The Covid-19 pandemic and the misrule of the leaders of the UK and USA are distracting people away from other news. With the announcements of EU aid packages for the pandemic and economic support for members, the southern members states especially, there are differences of opinion about who should benefit and by how much and why. One Dutch publication has stirred up controversy about the North-South divide in the EU. Negative news is distracting attention from what is potentially positive news. Brian Milne examines what is happening.
I am a news watcher. I have been since childhood. It is not because of news per se, it is more about wanting to know what is happening in the world; what makes planet Earth tick. News today makes no sense without knowing where it comes from; whatever that is very often has its roots in something that happened before. Thus, news draws one into history.
So, clearly I look at precedents to what is happening, at least in as far as they give us the roots of events. To make it clearer, I mean events that have a social, economic or political origin; to an extent the environment as well, but I understand it less well, but matters like volcanoes erupting or planes crashing happen with rarely long lasting and widespread impact. Those are simply events, I wish to read longer term effects of news into what I see and hear.
So right now is a fascinating period. That is not to say there is any good in what absorbs me most, but sometimes one needs to look below the surface. We see particular events, but those distract us from others. Let’s take the UK for example. Beginning there is for what should be a simple reason, but is actually far more convoluted than it appears to some people. It shows how we can be governed by individuals who are in no sense representative of their electorate, who cannot even generate an impression of competence, but allow misrule to be measured by their own standards that they claim is the best in the world. It is peaceful, unlike the growing confusion and unrest in other countries that hide behind the present pandemic, however peace does not mean quiet. In this case it hides disquiet, an image created by the kind of facing adversity mentality of a war that ended 75 years ago, that very few living people remember, yet has shaped a kind of Churchillian rhetoric as though people could fight an unseen enemy, a virus, on the beaches. It is an illusion. Meanwhile, more people died in the UK on 3 June than the entire EU27, 359 against 311 respectively, which was presented to the world by the media and skimped over by the government. The UK goes in for superlatives such as being the best, having the most, being world beating, that number certainly is the most in Europe, hardly a superlative.
There is a great deal of public outrage about what Dominic Cummings does and says, now especially because of what he said about what he did that would have been entirely wrong had it been somebody else. He sees himself as exceptional, part of an elite, he has no empathy for his fellow human beings and his world revolves around his own ego. He is allowed to give a convoluted excuse for what he did that was against the letter of rules he was one of the key players in devising, at the same time his well placed journalist wife had published an article that she is one of the editors of, that told a completely different version of their lockdown and how they had Covid-19.
That is attracting attention away from the negotiations with the EU that should settle a ‘Brexit’ deal. In fact, the UK representatives are going into those negotiations entirely negatively, almost clearly demanding far more than would be reasonable and working to a design to not complete a deal. Obfuscation is thus preventing the most fervent Brexiters from seeing that their country is steering itself into isolation and eventual obscurity. On the back of that, the same Cummings is working on restructuring the political system to concentrate power in the hands of the political executive, the centre of which would be a ‘cabinet office’ staffed by people like himself who are not civil servants, simply hirelings of politicians. He wants to sell off as much of the civil service and other state institutions to private concerns, several of which are run by some of his old friends on the basis of already completed examples. So, anyway, not only would the civil service be reduced to a minimum but both what is left and what is sold off will be replaced by AI as far as is possible. So no real place for people. His vision is of a place where AI is the hub of all. People are treated as obstructive as much as useful, therefore, one might speculate, are to be disposed of. Back in 2013, Cummings, then a senior adviser to the Secretary of State for Education, provoked a flurry of complaints by stating that “a child’s performance has more to do with genetic makeup than the standard of his or her education.” In response to the complaints, he insisted that he had already “warned of the dangers of public debates being confused by misunderstanding of such technical terms.” However we look at that defence, it is necessary to look a little closer because Cummings’ technocratic, indiscreetly eugenic but unquestionably DNA focussing approach is dangerously close to the heart of public policy making as adviser to the Prime Minister.
There is a video taken from a 2012 television documentary, ‘The Guest Wing’, in which a baronet, Sir Humphry Wakefield, is shown saying “one is the subject of one’s genes” that is there for all to see. Humphry Wakefield is Cummings’ father in law. He says: “The quality is everything. In general, to be elitist, I think the quality climbs up the tree of life. And therefore in general high things in the tree of life have quality, have skills, they get wonderful degrees at university, and if they marry each other that gets even better.” Cummings himself has written about the ‘heritability’ of intelligence and the future of eugenics, therefore we can take it his preference for this kind of preferential ‘natural’ selection allows for the attitude he appears to have shown regarding people in care homes who have perished during the pandemic. They are, in his terms, not human capital but waste to be disposed of. He does not say that outright, but reconstruction of his ideas and how long he has held them makes it very clear where he is coming from and where he believes a selective society should go.
The UK, Cummings and misrule are a snapshot of what is happening elsewhere. It happens to be in a country where the brand of populism behind that ideology is out in the open, badly managed though, but not obstructed or prevented. Other countries suffer the same malaise although it is far more beneath the surface and under the present circumstances, probably gaining strength covertly.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau: ahead of his time
It is not as though people may not have seen this coming. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the French philosopher and inspiration for many of the revolutionary ideas that became part of the French Revolution, wrote The Social Contract, mostly thoughts drawn together from other work, published in 1761. He was essentially writing about France, but used other nations for examples of the kind of despotism he believed must end; in this case using England as his example. In Part III, Chapter 15 he said:
‘Le peuple Anglois pense être libre; il se trompe fort, il ne l’est que durant l’élection des membres du Parlement; sitôt qu’ils sont élus, il est esclave, il n’est rien. Dans les courts momens de sa liberté, l’usage qu’il en fait mérite bien qu’il la perde’.
I have left it in the original French deliberately but have translated it as closely as possible to contemporary English:
‘The people of England regards itself as free; but it is grossly mistaken; it is free only during the election of members of parliament; as soon as they are elected, the people are slaves and it is nothing. In the brief moments of their liberty, the use of it shows indeed that it deserves to be lost’.
To move on. Where misrule is now more apparent than any kind of just governance we need look no further than the USA. It was an Englishman who was one of the ‘founding fathers’ of the USA, a major contributor to the idea of having a highly idealised but nonetheless humane and achievable constitution whose ghost must be shouting along with protestors. Thomas Paine, Norfolk born, became editor of The Pennsylvania Magazine in 1775. It published an anonymous article, ‘African Slavery in America’, almost certainly the first outstanding piece in the English colonies proposing the emancipation of African-American slaves and overall abolition of slavery. The USA abolished slavery in 1865 with the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. That was not the end of the matter in practice.
Jim Crow laws, also called black codes, were strict local and state laws that legalised racial segregation, lay out in precise detail when, where and how formerly enslaved people could work and for how much they could earn. Those codes appeared throughout southern states as a legal means of putting black citizens into indentured servitude, remove voting rights, control where they lived and how they travelled and to take away their children as labour. Those laws were named after a black minstrel show character, that origin lost as the laws became the driving force of continued segregation that lasted around 100 years, from the post Civil War period until 1968. People who attempted to defy Jim Crow laws often faced arrest, fines, jail sentences, violence and death; we still hear about lynching. In 1964, President Johnson had signed the Civil Rights Act, legally ending the segregation institutionalised by Jim Crow laws; then in 1965, the Voting Rights Act halted efforts to keep minorities from voting. It had been almost two centuries since one of the founding fathers had advocated the end of slavery which should have also ended segregation and discrimination in the world he envisioned. The prejudices remain as this example illustrates.
About 15 months later, on 4 July 1776, the Declaration of Independence was adopted by the Second Continental Congress although it was not until after the American Revolution ended in 1783 that independence was gained. The Constitution was created in 1787, ratified in 1788 and came into effect in 1789. Paine favoured the notion of a constitution to establish the government, indeed it was his idea in 1783, but forcefully argued against the conservative and elitist nature of what was written. He was remorselessly critical of two major areas: the single executive and two body legislature; of which one is smaller and more powerful than the other. He favoured a representative legislative body based on increased suffrage that was not based on property. It would be divided into two and have separate votes taken with the total then combined. He ridiculed at the proposition that 50 privileged men could defeat the will of hundreds of other legislators. He also believed that the real strength of a constitution rested in the ability to rewrite it at the will of the people. He was thus a founder of the modern concept of constitutions, whereby the people, not government, create a constitution from which the government is formed. That government should never have a role in the creation or amendment of a constitution. That concept is rarely followed, when it is it is never entirely convincing, which has totally undermined and more or less discredited the concept. The present mess in the USA is the gift of the form of constitution those who wrote it allowed.
It allows a powerful executive without checks and balances, no political body that can remove that person from office and even allows for the possibility that if a president is impeached then he or she could simply refuse to stand down from office. Three presidents have been impeached: Andrew Johnson in 1868, Bill Clinton in 1998 and Donald Trump in 2019. None of them was removed from office. So, the power of the executive is virtually unassailable.
Then there is the structure of representation and parliamentary structure in the Congress. The House of Representatives currently consists of 435 voting members, each representing a congressional district. The number each state has is based on population of that state determined by the most recent census. Representatives serve a two year term. The Senate is made up of two senators from each state, regardless of population size. There are currently 100 senators, two from each state, who serve six year terms. The two houses of Congress each have particular exclusive powers. The Senate must approve many important presidential appointments, including cabinet officers, federal judges (especially nominees to the Supreme Court), department secretaries, military and naval officers and senior diplomatic representation to foreign countries. All legislative bills for raising revenue must originate in the House of Representatives. The approval of both chambers is required to pass all legislation, which then only becomes law if signed by the president. If the president vetoes a bill, both houses of Congress then have to re-pass the bill by a two thirds majority of each chamber, in which case the bill becomes law without the president’s signature. The powers of Congress are limited to those spelled out in the Constitution with all other powers reserved to the states and the people.
A problematic system of governance
The system is problematic. In the House of Representatives, Democrats hold 233 seats, a clear majority. In the Senate it is Republicans with 53 seats that hold power. The opposing forces of the two houses mean that many of the bills that require the approval of both chambers fail to be passed and far too many executive orders that bypass the chambers go through unchecked. Thus, at present with proposals to enable many people in the USA who are disenfranchised or have had voting rights taken from them, no progress is being made. Trump is against postal voting that would enable large numbers of people to participate in elections and other bills have been proposed but failed, with his objections and the Republicans blocking legislation. Thus whereby the USA claims to be the world’s greatest democracy, a document that gives greater freedom and equality than elsewhere; to a greater degree it is anything but. Thus Franklin’s objections to the chosen method of governance have been proven right. Again we might also quote Rousseau, from Part One, Chapter 9, a footnote says:
‘Sous les mauvais gouvernemens cette égalité n’est qu’apparente et illusoire; elle ne sert qu’à maintenir le pauvre dans sa misere & le riche dans son usurpation. Dans le fait les loix sont toujours utiles à ceux qui possedent & nuisibles à ceux qui n’ont rien: D’où il suit que l’état social n’est avantageux aux hommes qu’autant qu’ils ont tous quelque chose & qu’aucun d’eux n’a rien de trop’.
‘Under bad governments this equality is only apparent and illusory: it serves only to keep the pauper in his poverty and the rich man in the position he has usurped. In fact, laws are always of use to those who have and harmful to those who have not: from which it follows that the social state is advantageous to men only when all have something and none too much’.
The death of democracy
The poor stay poor, at present perhaps even become poorer, given there are at present around 41 million unemployed in the USA, but under the type of regime Trump has delivered, the rich can only get richer, if only because they are those who contribute least to their economy. They are happy to see ‘Rome burn’, as long as their bank is not part of the inferno.
This is precisely what is happening in the USA at present with a president who is not in any sense governing, but playing golf when not playing into the hands of extremists and reactionaries and very much against the interests of ‘minorities’, some of which are anything but as small and insignificant as implied. He spent Sunday out of sight, slating his opponents on Twitter, although campaign advisers recommended a televised address to an anxious nation to reassure them after the violent death of George Floyd that has been seen on video around the world. He stayed confined inside, intermittently tweeting messages like “LAW & ORDER!” until finally during the evening, when he went quiet. He could not resist the opportunity to tweet a string of messages to decry Democrats for not being tough enough and proclaiming the disorder the work of radical left wingers. He announced his administration “will be designating ANTIFA as a Terrorist Organization,” referring to the shorthand for ‘anti-fascist.’ However, antifa is made up of autonomous activist groups that aim to achieve political objectives through direct action rather than policy reform. They are activists who dress in black and use strategies similar to those of anarchists, but not an organisation with an apparent structure that can be penalised under law. Furthermore, US law applies terrorist designations to foreign entities, not domestic groups. Some governors have chosen their words carefully, but are saying that some of the violence is being stirred up by white racists. As it is, when have seen heavily armed people protesting against the coronavirus lockdown, people who allow their extreme right wing position to be seen. Thus, criminalising the left sends them underground, whereas the opposite extreme is allowed to continue. With racial tensions higher than they have been since the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968, Trump is pouring oil on already raging fires. Democracy has died with Trumpian despotism, as Rousseau put it, laws are always of use to those who have and harmful to those who have not.
The relevance of this situation for Europe is that sooner or later loyalty will need to come down in favour of one position or another. Since WW2 the USA has played an enormous role in the shaping of Europe as we now know it. Had the USA not remained in Europe and had the western powers not united under the USA’s leadership in NATO, it is highly like communism would have swept across the continent, replacing the scourge of National Socialism with Stalinism, despotic governance without the freedom people fought for. There is also the Marshall Plan, also known as the European Recovery Programme, which was an initiative passed in 1948 for foreign aid to Western Europe whereby the USA transferred over $12 billion in economic recovery programmes after WW2. It was the basis on which European recovery was possible, for which gratitude would be hard to forget. At present the USA is beginning to form a hostile relationship with China that one can assume is based on economic rivalry, but one might suspect the same could come about between the EU and USA if the European economy began to seriously challenge the USA.
The scandal riddled UK has left the EU, the deal that should be made, will probably not happen, so they will sway toward the USA for ‘friendship’. The USA is attempting to form stronger alliances with countries it will inevitably draw into its rivalry that is rapidly becoming enmity with China. The reason for this antagonism is clear, economic rivalry. The USA is in decline, whilst despite present global economic circumstances, is on the ascent.
It is not as though China is a glowing example of personal freedoms and participation in a democratic society. Indeed it is quite the opposite. What we are seeing is an increasingly right wing political movement opposing and confronting all that is ‘left wing’ and differently oppressive to itself. Even then it is very difficult to take what is happening apart. We know that either way it is tyrannical. However, tyranny comes in many forms. Conspiracy theories are nurturing it; conspiracy is itself a Petri dish for even greater forms of tyranny. The far right, the far left, anti-vaxxers, evangelic Christians, Muslim extremists and anti-5G technology theorists are all among the denominators in creating tyrannical paradigms. It is almost another version of the world written by George Orwell in ‘1984’. One poll in Australia found that one in five young people believe that Bill Gates played a major role in the creation and spread of Covid-19. Roughly the same proportion of respondents thought 5G technology is being used to spread the virus. Many of us suspect, but cannot actually prove that there is shadowy, authoritarian cabal of immensely wealthy people who control media, that they have enormous influence with many governments worldwide and with key institutions such as the USA’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That federal agency’s main goal is to protect public health and safety through the control and prevention of disease, injury and disability in the USA and internationally. Their specific focus is to work on developing and applying disease control and prevention. It especially includes programmes that focus on infectious disease yet they failed to inform and convince the leadership of the USA where the pandemic is claiming many thousands of lives. That is now overshadowed by the present extremes of violence and disruption coming from various directions rather than from Covid-19 sweeping across the USA that may, as we may soon come to see, feeding the pandemic.
The Merkel-Macron plan
In Europe some of that conflict and potential hatred is growing. The reaction of ‘economic liberals’ to the so-called Merkel-Macron plan is negative. In reality it should be global news because it is potentially the catalyst for greater solidarity in the EU, something that would challenge the USA, China and aspirant world dominant economies. The biggest problem with the Euro since being founded in 1999 is that it is a currency without a fiscal union to support it, which the Euro zone crisis of 2010 to 2012 showed very clearly. Various backstop facilities were put in place to protect the Euro and keep it intact. The European Financial Stability Facility and Mechanism and Long-Term Refinancing Operations are examples of those protections. Then to complicate matters coronavirus happened, making the backstops no longer enough. The ECB was forced to think quickly, thus came up with the Pandemic Emergency Purchase Programme (PEPP), which is a more unlimited form of quantitative easing (QE) than before. At least it felt like it was unlimited, which is what the market always prefers. Just at the time PEPP QE was starting the German constitutional court objected to the ECB’s QE. They argued it needed to be restricted as QE had been in the past; so the Euro was again in crisis mode. Then there was the unexpected press conference by Merkel and Macron, outlining a plan to create an additional €500bn of spending power, using EU level borrowing to allocate funding in the form of grants. It is, however, important to watch what the so-called Frugal Four do. Austria, Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden are fundamentally against the notion of mutualising debts. The Austrian chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, is pushing an idea that there needs to be an alternative proposal, one that goes for loans instead of grants, probably smaller amounts generally. There seem to be short memories when this EU version of a Marshall Plan type of effort to pull the entire EU rather than those countries that are likely to thrive again after a period of austerity is challenged.
Markets could move significantly if Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron can gain EU wide support for their proposed ‘recovery fund’. Because we are locked in both the pandemic’s influence and a pending world economic crisis an ambitious programme is required. If the grant portion is too small it will not be enough to give the market confidence, and could actually turn out to be very expensive by causing a European recession that would include the frugal member states. Thus, if Germany can bring about a volte-face to reverse opposition to fiscal union, then perhaps others will come around to that as well. The Netherlands has become relatively quiet recently although a recent article in Elsevier Weekblad, the once most influential economic liberal weekly journal in the Netherlands has caused some controversy by suggesting southern member states are lazy, wine swilling users whereas northern Europeans are industrious and productive by using particular imagery on their cover.
The controversy is, one must of course note, the position of a single economically liberal leaning journalist and not a politically held EU position. Whilst four countries are at odds with the plan, they are not absolutely rejecting it, but want a different form, as Sebastian Kurz is suggesting. They are not, however, saying what the Elsevier Weekblad European affairs correspondent, Jelte Wiersma, is saying. He is comparing state and private debt in several countries to support his argument. Private debt, he conveniently forgets to say, is mainly built up by the same companies and individuals who are often most reluctant to contribute to national economies by paying taxes. In that, the north and south are perhaps not so different, except that in the wealthier north more tax payments are avoided. The rich will stay rich at the worst, the tolerance of their financial behaviour serves indeed to keep the pauper in his poverty and the rich man in the position he has assumed. Rousseau wrote that almost 260 years ago, it is still true.
If Merkel and Macron can get the entire EU 27 to play ball, it will move markets significantly. The Euro would recover from its lengthy period of lows against the US dollar, Swiss franc and Japanese yen. Peripheral European stocks and shares would attract foreign interest, improve outperformance, thus challenge the dominance the USA is attempting to retain; put paid to the unrealistic ambitions of the UK and place the EU is a good position to compete with China, India and other growing markets.
What could be done?
How do we reconcile the political perversities in the UK and USA described at the beginning of this article and where I have arrived looking at the Merkel-Macron plan? The answer is simple. In the two examples we see elites who are doing nothing of any substantial benefit for the people they govern, yet they enjoy popular support. Their leaders in the most power positions in their respective countries are incompetent yet still retain considerable report. They are Nero fiddling whilst their respective Rome burns. On the other hand, there are leaders in the two wealthiest EU states making plans that propose a far more equitable distribution of finance, thus other resources, throughout the entire EU. Part of that is to boost production in flagging sectors which, in turn, will provide more jobs at a time when unemployment has been made worse by pandemic caused layoffs. They are not simply making the rich richer and the poorer into paupers. If political performance and policy, especially learning from the hard lesson the pandemic has taught, then social and economic policies that target improvements for all of the EU27, theoretically it could be a tardy response to Rousseau’s comment on bad governments. The governments that fall in line with those plans and that part of the membership of the EU will benefit. The southern member states will be aided to bring their economies in line with those in the northern countries.
The examples of the UK and USA are used to illustrate directionless governance that is dragging down those nations, making them unloved and opening doors to those who already do or would compete with them. In the UK it is increasingly apparent that the incompetent prime minister is not in fact in control, but his main adviser who has become, it would appear, untouchable although he has done and said things that by far exceed what would be tolerated of others. If Trump wins the November election, his tenure over power in the USA would be almost synonymous with the UK where the next general election is not due until 2024. He has already threatened some actions one might expect of a dictator, he is allowing, if not even nurturing divisions between races, economic status, religion, politics and ideology that undermine the very notion of a cohesive democracy. Between them, paradoxically, they have the potential to encourage the EU not to follow their respective routes, thus emerge as a closer union with a common fiscal system, common policies on health to combat the present or any future pandemics, education that shares far more content than before but also includes good social education for its people, improves its own version of democracy to begin to achieve the visions of Rousseau, Paine and other enlightened thinkers whose works have taken more than two and a half centuries to even begin to be fulfilled and, perhaps most important of all, end the tensions between north and south, thus never cascade into the mess the USA has made for itself. They described precisely the kind of governance they thought had had its day and attempted to design a more equitable social, economic and political world. Whilst not yet reaching far enough into those domains, some of the EU’s leaders are proposing steps that could begin that long overdue political journey.
The silly little update
I am calling this a silly little update because too much has happened in 2020. Coronavirus is far more of a political issue than most of us realise. So many leaders, be they presidents, prime ministers or any other front man or woman in their country, have misled their nations into Covid-19 disasters. A common strain is them telling us they are following science, yet they have told us things quite to the contrary, more or less drowning the words of the experts in science and medicine whose word we should hear and see, not their hollow words. The president of the USA has made all but a fulltime occupation of disaster and fantasy, including to much to say here to make the pandemic worse than it need have been.
Moving on, but staying with the same so-called leader, Donald Trump lost the presidential election to the Democrat contender Joe Biden. He has refused to accept the result of the election claiming it was a fraud, has had his lawyers start dozens cases to have the results annulled. Only one has been a success, but then one that had no bearing on the actual result. The electoral boards have all said the election was probably the best run and observed ever, no fraud or other cheating. The transition to Biden’s inauguration on 20 January has become a perverse display of anti-democratic moves, especially the pardons of his friends, some of whom should have remained in prison for many more years because of the gravity of their crimes.
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, his pal Boris Johnson has participated in the plundering of the UK, dishing out government contracts to friends and family that should have gone to open tender and a process of selection that certain people in government and their advisers benefit from, not the main stakeholders, the people of the UK. Most recently he has negotiated a deal that is laughable, or would be if it was not so seriously terrible, to complete Brexit, still leaving the future of the UK potentially its downfall. Politically, the electorate has seen and heard Johnson lie in parliament almost every day, his yes men and women in the cabinet do much the same, thus the world no longer trust the country either. The union is itself of the verge of falling apart.
Apart from that, and there is plenty more around the world, I rest my case on the death of democracy.