Friday, 22 November 2013

The Bullet that Saved JFK.

To many, John F Kennedy was a hero. The pretensions of the Great Man are always a worthwhile target and the Kennedy cult is one such prime case. The legend of John F Kennedy is a tightly inflated balloon that has been wafting across the discourse since the young man defeated Nixon in 1960. Fifty years since the man was gunned down under circumstances of considerable fixation the time is more than ripe to take aim at that balloon and fire. Kennedy is not remembered for the details of his foreign policy, his efforts in the subversion of Latin American governments, his anti-Communist crusade against Cuba and his escalation of the Vietnam war. And yet there is a plethora of theories floating along with the personality cult.

The trouble with conspiracy theories in general is the tendency to apply Occam's Razor in reverse, slitting through all the simple answers to the end. The preference is always for building a vast and intricate theory. If there is a simple explanation, or a rational explanation, then it is to be rejected as a rule in favour of unfounded speculation of the wildest variety. It can lead anywhere after that point of no return. Like the conspiracy theorists who believe the attacks on the World Trade Centre were either achieved with a) US missiles or b) the attacks were a hologram. Once you've accepted such a proposition you're left with the problem of where all those people - in the planes, in the towers, in the Pentagon - have really gone. So why not suppose they were all gassed in Chicago? Or taken out to Nebraska to be shot on orders from Cheney? The degrees of nuttiness know no bounds.
We find the same with Lee Harvey Oswald. There are inconvenient facts, such as the fact that Oswald owned the guns involved in the events of November 22nd 1963 - not just the assassination, but the murder of a police officer as well - and the fact that the paraffin test at least demonstrated that he had fired a hand gun (though not the rifle, which doesn't discharge a residue). Why would an innocent man shoot a police officer as he ran out of a building? Of course, to answer such a question one first has to be open to a certain array of possibilities. If you have already decided that the captured shooter was a 'patsy' for a high-level conspiracy to ratchet up the war in Vietnam, then why bother? There are more important matters at hand. For instance, if the Mafia was involved (and this goes for the CIA too) then why would Oswald be left to try and hail a taxi to escape from the scene? Ignorance is sometimes all too invincible. Nevertheless, the assumptions behind these theories are always particularly revealing.
The first possibility to be written-off from the outset by the 9/11 'Truth' movement is that Arabs are perfectly capable of hatching such a complex plan and carrying it out. That has a lot in common with the tradition of European anti-Arab racism. Just as Western historians couldn't comprehend that the Arabs could have raced to the straits of Gibraltar from the Middle East and crossed over to the Iberian peninsula. The racist assumption that the Arabs are a race so primitive as to be incapable of a modicum of self-defence ran right into the mid 20th Century. It was a convenient myth for the European empires. It was with the emergence of General Nasser and the crisis of Suez that the Arabs were recognised as capable fighters. After that the new myth would soon be that the Arabs are bloodthirstily savages. The 9/11 'Truthers' simply revert to the early racial myth.
The JFK cult has assumptions no less worthy of unpicking. Jack Kennedy was fortunate to die before the 1964 election. The bullet preserved the memory of a charming and glamorous Kennedy, a fallen angel and martyr for American liberalism. It is all too outlandish to believe that the Kennedy administration posed a serious threat to the intelligence sector, the military-industrial complex and the capitalist system in any way. Really the system should work, it's merely an aberration - if only Kennedy hadn't been shot by perpetrator X (take your pick: the Mafia, Castro, Johnson, the CIA, the anti-Castro Cubans, the rogue CIA and so on to infinite regress). It is a reassuring vision for someone who doesn't really believe social change is possible and doesn't really want to pursue it. It reaffirms passivity and so it should. These theories always seem to arise around events which threaten the pretensions of invincible and invulnerable power.

The fact that Kennedy was a Cold War liberal who saw withdrawal from Vietnam as only acceptable after victory - a victory he may have believed would come in 1965 - which puts him on the same wavelength as Lyndon B Johnson and Richard Nixon. He thought it was fine to invade Cuba and snuff out its push towards independence. When the CIA botched the invasion, Kennedy was angry at the prospect of a tarnished record for his time in office. It was the failure of the mission, not the mission  itself, which was the problem. Kennedy took responsible publicly, and then fired Allan Dulles. This was when he made his famous remark expressing a willingness to "shatter the CIA into a thousand pieces". Of course, the Emperor would be furious when his minions fuck up what should have been a routine operation (or worse, as they were defeated in the case of the Bay of Pigs).

As for the rest of the record: Kennedy cut taxes for the wealthiest slice of American society, bringing down the New Deal rate of income tax from 90% to 70%; while pouring yet more cash into the war budget and had mostly empty gestures on civil rights. He was a strident anti-Communist who spent his spare moments sketching the uniforms of soldiers. The conservative writer Ira Stoll has reviewed the Kennedy Presidency in time for the 50th year since the Great Man was vanquished. The Stoll thesis is that the Kennedy legacy ought to belong to conservative hagiographers and not their liberal counterparts. It was the bullet that saved the Kennedy myth. If Kennedy had lived we would remember him as an ugly war criminal, the Vietnam war would have robbed him of his angelic innocence and Addison's disease would have done the rest.

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Permanent Austerity.

Bound in white tie, but not gagged, merely primed for performance as always, the Prime Minister finally admitted what some of us had suspected from before the beginning. In his speech David Cameron came out with the rhetoric of small government, that we have to do more with less and shrink the state to a more effective role. So the point of the austerity measures is not to reduce the deficit necessarily, it is to slim down the size of the state. Of course, it is worth saying that the ideological mission of a shrunken state is one and the same with the claims to 'necessity'. It is no coincidence that the claim that the spending cuts are 'necessary' comes with added promises of greater 'productivity', 'innovation' and 'efficiency'. In fact, a government euphemism for cuts is 'efficiency savings'. This is the lexicon of neoliberal managerialism.

If we are to take David Cameron on his word then we might say that the austerity is meant to be perpetual and never ending. The key part being when he said "We are sticking to the task. But that doesn't just mean making difficult decisions on public spending. It also means something more profound, it means building a leaner, more efficient state.  We need to do more with less. Not just now, but permanently." The sight of the Prime Minister in his white little frock at the throne dripping gold and these words coming out of his mouth was something to be seen. Unfortunately the irony of the Head of Her Majesty's Government proselytising on the virtues of 'small government' is lost on conservative opinion. Meanwhile the handful of liberal and leftish rags immediately seized on the words of the Prime Minister. But no one should be so surprised really.
Just observe the fact that the original proposals by George Osborne were meant to reduce the deficit to naught by 2015 and now the plans to wipe the deficit have been extended to 2020. To this picture we may add the claims that the NHS is facing a shortfall of £10 billion, that was back in 2010, it was Andrew Lansley, who used the figure to justify the cuts he was making at the time. Now there is talk of a coming shortfall by the end of the decade of £30 billion. One wonders if Cameron's lot will ever feel they have lowered the rate of spending far enough. Every problem of the public services and welfare state are seized on by these vultures as proof of the need for deep cuts. The various scandals to be endured by the NHS of late fit the example perfectly. Hunt will make a statement on the problem at hand (which is no doubt real) to buttress his position as a competent Health Secretary coming up with the prescription for a better health service. Cuts and more cuts.

The examples the Prime Minister reaches for are quite interesting for this reason. He singled out for praise the accomplishments of Michael Gove, the 40% cuts to administrative staff at the Education Department to be specific. Then there are the 3,000 'free schools' and academies set up under the watch of Gove. He lumps in the shrinkage of the department with the use of public assets and money to ensure education for the children of sharp-elbowed middle-class parents. 'Free schools' are established at the expense of the tax-payer and even at a cost to comprehensive and other state schools in terms of resources. This is the same ministry to rearrange the pensions system for teachers with the hopes of devaluing their retirement funds by 15% and raising their payments by 50%. Over the same timeline you'll find tuition fees introduced and raised almost at every university to £9,000, apparently to reduce the deficit when HE funding accounts for 0.7% of GDP.

This is the manifest reality of what Cameron means when he speaks of a "leaner, more efficient state". The idealised slim-line state of libertarian imaginations is not to be taken seriously as a realistic prospect. Really we're looking at the possibility of living in a society where the social safety-nets is non-existent while the state intervenes to create markets, boost supply and ensure vast profits. There will be plenty of bailouts to come. In some respects the neoliberal period seems much more like a state of flux than a rigidly set social order. It is partly identifiable by its oscillations, the sudden shift in gears from taking a chainsaw to financial regulations to diving into the public purse to save the lemmings before they go over the cliff. Though it is a very narrow and restricted spectrum with serious limitations. There is only so many regulations to burn and so far the taxes can be cut.

Jumping each hurdle might become much more difficult as we go long. Crises will offer opportunities to reconstitute the economic formations as they were prior to them. Schumpeter called it 'creative destruction': the field of competitors is wiped clear for old forces to go from strength to strength. A better diagnosis from Naomi Klein would be economic 'shock therapy' whereby the crisis provides a cover for a series of assaults to be launched on the living standards of working-class people. It's worth bearing in mind that the current order took shape in the way that the Thatcherites circumvented the crisis of social democracy: 1) cutting public expenditure, 2) privatising state industries, 3) smashing the unions and 4) deregulation of finance. Incidentally the average rate of growth in the 70s was 2.5% and it remained the same in the Thatcher decade. So those who think the austerity is about high rates of growth are sadly mistaken, at best.

Not surprisingly then 0.8% of growth is enough for George Osborne to declare a great victory, a strange position given that there has been no opposition in Parliament to his agenda. Only a brat as expensively educated as the Chancellor could perceive competition in a game rigged in his favour. The Cameron lot want to patch up this sorry set-up, not to fundamentally alter its trajectory. The failures of the past are accentuated, and framed in a certain way, by the abstract principles of today. A high-rate of public expenditure is measured by a criterion not of the social democratic era. The 1970s was a terrible time in British history not because it necessarily was so awful, but because the conditions differ so greatly to today. To be specific, the scope of the state - particularly in the ways that helped poor people - in those days is what outrages conservative-minded people.

The standard of a high level of government debt was changed by the Thatcher-Major era. Suddenly it was set at a benchmark of 40% when this country has seen rates as high as 250% in the wake of World War Two. And that was a well managed economic situation. The Labour government of 1945 established a social democracy complete with the trimmings of a welfare state and universal health-care. The story of how the social democratic post-war consensus developed systemic problems and crises is a long one and a subject for a different article. What may be said is that the failures of that epoch have been accentuated in the years since. The abstract principles of today are applied to those yesteryears with the self-serving results one would expect. The rightward trend of discourse leaves the state-led settlement of the 50s and 60s looking almost Soviet to too many people today. This is the death of social democracy.

Friday, 15 November 2013

Anti-Semites for Israel.

The younger Bushman has crawled out from under his rock to speak to speak at a fundraising dinner today with tickets going from $100 to $100,000. For the latter you can get a VIP pass for twenty guests to see the anointed one, have your picture taken with him and get a copy of Decision Points autographed. This would not be a noteworthy event if it weren't for the fact that the event is being held by the Messianic Jewish Bible Institute. If that sounds odd here's a little clarification, the Institute's stated mission is to convert world Jewry to Christianity in order to bring about the Rapture. No doubt this is in accordance with the view that the End Times will mean burning in an everlasting lake of fire for all Jews (except for 140,000 Jews who are converted to Christianity). This is just one strategy for those on the Christian Right in its Armageddonist fantasies.

We should not be surprised to find a confluence of this level of fantasy and anti-Semitism. Even if we accept their professions of love for Israel as genuine we should not buy into the assumption that the Jewish state and the Jewish people are synonymous. Faiths and cultures are far too complex generally to be confined to a body national. The history of Christian anti-Semitism is too often whitewashed in an era where Israel seems mired in perpetual conflict with its neighbours and the Palestinians. The Roman Catholic Church only rescinded its accusations of deicide against the Jews in 1965, and that's just the tip of the iceberg. European societies have long found the presence of the apparently unsettled and rootless rather troubling. No wonder then anti-Semitism often combines with anti-Roma sentiments. The solution for some European Christians was to resituate the Jews as rooted citizens, either by stripping them of their Jewishness or by relocating them entirely.
Even in the liberal Christian states of the 19th Century the problem was that the Jewish tradition was not easily confined to the realm of an individuals' rights and freedoms. Traditions are communitarian rather than individualist. In the past this meant effective conversions and later it led to the proposals of the Nazi Party to relocate European Jewry to Madagascar. By contrast the Muslim world had little beef with Jews as a people without a land, it was once the state of Israel was founded (and the way in which it was founded) that the problems really heated up. In this way we find that the Christian anti-Semites have a vested interest in a Jewish state as a solution to their problem. You find this with people like John Hagee, a televangelist who has even suggested that the Holocaust was a part of God's plan to turn the Jews back toward Israel. This is not an exceptional case.
That old mountebank Pat Robertson wrote a book of conspiratorial fantasy in which the Jews play a role in a new world order set up. Then there was Billy Graham who was caught on tape to President Nixon (another remarkable bigot) agreeing that the Jews have a 'stranglehold' on the American media and referred to a 'synagogue of Satan'. And of course, you can't forget Jerry Falwell, the spiritual godfather of the Moral Majority, who once stated that the anti-Christ is among us and that he is an adult male Jew. Yet all of these men professed support for Israel and pledged a great deal of political support for the Israeli government in wars from 1967 onwards. One of the prerequisites for the Rapture is that the Jews return to Israel. The compatibility of this restorationist agenda with anti-Semitism should not be ignored. Evidently, Judeophobia is not unique to the Old World. It's a country where hotels once bore the label 'restricted' to mean they wouldn't take in Jewish guests.
Given that George W Bush gave up Johnnie Walker Black for the Nazarene we may not be so shocked that he is at least sympathetic to the most fervent depths of nuttiness. This is one of the main sources of votes harvested by the GOP machine (not that Bush much needed votes). The former President is in good company as the last big speaker was Glenn Beck, the same man who tooted a horn for Elizabeth Dilling's crackpot tirades against Jews and Communists. Let alone the way he scapegoated Hungarian-Jewish banker George Soros as a 'puppet master' of the Left. In the end Beck lost his platform at Fox after he started to cost them advertising dollars and the dip in ratings. He had gone too far for Abe Foxman, but never too far for the Messianic Jewish Bible Institute who gave Beck its Defender of Israel award and then chowed down on a mighty hog-roast. Seriously treif scenes.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

The Great Rip-Off.

There was hardly any outrage in the air when the Health and Social Care act of 2012 was passed. The act stipulates that NHS doctors take control of their budgets as well as permit them to buy services from private companies. Another stipulation is to allow hospitals to use up to 49% of hospital beds and theatre time to generate private income. The section 75 regulations stipulate that the sectors of the NHS which can’t be ‘provably’ run exclusively by public provision will have to face competition from the private sector. Lord Phillip Hunt said that the regulations will “promote and permit privatisation and extend competition into every quarter of the NHS regardless of patients interests.”[1] He added that the reform will make privatisation the default position as the burden of proof is placed on the shoulders of any commissioner opposed to private health provision.[2]

The Chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners has stated that these reforms “remove the legal framework for a universal, publically provided, publically managed, publically planned, democratically accountable health service.”[3] Concurrent to these reforms the Coalition has been underfunding health services. In the first budget of the Coalition government, George Osborne announced a 1% increase in funding for the NHS. Yet that amount falls short of the pace at which health costs rise, which is sometimes 2% or 3% above inflation. There is a correlation to this policy. Waiting lists increased by 43% from 2010 to 2012.[4] Fortunately for David Cameron the media has yet to raise more than a whimper of questions about these reforms. It was Lansley who claimed that the NHS has to face cuts for a shortfall of £10 billion to be avoided.[5] Then this year came talk of a £30 billion shortfall at the end of the decade.[6] The government’s prescription: cuts, cuts, cuts.

This is the apogee of decades of health-care policy in this country. The Thatcherites first introduced private companies in the area of cleaning services and even went further to provide contracts to private companies willing to invest in the construction and operation of services. Public-private partnerships were established, effectively subsidising private companies with tax-payer money. The cleaning contracts commissioned from the private sector have led to rising costs for hospitals and a decline in hygiene standards. Out of this came the rise in MRSA.[7] New Labour continued and furthered these developments. The performance targets based on market standards were expanded and health-care professionals were left jumping through even more hoops. The rhetoric of New Labour was decentralisation they offered to ‘free’ hospitals from central control and allow local people to ‘own’ their own hospital.[8]

As of 2005 the UK government was looking to shift 10% of the work of existing NHS organisations to the private sector.[9] The NHS signed contracts with eight different health-care providers to set up fast-track treatments centres to treat 250,000 patients over five years. The programme forced some NHS hospitals to close down wards. In 2011 Andrew Lansley was forced to admit that 60 hospitals were on the “brink of financial collapse” as a result of public-private partnerships first started by John Major and expanded under Blair. The hospitals could not meet the high payments being demanded by private companies. The cost of these gluttonous companies feeding off of the public health service has been bared all along by the British tax-payer. Care homes for the elderly have been privatised just as prisons and now the post office have been. The pig-out goes on.

Yet these developments are not unprecedented around the world. In Canada it was the Conservative Mike Harris who introduced the public-private partnerships in Ontario to open up public assets to corporations in the financing of new facilities and the operation of support services.[10] Diagnostic clinics for MRIs and CT scans were opened up to private companies.[11] Many have introduced all kinds of hidden costs, with one place even charging $100 for an orange juice.[12] These measures were expanded and deepened by Liberal and Conservative administrations. Almost 30% of Canadian health expenditure came from private payments in 2010.[13] More and more there are user fees for those without private insurance and physicians can block treatment if you don’t pay up. Private health-care payments account for 3.1% of Canadian GDP. The spread and scope of private clinics is being expanded still.[14]

Meanwhile in Australia the government of Tony Abbott has confirmed that they will be pursuing the privatisation of Medibank and has not ruled out any further privatisation schemes.[15] Just as the British health system has been underfunded the Australian equivalent has endured cuts in the number of public hospital beds from 74,000 to 54,000 from 1983 to 2009.[16] Effectively this means a 60% cut when the growth in population is taken into account.[17] The Rudd government excluded from the commission’s review, the current 30% rebate for private insurance, which currently costs $3.7 billion annually, so as not to antagonise the insurance companies.[18] The successive Gillard government initiated an austerity programme leading to cuts being set to health budgets in New South Wales of $3 billion, $1.6 billion in Queensland and $616 million in Victoria.[19] So the incremental process of privatisation is not contained to this tired little island.

The forces behind these shifts are not just national but international. The yet to be finalised free-trade deal between the US and the EU may well have troubling implications for the future of universal health-care throughout the EU and not just in the British Isles. It looks like the agreement will open up public services – including health – to private investment and ownership.[20] It would appear as though the Bolkestein directive has only been reconstituted in its mission to see the European Union become a mere managerial edifice for a liberal market economy. At the same time we can see Obama has initiated a series of conservative health reforms in one of the few civilised countries without universal coverage. In the sectors that have profited from the chaos of the American situation there are keen eyes for the potential gains in plundering the NHS. We have been denied a debate on the privatisation of health-care, but as we aren't going to be given one. We should decide for ourselves what kind of society we want to live in and take action.

This article was originally written for the Heythrop Lion.

[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid.
[11] Ibid.
[14] Ibid.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Ibid.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Eco-Fatalism: Towards Certain Doom.

When it comes to the environment no one really disputes that there is an on-going change taking place in the atmosphere. Even with the 15 year hiatus in rising temperatures, the only dispute is over the extent to which we might say that the change we're seeing is a natural occurrence or the consequence of human activity - whether or not it is anthropogenic to use the proper term. The debate is framed between the people who believe that we are responsible for the change, and that we should alter our behaviour in order to offset it or even prevent it; and the people who believe it is a natural occurrence which would be happening even if we hadn't developed an industrial civilisation. Yet there is an angle which is neglected, the scientific position that it may well be too late for human activity to turn back the tide and that the change is coming whether we like it or not. And there is substantial support for this view within the scientific community. But the media prefers the more simplistic version of the debate: deniers versus believers.

If you think about it this is not the dichotomy which we face whenever this issue is raised in discussion on the BBC or elsewhere. Why is this such a contentious issue for rightists? Really it's because this question leads in such a radical direction that the theory is subject to so much right-wing 'scepticism'. The Right has hooked onto the trajectory of environmental concerns, ultimately towards alternative forms of coordination in the economy and specifically some kind of rational planning apparatus. Any amount of evidence is not enough when it comes up against the need to safeguard the already existing system and account for its infinite-growth paradigm. A modest change in political economy is less easy to imagine than the end of the world, which is what the eliminate change 'sceptics' accept and embrace. Not only is the end of the world the only imaginable outcome, it is the preferred outcome to any attempts at ecological planning as that might mean the end of capitalism. And that remains the case even if the warming is a natural occurrence.

In short, this is not scepticism but fatalism. It would be better to accept certain doom than to go socialist. You might imagine a dreary fellow in a grey suit and a blue tie going "Why bother? It's over anyway" as the perfect surmise of the Delingpole school of environmental 'scepticism'. As the Iron Lady once said, there is no alternative - not even to the apocalypse! Though there is a flip-side to this coin, if we are doomed - which is more than plausible by this point - then why not go socialist? There isn't much to lose after all, there is the possibility that we can save ourselves and there is the possibility that we can't. Not much else. We won't know whether certain doom is inevitable if we don't take action.