadful cases this week:

First, the laughingly titled "Welfare Minister", former banker Lord Freud, has been busy introducing his so called "bedroom tax" on recipients of housing benefit (the majority of whom work but earn so little in low wage Britain that they qualify for help to keep a roof over their heads). Under the new arrangements, if you have a spare room in your home, your housing benefit will be reduced by 14% and by 25% if you have two rooms spare - about 600,000 people are expected to be affected.

The Minister of State for Work & Pensions:
 "Do as I say, not as I do?"
In an instance which shows just how arrogant the regime is, Lord Freud told an Inverness caller on a radio talk show that he needed to move into a smaller house if he wanted to keep his housing benefit because his Lordship reckoned he did not need his spare bedroom. When the man explained his three sons come to stay with him at the weekend and he needs the space for them (he is separated from their mother), Freud told him they should simply share a sofa bed! This from a man born into privilege - he is the grandson of Sigismund Freud - and the owner of an eight bed country mansion and a luxury City flat shared only with his wife

Yet in so many ways much worse was the reaction in the House of Commons of Ian Duncan Smith, the "quiet man" of the Tory Party, who somehow wormed his way into a self-appointed position as some sort of poverty specialist after spending an afternoon dodging pools of vomit on a Glasgow housing estate a decade or so ago. This man, trumpeted as if he is some sort of compassionate genius, has presided over the so-called welfare reforms which have processed hundreds of thousands of disabled people through the dreadful ATOS assessments. Here the doublespeak has been about providing support to lost souls who need a job to regain their self-esteem; while in truth the whole process has been one of mental torture pitched at reducing the disability welfare costs and which has led to hundreds of thousands of perverse decisions and in some cases years of gnawing uncertainty for those affected. Simultaneous to their honeyed words of support, the Con Dems have quietly but relentlessly stoked the fires of hostility against disabled people, leading to growing abusiveness in public and a marked rise in assaults on visibly disabled people.

In the eleven months to November 2011 alone, by the DWP's own figures, over 1,300 people were told by ATOS they did not qualify for disability benefit and needed to find work, only to drop dead within six weeks. In addition, there have been a growing number of suicides by people waiting for or going through assessment: and it was note left by one such person that led to a telling but chilling scene which in so many ways sums up the dark emptiness in the cold heart of the regime.

Ian Lavery, Labour MP for Wansbeck, told David Cameron at PMQs that he had in his hand a letter left by a housebound man who had taken his life after a fruitless battle with the Department of Work and Pensions (headed by  Secretary of State Iain Duncan Smith). Mr Lavery called for future cases to include an impact review to be done before removing someone's payments. An uncomfortable Cameron trundled through the usual hollow hand-wringing about his thoughts being with the man's family before claiming that those still on benefits would be better off (true in only a tiny, tiny number of cases - just enough so the Government can make the claim).

But more telling was the look and reaction from Duncan Smith himself. The "quiet man" found his voice, his angry, snarling face and curling lip more than ample testimony of his fury that anyone would dare raise such an issue. His comments were unrecorded, but just like his shouting down of the political activist Owen Jones on a recent BBC Question Time programme when he similarly started to name deceased victims of ATOS, his utter lack of empathy and disregard for the real, flesh and blood victims of his cold, crass ideological crusade against the weak and vulnerable was more than evident.

It should be enough to show no one should indulge his attempts to stake a claim to anything moral for a single moment. For, regardless of his personal psychology, which this article is not qualified to assess, this is not by his deeds a good man.

But his antics are quite perfectly representative of how this coldest of Coalitions' behaviour manifests itself all too often against the weakest and most vulnerable members of society; Government by Psychopathy.

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Gideon Osborne - Benefits Scrounger

Financial efficacy - Gideon knows
It is sickening to hear the parade of Government Ministers and their Media Masters in the rightwing gutter-rags parroting endlessly the lies about "benefits scroungers" - the impact of this on some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in our society has been evident in so many ways. From vilification in the news to mental torture via ATOS reassessments and free-to-Tescos workfare programmes, through to a marked rise in violent attacks on disabled people, the Con Dems have wildly exaggerated the level of fraud in the benefits system from the Government's own assessment of 0.7% of total spend to a point where a recent survey showed that on average people think the correct figure is a massive 27%.

Bad enough, but worse follows. Although he has decided to more than double the amount of fees having to be incurred by people before the state will pay for their old age care (from the £35,000 proposed by the Dilnot report to £75,000), Chancellor George Osborne has a bit of form on encouraging those with access to accountants and financial advisers to get free state paid care while avoiding paying their tax. In the video below, he popped up on the BBC to reassure the better off that they don't have to sell off their parents homes to pay for their care. Not at all - here he is on Andrew Neil's show explaining how they can avoid this legally with the help of some "clever financial products". This way they can avoid inheritance tax and get personal care paid for by the state.

So here we have our austerity-fetishist, service-cutting Chancellor helping the rich to get free social care which they are not intended to obtain free: now, isn't that benefits scrounging if ever? Or tax avoidance? Or both?

Oh, my apologies, taxes are only for the little people!

Thursday, 3 January 2013

Marx Reloaded

"I told you so..."
"Somehow it is supposed to be easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism..."

As we enter another year of neoliberal mayhem, from the fiscal cliff of the USA, to the war on welfare in the UK and the dash for growth of the Chinese kleptocracy, try to see this film if you can - or even organise a showing of it in your community or college.

Don't stay calm - get angry; get active.