13 December 2016

One Time Secret: a useful service

It may not be NSA resistant, but One-Time Secret is a useful and easy to use service for activists worried about state surveillance.

In information security there is often a trade off between ease of use and level of security. But here One-Time Secret is a winner. It is extremely easy to use (no setting up of new accounts or downloading apps), and provides a high level of confidentiality for your email.

Basically, you open the webpage, write a message in the composition box, click and get a link. Instead of sending your message in an email you send the link instead. The recipient views the message by clicking on the link.

So, what’s the point? Well, the message can only be seen once. After the recipient has accessed it, the message is wiped from the servers of One-Time Secret. Of course, you can paste/copy the message content, but there is no evidence of whom it is from, nor is anything left on the net.

If the recipient can’t access it, s/he knows that somebody else has. So if you and your correspondent discover that you are under surveillance - or if you don’t trust One-Time Secret - you have the option of passwording (i.e. encrypting) the message. You then, of course, need to communicate the password to the recipient by some safe channel.

Left activists worried about surveillance, but not needing an NSA level of protection, can easily make use this service. On 10 November 2016, presumably to protect itself from the British Investigatory Powers Act (which requires providers to store their customers' data and break their own encryption) One-Time Secret moved its servers from London to Frankfurt.


Please note: I am not a technical expert, so I am not able to vouch for any technical aspect. One Time Secret is open source software.

4 December 2016

Liberalism: two incompatible traditions

Social liberalism and neo-economic liberalism are largely incompatible. The former is under threat in the current wave of right-wing populism.

In the wake of Brexit and Trump, it is fashionable for political commentators to say that liberalism is in retreat. Yet what they fail to mention is that that there are two, and two largely incompatible, political traditions of liberalism. So talking about them as if they were one makes no sense.

The first, social liberalism, is the "good" liberalism, namely. In outline, this is a movement that gives rights to individuals to do their own thing, and argues for people not to be coerced by governments unless they are doing something which materially harms others. For social liberals the state exists to uphold personal and civic rights and to regulate the free market, and redistribute money, so that the operation of the capitalist economy doesn’t negate those rights in practice.

The second is the "bad" tradition of liberalism, which is called neo-economic liberalism - or otherwise known as market fundamentalism. The modern founders of this school were economists like Hayek and Friedman who argued for the untrammelled free market enforced by a nightwatchman state. The inequalities and injustices thrown up wherever this ideology has been allowed free rein are so large that it can only be imposed in illiberal regimes, such as Pinochet’s Chile after 1973, or in today’s Singapore with its hangman’s rope and rattan canes.

Quite clearly the Brexiters and Trumpists want to trash social liberalism, but the jury is still out on whether their intentions, rather than some of their rhetoric, will result in a full reversal of the neo-economic liberalism which has been the dominant world ideology and practice since the end of the 1970s.

1 December 2016

Blair's New Labour: Ending Labour as a progressive movement

The following comment, penned in October 2006 during the Blair New Labour years, remains an accurate description of the period, especially in predicting David Cameron's election in 2010. What I did not foresee was the Financial Crisis of 2008 or the rise of Jeremy Corbyn in 2015.

Blair's New Labour is a reactionary creed and has destroyed the Labour Party as a progressive party

There are some elections which mark a transformation in the body politic, such as 1945 and 1979. There are others which mark its continuation; I see 1951 and 1997 as elections which are mostly about new management teams to administer the status quo. Until Britain's two historic parties of left and right have both had a turn in Number 10, one cannot talk of a new consensus. Mr Blair's role was to consolidate the Thatcherite consensus; he has done so admirably well.

There are two practices of New Labour which stifled left and progressive forces. The first happened inside the Labour Party: the defeat of social democracy and the establishment of a top-down, managerial non-democratic party structure. The second is ongoing: the political practice of triangulation; i.e. moving so far to the right on policies (e.g. civil liberties) that the Conservative opposition can only utter me-tooisms, (like David Cameron) or else take refuge in lonnyland (like John Redwood). Triangulation, though, is only possible because Blair faces no threat to his left flank (Cf. Schroeder with the Greens and the Linkspartei/PDS).

Some people point out that Labour's social and educational policies have improved the lot of the worst-off in the inner cities. I acknowledge the point that vis-à-vis the Tories New Labour has higher social spending because if it did not there would little to sustain New Labour's electoral base. Yet, it should be noted that inequality in the UK continues to grow, and the commercialisation of every aspect of social service provision undermines the collectivist universalistic philosophy on which that social provision was based.

Social democracy sought to modify capitalism so that it functioned at least to some degree in the interests of working people. New Labour has reversed the logic: people need to be modified so that they function for globalised capitalism. While it might often be better to be employed on the minimum wage than to be on the dole, Blairism is a revolting enslaving philosophy that is an anathema to everything the left ever strove for.

Most people in Britain in Blair's decade have experienced rising living standards so there has been a period of political peace and political disengagement. What Iraq did was to thrust the rottenness of New Labour in front of people's faces, and, once the teflon had cracked, mud stuck everywhere. Discontent there is, but sadly it is not channelled constructively, and is it is likely to end up propelling Mr Cameron into government.

26 November 2016

Defend Free Movement

The free movement of EU citizens between member states was a major gain for ordinary working people. Brexit and Labour’s right-wing threaten it.

“I refuse to imagine a Europe where lorries and hedge funds are free to cross borders but citizens are not,” Martin Schulz, President of the European Parliament, October 2016.

In 2004 the New Labour government was one of only three in the EU to permit the immediate right of citizens from the new member states of central and eastern Europe to live and work in their country. Blair and Brown's decision in the matter was motivated by neither love nor international solidarity, but by a desire to dampen wage pressure in Britain’s inflated and credit-fuelled economy. East European migration into Britain was a policy of New Labour.

Yet, in the wake of the Brexit referendum leading right wing Labour MPs, including Rachel Reeves, Stephen Kinnock and Chuka Umunna, have called for Labour to end free movement. After Brexit, EU citizens will be able to move, live and work freely across the European continent, but the UK should, in their view, be locked out of free movement.

The hypocrisy and political bankruptcy of these right wingers is breathtaking. After rightly campaigning for EU membership, which guarantees freedom of movement, they subsequently underwent a conversion, now arguing that EU nationals should lose the right to live and work in the UK. Such an outcome would affect not only future arrivals, but also the million plus people already resident. Their reasoning is that the presence of people of other nationalities in the community prompted the Brexit vote; and the way to garner votes is to outflank UKIP and the Tory right by falling into step with the slogan, “Stop them coming; kick them out.” They probably know that such a policy by Labour would inflame xenophobia and further the racist attacks already taking place, but they presumably don’t care.

In their desire to curtail the free movement of people, these right wingers ignore a key fact. It was not those areas with the highest concentrations of non-British EU citizens (e.g. London, Manchester, Bristol) which voted for Brexit. The existence of strong multicultural communities did not lead to Brexit support. On the contrary, it was where xenophobic and racist propaganda was accepted and believed that a majority plumped for Brexit. The right wingers are not responding to a demand by those in places of high non-British EU settlement - they are accepting and building on the xenophobic and racist propaganda put out by UKIP and the far right, and are seeking to exploit prejudices and misinformation to their political advantage.

Socialists should condemn the whole mindset of these people. We should celebrate and support the fact that today people in the EU, including ourselves, can live and work in any EU country we choose. We need to defend that right for everybody, not undermine it. And as socialists in Britain, we should support workers and people in the community, be they English, Irish, Polish or whatever. Their idea propagated that we should favour one nationality and have others thrown out of their jobs, homes and the country is utterly repugnant. And fortunately, thanks to the re-election of Jeremy Corbyn, the ideas put forward by these Labour MPs will have no support from the leader of the Labour Party.

24 November 2016

The Investigatory Powers Act 2016: a threat to privacy and freedom

The Investigatory Powers Act 2016 is a threat to people's privacy and freedom. Yet, it was never effectively opposed and challenged.

The Investigatory Powers Act 2016 passed into law in the UK, “with barely a whimper,” according to The Guardian (19-Nov-2016). In the words of Edward Snowden: “The UK has just legalised the most extreme surveillance in the history of western democracy. It goes further than many autocracies.”

Broadly speaking, the Act enables state snoopers to bulk collect our electronic data, to have ready access to all metadata (who is speaking to whom and when) and to hack into our devices.

Most distressing is the low level of interest among the liberal left, with Labour in Parliament nodding in favour and merely requesting a few minor tweaks here and there. Outside Parliament, campaigning against the Act was lacklustre, with GHCQ itself apparently surprised at the ease with which it managed to enlarge its powers. Equally disappointing has been the low level of interest among left-wing activists in encrypting their communications, by using such services as Signal, Tutanota and Tor.

With the Trump victory in the US and Britain's post-Brexit lurch to the right, we may come to regret our indifference.

1 November 2016

Against gender segregation in education

Gender segregated schools do not prepare children for real life

Schools are about preparing children and young people to function in life. Real life consists of a symbiotic relationship between males and females. The education of girls apart from boys and vice versa is highly detrimental to both sexes. The only other institution that separate the sexes in this way is prisons.

If girls suffer discrimination in mixed schools, then that is a matter that needs addressing in the mixed schools; it is not solved by segregation.

22 October 2016

The Renaissance of the Cafe

The early twentieth century cafe is returning in this technological age.

Aharon Appelfeld, a twentieth century author, did most of his writings sitting in cafes, but towards the end of his life he lamented that cafes had downgraded to sit-down buffets for quick caffeine shots and eateries for plastic wrapped pastries. Quiet conversation had been defeated by piped music, while lengthy stays were discouraged. Yet the current century has seen a renaissance in the cafe.

Today, whether Starbucks, Nero or some other brand, cafes are again oases offering respite from the bustle of the High Street. Coffee costs two or three times the kiosk price, but the customer is paying not just for the espresso or latte in a ceramic cup, but for a clean and comfortable sofa or armchair, the mellow lighting and, more than anything else, a free and fast internet connection. So for those reasons I sit, ensconced in on a corner couch, sipping my coffee and reading on my tablet.

Being alone is no oddity; the clientèle is mostly young and bourgeois, either single people interacting with their electronic equipment or else couples bent forward in their chairs, leaning over their coffee table and lost in intimate conversation. Glancing over my tablet I watch the customers come in from the late October chilly air. My eyes stray onto young women; tight jeans covering alluring bottoms, as they buy and carry their purchases from the counter. Often the enthusiasm falls away as I see an uninspiring face, or I am punched back reality when I see their male partners who are half my age. I turn back to my tablet and check the time because I need to go.

16 October 2016

Truth: necessary and contingent

The two types of truth, necessary and contingent, can be demonstrated by examining our knowledge of shapes.

Imagine a box on a table. Inside the box is an object which we cannot see. If we were asked to say what it was, or what shape it had, we could only reply that without seeing it, or otherwise examining it, we didn't know. This simple example amply demonstrate the value of empiricism.

But, if we were asked whether the object had a shape or not, we would answer in the affirmative. It is literally inconceivable that the an object could exist and not have a shape of some kind. And here our knowledge would spring not from empirical investigation, but from reason alone. We know that all objects have shapes before we look at them. Therefore, that truth is demonstrated by observation, but does not result from it.

We thus have two types of truth. One is gained empirically by observation and investigation, and we can call this contingent truth. We say contingent because what we have observed could have been otherwise, had causes and circumstances in the world been different. The other type of truth is a necessary truth because it is necessarily so, it could not conceivably be otherwise. Necessary truths are true throughout time, while empirical truths can be so at one time and not so at others.

It is important here not to mix up a necessary truth with a truth which is contingent, but almost inevitably true; e.g. Mr Smith is younger than 300. Though there are no known instances of people living for longer than three hundred years, it is conceivable that somebody might live that long. It is not a necessary truth.

1 October 2016

Innocence by Pierre Magnan: Harvill 2001

A teenage boy's love affair with an older women

Stripped down, the novel is a love story between a sixteen-year-old boy and a bourgeois women in her early thirties. Set just after the Second World War in a small provincial town in France, the novel is written in the first person by an introverted loner, born of a near destitute working class family. Having left school, he works as a municipal road sweeper. In the opening pages he stumbles on a murder of a local dignitary and become entangled in a web of of love, jealousy and hate.

Despite the dramatic incidents in the opening chapter, the novel is slow-going, and it was only towards the middle of the book that I felt motivated to go on reading. The focus is definitely on the developing feelings of the young man rather than the logic of events, happenings which seem unreal and distant to the plot.

The power of the book lies in the long drawn out love affair between the adolescent and the older woman which is vividly described with great psychological and descriptive sensitivity. The novel is no masterpiece, but deserves a read.

27 September 2016

Vladimir Derer: his argument was correct

The election of Jeremy Corbyn seems to suggest that the way forward for the political left is through the Labour Party.

I remember back to a winter’s evening in the mid 1980s when Vladimir Derer addressed a meeting in the Exeter City Library. The gathering wasn’t heavily attended, with only a handful of Labour left people from Exeter and the south Devon area, plus a couple of activists from the non-Labour Party sects, communist and Trotskyist. Derer had already passed the height of his influence and the majority of Exeter Labour Party had by then already turned their back on him.

To the younger generation today, Derer’s name and work are not well-known; yet in the 1970s and early 1980s he was the organisational driving force behind the move to the left in Labour Party. Earlier, in the 1950s and 1960s, the Labour Party had been comfortably in the grip of leaders who pursued mild social amelioration from inside the Parliamentary party. But by the early 1970s several things had changed: economic growth had faltered, so hard choice about who got what had to be made; power in the trade unions had partially shifted to radical shop stewards; and the constituency Labour Parties were gaining an influx of young left-wingers. The situation was ripe for change.

Derer believed that the key to socialist reform lay in and through the Labour Party. His thesis was both articulate and simple: in the advanced capitalist countries no new socialist parties had emerged as a significant political force since the formation of the Third International in the 1920s, and therefore effective socialist activity could only take place inside the prevailing party of the centre-left, by which he meant the Labour Party in Britain. Opportunities (not opportunism), he argued, were few and far between and had to be seized when available. Such an opportunity was now presenting itself.

The problem, though, with the Labour Party left in the 1970s was that it ranged from left-wing social democrats though to revolutionary Trotskyite groups, so building a unity based on policy was impractical. Yet, the party could be moved leftwards by democratisation: if the rank and file elected and controlled the leadership, then the result would a left-wing party. To that end the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy was formed in 1973 and Derer became its secretary in 1974. The drive to the left was by means of an intra-party struggle for party democracy.

The left reached its peak of influence in the Party in 1980. In 1981 the tide turned: Tony Benn failed in his attempt to take the deputy leadership and the right regained control of the Party’s National Executive Committee. Though the final reckoning wasn’t fully apparent until a few years later, the left had lost the fight for the Labour Party; and the steady march to the right had begun.

The lean years for the left 1983-2015

The third of a century leading up to sudden and unexpected election of Jeremy Corbyn as party leader in September 2015 was one of almost continual and progressive defeat for the left inside the party. There were two phases of defeat. The first was under the leadership of Neil Kinnock (1983-92) plus the short reign of John Smith (1992-94) in which the divide in the Labour party was mainly about alternative economic policies. Labour’s right believed, economic conditions permitting, in taxing, spending and regulating to ameliorate the conditions of working people. The left believed economic power (nationalisation and worker’s control) was needed to change the ways of capitalism, if not to abolish capitalism all together. But some kind of compromise between the two positions was theoretically possible, even if difficult to achieve. Though the role of the left diminished, particularly after the 1987 election defeat, the left still possessed a minor influence over policy.

The second period began in 1994 with arrival of Tony Blair and the birth of New Labour. Social democracy and redistribution were thrown out in favour of full acceptance of unbridled market capitalism. Working people were to be slotted into capitalism and not have resources re-directed to them; public provision in health education and elsewhere was to be provided by private capital and private management. Labour in government after 1997 saw a bonfire of everything traditional Labour, left or right, had ever stood for: the acceptance of growing inequality, with Blair flaunting his and New Labour’s relationship with the super-rich; a love affair with the far right around the globe which led to Britain eagerly following President Bush into the Iraq War in 2003; and at home New Labour oversaw a growing illiberalism manifesting itself in an expansion police powers and a diminution of civil liberties.

Life inside the Labour Party fundamentally changed, too. Since the eighties, but particularly since the arrival of Blair and New Labour in 1994, the Party structures were de-democratised, conferences choreographed from above; meaningless forms of consultation replaced intra-party elections. Worse still, the Left vacated the Party leaving a membership consisting mainly of municipal careerists and their hangers-on. Outside the ranks of Labour, no new left-wing Party established itself, even after Labour abandoned social democracy in the 1990s. The Green Party remained fixed in a niche partly of its own making; and George Galloway’s ephemeral Respect Party was both a parody and betrayal of socialist values. So when Labour lost office in 2010, with its lowest share of the poll since 1983, it was empty and irrelevant in the face of the financial crisis that had engulfed Britain and the world since 2008.

The Corbyn revival

In 2010 Labour had its first contested leadership election for sixteen years. In a feeble reaction against the excesses of New Labourism, its members – and particularly its trade union members - opted for Ed as opposed to David Miliband. The new leader proved not just personally ineffective, but also surrounded himself by a team of people like himself who had made their careers during New Labour’s neo-liberal years in government. For this reason, the Labour leadership were utterly hamstrung in their ability to stand up for working people, and went into the 2015 election without any clear message and lost. Ed Miliband resigned as leader within hours of defeat.

The right had ruled the labour Party for decades unchallenged and had grown complacent. In a move to weaken the trade unions, the election of the leader was turned into a direct vote of all party members, registered Labour trade unionists and any Labour supporter who paid £3. The veteran left-winger, Jeremy Corbyn who had entered Parliament in 1983 just managed to get onto the ballot paper and then unexpectedly went on to win with 59% of the vote. New Labour was slapped in the face by Corbyn-supporting party members, who had been sidelined for years, but still harboured progressive thoughts. Corbyn also won among trade unionists, manual and non manual in both the public and private sectors. Workers were fed up; they had been told for years to hang onto New Labour, even though despised them, lest things be worse for them under the Tories. And finally new ranks of Corbyn activists sprang up among the educated young, whose educational debts and abysmal prospects in housing and employment consigned them to a life of misery.

Furious at Corbyn’s election to the leadership, a majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party did all they could to destabilise him: a series a staged resignations from his shadow cabinet and a vote of no confidence in him, culminating in a leadership challenge by Owen Smith. The NEC did all it could to bias the election against Corbyn: 130 000 new party members, disproportionally Corbyn supporters, were denied a vote, thousands more were expelled or suspended for any number of dubious reasons. Yet, Corbyn triumphed, boosting his vote to 62%. And though the right-wing, by bureaucratic manoeuvring, has managed to keep control of the NEC, nonetheless today the Left is a powerful force in the Labour Party, and has a reasonable chance of taking control of it.

And Vladimir Derer

Vladimir Derer died in June 2014, so like Tony Benn who had passed away three months earlier, he never saw the election of victory of Jeremy Corbyn. Yet all the evidence points to his vindication. Left activism is more effective inside Labour than outside it: and it was to Labour that progressive people turned after 2015, not to smaller left parties or to new parties. The proof will never be final but today seems to prove the correctness of an analysis penned by Derer four decades earlier.

4 September 2016

Empiricism: the one legged philosophy

Empirical observation alone cannot provide the basis for knowledge.

The term empiricism (adjective empirical) is used in two senses. As a philosophy, it means that all knowledge is acquired by means of the senses (sight, sound, taste touch and smell). According to this view, any search for knowledge is only meaningful if it uses terms and statements which relate to things that are experienced. Put simply, the exclusive empiricist believes that all valid knowledge is reducible to the formula OBSERVATION + LOGIC BASED ON OBSERVATION.

An empirical statement on the other hand is merely a chunk of information (e.g. The cheese is on the table) which can be deemed true of false by empirical enquiry. One doesn’t need to embrace the whole philosophy of empiricism to accept that testing against the world can verify, qualify or falsify a statement. In other words, it is possible to believe – and rightly so – that the tools and methods for acquiring knowledge include, but are not limited to, empirically acquired information plus logical analysis.


The problem with empiricism as an exclusive philosophy of knowledge is that it is incomplete. The point can be made with a simple example. Of course we cannot know in the stranger's house whether the cheese is on the table or not without looking or being informed by a reliable source. But in order to ask the question or understand the answer we must have pre-observation notions of at least three things: what cheese is, the concept of “on-ness” and an understanding of “table.” In other words, any information coming from the world to be held in the knowledge seeker's head requires the observer to have pre-existing concepts in his or her head, if he or she is to understand it.

Taking a step backwards, we can also pose another problem for empiricism. True, the cheese may be on the table, but that observation is only one of thousands that we could have made when we looked at the room. The very fact that we asked that question and not another (e.g. Is the table square?) is determined by considerations which are not themselves empirical. It is foolish to think that anyone can understand something simply by amassing millions of facts without being guided in the search or by prioritising the relevance of such facts.

Anything in the world which we seek to understand does not just consist of static imagery but is in a state of movement and change. For that reason, the knowledge seeker is interested in the cause of change; e.g. why did the ball bounce when dropped. The mere fact that X is followed by Y cannot prove cause: night follows day but is not the cause of it. Theory is always required to explain causal connections because cause itself can never be observed. (Of course empirical observation and testing can disprove a cause, but not establish one)

It follows from what has been said above that theory must provide at least three things to supplement empirical observation. First theory must develop a network of concepts which are capable of representing things in the world; second theory must select the kind of information we need to look for, if we are to understand the world or some part of it; and thirdly, it must attribute causes to phenomena. Empirical observation on the other hand fills our conceptual categories with meaning as well as confirming, qualifying and falsifying any statements we make about the world.

Theory, then, enables empirical observation, but it is also the case that empirical observation enriches and develops our theoretical knowledge. Thus just as there is no such things as an empirical statement which does not embody theoretical ones, so every concept and theoretical statement contains elements of empirical observation.

The practical result of all this is that a proper methodology for the investigation of phenomena in the world has to get the facts and the theory right.

1 September 2016

Hot Potato Issues

The accepted wisdom around certain issues is so strong that that one can incur criticism merely by discussing them.

Hot potato issues are a fact of life. Antisemitism is one; rape is another. Basically there is widely accepted core discourse on the issue, which everybody accepts, save a small extreme fringe. Conflict arises when someone talks about the issue, accepting the socially accepted facts and principles, but adds details, probes the logic of argument and/or makes comparison with something else. The cry immediately goes up that the commentator is relativising, and therefore undermining and attacking the principle or questioning the facts.

Hot potato issues are often kept hot for political reasons, reputable or disreputable. But the best way of probing these issues politically is not always to jump in where angels fear to tread.

28 August 2016

Social Media: Rope for your own neck

Believing that your comments online were just off-the cuff and for a couple of friends is sometimes wrong. You might just be giving your adversaries the rope for your own neck.

In the last couple of decades, the growth of the Internet, both in terms of availability and functionality, has enabled progressive people to communicate and organise on a scale which in an earlier age would have been unimaginable. The victory of Jeremy Corbyn in his campaign for the leadership of the Labour Party in September 2015 could not have occurred without social media platforms. Yet the Internet, as a means of communication and organisation, is at the same time a powerful tool for surveilling progressive people and groups.

It is helpful to distinguish between two types of surveillance. The first is the kind which the former CIA contractor and whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed in 2013. This is an attempt by state agencies to gain access to all electronic communication, using methods, which if attempted by private citizens would constitute serious crimes. We cannot know whether the state agencies who gather information about left-wing people make that information available to our political opponents. But it would be foolish to dismiss the possibility that this happens.

The second form of surveillance is perfectly legal: our political adversaries comb the net for our comments. Richer adversaries may employ professionals to do this: and of course various grey methods are deployed such as joining our “private” discussion groups with pseudonyms to find out what particular people are saying. Fishing the net for dirt and using it against us goes on all the time.

Of course, holding left-wing views and discussing them with others is not illegal in Britain, except in a small number of cases where the affair is covered by a court injunction. And there is a strong current of opinion which argues along the lines:

Dare to be a Daniel,
Dare to stand alone,
Dare to have a purpose,
And dare to make it known.

Whether “to publish and be damned” by broadcasting every opinion and every action to police, other state agencies and our political adversaries is a matter of debate. There is certainly something in the argument for openness, because constant vigilance, excessive secrecy and perennial distrust and paranoia can suffocate the left. So, yes, there is a case for openness, but not one that necessarily trumps everything. Here, though I want to focus on comments on social media can undermine the left in the struggle to support Jeremy Corbyn.

The rise in support for Jeremy Corbyn, and his election as leader of the Labour Party, has provoked a furious response from the Parliamentary Labour Party and the Party bureaucracy. The latter has done everything it can to suspend left-wing members of the party, and to disqualify members and supporters from voting. The most typical line of attack against socialist members is to find some half (or badly) articulated comment on Facebook, which is alleged (nearly always untruthfully) to be antisemitic or otherwise abusive. These out-of-context Facebook comments are then misinterpreted and paraded in the media as evidence of wrongdoing. In a similar vein, voters in the leadership election are subject to disqualification because they have commented favourably on Facebook, often months previously, about the Green Party, Left Unity or similar progressive groups.

The fact is that unguarded discussions on social media among friends, and making comments not designed as polished prose for the whole world, is seriously unwise. The commentator, even if he or she doesn't realise it at the time, is often making the rope for his or her own neck. Again and again, though, this mistake is made. To resolve this problem I will make a couple of suggestions for people who send email or post in social media.

If you are sending a message to particular people, whether it is an opinion or information, you should ensure, as far as possible, that only the intended recipients have access to it, not the Internet searching public, and not the Internet Giants like Google and Facebook. Send your message end-to-end encrypted. Today, that is technically straightforward, if both or all of the parties use, for instance, the email provider Tutanota. Of course Tutanota is not a panacea, but it goes a very long way to solving this problem.

But if you really are intending to post to the big wide world, then think long and hard before you post, and consider using a pseudonym.

1 August 2016

Love Life by Zeruya Shalev

A powerful and psychologically rich penetration into the mind of woman having an affair with an older man.

The plot of the book is very simple. Ya’ara, a young Israeli woman, is married to a man of the same age, who is portrayed through her eyes as being well meaning but uninspiring. She meets Aryeh, an older man and a lifelong friend of her father, and starts a relationship with him. After a stormy emotional and sexual affair,  exciting for her at first and then revolting, the relationship implodes. Throughout the book the reader is waiting to hear the response of her husband, Yonny, to her admission of infidelity and that suspense is kept up until the last page of the book.

The book is entirely written through the eyes, thoughts and delusions of the protagonist, and contains numerous psychological insights. At first, the reader is encouraged to think that Ya'ara is merely displaying what could be regarded as an excessive “feminine” perspective on the people and the world, but as the novel progress we begin to realise that she is mentally unbalanced and has at least partially lost her grip on reality.

While engaging, the book is not always written in an easily accessible style. Long paragraphs of poetic, but deluded, introspection can be difficult to plough through. Moreover, the book shuns the conventions of direct speech altogether, and relies on inserting conversation into the body of paragraphs.

Despite these possible shortcomings, the book is powerful and engaging. It engraves on the memory of the reader the personality and outlook of one particular young woman.

SHALEV, Zeruya, Love Life, Cannongate 2002

31 July 2016

Brexit: the nightmare becomes reality

On 23 June 2016 the United Kingdom voted in a referendum, 52 to 48 percent, to leave the European Union.

Brexit is a political, economic, and cultural disaster for Britain. The right-wing politicians who spearheaded the Leave campaign were the xenophobe, Nigel Farage (UKIP leader) and the Tory opportunist and showman Boris Johnson (former mayor of London), a man who aspired to replace Cameron as Prime Minister, but was stopped in his tracks by the Tory establishment.

The success of the Leave campaign was due to their hammering a single point: if Britain left the EU the number non-British workers and immigrants in the country could be reduced. Their campaign was openly xenophobic and sometimes racist. Yet the fact that this xenophobia bore fruit in Labour-voting heartlands outside the multi-cultural metropolitan areas was that it tapped into a well of anomic anger arising from the pains inflicted on working people by unbridled market fundamentalism (under both Tory and New Labour) since the 1980s.

Enhanced in English politics today, as a result of the Leave campaign, are two unpleasant right-wing forces. The first is the strengthening of illiberal, xenophobic and nationalistic ideologies, promoted by UKIP and right-wing elements in the Tory Party. This has already led to a string of street attacks on people judged “non-British.” The second force is an accelerated neo-economic liberalism advocating a bonfire of worker and consumer protections along with welfare rights and benefits. These two, xenophobic nationalists and free-market fantasists, may at times collide, but their dialectical dance on the political right will probably drown out the voices of the metropolitan liberal left, social democracy and wider progressive left.

The ramifications for British politics resulting from Brexit are huge, especially for Scotland which voted heavily to remain in the EU, and for Northern Ireland where some sort of re-imposed border with the Republic seems almost inevitable. Exactly when, or at what speed, Brexit will occur remains to be seen. But the threat and reality of a Britain excluded from the single market promises economic pain, which will in turn exacerbate the political tensions.

31 May 2016

Friends Reunited has closed its doors

In February 2016 the first mainstream social networking site in the UK, Friends Reunited, closed down.

In the spring of 2003, while on a walking trip in Slovakia, a friend told me about the website Friends Reunited, and so, like thousands of other people, I thought it would be interesting to see what had happened to my classmates from school. Before the arrival of internet social networks, the lives and fates of old schoolmates, and others with whom you had lost contact, were unknown; and that was particularly true if you had moved away from your home area. So the opportunities provided by Friends Reunited were new and exciting.

The site offered a choice of institutions (schools, colleges, universities) to which people could add their name and details. But there was no doubt that the main institution attracting nostalgic curiosity was secondary school, with a special attachment to the leaving year, the time in your life, when you moved from childhood to adulthood, fell in love and deepened your friendships. I felt a need to connect to my former fellow pupils, who had accompanied me in my journey from child to adolescent, all of whom I had unintentionally lost contact with when I was sixteen in 1978. So then, aged forty, a new window was opening in cyberspace, which would satisfy my voyeuristic curiosity and would provide me a psychological bridge back to a formative period of my life.

Of course, I knew that Friends Reunited was not there primarily to reunite friends, but to make money. You had to negotiate your way through the flashing banners for dating agencies and get blocked whenever you want to say something that fell outside their template for nostalgia. In the early years of the site you were forbidden, unless you paid, to send your email address to anyone, or to write anything more than the most anodyne notes to others.

In 2003 there were themed notice boards on which you were invited to post your memories about your former school. On each one I decided to take up the theme and compose a written memory sketch, so the topics of my contributions were decided by Friends Reunited, not by me. No sooner had I finished than the notice boards were reserved for subscribing members (£5 and later £7.50 p.a). I never paid Friends Reunited anything, and nor would it seem did many other ex-students, so my posts for a long time retained their first place position on most of the boards.

At the end of decade the experiment which was Friends Reunited had been overtaken by other social networking sites such as Facebook. Friends Reunited abandoned its attempt to charge fees for ordinary members, made its service free and attempted to expand its social networking functions. By this time, however, most people, particularly the young, had lost interest in the site and new postings became fewer. And in January 2016 the site close down for good.

I abandoned Friends Reunited in the mid 2000s as a tool of communication, but occasionally used it thereafter as a source of reference. Yet there two things about Friends Reunited that could never be picked up on or improved by the newer social networks. One was the honesty of contributors. In the early days of social networking, people were far less internet savvy. They did not fear using their own names, or worry about what they said hanging around on the Internet for eternity. The other was textual completeness: they wrote a reasonably full exposition of what they wanted to say, not short comments to ongoing ephemeral debates, as with Twitter or Facebook messaging. All that, plus the fact that people were commenting on a single subject, namely their school years, gave much of the material at Friends Reunited an ongoing relevance and interest.

But most of all the closure removed access for ever to a mass of material, photos, chat and reminiscences, and did so far more effectively than water or fire could ever destroy paper records. Many think that the Internet serves to retain information for eternity, making no comment ever ephemeral, and indeed that is often true. But it is also true that millions of pages of information can be taken down, removed from servers and denied to future historians and memoirists. To be fair, Friends Reunited has provided (but for how long?) a facility for users to retrieve their own digital photos, but this does little to address the problem of the long-term loss of millions of reminiscences and other comments from public record.

We should not forget, however, that Friends Reunited from start to finish was primarily a business which acted to maximise profits, not to maintain public records.  And although the commercialisation of private nostalgia is in many ways an ugly thing,  Friends Reunited nevertheless provided a service which was of value to many.

24 May 2016

England and Wales become more secular

Religious adherence in England and Wales continues to decline

A British Social Attitudes Survey published in May 2016 shows that the proportion of the population declaring themselves as adherents to a religion in England and Wales is continuing to decline. Nearly half of the population say they have no religion. The percentages are:

Other Protestant
Non-Christian religion
No Religion

5 May 2016

Taking our cash away: the removal of high denomination notes

In May 2016 the European Central Bank announced that it would stop issuing EUR 500 notes in 2018.

The reason given for the abolition is that the high value note is used mainly for criminal and “grey” payments, so doing away with it will lessen tax evasion and more serious crime. Evidence for all this is a little thin, and my guess is that abolition will at best slightly hinder such payments.

Criminals use cars, but that it not a sufficient argument for their abolition. Ordinary people need cars, too. Likewise high denomination notes are mainly used by ordinary people for several purposes: to store their savings, to easily transport their money, to make instant payments, to avoid bank fees, and, of course, to make anonymous payments. The right to privacy in, say, buying a medical product does not signal any kind of criminality.

What the ECB is doing is quite simply diminishing, albeit slightly, people’s freedom, and handing power to fee-sucking banks and to the surveillance state.

Of course the situation is much better in the Eurozone than it is in Britain, where the highest denomination note is GBP 50, around 63 Euros at the time of writing. British shopkeepers often gasp in horror whenever a “fifty” is tendered. And today in Britain even the GBP 50 note is under threat of abolition to make cash retention, transfer and payment more difficult.

The right to hold one’s money in cash is a fundamental. Phasing out the EUR 500, but retaining the EUR 200 and EUR 100, both greater in value than the British GBP 50, is no huge deal. But going any further down this road is.

4 May 2016

Antisemitism: the denunciation campaign

False claims of antisemitism are deployed to discredit the political left

The spring of 2016 has seen a bombardment of charges of antisemitism aimed at left-wing members of the Labour Party. The denunciation campaign, fuelled by the Tory Party, the Labour Right and reinforced by the press, with the liberal Guardian bating the pack, has led to the suspension of numerous members, including Labour’s former London Mayor, Ken Livingstone.

No-one but a fool would believe that that the denunciation campaign results from the sudden discovery that the Labour Party is constituted by ranks of Jew-hating Holocaust deniers, particularly as several of the people suspended are Jewish themselves. Indeed, the Labour Party is one of the places in British society where one is least likely to encounter antisemitism, or racism of any kind. The reasons for the denunciations are much more cynical. They serves two separate but related purposes: first, a drive to undermine the Corbyn leadership by smearing his supporters; and second an attempt to de-legitimise criticism of Israel by claiming such criticism is antisemitism.

It is worthwhile stating clearly what antisemitism is, and what it is not. Verbal and written antisemitism includes calling for discriminatory action to be taken against Jewish people, insulting them, or identifying people only because of of their ethnic origin. Antisemitism is about the attachment of negative characteristics, physical or cultural, to Jewish people solely on account of their ethnicity. It is about the peddling of myths, the purpose of which is to cast Jews in a bad light. Statements which are true are not antisemitic unless the purpose in uttering them is to fuel antisemitism.

1 April 2016

Sentence Elements

Dividing simple sentences into their elements is the first step in grammatical analysis.

Every sentence can be divided into its elements. An element is made up of one or more words which together comprise the element. Sentence elements constitute the ‘building units’ of a well-formed sentence

There are five types of sentence element:
1 subject
2 verb
3 object
4 predicative (aka complement)
5 adverbial (aka adjunct)

A sentence element approach to grammar assumes a top-down methodology: it starts with the sentence as a whole and then divides it into its functional components.

In the sentence below every type of sentence element is present and is represented in this example by a single word.

They elected him president yesterday.

They (=subject), elected (=verb), him (=object), president (=predicative), yesterday (=adverbial)

Subject and predicate

In English every sentence has a subject. The subject is the grammatical topic of the sentence and the predicate (consisting of the remaining elements of the sentence) is the comment on the subject. Look at the example below.

Mr Jones planted cabbages in the garden.

In this example Mr Jones is the subject, and planted cabbages in the garden is the predicate. Mr Jones is the grammatical topic; and the comment is that he planted cabbages in the garden.

The subject is necessarily a nominal (e.g. noun, pronoun, noun phrase or clause).

The verb governs the predicate and determines whether objects, predicatives and adverbials are required, permitted or proscribed. Look at the example below:

My older brother gave Lorna a book yesterday in the garden.

In this example the verb to give requires two objects (direct: a book, indirect Lorna) and permits temporal and locative adverbials (yesterday and in the garden)

28 March 2016

Adam Johnson: Punophilia and Sex Crime in Britain

In March 2016, professional footballer, Adam Johnson, was sentenced to six years incarceration for sex-texting, snogging and touching up a fifteen year old girl.

I care nothing for football, nor for men like Adam Johnson. The core facts of his case are clear: a fifteen year old girl showed herself sexually interested in the professional footballer, and, rather than turning away, Johnson sex-texted her, snogged her and touched her up in his car. The age of sexual consent in Britain, not unreasonably, is sixteen, so what Johnson did was rightly a crime.

The issue in this article is not his guilt but his punishment. Sentencing Johnson to six years inside - a sentence normally awarded to robbers and rapists - reflects moral outrage, not justice or sense.

I have no desire to see the girl punished in any way, but the issue remains: if what happened is so serious, why is Johnson the only one responsible? Had the girl, instead, gone shoplifting - or committed any other crime - she was well within the age of criminal responsibility. Yet, in her illegal relations with Johnson, she is automatically constructed as a victim, a mere passive agent without responsibility.

Much of the establishment hullabaloo around the case is formulaic. For instance, reports were submitted to the court about the psychological harm that Johnson had done to the girl. Johnson may indeed have caused the described harm, but we cannot know for sure because it is unimaginable that a social service report would ever have concluded that no damage resulted from the affair. I suspect the psychological impact on her was little different from what she would have felt had she been some months older and over the age of consent. But the greatest psychological harm - we can be sure - resulted from the case being heard in open court: her anonymity was breached and she became (quite wrongly) an object of abuse from some quarters.

Why is the case interpreted and framed in these terms? Where does the moral panic demanding draconian punishment come from?

The leading reason is obviously the horrors of the sexual crimes committed by Jimmy Savile. Savile is dead and cannot be held to account, but prosecutors and courts can find male celebrities today who have had sexual relations with fifteen year old girls and punish them severely. That urge to punish is further driven by some feminists, aware of the cruel “career-or-start-a-family” dilemma, whose anger focuses, not on the structures of capitalism that throw up that problem, but on the ability of adult men to cheat on their partners in favour of younger women.

Nothing written here is intended to exonerate Johnson. But as this case came to trial, it is a pity that it couldn’t be dealt with privately, something both Johnson and the girl would have benefited from. A fine, community work and attendance on a sexual offences awareness course would have been suitable for Johnson. Six years of incarceration, the probable ban from professional football and the near total destruction of his life would not have been called for.

Sexual offences should not be brushed under the carpet. But the Johnson case did not involve a major crime, if only because, had the girl been some months older, no crime would have been committed - whatever one thinks of the morality of the man's behaviour. His excessive punishment - the mob's punophilia, the love of punishment - merely shows that Britain is in the grip of a moral panic regarding under-age sex crime.

23 March 2016

Facebook: posting links is no substitute for analysis

Facebook does provide a channel for political communication, but those who merely post links to online material are not providing the necessary analysis.

From the 1980s I recall an elderly left-wing gentleman, who raged against all forms of social injustice, with a particular emphasis on the betrayal of socialism by the right-wing leaders of the Labour Party. To make his case, he pushed his bicycle around the town, cloth carrier-bags dangling from the handlebars, shoving annotated newspaper cuttings though the letterboxes of those left-wing activists who might read them.

If you met him you would certainly get an earful, but if you didn’t you had to piece together his views from reading other people’s. Were he alive today, I am sure he would be on Facebook, writing little, but posting links to articles. And sadly, that is the communicative capacity limit for many of my Facebook “friends,'”  just a stream of posts consisting of links to other material. They don’t write much themselves, so all I know about their political views is garnered from the links to articles which they suggest that I should read.

Well, what’s wrong with just posting links? True, good material on the net needs to be passed around. But anybody who thinks that he or she is enhancing his or her political analysis by this method is as deluded as a carpenter who thinks he is developing his chair-making skills by sitting on them and recommending them to others. It’s only when you pick up your pen – or today, open a Word document – that you develop the range and consistency of your own thinking.

The best way to learn is to get things wrong unintentionally. Make a slip and a friend will correct you in polemic; post a link to an article written by a professional journalist for another audience and most likely there will be no response. Just by re-posting other people's writing and by "liking," the gaps in your own thinking remain and the ability to articulate an idea or point never develops.

Even on the net people need to make themselves known as political personalities worthy of being listened to. A political activist needs a field of activity and interest; the information in the articles of professional journalists and academics needs to be digested, re-interpreted and re-focused according to local political need, not just re-posted.

1 March 2016

The End of Politics in Britain

It is always interesting to look back into the past and see how one predicted the future wrongly. This short comment was published in March 2008. In it I rightly sketched the meaninglessness for working people of the then New Labour administration, though I underestimated the extent to which Cameron in government from 2010, with the Liberal Democrats in tow (2010-2015), would further slash the remains of the welfare state in the midst of the 2008-1013 recession, the longest in the post-war period. And I utterly failed to foresee the rise of Jeremy Corbyn in 2015.

Social inequality is sharpening, while political parties are converging.

This week has seen the opinion polls giving the Conservatives a sufficient lead over Labour for an overall majority in the 2010 general election. Across ‘Middle England’ - for whose supposed benefit New Labour was designed - Cameron’s freshness, rather than any great policy issue, seems to be the driving force behind the Tory surge. Little now divides Britain’s two leading parties: both want to commercialise everything, both are middle-class oriented and led, both are devoutly Atlantist. Over the next couple of years the cautious Brown, who for ever will be Blair’s grey deputy, will try to emulate Cameron, flog the New Labour agenda to death, and will probably fail in everything.

The last termination of a Labour administration was in 1979. That defeat gave rise to two voices. One was fundamentalist: "let’s make a socialist Labour Party worth fighting for;" the other was to urge ‘moderation and unity’ in the hope that the Tories would trip up and the pendulum would swing. But nobody would have said then that a change of government hardly mattered. What might follow Brown’s 2010 poll defeat?

The Labour left, of course, no longer exists. Labour’s formulaic denunciation of the new Tory government’s further assault on the less well-off will ring hollow after a decade and half of New Labourism. Unless new political lifeblood flows from somewhere, (e.g. Scottish independence and a new politics there?) then in Britain we are looking to a new political age characterised by a collapse of party politics in full-blown American style.

2 January 2016


The price of life is the inevitability of getting old

In an intellectual sense one accepts that one is growing older, but days and months pass without any real appreciation of the fact, and then all of a sudden one is visited by a gamut of reminders. The last couple of weeks have added up to such a reminder.

I noticed in the last few months that I was moving towards the light to decipher small print and increasingly removing my glasses to read at my desk at home. Though I remain short sighted, my optimal focal point is just too far now to read comfortably with my distance glasses, so off I went to the optician in search of reading glasses.

Then last Monday my tooth started to ache. Toothache was nothing new, but it was a tooth on which I’d had a root canal operation several years ago, so it had to come out. The next step, my dentist tells me, is that I need to start with implant treatment in January to replace the teeth on my right side.

Fiddling with my glasses and nursing my aching tooth, I sat down the other evening to take my pills – against the pain, against high blood pressure and another to ease urination. To that I must add my vitamin supplements, of course.

When I get up from my desk in a minute I know I will have to stretch my legs, if I want to walk rather than hobble. So this weekend I am determined to do some exercise to slow down this inevitable process.

1 January 2016

The inevitability of inference

Thinking necessarily involves inference, but only part of an inferential statement is empirical.

Most of the information we have in our heads is based, not directly on observable fact, but on inference from fact. Thus, for example, when I see the cheese on the table and say, “Someone has put the cheese on the table.” I may not have seen the cheese being put on the table, but I infer that someone has put it there. The same is true when we see the wind blowing the trees through the window: we can see the trees moving and we infer that it is the wind that is moving them.

Inferential thinking consists of three elements. Let us look at these:

The first element is the sense data (e.g. The cheese is on the table) which we receive at least in part through our five senses (sight, sound, smell, touch, taste). But even what appears to be observable fact is a product of two parts only one of which is exclusively empirical: i.e. the external world that is impinging on our senses. But prior to our observation we also need concepts such as cheese, table and onness in our heads which we use to capture the sense data in the mind.

The second element in making an inference is a rule, either absolute or probabilistic, which we apply to the situation (e.g. Household objects are in the place they are because a human being has put them there). Rules may be necessarily true (e.g. All objects exist in space and time), or contingent and spring from repeated past experience (e.g. Fresh strawberries taste nice). In the case of contingent truths we assume that because something held true repeatedly in the past it will hold true in the future.

The third element is a conclusion drawn by means of logic from the observable fact and the rule; e.g (1) Household objects are in the place they are because a human being has put them there. (2) The cheese is on the table, so (3) a human being put the cheese on the table.

The key philosophical point to draw out of this analysis is that only part of an inference is empirical. The concepts, the rule, and the logic do not derive from our immediate observation, but are applied to it, and contain non-empirical elements. Thus, inferential statements are only in part empirical.

Prospects for the Left in Britain - as seen in 2010

The prospects for the British Left seem dire; and the situation is entirely different from in the past.  (Written in 2010)

Overall, I am extremely pessimistic about the prospect of building a progressive movement in Britain. I had hoped in the mid-2000s that the total abandonment by New Labour of progressive politics in general and the huge opposition to the Iraq War in particular would lead to a serious organisation to the left of Labour coming into existence. Instead, all we got was George Galloway blending his own egocentric personality with an illiberal cultural relativist agenda in the form of his politically marginal Respect Party.

Since 2010 Labour has been in opposition to the Conservative Liberal Democrat coalition government. About what to do there are two contrasting opinions among people on the left.

On the one hand, there is the view that however awful New Labour was between 1997 and 2010 in government, nonetheless it is the only political organisation that working people have to advance their interests. We should, therefore, work for a Labour government to be elected in 2015 because even the worst Labour government is better than this. Of course in the meantime we can campaign and try to move Labour leftwards.

On the other hand, there is the view that the Blair-Brown governments crossed the Rubicon. New Labour in office abandoned social democracy, built up capitalist power and inequality, sought to diminish personal and civic liberties and actively promoted a sycophantic pro-Americanism around the globe. The people actively engaged in that project still lead the Labour Party today. Asking working people to put their faith and aspirations in Labour is, therefore, dishonest and will yield nothing but disappointment.

Superficially in this debate one can find similarities in the ending of the Blair-Brown governments in 2010 with the close of the Wilson-Callaghan years in 1979. Perhaps the most significant similarity is that Labour in opposition tends, at least initially after losing office, to start moving leftwards. And that was apparent in the symbolic election of Ed as opposed to David Miliband as party leader. But on closer examination there are two crucial differences between then and now.

First, unlike New Labour, the Labour Governments 1964-79 never abandoned social democracy. Wilson’s self-declared remit was left-leaning: to advance the well-being of working people within the post-war consensus and to be progressive in social, civic and personal affairs. In the latter, if not so much in the former, Labour chalked up significant success: abolition of the death penalty, legalisation of male homosexuality and abortion, lowering the age of majority to eighteen, etc. So in 1979 one could argue: “Labour is basically sound, but what we want is a more left-wing and progressive version of it. Let’s join and see what we can do”

The second crucial difference between now and then is that when Labour lost office in 1979, the left had never been so strong in the constituency parties and in the trade unions. There was real hope that by “mucking in” the left could win through. In 2010 Diane Abbott, the left-over of the Bennite Left was on the leadership ballot paper thanks only to the self-interested charity of New Labour MPs, who wanted to prevent the election being characterised as one between four white middle-class men. The movement behind Abbott was tiny and marginal. Few socialists remain active in the Labour Party.

My conclusion is that the situation in 2010 is fundamentally different from the one in 1979. The stain of New Labour cannot be washed away even in half a decade. Socialists cannot be, and cannot be seen to be, the junior partners of the people who managed New Labour after 1994, both in government and opposition. The Labour Party will not change its spots soon. If the left has a future it is not with Miliband and Balls. Tactically we might vote for them in elections, but that is all.