Dangerous Hero – Corbyn’s ruthless plot for power – Tom Bower

29-3-19

Dear Partners in thought,

In a nice fit with some Interludes on the Brexit saga and as I was intrigued about him and his strange journey, I wanted to know more about Jeremy Corbyn, the unlikely leader of the Labour Party at an incredibly challenging time for Britain. I felt that I was not the only one in the dark as to whom this unlikely leader was and where he came from. While we hear a lot about JC, we actually know very little beyond his historical radical past and the usual accusations, such as those linked to anti-Semitism, that have stuck to him for months (and we discover, years) now. So with all of this in mind, I would like to tell you about “Dangerous Hero – Corbyn’s ruthless plot for power”, a brand new book by journalist Tom Bower, once at the BBC, who has been covering news and writing books on world events and their makers since the late 1960s. TB’s book goes into Corbyn’s roots and his political journey, explaining how he was able to seize the Labour leadership, only eighteen years after Blair’s New Labour emerged and five after Gordon Brown’s sunset, taking it way leftwards in a stark contrast with his own electorate but on the strength of new party members, many of whom quite radical, whom he brought with him to change the course of British politics. The story of JC from the early 1970s to now is also a story of the Labour Party and a reminder, for those who forgot it, of the Marxist and Trotskyist radicalism of a huge segment of that party at the local authority level and the many radicalised union-led strikes and electricity shortages that were the daily experience of the British people during that socially challenging pre-Thatcher period. 

To be fair, TB’s book could have been commissioned by the Tory Central Office so much it is a hatchet job on JC (however deserved it may be) so this should be borne in mind. Interestingly Tom Bower is a contemporary of JC and was even a radical student at the London School of Economics, then known as “Tom the Red” before shedding a lot of the colour as he “grew up”. With this in mind, it is quite key to remember that the JC attributes stated in this Book Note are really from TB’s book, which does come across as a never ending list of shortcomings with very few redeeming features. If all these attributes were indeed true and there is nothing to suggest otherwise, it is hard to believe that JC would be qualified to hold any type of high political office in the UK. While such a peculiar background would make his rise to the Labour leadership all the more surprising, it may also be linked to his core skill of artful insider’s political party maneuvering, which to some may indeed be JC’s only skillset since he entered politics as a radical youth.  

JC was born in Wiltshire in May 1949 and joined Labour as a teenager, becoming a Trade Union representative when moving to London. In 1974 ha was elected to Haringey Council and became Secretary of the Hornsey Constituency Labour Party before being elected MP for Islington North in 1983. Being a left wing radical, he often opposed the Labour leadership throughout his career, focusing his action on anti-fascim, anti-apartheid, nuclear disarmament and a united Ireland, many positions being effectively against US and Western interests both before and after the Cold War. During the Blair and Brown years, JC often opposed “New Labour” and chaired such groups as the Stop the War Coalition. He became Labour Leader in 2015, taking the party leftwards, supporting the re-nationalisation of public utilities and the railways, a less interventionist military policy and an increase of funding for welfare and public services. Although a Eurosceptic he supported mildly remaining in the EU during the June 2016 referendum, much alike Theresa May when the Home Secretary of David Cameron’s government. He was able to secure his leadership by increasing the number of new left wing members in the Labour Party, knowing that they and not Labour voters would now decide on the party leadership. In doing so he created a gap between a radicalised Labour leadership and a much more moderate base. The most damaging criticism against JC over the last three years has been attacks on his perceived antisemitism, going back to his early years of public life and strong opposition to Israel, which he was not able to quell through clear and definite personal refutations now that he is the Labour leader.              

TB interviewed a lot of the then young radical left leaders of the early seventies for his book (those, we learn, who did not commit suicide as many did), most who did not achieve political stardom as they were outside the British establishment circles. Many remembered JC though all were in agreement to state how unimpressive he was intellectually, making his rise to power at Labour all the more surprising, if not for his doggedness and “entryst” qualities (entrysm being the favourite infiltration game of left radicals wanting to take over local Labour Party committees the Marxist and “Trot” ways). We discover an uneducated JC, something that nobody knows, later going to great length to be against school elitism, even preferring for his children not to go to good schools so as not to give them an unfair advantage even if they would receive a worst education by not doing so. We see a JC who boasted about books he never read (we discover that he does not read books) or cannot manage his family finances to the point his debts will lead him to his second divorce (he remarried in 2013), providing a poor prospect for leading the country. Not understanding Marxism or Trotskyism as political “philosophies” he would nonetheless stick to all their tenets to “make the rich pay” and promote true socialism in the UK, first at the local authority of Haringey which he would eventually lead after much internecine warfare, characteristic of the Labour dynamics in the 1970s.     
Quite aside from the political arena, TB takes us to a trip into JC’s private life which is not that private as politics is everything for him. We read about JC’s travels with his first wife which were not focused on having a good time in nice accommodations but on tent/camping and eating can food to her dismay even though she was also from the hard left. They even traveled to Central Europe and visited Vienna though he made the point not to enter the palace of Schoenbrunn as it was too much a sign of imperial power. Similarly they visited Czechoslovakia and Prague with JC praising the local regime for its achievements on the road to socialism, felling no sympathy for the “delusional” Prague coup, otherwise known as “Prague Spring” of 1968.   

TB takes us through the life of JC as a Labour activist in Haringey, followed by his election in 1974 as a Council member and head of the public works committee while also being Secretary of the Hornsey Constituency Labour Party and head of the local National Employers Public Employees’ union or NUPE, a multiplicity of roles that would create conflicts of interests during strike times that were many in the mid-to late 70s. Interestingly Jane Chapman, his first wife, also chaired a Haringey Council Committee, most council members finding her more capable than JC. Their relationship will go gradually South, JC not caring much for their couple and its well being (as we had noted in terms of their holiday plans), being totally devoted to his cause of a hard left, Trotskyste activism. 

We run into JC’s “fellow Labour travellers” among the hard left some of whom would become leading figures, like Ken Livingstone (future Mayor of London before Boris Johnson), John McDonnell (a very serious politician though of a very abrasive nature who would become Shadow Chancellor under JC after 2015), George Galloway (who would run onto many “affairs” over the years and became close to dubious foreign leaders) but also Tony Benn, a radical Labour grandee, close to JC party-wise, who shared many traditional features with the Tories given his background and the Marxist Ralph Miliband, father of Ed and David, a future left wing Labour leader (opposing David Cameron as PM) and a future New Labour foreign secretary (under Gordon Brown). Those individuals were very active in the Labour Party throughout the 1970s, creating much positioning headache for the Labour moderates and various party leaders and PMs from Harold Wilson, to Dennis Healey to Michael Foot even if the latter was not deemed a moderate. This was the time of very controversial party members with some MPs involved in lobby groups like the World Peace Organisation or the Movement for Colonial Freedom actually financed by the Soviet Union, a fact that was not always obvious at the time (JC was a member of the MCF). To those men (there were very few women though Dianne Abbott, still an active Labour MP,  was one of them), all radical activists, JC was not a leader in the making but just a team member, lacking the requisite intellect and Marxist grounding to be considered leadership material unlike a Tony Benn.  

While the Tories had won a general election in 1979 leading to the Thatcher and a pro-business, free markets era, harsh economic times were leading them to an eventual loss in the next general election, just garnering 20% in the polls. Then, as often in history, a foreign crisis erupted in April 1982 when Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands off their shores as a way to unite its people and deflect domestic problems. The UK reacted swiftly, with backing from the U.S. and sent a naval force which eventually re-took the islands and led to the collapse of the Galtieri junta. The Falklands war united Britain with Labour led by Michael Foot supporting the Thatcher government and only a few Labour MPs and elected officials including JC to oppose military intervention. JC came across as an enemy of the UK and the U.S. and a supporter of Stalin, Mao, Castro and Galtieri, the latter even if a hard right military dictator whose views were polar opposite of JC. As the mood turned pro-Tory following the quick war (in spite of the loss of HMS Sheffield which some war opponents declared was let happen so Britain could go full force against the Argentines) the country was getting ready for the June 1983 general elections. Residents and businesses were leaving Haringey, the highest spending British local authority with the highest rates aimed at funding administrative staff increases (including two “anti-nuclear officers” charged with promoting world peace). On election day, Labour’s campaign manifesto, driven by a draconian programme of wealth confiscation, was dubbed “the longest suicide note in history”. Labour that should have won handsomely pre-Falklands, did not withstand its Marxist drive and secured its worst result since 1918 with 27.6% vs. 42.4% for the once doomed Thatcherian Tories. Britain’s working class, many of whom own their cars and homes, largely voted for Margaret Thatcher. 

In spite of this debacle, JC got his first parliamentary election victory and joined the reduced Labour group in Westminster. He showed no interest in the dynamics of Parliament including those of its own group, not playing as a team member and contributing little to the group and Whips’ wishes. JC displayed very personal positions on Israel (opposing it firmly while always supporting any aspect of the Palestinian cause) or Nicaragua (supporting Daniel Ortega and opposing the Contras and the U.S.) or even the IRA which was making headlines in all of the 1980s with terrorist attacks on the mainland (with JC defending the rights of jailed terrorists) or supporting the new Marxist government of Grenada that orchestrated a coup in the island. As JC started his new parliamentary career, actually allowing him at long last to have a better lifestyle, substantial disruption was erupting with the national miners’ strike and their flying pickets from Yorkshire and Scotland. The strikes which made headlines the world over were strongly supported by JC and the hard left MPs and led by Arthur Scargill, who would become the frontal opponent to Margaret Thatcher (it was later shown that the strikes were also funded by both the Soviets and Gaddafi’s Libya). When Tony Blair came to power with a strong victory for New Labour in 1997, he had to deal with two oppositions comprising the Tories who had lost power after nearly two decades and his own left wing with the likes of JC and John McDonnell (he seriously considered whether deselection was not possible but having such a strong majority decided to live with this impediment). On an amusing note following his divorce in 1999 from his second wife, Claudia, JC had a string of relationships with many women (so that the tabloids nicknamed him “Hot Trot” not getting what the attraction for this unkempt and ill-mannered man could be) until he met Laura Alvarez from Mexico, a small party activist but a great JC follower unlike his two previous wives, whom he married in 2013. 

As an MP JC will only and proudly represent the hard left on domestic and foreign policy matters. He will be pushing policies that are hard core socialist if not communist including the nationalisation of banks and public transport. Internationally he will have softer stances towards the Soviet bloc during the Cold War (so much so that he met several times with Czech diplomats who were intelligence officers in London – though never betrayed). He will consistently be on the opposite side of the U.S., UK and the West in general  on nearly all foreign policy matters ranging from his pro-Ira stance during the troubles (his friend, John McDonnell would publicly apologise for his support years later on the BBC), Cuba and Castro, the hard-line Islamic if not Islamist organisations, going as far as almost admiring the “skills” of the plane hijacking terrorists on 9-11, Iran, the Afghan and Iraq wars (of note, he would be “right” about the WMDs, not that his general intent was not misplaced initially), Gaddafi and Lybia, and of course Israel generally (resurrecting the now topical question regarding the link between anti-Zionism and anti-semitism that have plagued his leadership). As stated JC was very-Eurosceptic, not hiding his historical disdain for the EU as a capitalist pot against the masses. On the central subject of terrorism across Europe and the response to it, JC will always find it hard to support the killings of terror’s perpetrators like in the wake of the Paris November 2015 attacks, ideally preferring bringing the culprits to the courts, however unrealistic the ideal option. Hugo Chavez and then Nicolas Maduro became JC’s favourites as they were pushing Venezuelan socialism, this in spite of creating the most indebted country in the world particularly as oil prices would also plunge. Later on as the Syrian civil war would worsen, JC would want to wait for tangible proof to agree that the regime had been behind the deadly mass-chemical attack against children as footage might have been fabricated by the West. 

We go through the period when Labour goes back gradually to its 1970s roots and Ed Miliband defeats in a less than brotherly contest the moderate David Miliband for party leadership bringing back the party to the left though not left enough for the likes of JC, John McDonnell or former JC flame, Dianne Abbott. The Blair legacy comes under attack and the moderates will lose power culminating with the likes of Andrew Burnham and Yvette Cooper (the latter whose name we hear on cross-party anti-Brexit amendments in 2019) losing against JC who reluctantly, at least on the surface, decided to run for party leader on the grounds that it was his “turn” and he “would do it after all”. Being a polite kind and not attracting criticism at the personal level, in spite of his positions at the odd of traditional Labour on many issues, he will eventually win the leadership contest in 2015. One of the reasons why he will win is that 66% of party members identified with the left while only 33% of Labour voters did. JC benefitted from a new rule whereby party members or those who paid 3 pounds would select the party leader at a time where the unions and Unite, a trade main union, in particular organised substantial increase in party membership. Thanks to the rule that sidelined the Labour MPs who were in the past choosing their leader Labour was able to go radical left in no time, even if by then JC and McDonnell were trying hard to shed any Communist or Trotskyist credentials due to the responsibilities they were about to assume (McDonnell donned a blue suit, white shirt and tie and JC became a bit more sartorial in no time). I will not cover the well-known period from when JC seizes the party leadership in 2015 which will be a continuation of half-hearted efforts at all levels to repudiate a radical past so as to appear potential Number 10 material, unbelievable neglect about antisemistim accusations against him and the top of the Labour team and a very ambivalent stance in relation to the June 2016 referendum due to a deep Euro-scepticism leading to a very mild involvement for the Remain camp, while Labour voters (though possibly not party members) were overwhelmingly Remainers. While the book does not cover it as the move was too recent, it is notable (on the positive side, at least for me) that JC finally and after a long time stated he supported a second referendum (the type to be clarified) even if only to stop a likely flow of Labour MP defection to the Independent Group in February.          

 It is difficult to rejoice at the quality (or lack thereof) of the Tory leadership as seen during the nearly three years of the Brexit process (including the fateful decision of David Cameron to make good on his promise to his hard right, nationalistic wing to hold a referendum if he won in 2015). However the ascent of JC to the Labour leadership created an impossibly shambolic “rock and a hard place” political landscape for Britain between a morphing radical left Labour as for its leaders and a gradually dysfunctional, irrational Conservative Party steered to “notional” sovereignty and economic self-harm by hard right, delusional Tory ideologues. In the absence of a sensible center, exemplified by a weak Liberal Democratic Party and in spite of new developments such as with the newish Independent group in February, Britain is faced with no sensible choice were to come a General Election. The most likely scenario would be a Tory victory based on Labour’s radicalism and leadership style but it would only come as a lesser of two evils. In many ways and strangely, while the Conservative party is imploding on Brexit (signing the death warrant of the most successful Western political party of the last 100 years), the Tories must find some solace in knowing that they might still come back to power in case of a General Election mainly thanks to JC and his top team that won party leadership but could never garner a majority of voters so out of touch they really are with economic and geopolitical reality. Now and having said this, as we contemplate the potential Brexit self harm potentially ahead, anything is possible and the race may be wide open given the contenders. 

After reading TB’s book one wonders how someone so unskilled in so many fields and and unfit for main political party leadership or high office could have achieved what he did. Sadly it may be too accurate a reflection of where the British political establishment stands today as amply demonstrated with the amazing Brexit process the world has witnessed thus far. And I say this with great sorrow, hoping that the indispensable Britain the world knew and I loved for many years can find itself again. 

Warmest regards

Serge 

PS: If I wanted to be facetious (admittedly more than usual) I would wonder if JC was not betting on a deep collapse of the UK post-Brexit (while making all the tactically wise noises about the abhorrent “No Deal” option) to benefit from a deeply economically wounded British society that would more easily be tempted by the kind of radical changes he espoused all his life…While he might likely seize upon my idea with delight, one thing that refrains me from expressing that possibility is that we now know (if we believe Tom Bower) that he would not have read Machiavelli…                                 


9 lessons in Brexit – Sir Ivan Rogers

21-3-19

Dear Partners in thought,

As we are deep into the Brexit Westminster saga. I wanted to tell you about “9 lessons in Brexit” from Sir Ivan Rogers who was Principal Private Secretary to Tony Blair and served David Cameron as Prime Minister’s Adviser for Europe and Global Affairs from 2012 to 2013 when he was named Ambassador to the EU. YR was the most senior negotiator for the UK with the EU until he resigned from his position in January 2017. YR comes across as the epitome of the senior British civil servant who is not swayed by partisan politics – he states very vividly he is not “a politician” – and only thinks about the national interest. His book, which is primarily addressed to a British readership, is “to tell some home truths about the failure of the British political class and the flaws, dishonesty and confusion inherent in the UK’s approach to Brexit so far”. While YR is likely a Remainer (as a matter of simple fact(s)) he is not a zealot and his book, while wanting to state facts notably about the trade and economic impact of Brexit and what treaties actually mean, is not to demean but to clarify (even if some references to “some of the right honourable members for the 18th century for whom it will not end well” is quite clear. With only 80 pages (though at times very long sentences – kind of like mine), his book which is a recap of lectures he has given to various universities since his role in Bruxelles, is a very concise, clear and efficient way to help readers understand what really matters with Brexit.

As JK Rowling’s preface says: “Remember the words of Yvan Rogers the next time you see some plausible posh boy in a suit telling you no deal would not hurt at all”. Besides her artful statement, JK Rowling stresses the key point behind YR’s lessons which is that whatever Brexit deal is on offer, the “No Deal” option lauded by many hard line ERG Brexiteers would lead the UK to the economic abyss, primarily hurting many of the Leavers of the left out category in places like Northeastern England and Wales.

With all that in mind, it is also worth to read Fareed Zakaria’s latest piece in The Washington Post which clearly states that Brexit seems to herald the decline of the UK and more generally that of the Western world as China is rising. What Brexiteers failed to grasp in their inward looking approach to all things Brexit (as seen in the way they shape options without realising the EU is also a negotiating party, quite apart from British partisan politics) is the adverse “global” impact of Leave and the harm not only to the UK but also to the European and Western blocs, notably at a time when the Trump Administration sees little value in the latter.

As Simon Kuper from the FT aptly said recently: Remainers talk about the economy while Leavers talk about culture (to which I would add their versions of “full sovereignty” and “identity” for some and by extension “immigration”, fuelled by fear, for many) so it is the usual dialogue of the deaf. YR’s focus is on the negotiation with the EU so much centring on trade of goods and services (not an easy matter to grasp, especially the latter which is key for the UK in its relationship with the EU). He is not so much into “culture” – not as he is a Remainer (which he is even though he makes no mention of it) but as it was his job to sort out a deal with the EU on matters mainly focused on the economy, even if we know that freedom of movement (which in fairness he touches upon too) was a key point for both the UK and the EU and indeed a breaking point or catalyst for many of the Leavers in June 2016.  

The nine lessons (and their, at times, strange headings) and messages are as follows:

1st Lesson: “It has of course to be Brexit means Brexit”.
This was the famous line uttered by Theresa May as she officially succeeded David Cameron as PM as a prelude to stressing it was also the Will of the People that the government would deliver upon, come what May. This truism has consequences too, literally al the way. If you are not in, you are out. It is a major regime change. And if you leave, you cannot pick and chose the terms you like and those you don’t. You lose the solidarity that membership gives and in case of friction with one member other members will support it and not you (think Gibraltar)  More assertiveness and multi-day, multi-night summit won’t help getting a more understanding EU all the more as Bruxelles is negotiating with a soon-to-be third country. Thinking about YR’s lines one cannot help wondering about the takes of the British PM and the various Brexit Secretaries who always think the EU will accept what they want and have concocted in the Cabinet or following the latest Westminster debates, even when the EU leadership stressed negotiations are substantially over.  

2nd Lesson: “Other people have sovereignty too. And they too may change to “take back control” of things you would rather they didn’t”
In a preemptive act of recognition addressed to Leavers, YR acknowledges that the pooling of sovereignty beyond the mere technical regulatory domain into huge areas of public life can be intolerable for some. However “pooling” for many small member nations of the EU is also enhancing their sovereignty through their adherence to common rules, an approach that can also be shared by leading EU member states that understand the virtues and value of blocs in our day in age. YR could have had an easy comparison that would be grasped by hard Brexiteers in that the EU is like a club in St James’s. As already discussed in other Book Notes and Interludes, one joins the club and can later leave it but one has to adhere to club rules when belonging to it and cannot once having left being allowed to benefit from some aspects of membership like in an à la carte menu. YR stresses clearly that the “taking back control” may be in fact very notional with “the autonomy to make British laws over the real power to set the rules by which Britain will in practice be governed as it is no longer be in the room, potentially not even as an observer, when those are set up”. Strong from his experience, YR feels that the “taking back control” amounts to a “simulacrum for some empty suits in Westminster” who may find their day of reckoning in the years ahead as passion recedes and reality sets in.         

3rd Lesson: “Brexit is a process not an event. And the EU while strategically myopic is formidably good at process against negotiating opponents. We have to be so, or we will get hammered. Repeatedly.”
YR stresses how delusional Brexiteers have been in stressing how much the EU had morphed from the initial Common Market the UK joined to get into every aspect of British life but that “leaving” would be done swiftly and painlessly. A trade deal with the EU should have been ready by time of exit which, to say the least, after 33 months is very, very far from being the case. No deal would also pause no problem (as the bold and confident hard Brexiteer supporters’ poster says: No deal, no problem). No number or repetition of “WTO Deal” makes Brexit any more real or effective and their assertions by the No Dealers are fantasies produced by people who would “not have recognised a trade treaty if they had found one in their soup”. Interestingly YR speaks as an expert (a dangerous word in the West in 2019) who has negotiated trade treaties and has concocted many soup recipes over the years. YR thus stresses that the original British sin was not to recognise the complexity and inevitable longevity of the Brexit process while sellers of cheap elixirs were promising the British people the moon, tomorrow. This lack of preparedness was compounded by the naive belief that the UK would do negotiation mince mint of an EU “that was nothing if not expert at using the tensions in domestic politics to force the moves it most wants you to make”, something YR stresses it and the 27 member states cannot be blamed for. As a good example of EU acumen is the self-made trap Ms May displayed with apparent cunning in trying to leverage her No Deal threat to get what she wanted from the EU which in turn invariably played against her domestically, given the looming economic costs to the UK, without making Bruxelles budge, all because of the asymmetry of the contest which sadly for the hard Brexiteers also reflected the future of things to come in many aspects of a new relationship with the bloc.           

4th Lesson: “It is not possible or democratic to argue (as hard Brexiteers do) that only one Brexit destination is true, legitimate and representative of the revealed “Will of the People” and that all other potential destinations outside the EU are “Brexit in Name Only”
People voted in June 2016 for Leave or Remain though for a variety of very different reasons. He finds that many Leavers wanted to leave the institutions of political and juridical integration of the EU but were still keen on the Single Market (bringing to memory that even Napoleon had said unkindly that the Brits were “a nation of shopkeepers”). YR actually defends those pragmatists who are disliked by the true Brexiteers for whom there is only one Brexit path that has to be all encompassing. Norway and Switzerland which chose not to join the EU years back and were seen by Brexiteers once as vibrant democracies are now not so admirable a model for the Brexit path to be chosen by the UK as they are yet far too integrated. YR while not being an advocate of a Norway EEA arrangement for the UK or actually Ms. May’s deal (which he also thinks was well negotiated by the EU) is concerned that most political activists we hear barely understand those types of alternatives.

5th Lesson: “If WTO (World Trade Organisation) terms or existing EU preferential deals are not good enough for the UK in major “third country” markets they can’t be good enough for trade with our largest market (indeed the EU)”
YR points to the high wire act of moving beyond WTO terms and striking preferential trade deals with major markets as a major step forward in liberalising trade while deliberately moving back to WTO terms from an existing deep preferential trade agreement, through what is the Single Market, as a major step backward to less free trade with the UK’s main market. While there is no logic and it is unarguable, many Brexiteers do, also forgetting that genuine free trade – which they claim to love – actually trammels cherished national sovereignty. According to YR, Brexit will worsen trade with and market access to the EU which, together with markets with which the EU has a preferential trade deal, accounts for two-thirds of British exports. Every version of Brexit will involve a worsening of the UK’s position and a loss of access to its largest market, not to mention that trade deals the UK would need to strike will be very numerous and will take a long time that Brexiteers do not fathom.      

6th Lesson: The huge problem for the UK with either reversion to WTO terms or a standard free trade deal with the EU is in services”.
It is “the case of the dog that failed to bark so far” but will in the next few years while the focus has been on the trade of goods, tariffs (no longer the single big issue it was in trade), the manufacturing supply chain and departing the Single market and Customs Union. This is explained by the fact that the trade in services, always bundled with goods and the huge complexities of its non-tariff barriers, is not easy to grasp. Trade in services represents three quarters of the British economy, which the City of London, actually a small part of the total exemplifies (with many banks ready with their reallocation plans to Paris, Frankfurt and Luxembourg). Many of these services (not hairdressing) are tradable across borders with Britain is clearly very competitive in them like inter alia finance, business consulting, accountancy, legal and education services. They also represent an export to the EU of EUR 90 bn a year in 2016 or as much as what Britain exports to its eight next export markets put together, this leading to a significant services trade surplus with its leading market. This lesson deals with how the needs of the UK’s services industry were sacrificed to the primary goal of ending free movement (also one might surmise as the sector is probably more filled with Tory voters that would not desert their party to back the “new” Labour (pun intended) and Jeremy Corbyn, in spite of the figures at stake). When attacking the EU Single Market on trade, it is also worth remembering that services trade is freer between member states than it is even between States in the U.S. Given the economic imperative for a country that has a world class services industry, the EU knows the UK will have to pay a heavy price to maintain better access to its largest market for its finance, legal and consultancy firms than other third countries have. However there is no real focus on the issue of services trade today.        By way of background information EY just released an estimate that the UK would lose GBP 1 trillion to Europe due to Brexit following plans financial services companies had to implement (See FT, 20th March, 2019).   

7th Lesson: “Beware all supposed deals bearing pluses”.  
The “Canada +++”, “Super-Canada”, “Norway +”, “Norway-then-Canada”, “Norway-for-Now”, “Norway + forever” and now even “No Deal +”, “Managed no deal” or “No deal mini deals” – putting aside the facetious feelings of these names – are depressing to the professional trade negotiator as they all involve dishonest propositions with deficiencies that will disappear once the British team negotiates their own “pluses” version that will make them fly. Out of sheer will and doggedness (à-la-May I would add). To these trade artists who who see “Brexit as a cake-walk”, YR sees only “half-baked alternatives”.       

8th Lesson: “You cannot and should not want to conduct such a huge negotiation as un-transparently as the UK has. And in the end it does you no good to try”. 
YR is adamant that the EU has been a model of transparency throughout the Brexit negotiating process, rupturing the image of “a bunch of wildly out of touch technocrats producing turgid, jargon-ridden Eurocrat prose”. Conversely the British government and negotiating teams have been at their most opaque as a result of its internal divisions and quite “unable to articulate any agreed, coherent position”. YR reminds us that it is the EU that had to up its game over the years, precisely as it gradually ended up doing more trade deals than any other trade bloc on the planet. In doing so the EU has developed a way to inform its public, something the UK failed to do out of a lack of habit. Constraints and trade-offs were never explained nor were managed. 

9th Lesson: “Real honesty with the public is the best – the only – policy if we are to get to the other side of Brexit with a healthy democracy,  a reasonably unified country and a strong economy”.
To YR the whole Brexit process of the last 30 (now 33) months has suffered from opacity, delusion and mendacity. He goes through the various positions of the “no dealers” with their bold and decisive jump off the cliff with a delusional WTO rules safety net; the People’s voters who may have a case after so much time (and I would add real facts) but who would alienate those whose views would be ignored once more until they conform; the Shadow Cabinet Members looking for a General Election that would allow Labour to miraculously negotiate a full trade deal that would mimic the advantages of the Single Market and Customs Union that the EU would naturally welcome with open arms and finally the PM’s “bad deal” that has the merit of having been negotiated and signed with the EU but bears the scars of the dishonesty of the debate fuelled by HM’s government since June 2016. The only regret one might have is that YR does not come forward with the “scenario” he would favour as if he still were the senior civil servant of the realm and not a decider.    

If there was one key criticism to make it would be that the lesson should be better formulated and perhaps less focused only on trade even if if it is a key area of YR’s expertise and is indeed a major issue to consider. However YR’s negotiating remit was very much on trade-related matters so at least we get the benefit of his expertise on something he knows well and is key.  Another one would be that YR does not seem to think much of another referendum (a brief mention is made in two lessons) and is only focused on encouraging the needed debate on viable Brexit options, this is spite of his very likely support of EU membership and of its benefits and believing that he is not a crusader for the Will of the People at all costs to the British nation. Lastly YR does not provide his views on what would be the best avenue to leave the EU even if one can surmise that Ms May’s signed deal with the EU should a viable, if not a perfect option, though one  he actually does not support either.

While YR does not dwell enough on it and it might explain many of the problems we have witnessed with consternation – and again being away from the “sound and the fury” is useful to arrive at this conclusion – one cannot miss the obvious precedence of sheer partisan politics over the national interest when dealing with the Brexit process. For many Cabinet members, MPs and other politicians , Brexit is a means and not an end. It has been used as a means to ascertain power, partisan or personal, with the backdrop of the most desolate political landscape in modern British history. Some thinking about a general election, their seats and how to save them, some wanting to deliver on an agenda that has become hollow and dangerous with time. As YR rightly states in Lesson 8, rather than the negotiation process, in and beyond Parliament, politicians would have had to be different from the outset. One of the key elements of concern for Britain and its future “vassal state” status in its relationship with its biggest market and soon to be third party trading “partner” is that it will no longer be able to influence EU laws and regulations as it artfully did for years putting it at a strategic disadvantage and reflecting its relatively small nation state status (conversely the EU – and I regret this deeply – will not benefit from this unique free market flavour in Europe that had to be taken into account in building EU laws and regulations and was a great advantage later on to the UK itself).  

All the lessons proposed by YR are worth reading, especially about their specific contents and all the more as we may be going into “some” extension of Article 50. I wish that some cabinet members and MPs would read this Book Note and even more so, the actual book so they could become enlightened for once and remind all of us why Britain is the mother of wise and modern democracy.

Warmest regards

Serge             

The People vs. Democracy – Yascha Mounk

15-3-19

Dear Partners in thought,

I would like to tell you about “The People vs. Democracy” from Yascha Mounk who is a rising star lecturer in Government (political science) at Harvard. YM is also a product of our global world as he is German-American, born in Munich in 1982, with Jewish roots and a mother who born in Poland behind the Iron Curtain. His book is one of many on the rise of populism and the attack against liberalism in the West but it is one of the most structured as to what the problems are in our Western landscape today and how we could fix them. YM’s book, which is very well crafted and goes to the core of what is behind the attacks against Western liberalism, is a call for action where ideally “doing” would eventually meet “thinking”. YM is definitely coming across not simply as a political scientist describing our times but as a defender of Western liberalism, his book being a clear incitation for readers to join in the active defence of the liberal story – very much along the lines of Desperate Measures if I might add – as if researching, writing and reading in academia or think tanks, even though very useful endeavours, were just not enough (in that one can see his younger incarnation as an active member of the youth wing of the center left SPD in Germany).  

YM confirming (what we know) that the West is going through a populist moment not only in the US but all over Europe (with Canada,  Australia/New Zealand and Japan being, to some extent, exceptions we should note) wonders whether this moment will turn into a populist age and cast the very survival of liberal democracy in doubt. Like Yuval Noah Hahari in his latest book he goes through the one “liberal story” mantra that led our world post-Berlin wall fall and its Fukuyama-inspired “End of History” spread globally in the 1990s and early 2000s. Of note most of the people who disagreed then with Liberalism’s ability to win the day in most of the non-Western world never thought that the liberal story would come endangered one day within its core Western geographic base, the belief being that any country above a GDP per capita of USD 14,000 (Argentina’s when it fell to a military coup in 1975) would be safe from a liberal status standpoint. Liberalism was “the only game in town” and “there to stay.” No ifs or buts. Political adversaries respected democratic rules of engagement, not violating the most basic norms of liberal democracy which also entailed not screaming to jail one’s political opponent on the campaign trail. Today democracy is not such a clear cut system for all when two thirds of older Americans believe it is important to live in a democracy and only one third of millennials do so or when in 1995 one in sixteen of Americans believed in army rule as a good system while now one in six does.

YM delves deeply in the relationship and indeed sacred link and mutual dependence between democracy and liberalism which for ages were a coherent whole. Dysfunction in one can bring dysfunction in the other like democracy without rights can lead to the tyranny of the majority, something the American Founding Fathers feared and is seen today with the rises of populism throughout the West. Similarly rights without democracy when billionaires and technocrats rule the waves and excluding the people is creating another type of disconnect. YM sees a slow divergence of liberalism and democracy first and foremost found in democracy without rights or illiberal democracy when far right (and at times hard left, like in Italy today) populists across the West push different but quite common forms of messages claiming easy solutions to the problems of our times, stressing that the establishments (old political elites, media) do not have the answers and that the mass of ordinary people instinctively would know what to do. A good example would be Hungary which YM depicts in detail the descent into illiberalism over recent years.

Looking at the other dysfunction, which would be rights without democracy or undemocratic liberalism, YM provides the example of the Greek crisis and the referendum of July 2015 which saw the Greeks rejecting the austerity plan put forward by the Troika of the IMF, World Bank and the EU for its government to finally cave in to the creditors demand after intense negotiations in Brussels, thus foregoing the people’s voice (YM will nonetheless note that the people of other EU member states were actually backing the plan). I am not sure that the two features of the democracy-liberalism dysfunction, regardless of the beauty of the concept, are equally systemically threatening as the gravest danger today, by far, is the rise of illiberal democracy or democracy without rights while its sidekick, rights without democracy, pales in comparison and can always be worked on (that the Tsypras government organised a referendum, this for domestic tactical reasons, asking the Greek people whereby they liked EU-ordered austerity in order to restore the country’s finances – which incidentally ended being the ultimate outcome for Greece as seen today – could not yield any other answer than a rejection, something the Troika could not accept in terms of precedent for the Eurozone, all the more with the fragilities of both Spain and Italy at the time).

While they never especially liked their politicians, Western citizens and voters by and large trusted them and the system as their lives were improving – until now. The periods of economic growth as seen since the post-war era, even with its bumps, seems to be behind us and anxiety about the future is rising. Today that trust vanished and many Western people see any gains for immigrants or ethnic minorities coming at their expense. This economic uncertainty fuelled a question of identity after centuries of old mono-ethnic nations in Europe and a dominant white society in North America that were immigrant nations.

In Democracy with Rights, that deals with illiberal democracy or what we see with illiberal governments (in Hungary or Poland) or illiberal developments (Brexit, Trump) in the West,YM takes us to meetings and demonstrations in Dresden of PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident) and the AfD (Alternative fur Deutschland) – the latter which scored its highest poll results in a location with the fewest migrants in Germany, reminding us of similar electoral fear-driven results in the U.S. and the UK – trying to understand these phenomena. The common feature of these illiberal leaders or developments is that they claim to speak or to represent “the people” against the establishment, the latter which has been self-serving and actually not working on behalf of the people. In the case of the two German political groups YM pays a visit to, they define themselves against immigration and grew strongly as a result fo the 2015 mass influx of migrants that was initially welcomed by the Merkel government. They represent throughout Europe far right and also far left political parties or movements that were once marginal or non-existent until a few years ago and became key fixtures on their domestic political scenes as with the National Front (now National Rally) in France, Five Stars in Italy, PASOK in Greece, Podemos in Spain, UKIP in Britain before its deliquescence post-Referendum, the Sweden Democrats (with roots in Neo-Nazism) with the far right parties having experienced a striking development due to identity and immigration issues Europe has struggled with since the middle of our decade. 

The striking feature of these populist parties is that they are not like the fascist or Nazi parties of old as they claim to be the true defenders of democracy as “directly” as possible (hence their love of referenda and plebiscites) so the “people” can be heard. YM rightly stresses that once the populists seize power democratically, then comes the illiberal phase where they will do their best to suppress opposition, particularly at the level of the institutions so the expression of popular will is not impeded even if they will tend to “disregard the people when its preferences seem to conflict with their own”, like we would think in Poland today. “Glib, facile solutions stand at the very heart of the populist appeal” across the democratic world and appeal to voters who do not want to think that the world is complicated and that common sense policies should easily deal with any problems their country face. Once in power their solutions far from resolving problems and responding to their voters’ anxieties usually exacerbate the problems that they are supposed to cure. With their appeal to the “real” people, they are positing an in-group, claiming a “monopoly of representation” which in the West is  usually the white natives who will share ethnicity, religion, social class and political beliefs against an out-group, usually foreigners and minorities whose interests can be disregarded. When seeking power, the populists will go strongly against ethnic and/or religious groups and once they accede to power they will turn against the institutions, formal and informal, that preserve liberalism that would be an obstacle to their monopoly of representation and gradually sheer power. Attacks on free press that could criticise the new power ensue with fake news today being the key element of discredit also for the consumption of their power base. Then foundations, trade unions, think tanks, religious associations and other non-governmental associations become targets should they dare opposing.

YM makes the point with others that the term “illiberal democracy” is not quite correct as while being illiberal and initially democratic (YM is very keen on stressing the initial democratic feature of populism) those regimes forget quickly the democratic aspect that put them in power to turn to various degrees into outright mild to hard dictatorships that retain the veneer of the democratic mantle for form. It should be clear today that both Hungary and Poland, both EU member states (creating increasingly tense debates with Bruxelles and other member states) and formally still democracies are espousing illiberal ways of government by controlling media outlets or curtailing the independence of the judiciary. Viktor Orban actually claimed the mantle of illiberal democracy as it it were a great model of government that citizens, like in Hungary, should live under. Democracy without Rights is definitely a must read to understand populism under its nuanced forms.

Rights without Democracy, which is a crafty word play with that of democracy without rights or illiberal democracy devised by YM and has some merits if only for the beauty of its construct, is however a harder case to make as it is impossible to find it an equal in terms of societal harm. In other words, YM looks at all unelected bodies, such as courts, central banks, government agencies (FCC, SEC, EPA and others in the U.S. or the Quasi-Autonomous Governmental Organisations in the UK)  and of course the likes of the IMF, World Bank or even the EU that can dictate the people and indeed entire nations what to do without having been elected by them. YM starts his perilous journey in quoting the old saying of “As long as we call the shots, we will pretend to let you rule”, going back to the Founding Fathers who were adamant not to have the people directly rule which meant a representative Republic first (Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, the two arch-enemies on other key matters, were happily together in Federalist N. 63 to ensure that “the essence of the American Republic would consist in the total exclusion of the people, in their collective capacity”). Things changed a bit in the 19th century with major developments going on in America combined with constitutional amendments  with institutions being more willingly facilitating government “of the people, by the people, for the people”. YM feels that the “legislature” in the age of internet and social media (the latter a key culprit behind the rise of populism) comprises representatives, who have less strong ties to their local communities while indeed representing the people, has lost much of its power to “courts, bureaucrats, central banks and International organisations and treaties” to which we can add powerful lobbyists in the US but also around EU institutions. (on leaving Congress, U.S. Representatives or Senators seldom go back to their home roots, where they actually were born or in the district where they were elected, and go on living in the mega-centres where the lucrative jobs are). 

Dwelling on “rights without democracy” YM explains the shift of power away from national parliaments to unelected agencies staffed with experts yielding quasi-legislative power on complex regulatory and other issues. However YM agrees that such a gradual, imperceptible change is not the result of any elite conspiracy but a human response to real policy challenges that cannot be dealt with directly by the people or their representatives but constitutes an erosion of democracy (something we would all agree on in terms of political theory and practice but is hard to avoid, creating absurd comedy-like situations as with the famous Parliamentary exchange involving Sir Humphrey that YM borrows from the famed British TV series “Yes Minister”). YM points out that British civil servants quadrupled from 100,000 in 1930 to 400,000 in 2015 while the population grew by only one third (to which the standard Frenchman would say “only four times?” comparing it to what he knew back home while I would say the same thing but only to stress that the world having grown exponentially complex since 1930, the Brits are doing quite well in that respect). The point YM makes rightly is that government agencies have both gained power in the design of laws to be passed by parliaments and later in their applications, which most would agree creates some conceptual if not practical issues with democracy, though somewhat at the academic level as there is no other viable solution to run Western countries especially large ones. To be fair – and it is where we see that democracy without rights and rights without democracies do not carry the same level of illness – YM urges like George W to “make no mistake” as the FCC, EPA, SEC and CFPB just to name a few U.S. government agencies “have made the United States a better place” (I breathe better even if I am very sorry that Joe Smith in Montana or Paul Lefebvre in Paris cannot have direct influence on fighting climate change or regulating banks). However YM who is a true scholar reminds us that “yet, there is a real trade off between respect for the popular will and the ability to solve complicated policy problems”.

In his back and forth attack and defence mode, YM will still find there is a sound rationale for having independent central banks and not ministries of finance overseeing monetary policies as before WWII in most of Europe. Judicial review and the independence of the justice system, made specifically to act as a safeguard against the tyranny of the majority, will also be recognised by YM as a good thing, even if part of the undemocratic camp as non-elected, in defending and rescuing individual rights across the lands. At the end of the day, YM recognises the soundness of taking so many policy decisions out of democratic contestation but his point will remain that the people no longer have a direct say. To the risk of sounding elitist, it is however hard to wish for uneducated, untrained and ill-informed but otherwise well-meaning and perfectly reasonable citizens to take direct decisions on all matters of government, which is of course unpractical in the first place (unless one likes referenda which we have seen in Europe and particularly in the UK may not be the best way today to avoid massive self-harm driven by emotions and dreams of past grandeur. Having said this the Swiss have liked them as a great weekend pastime). It is clear that the lobbyists may be the exception where one would side with YM as money and special interests can indeed buy their way into legislation (YM has a great section on this item).

Having said all that and taking Brexit as a case study, one could see the dreadful saga and find that the politicians, including elected representatives (notably in the case of the hard-line Brexiteers of the Jacob Rees-Mogg kind) have been pushing outcomes the people who voted Leave in June 2016 would never have wanted as they never voted to be poorer, which a No Deal Brexit would likely produce, while facts now show that Brexit, whatever its form would cause economic pain to the British. There might thus be a case of “rights without democracy” overreach by some British politicians of the strong Eurosceptic kind, placing party ahead of national interest and ideals (or culture, or identity) ahead of the economy which would yield an outcome that would only be desired by a small minority. Then one could also argue, as these hard liners would, that it is imperative to deliver the result of the June 2016 referendum so as indeed to fully enforce democracy even if many (like me) would argue that three years later (almost the length of an American presidential term) and facts aplenty replacing emotions a new voice of the people would be the only democratic way to go to produce a legitimate way forward in what has been described kindly as a “mess” of historical and un-British proportions for the mother of modern democracy.        

As YM puts it “a system that dispenses with individual rights in order to worship at the altar of the popular will may ultimately turn against the people” – especially if seizing power on the back of non-facts and fear stocking as the illiberal democrats have shown – while “conversely, a system that dispenses with the popular will in order to protect individual rights may ultimately resort to increasingly blatant repression to quell dissent”. I would argue that while there is a great likelihood that illiberal democrats may turn into various forms of benevolent to harsh dictators once in power, the fact that our democracies are also involving bureaucrats, agencies, central banks and international organisations and treaties does not cause the same level of threat to the democratic liberalism model even if YM has a case about the impact of lobbyists and special interest groups in the shaping of legislative agendas. The beauty of the democratic liberal system is that it is improvable so “rights without democracy”, while artful in its construct, does not carry the same lethal risks as democracy without rights or illiberal democracy which closes the door to systemic improvement and leads to societal regression in terms of individual and collective freedoms. For us in 2019 the danger lies with the likes of Trump (however his policies may be liked by many voters who may not necessarily like the man, not willing to face the the reality of the overall cost to America and the world), Matteo Salvini and Luigi di Matteo (the Italian hard right and left twins who are upsetting the EU status quo), Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélanchon (a similar, though not yet in power, illiberal couple from the two extremes), Viktor Orban (the founder of illiberal democracy in the EU) and Kaczynski’s Law and Justice Party in Poland (YM has a very interesting history of how Poland the poster child of post-communism successfully managed economic transition but fell prey to easy populist solutions that now threaten liberalism in a key EU country with the caveat we know that there is also a strong and increasingly heard liberal democratic voice, especially in Warsaw and major cities).            

Looking at the future, one could be forgiven for thinking that the illiberal populist drive will collapse as the younger generations will not back them. Most of the young voted for Remain in the British referendum of June 2016 (even if only very few voted – only 26% of the 18-29 age group) while most young people voted for Hillary against Trump in November 2016 (even if a majority of young whites voted for Trump, sending a peculiar message). At the same time it is a well-known fact that the British population above 60 years of age voted massively to leave the EU and go back to an era which some saw as Victorian in what was a very emotional move. In fact, most polls would show that the millennials are increasingly not thinking that democracy matters at all, some (still a minority) even feeling that a military regime would be better than what some refer to as a parliamentary “swamp” (YM show some rather scary poll results and very interesting charts showing that the older you are, the more important democracy and liberalism are while the opposite is also true). The surprising millennials position is also explained by a lack of direct (they are too young) or indirect (they have no interest in the matter) historical memory, not only about WWII but also about the Cold War as they always lived in a safe and conflict-free environment, taking all the positive aspects of their times for granted. Hence the crucial importance of education.

This trend goes hand in hand with a strong decline in confidence and trust in the democratic liberal “system” across the Western world. Citizens (and one in four millennials) would be falling out of love with democracy and more of them would be open to authoritarian alternatives. The political discourse has changed over recent years, particularly since 2015-16, with political opponents becoming enemies, and thus regrettably becoming for Michael Ignatieff, the former leader of the Canadian Liberal Party and a political theorist, someone you not only want to defeat but whom you want to destroy. Norms are breakable and those who break them, often for tactical purposes, notably the populists, are widely appealing to many voters as they offer a clean break from their perception of an increasingly unsatisfactory and frustrating political system and landscape. YM points out to the reasons why liberal democracy was thriving in the past, which he feels was not due to its inherent, high-minded values, but more as it allowed the Western world and its citizens to live in peace (something they should remember in Europe) and “swelled their pocketbooks”.

Looking at current events unfolding on the political scene, it is clear that the two-headed Italian populism that is today in power is much in the news lately and fitting the illiberal story depicted by YM. While Luigi di Maio, a strong critic of anything French these days, is seen as directly supporting the Yellow Vests movement on French soil (unacceptably breaking good diplomatic manners of the liberal and EU systems but with the May EU Parliamentary elections in mind and lagging behind his twin in the polls), Matteo Salvini is attacking central bank leaders and wildly thinking of “using” for policy purposes the gold reserves of the Bank of Italy, threatening central bank independence. However we also see that some elected representatives, even in America, tend to be faithful to their local roots like State Senator and Queens native Michael Gianaris shows when fighting against the “unfair” and “self harming” tax breaks that were to be given to Amazon for its new HQ in New York State (people keep mentioning that while graduating from Harvard Law and potentially going to a great legal career in DC or Manhattan he elected to go back to the Queens of his childhood). On the subject of elected authority, one can also read points being made that the EU Commission, this oft attacked devilish anti-democratic and bureaucratic actor ruining Europeans’ lives (to take a mild version of the populist and Brexiter credos), if it initiates legislation, does not vote it, something the EU Parliament in Strasbourg (directly elected every five years and representing the member states’ voters) and the Council of Ministers (elected nationally and representing the member state’s governments) do, making it clear that the EU is not without “rights without democracy” even if facts find it hard to reach the people at times. Lastly when the EU Commission though Margaret Vestager decided to oppose the the Alsthom-Siemens merger, France (especially) and Germany reacted by pushing changes in EU merger legislation so the EU could have its own champions and compete with US and Chinese giants.    

While I will let you enjoy the rest of YM’s book and his going to the origins or the disintegration of democracy and liberalism as well as his proposed solutions, I will recap the three main causes (in the text as YM presents them) for the problems of our times represented by the rise of the populist wave across the West:

1. “The dominance of mass media limited the distribution of extreme ideas, created a set of shared facts and values, and slowed the spread of faked news. But the rise of the internet and social media has since weakened traditional gatekeepers, empowering once marginal movements and politicians”. We went from a few providers of news and facts to many, drastically changing the simple equation from “one to many” to “many to many”, the “many” not knowing what and whom to believe and retreating behind what they want to hear, allowing populists to flourish. I think that this tech development is key in understanding the rise of populism in our days.  

2. “All through the history of democratic stability, most citizens enjoyed a rapid increase in their living standards, and held high hopes for an even better future. In many places, citizens are now treading water, and fear they will suffer much greater hardship in the future”. The stop in the rise of well being (and the stop of the social elevator or lift) led to severe societal doubts and a great opening for populists to flourish. One can easily agree and would almost hear Bill Clinton and his “it’s all about the economy, stupid!”.

3. “Nearly all stable democracies were either founded as monoethnic nations or allowed one ethnic group to dominate. Now, this dominance is increasingly being challenged.” In a tried and tested approach and while understanding the rational demand for identity preservation, foreigners and minorities became seen as culprits, regardless of whether they were actually threatening jobs or life style, allowing the populists to seize upon those fears to flourish. I believe that identity is indeed a key factor that western liberal democracies should reflect and act upon without losing their souls though adopting a realistic approach.  

I wish you all a very good reading of a very relevant book, especially in its analysis of the populist rise, its causes and the solutions that YM would propose. Even if one will not agree with all of YM’s takes (as was my case), it is invigorating to read a book from an academic that is not merely academic but is also action-driven all the more as the barbarians are at the gate.
                             
Warmest regards,

Serge                                    

21 lessons for the 21st century – Yuval Noah Harari

1-3-19

Dear Partners in thought, 

I would like to speak to you about “21 lessons for the 21st century” by historian Yuval Noah Harari who has risen to fame over the last few years with his two widely-acclaimed books “Sapiens” that surveyed the human past and how an ape came to rule the world and “Homo Deus” that explored the long-term future of life. YNH has a PhD in history from Oxford and lectures at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. 

“21 lessons for the 21st century” is probably the most ambitious book of the moment, focused on “today” and current affairs with a global focus, trying to explain where we are and may be going. It has five parts and 21 sections or indeed lessons, all inter-connected in an amazing tapestry for our times as follows. 

THE TECHNOLOGICAL CHALLENGE
1. Disillusionment 
(the end of history has been postponed)
2. Work 
(When you grow up, you might not have a job)
3. Liberty (Big data is watching you)
4. Equality (Those who own the data own the future)

THE POLITICAL CHALLENGE
5
Community (Humans have bodies)
6. Civilisation (There is just one civilisation in the world)
7. Nationalism (Global problems need global answers) 
8. Religion
 (God now serves the nation)
9. Immigration (Some cultures might be better than others)

DESPAIR AND HOPE 
10. Terrorism 
(Don’t panic) 
11. War
 (Never underestimate human stupidity)
12. Humility (You are not the centre of the world)
13. God (Don’t take the name of God in vain)
14. Secularism (Acknowledge your shadow) 


10. Terrorism 
(Don’t panic) 
11. War
 (Never underestimate human stupidity)
12. Humility (You are not the centre of the world)
13. God (Don’t take the name of God in vain)
14. Secularism (Acknowledge your shadow) 

TRUTH 
15. Ignorance (You know less than you think)
16. Justice
 (Our sense of justice might be out of date)
17. Post-Truth (some fake news last forever) 
18. Science Fiction (The future is not what you see in the movies)

RESILIENCE
19. Education (Change is the only constant)
20. Meaning 
(Life is not a story)
21. Meditation (Just observe)     

If you don’t know him, one of the key discoveries reading YNH is that he is not your typical historian. He is much “more” or as Nietzsche would have said, he is “the man of the future” or the one who can read into it as he is also the one with the longest memory, a feature that is not so common. 

I will only address one chapter or lesson – incidentally one reflecting why the blog exists – as the book is so rich that addressing the full YNH “course” would require a length that would far exceed the remit of one Book Note and might be unwittingly tedious. I also do not want to uncover all the pleasures of discovering his thinking process and why those lessons are what they are. One may not necessarily agree with his classification though it is hard to find his selection not relevant. One may not always agree with his conclusions but his approach is thought-provoking while, all the lessons being interconnected, his offering offers a truly encompassing perspective of the challenges facing mankind as we gradually advance to the mid-point of our transformational century. 

In Disillusionment (aptly ranked as lesson 1) YNH addresses the key point of friction of our days that relates to the rise of populism, anti-elite, anti-establishment, at times anti-capitalism and largely anti-“everything” about the Western liberal world we built since 1945. In many ways lesson 1 is an echo to Edward Luce’s “Retreat of Western Liberalism” discussed in mid-2018. YNH sees three “stories” that shaped the 20th century with Fascism, Communism and Western Liberalism, the latter having been the “last one standing” that celebrated the value and power of liberty and became the global mantra of the 1990s and 2000s. At the peak of Western liberalism, Bill Clinton told China that its refusal to liberalise Chinese politics would put it “on the wrong side of history”. The great disillusionment came with the global financial crisis of 2008, coinciding with a slowly vanishing unipolar world we had known since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Different walls, resistance to immigration and to trade agreements and rising illiberal democracy appeared while the Brexit process and the Trump ascendency marked a turn while exporting democracy at the barrel of a gun (Iraq, Libya) started “not working for Kentucky and Yorkshire”. In 1938, there were three competing stories. In 1968, there were two. In 1998, there was one. In 2018, there may be none, even if YNH believes that liberalism or the “Liberal Phoenix” is perfectible and indeed was able to mutate throughout its making, at times borrowing and actually implementing the best aspects from the two other stories like equality, welfare and social safety net from Communism even if they might have been mere political concepts and not realities. Liberalism is not at its first crisis of confidence as noted with WW1 that put an end to the first era of globalisation, fascism that seemed unstoppable in the 1930s until it was and Communism which was on global assent from the 1950s to the 1970s until the “supermarket proved far stronger than the gulag”. To be sure, YNH points out that the liberal offering was mostly for middle class Europeans (and we could add Americans and all whites globally) but was “blind to the plights of the working class, women, minorities and by and large non-Westerners”. On this latter aspect, YNH makes an interesting point, perhaps a bit unfair as to its target and circumstances, that the Dutch, pillars of Western liberal democracy as we know it, collapsed after four days of fighting in 1940 but still fought Indonesian independence after WW2 tooth and nail for more than four years, incidentally making a good business case for the Soviet message that could care less about freedom but seized the tactical advantage in the then colonial world.    

When YNH writes that the end of history has been postponed, he makes a reference to the likes of Stanford neoconservative Francis Fukuyama (without naming him (1)) and its “End of History” projecting the genuine beliefs that having defeated Communism (in its Russian Soviet version) all political and economic problems were settled once and for all, with Liberalism standing unrivalled, which it was, spreading its universal message globally as if it were a new, dominant religion. Liberalism is questioned now more than ever but does not face a rival story yet. Liberalism is now faced with a nihilistic Trump movement at the heart of its erstwhile leadership country which offers no plan and only exists in violent opposition to its core features, notably globalisation. Liberalism is faced with many attacks from a great diversity of people the Western world over (often nicknamed the left-outs by their geographic locations or inability to adjust to economic and societal changes), some who may actually still believe in elements of liberalism but reject its globalisation part and wanting to experience it behind walls, adopting illiberal policies against foreigners. Interestingly the Chinese have adopted a mirror image reaction by being champions of globalisation, as it also serves their interests, while clamping down on many individual liberties at home. As for Russia, which pretends to be a democracy, it really offers an oligarchic, media-controlled, model that endures and projects Russian nationalism and Orthodox Christianity that seem to be priority features, ahead of economic well-being, to most Russians, especially outside the main urban centres. Russia does not offer a coherent ideology that can compete with Liberalism globally. YHN stresses that with 87% of the Russian wealth concentrated in the top ten per cent of its people, it is doubtful that The National Rally’s Marine Le Pen voters would like this model if they ever realised the fact, even if they enjoy seeing Marine meeting one-on-one, as if conferring her an aura of leadership and respectability, with Vladimir in the Kremlin. In a funny jibe, YNH tells us that “people vote with their feet” and that to date he has yet to meet one person who wanted to emigrate to Russia (well, he forgets Edward Snowden of course).                

It is clear that YNH likes Liberalism and what he stands for even if his piece is not a staunch defence of its story as Edward Luce’s was, this on purpose as he explains in his chosen approach of the book. However, at the end of the day, YNH feels that we have it much better than in 1918, 1938 or 1968 and while the liberal story will always be “kicked angrily” along the way, it will not be abandoned, even if all the major world players are experiencing a drive to return to the past, which at times was not that great but looks attractive today even if not reachable (he goes through all the major countries and how they strongly aim at adjusting to changes via their own formula such as Brexit , Make America Great Again, the newly re-found Confucian imperial roots or the Czarist glories of yesteryear. YNH points to Obama rightly stressing that in spite of its many shortcomings, the “liberal package” has the best record of all stories by far, echoing one of the tenets of this modest blog that we as people easily forget the “good things” that we take for granted, like peace in Europe that the “dreadful” (for some) EU helped foster.         

One key amplifier of disillusionment for YNH that created a feeling of doom and disorientation is the accelerating pace of technological disruption as people never “voted” for nor understood the societal mutation that was driven by engineers more than political parties. The future also looks more challenging due to the limits of growth (and perhaps hyper-consumerism and its “never enough” frustrations as Rutger Bregman told us about) combined with tech disruption – notably in the fields of biotech and information technology – and man-made ecological meltdown, the latter that the current world leader does not want to acknowledge, on the contrary. These disruptions will require fresh visions, leading Liberalism, yet again, to reinvent itself (which we should believe it could as it is an improvable story). At present and while we still live in the phase of disillusionment and anger (well not for all of us I would like to add), YNH suggests we should shift from panic mode, which is a kind of hubris, to bewilderment, which is more humble as to what we are going through with our wonderful but challenging world.

I could cover a few more lessons but it would not do justice to the excellence of YNH’s craft so I will let you discover for yourselves the words of wisdom he has put forward in his book. I also think it is important not to say everything that might lead you not to read his 21 lessons that are worth reflecting upon. And again we would need a very long Book Note to cover the whole book…

Not everybody liked this book even if reviews were overwhelmingly positive, like for his two previous books. Some of you, like the FT’s John Thornhill, will be dazzled by “the flashes of intellectual adventure and literary verve (I sure was) though will find that he might have “recycled” many of his observations from “Sapiens” and “Homo Deus” (I did not read his first two books so was taken, lock stock and barrel). Some, like Gavin Jacobson of the New Statesman, felt that his new book  was “a study thick with promise and thin in import” with little advice actually given. For my part I found it a book whose weaving was astounding, full of key interconnected matters to reflect upon, making us better equipped to look at our challenging future and as YNH stresses in his common thread – our globalised civilisation – with hope. Definitely a must read. 

Warmest regards,

Serge    

(1) Francis Fukuyama’s latest book, as if to redeem himself thirty years down the road, is focused on identity (aptly named “Identity”), dealing with the rise of populism and going back to the work of past philosophers in what is indeed another chapter of our… history.     

Utopia for Realists – Rutger Bregman

19-2-19

Dear Partners in thought,

I would like to tell you about “Utopia for Realists” from Dutch prodigy thinker Rutger Bregman who addresses how to structure a revolutionary utopia, driven by the belief that ideas keep changing the world, around three outlandish core features: universal basic income, a fifteen hour workweek and open borders. Universal basic income is promoted today by the likes of Jeff Bezos who pushes robots in the workplace. Fifteen hour workweek runs contrary to opposition to “work less” policies such as the 35 hour work week in France which was deemed to be bringing too many negative economic and social features. As for open borders the times seem clearly for walls. RB was a member of the Forbes 30 Under 30 Europe Class of 2017 and one of the leading young European thinkers with four books already published on history, philosophy and economics. Steven Pinker, the famed Harvard psychology professor who focuses on the “positive” found RB’s book “bold thinking, fresh ideas and lively prose”. He wrote this book in 2014 (strangely only translated in English in 2017) which also means that his opus was just before the massive rise of populism triggered by the European refugee crisis in 2015 and further enhanced by the unexpected British referendum result of June 2016 and the unlikely assent of Trump to the White House.  

RB starts by looking at the past where “everything was worse” for all and life as Blaise Pascal said was “one giant vale of tears” while Thomas Hobbes concurred that human life was basically “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”. Then all changed since the early 1800s with extreme poverty declining from 84% in 1820 to under 10% by 1981 with prospects for total eradication with the “poor” enjoying unprecedented abundance. Taking Italians as a group, RB points to an average annual income of USD 1,600 in 1300 which will stay the same for 600 years in spite of all societal and scientific developments humanity will experience. Only in the mid to late 19th century things will start changing with per capital income now 10 times what it was in 1850 and the average Italian being 15 times as wealthy as in 1880. To the medieval mind, utopia was seen as the land of milk and honey known as Cockaigne which would doubtless be Western Europe today. In our days, people suffer more from obesity than hunger. Murder rate in Europe is 40 times lower than in the Middle Ages. The right passport gives access to an impressive safety net. Science fiction is becoming science fact. Life expectancy grew from 64 only in 1990 to 70 in 2012, more than double than what it was in 1900. Diseases like smallpox were wiped out or greatly reduced like polio, TB or even the more recent AIDS. 

However the land of plenty (that still created its fair share of discontent people as seen with the Yellow Jackets) left people hungry for more in the area of what to do with their lives as there was a growing feeling for RB that “there’s no new dream”. The human problem, clearly within the most advanced nations, became “to find a reason to get out of bed in the morning” or finding some fulfilment in life. RB goes through the many aspects of this lack of utopian ideals that used to make the world move forward and is combined today with an incessant quest to exist in consuming things that we don’t need to impress people we don’t even like.  RB’s idea is not to predict the future but to unlock it. He wants  to find a new form of utopia for our times, one that would also work for realists, which we intuitively know is going to be a challenging task, however the intellectual brio of the author and the appeal of his novel thinking.   

In “Why we should give money to everyone” and what underpinsUniversal Basic Income (“UBI”), RB tells us about an experiment that was carried in 2009 by a charity with 13 homeless men. These drifters  were costing up to GBP 400,000 to the city of London in various police expenses, court costs and social services until the charity gave them each GBP 3,000 a year against nothing. To the surprise of many after 18 months, not only seven of those men were off the street and two were about to go into an apartment but all had cleaned up their act (and themselves) with the cost, including those of the social workers involved, of GBP 50,000 so a fraction of the old ways. The charity had decided to break the old mode of not limiting aid to work (that finds its way back to the Bible). The moral of the story to RB is that if you give people enough of a financial floor and security, this without conditions attached, they will make good decisions for their lives that will ultimately be a win-win for all. However while a small scale project like the one in London can work, also with good fortune tailwind, it seems that according to recent studies performed by the likes of the OECD, UBI would be hardly fundable today if taken at national level and is indeed well within the real of utopia.   

While tackling UBI, RB addresses the little matter of “poverty”, something Margaret Thatcher once described as a “personality defect”. Starting with the bold question of “why poor people do dumb things” – which he confirms with clear bad life impacts – he introduces us to two researchers from Princeton and Harvard, the psychologist Eldar Shafir and the economist Sendhil Mullainathan who developed the concept of “poverty scarcity” that is central to why people stay poor. Staying poor being a relative or absolute term as while enjoying a decent life one can still feel poor if not being able to buy the latest smart phone in our hyper-consumerist society (I wonder if there is not an argument to be made in relation to the current Yellow Vests in France but I will stay focused). Poverty scarcity is the scarcity of time and money that consumes the “poor” and when long term perspectives go out of the window, distracting and leading to unwise decisions in the ever struggling present time. Fighting poverty scarcity would also reduce costs to society following the mantra that being good for the poor would be good for all cost-wise in a true win-win, this time based on facts as opposed to beliefs as in “Winners Take All” from Anand Giridharadas. The two researchers actually push for an addition to the GDP concept to measure societal happiness and creating a Gross Domestic Mental Bandwidth. 

RB stresses the staggering societal cost of poverty among children in England at GBP 29 bn, moving on to the US where University of California’s Greg Duncan calculated in 2008 that lifting an American family out of poverty would cost USD 4,500 a year and would pay for itself. Duncan found amazing results in his research such as that this assistance would help yield 12.5% more hours worked, USD 3,000 annual savings on welfare, USD 50,000-USD100,000 additional lifetime earnings and (to convince the hard sceptics) USD10,000-20,000 state tax revenues in what would make “California Dreaming” more than a song. Combatting poverty would pay for itself by the time the poor children would enter middle age. Put on a full US scale, the cost of child poverty stands at USD 500 bn a year with children ending up with two years less educational attainment, working 450 hours less per year and running three times the risk of all-round bad health than in well-off families, all of this realising that while focusing on education helps, getting above the poverty line first is key. 

Being poor in a rich country brings inequality and its perception to the fore as it will matter more today than 200 years ago when nearly everybody was poor in absolute terms. When inequality goes up, social mobility goes down – indeed a key point in Western societies today. The American Dream today is less likely to happen in America than anywhere else given that America ranks as the most unequal country in the Western world (surprisingly followed by Portugal). Having said this as RB rightly points out society cannot function with a certain degree of inequality as incentives to work, to endeavour, to excel are necessary and if cobblers earned as much as doctors nobody would want to risk getting sick (even if there might be some silver lining there…).  According to the IMF, hardly a beacon of Utopianism, inequality is simply an economic growth inhibitor with even the rich suffering when inequality is too great as they are prone to depression, suspicion if not pitchfork anxiety as they end up being easy societal targets as it is the case in the West today, sometimes for good reasons including some in your face “show off” consumption. 

Some large scale experiments were carried out in the US and Europe over recent years. Of all places, ultra-conservative Utah with great links between money and religion, decided in the mid-2000s to deal with its homelessness problem once and for all – not through police enforcement. Utah did it the business way as Mitt Romney would have done it. They calculated that the costs of the old ways at USD 16,670 a year (social services, police and courts) were much higher than a free apartment plus social counselling at USD 11,000. Business and true win-win won. Utah was cleaned up in no time with other states looking at this experiment very closely. RB also tells us about his home country and the endemic homelessness that struck Amsterdam and other large cities, also enabled by the traditional Dutch live and let live approach. At some point the situation was simply unbearable for large city residents and the drifters to go further down this path. In the mid-2000s, the large cities drew a 2006-2014 plan involving a budget of USD 217 m involving free housing for the homeless. Vagrancy was reduced by 65% in 18 months and 6,500 drifters were off the street with drug use going down by half, even in liberal Holland. Financial returns proved double the original investment. The great financial recession killed those budgets, resulting in homelessness going to levels higher than before the program started. However such an approach showed it could work on a nation-wide basis. The main message of these programs is that win-win worked at all levels, including financial, freeing up funds for communities to tackle other needs. RB stresses that the number of vacant houses is double the number of drifters in Europe and that the US has five empty homes for every homeless though this statement starts sliding the debate into the one about ownership and potentially the requisition of empty flats as often promoted by the hard left. Another dimension is also to wonder whether the availability of free housing would not drive more people to drift in order to get it even if one would hope that self respect would win the day.  

RB tells an interesting story about a national basic income drive with the main protagonist not being someone we would imagine for this programme. In 1969 Richard Nixon, who would go down in infamy post-Watergate in 1974, pushed for an unconditional income for all poor families, guaranteeing a family of four USD 1,600 a year (equivalent to USD 10,000 in 2016). He faced opposition from some close advisers who were followers of the Ayn Rand school of small government and individual responsibility, who showed him the results of some English experiments in the 1820s demonstrating that such programmes would lead to mass pauperisation if they were not tied to work. At the time sociologist and future US senator from New York Daniel P. Moynihan and rising star economist Milton Freedman supported the President. Nixon was unfazed by the opposition arguments and pushed ahead for what he saw as the mariage of conservatism and progressive politics. He agreed to make the registration with the Department of Labour for those recipients with no jobs mandatory. In the end while the House passed his bill, the Senate turned him down. In 1996, a democratic President, Bill Clinton pulled the plug on “the welfare state as we know it” with “personal responsibility becoming the new buzzword. Senator Moynihan, hardly a radical, predicted that child poverty would rise up as the welfare state was further hollowed out. Child poverty was back to its high 1964 levels in no time though one can also debate as to the precise reasons for such fallback.              

RB’s second big idea is the 15-hour work week which is also very bold. When France’s socialist government introduced the 35-hour work week (reducing that week by five hours) back in the 1980s, this was seen as a major social advancement though one that ultimately would be seen as both damaging for the economy and people, some of whom, it was argued did not what to do with their free time. RB points out that the 15-hour week was fist mentioned in 1930 by Keynes, one of the leading economists of the 20th century, who thought the world would reach that point by…2030 . While this may have been possible, RB argues that we traded time for stuff and the hyper-consumerism society drove us not to spend less time more efficiently producing things we needed but choosing to spend more time more effectively producing stuff we ultimately waste, driving humanity to waste their lives in jobs they don’t like that pay for things we don’t really need. This realisation led RB to fight on the two key fronts of waste-of-time work and never-ending, empty consumerism which he sees as the two ills of modern society. His remedy is through legal reduction of the working week, forcing citizens to share work (indeed a premise of the French socialist government in the 1980s, which incidentally proved to be not job-creating) and take more time off (which at this scale and our times might lead many to spend even more time in solitary tech-based exchanges via social media and other ways which may not improve their human condition nor society). One of the angles that RB addresses is also to redirect the best and the brightest university graduates away from banking, management consulting and law firms to being engineers, teachers or inventors. However don’t we need those bankers, management consultants and lawyers even if they routinely, notably for the former and the latter attract strong animosity for what they perform and their rewards and would be happy for lesser graduates to fill in the ranks of those who also make our world run somehow smoothly?  

RB’s third great idea is “open borders” which written in 2014 before all the refugee crisis, anti-immigration moves in the West and slogans of “Build that wall” may appear strange, if not out of touch, to the 2019 reader only five years later. RB feels that a person’s health, wealth, education and life expectancy is not so much determined by what they do or how skilled they are but where they were born and are citizens. The difference in many life outcomes may be staggering and RB feels that it is like “apartheid on a global scale” and thus unfair and unjust. While a great majority in the West would find RB’s stance naive if not downright stupid or unrealistic, he makes the case that it is vastly economically inefficient not to have open borders given the cost of financial development aid with unclear results (with clear corruption involved) and the belief that open borders involving workers mobility would increase “gross worldwide product” (global GDP) by 67% to 172% making the world twice as rich. It is hard in our times to naturally agree that open borders would only bring value add contributors to the West as what open borders would mean is a South-North flood, leaving developing nations further behind and having Western countries to manage an impossible integration process. The open borders plan of RB misses the cultural and often ethnic change that the receiving countries would have to endure and which has already been responsible  for the rise of populism in Europe (in real terms) and the US (more in the mind). Clearly in order to have a chance to work, this open borders approach, which would negate the concept of nation and would not go forward today, would need a world government, something that is truly Cockaigne-like if one thinks of the current nationalistic-driven pushback in the West to any collective efforts such as the mild EU concept in spite of its many and often forgotten achievements.  

When he wrote Utopia for Realists in 2014, the title could still hold water even if far-fetched. Today it is true utopia – especially open borders for political reasons or UBI for funding ones if indeed universal – carries the beauty of pushing the intellectual envelope but is lacking any credibility status now and likely tomorrow. It is however important to read RB’s book to see what ideas can achieve. Ideas can indeed change the world, like RB says, and they have in the past with concrete results that would have seemed impossible in their times such as the end of slavery, the woman’s vote or same-sex marriage which would have appeared impossible realisations only a generation before they came to be (incidentally the passage of time does indeed help, as while the former two are unequivocally accepted today, the latter even if legalised in many Western parts is still the subject of intense debate on societal and religious grounds). We should also realise that the world is changing ever faster and new, unexpected solutions come to the fore with them, which explains why Jeff Bezos is also pursuing his UBI concept, knowing his own very impact, good or bad, on how we will work in the future.  

I dedicate this Book Note to Charlotte who gave me the book to read, ensuring that her father did not remain set in his old ways and kept thinking.   

Warmest regards,

Serge                 

War on Peace – Ronan Farrow

7-2-19

Dear Partners in thought,

I would like to speak to you about “War on Peace” from Ronan Farrow on the deliquescence of the U.S. Department of State and decline of American diplomacy and thus influence under (and to be fair, before) the Trump Administration. RF is an unusual writer-journalist. He is young (31) and already well-known for his investigative work at The New Yorker (that got them and the New York Times the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service) and having been at the forefront of the re-launch of the #MeeToo movement following his unearthing and reportingof the now famous Harvey Weinstein case that would start the floodgate on sexual harassment cases in the movie industry, media and more generally at the work place. RF is the son of Mia Farrow and Woody Allen, who in spite of the very challenging family situation that was theirs, may have steered him well in the early stages of his young career, leading him to Bard College and Yale University, before his journalistic career. However these attributes have nothing to do with his book, beyond his mentoring by Richard Holbrooke, the late top diplomat, as he focuses on U.S. diplomacy and its main home, the State Department, as the crumbling foundations of American hard and soft power around the world. His book is edifying and was written as Rex Tillerson, the first Secretary of State under DT, was still in office and not doing enough to stem the haemorrhage of talents or just filling in senior positions around the world, leaving the fort unmanned in many places, at times quite strategic. Of great relevance was that RF started his career not as a journalist but as an entry level Foreign Service diplomat working on human rights in Afghanistan in the mid-2000s, so his book is also reflecting his own experience.

In a long prologue of 32 pages (all in Latin numerals, well done RF!) our author sets the stage for his book and we discover a style that wishes to show some wit and word agility as if the family lineage was coming through to make his subject also entertaining. We discover Tom Countryman, who stands for the career diplomat who does what diplomats do month in month out mixing the glamorous and the mundane but carrying out the essential tasks and implementation of foreign policy-making decided in their capital cities and involving Foggy Bottom, Quai d’Orsay or similar places. It is clear that the tone of the book is one of internationalism and working together with other countries to achieve goals, so not so much along the increasingly party line of America First which is now actually promoted for all countries to learn from by Mike Pompeo, the obscure congressman, turned head of the CIA and latest loyal Secretary of State in the Trump Administration following the resignation and late “come to Jesus” time  of Rex Tillerson. 

Tom Countryman, like all Career Foreign Service Officers confirmed by the US Senate submitted his resignation as a matter of course, the experience being that the new White House team, never fires those who are needed, whatever the administration in place, to conduct foreign policy locally also as they have the institutional memory and the experience and contacts to do so. A few days after Trump’s inauguration, Countryman was asked to leave as the Administration accepted his resignation together with those of a large number of diplomats, Assistant Secretaries and Deputy Assistant Secretaries (some having been too close to Secretary Clinton) in what was an unprecedented move, this depriving the US of its senior teams both in Foggy Bottom and on the ground. Countryman, who had to leave within three days, had to inform his foreign counterparts at a Middle East nuclear anti-proliferation discussion that he would not attend their next meeting. This was the prelude to a hole in the US State Department which would expand at a steering speed as many senior diplomats even re-conducted decided to leave their jobs even though they were devoted civil servants, simply as they could not reconcile their activities with the new leadership in Washington. RF’s book is about what made American diplomacy successful (its diplomats) and what is endangering America’s soft and hard power today globally and by consequence many of the interests of its allies.  
Interestingly RF does not put the whole blame on Trump for the decline of American diplomacy and influence. He stresses rather fairly that the whole process started as a casualty of having won the Cold War and not needing so many local outposts like consulates around the world. The Clinton years were marked by a renewed focus on the economy (Stupid! as the election slogan screamed) with less emphasis on the world as no enemy or even potential rival was in sight. 9-11 changed everything and while the Bush administration scrambled to redevelop a diplomatic presence globally, the war era, marked by the rapid operations in Afghanistan in late 2001 and the invasion of Iraq in early 2003, started the militarisation of diplomacy with the Department of Defense leading all the key developments including in the post-active war phases and introducing what diplomats would call the “mil think” further weakening the role of the State Department. One of the reasons why the executive is always tempted by using the military even to sort out diplomatic matters is as Kissinger put it: “When you deal with the military, there is an 80% chance your decisions will be executed. When you deal with the diplomats, there is an 80% chance they will be discussed”. 

RF provides us with chapters first covering the traditional and essential role of diplomats throughout American history to implement and refine policies decided in Washington and in international fora. He then focuses on individuals behind the diplomats showing us select portraits of the actors like Lady Taliban (a senior Foreign Service Officer lady who studied with Clinton and Strobe Talbott at Oxford and ended up as Under-Secretary of State for Asian Affairs with close links to Pakistan and the Taliban) or Richard Holbrooke, the man with the Vietnam memory who tried his best to make US diplomacy not repeat past mistakes. Even if fighting what Henry Kissinger would call the American myth of trying “something new” to solve complex problems or borrow solutions that were tested in vastly different environment to solve a major crisis as with the containment doctrine that worked in Europe but would be disastrous in Vietnam. 

Richard Holbrooke, whom we will follow as the Special Envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan (SRAP) in 2009 under Obama 1, personifies the professional diplomat, the senior Career Foreign Service Officer, for whom RF interned while still in his teens and is portrayed with great gusto. Holbrooke was a driven man, with a strong ego and not many friends in political circles given his undiplomatic style at times. He backed the presidential runs of Al Gore in 1988 and 2000, John Kerry in 2004 and Hillary Clinton in 2008 showing an unusual string of bad luck, while Madeleine Albright was appointed as Secretary of State in 1996, literally stealing his job from under him. He never got the top prize he always aimed for especially after his crafting the Dayton Agreement that brokered peace and the best of bad treaties to end the bloodshed in the Balkans in the mid-1990s. We follow his work as SRAP and his dealings with David Petraeus, the scholar-general (PhD from Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of International Affairs with an acclaimed thesis on the lessons from Vietnam)  leading US Centcom for whom the seasoned diplomat is merely his “wingman” in what is foreign policy led by the military and the prevalence of “mil think” and more boots on the ground before any real civilian diplomacy which would be the hallmark of the post-9-11 world in those parts. We know more about the challenging nature of America’s “transactional relationship” with Pakistan and ISI, their intelligence services, and serious issues created by extrajudicial killings of the Pakistani military and ISI as well as their ambiguous relationship with the Taliban which is technically a common enemy but will keep benefiting from much support from the Pakistani regime. Richard Holbrooke, not operating as expected, goes against the former Bush administration of destroying the Afghan poppy fields and drug economy in order to prevent farmers from supporting the Taliban. While at times, the account of Holbrooke and his atypical and tailor-made team’s work could be seen as RF’s early days memoirs it also depicts a diplomat in action and the type of work which will come to be missed increasingly with the Trump style of foreign policy with Rex Tillerson and Mike Pompeo at the helm of the State Department. 

The account of Holbrooke is a story of what a diplomat can achieve on his or her own, being marked by history and in his case Vietnam and leaving in defeat. It is also the story of the challenges in dealing with the Obama White House, National Security Council (Jones) and military (Petraeus – even if McCrystal who ran Afghanistan was getting ready to support him before the Rolling Stone article that made him go) that did not support the reconciliation plan engineered by Holbrooke with some NSC plans to remove him from the Af-Pak equation in what was seen as the “firing campaign”. In the end, there would be no firing and no reconciliation as Holbrooke had a massive heart attack while visiting Foggy Bottom and could not be saved, this two frustrating years into the job and in spite of a staunched defence of Secretary of State Clinton. It is said that before his open heart surgery that was very risky, Holbrooke would have told the chief surgeon: “OK but you have to promise me you are going to end the war in Afghanistan” also showing the strong personality and style that defined him and great diplomats and why they matter according to RF who said on the day of his death to Clinton and State Department colleagues that Holbrooke “was the closest thing to a father I had”.    

In another account of a senior diplomat also involved in the Af-Pak region and who worked on building relationships the old-fashioned way of diplomacy, RF introduces us to Robin Raphen, a Career Foreign Service Officer through and through, who lived and breathed State Department to the point of marrying another diplomat (future Ambassador in Pakistan) she would divorce and would end up dying in the dodgy plane crash that killed the Pakistani PM Zia-ul-Haq in 1988. Her focus on building relationships, the ancient and proven style, would yield results in advancing US interests and making “friends” in high foreign places, notably Pakistan. So much so that once Raphen left the State Department she would go work on K Street in a lobbying firm representing the interests of Pakistan in Washington. RF noted that “face to face conversations had been eclipsed by signals intelligence or intercepted communication” which may seem a bit of a stretch. When Raphen went back to the State Department to work with SRAP and later, her closeness to many Pakistani officials and her former lobbying role put her in trouble in a post-Snowden whistleblower era and active look for moles (there indeed would be State Department whistleblowing cases also in relation to AkPak and dealing with war lords who were former foes and then nominally allies). Raphen, like other State Department officials, made the mistake of taking home and forgetting confidential papers which lent her in trouble, opening a formal investigation by intelligence and law enforcement agencies that did not understand the peculiar rituals of diplomacy in Pakistan. Raphen, the traditional diplomat, paid for her dedication of creating the best local contacts, also as Pakistan was viewed as a very unreliable ally bordering on being an enemy given the closeness of ISI with various terrorist elements that operated in Afghanistan. In the end, she was only asked to leave the State Department but the blemish hurt her abilities to secure new opportunities in the government and to some extent private sector. She ended up with no work under the clouds of suspicion and thirty years of faithful service.                               

The book is very interesting though while RF makes the case that diplomacy and the State Department had taken a back seat for a long while this after 9-11 is not surprising all the more given RF’s book focus on Afghanistan and its neighbours and its war theatre nature. That the military took a prominent role in the region and they continued once their active phase was over, supplanting the State Department, is not a surprise given the military focus of America’s engagement there. While focused on the retreat of the State Department, the book is also conveying RF’s direct experience at the time in the very region where the military had naturally taken the lead and saw no need for formal diplomacy nor its usual interlocutors. It is very likely that if RF had taken different regions in the world post-9-11 like say Europe, Russia, India, Latin America or Japan that the State Department would have maintained their expected tried and tested diplomatic approach. The real change for the State Department thus came with the election of Donald Trump. We have all read that the State Department had suffered serious setbacks with the Trump “America First” policy and less emphasis put on diplomacy that isolationism and its related moves would entail. Many positions were not quickly or ever filled under the tenure of Secretary Rex Tillerson and many Career Foreign Service Officers and other State Department staff would elect to leave mainly as they grew disenchanted with the Trump-Tillerson approach. With Rex Tillerson’s dismissal following his series of disagreements with Trump and colourful descriptions of the President, the “America First” trend continued unabated with Mike Pompeo who went further and promoted the concept of “your country first” to foreign nations while working hard with the Trump leadership to put forward the candidature of a former Fox News journalist of “Fox & Friends”, with little experience in International affairs beyond her State Department spokesperson tole of less than two years, to replace Nikki Haley as Ambassador to the United Nations – a move that says it all as to Donald Trump’s view of the institution and diplomacy in general.   

While RF argues that the State Department was sidelined by the military and the Pentagon since 9-11 and the Afghan and Iraq wars, the coup de grace was naturally given by Trump’s election of 2016 that led Rex Tillerson, the Texan who ran Exxon and former Eagle Scout (he would stay involved with the Scouts all of his career), to take the lead at Foggy Bottom. Or not take the lead actually. While having ran Exxon and amassed USD 300 million as well as a retirement package of USD 180 million RT came with no actual diplomatic experience but he brought with him his experience of having run one of the leading international oil companies in the world and its global footprint. After a first speech following the January 2017 inauguration to staff that was well received RT would not speak to them via a town meeting until May. He would not speak much to the press, initially not taking journalists on his plane and remaining aloof to the dismay of former Secretary of State Condi Rice who was at a loss to understand RT’s approach. He would not talk much to foreign counterparts either. Upon his appointment he declined to take more than three courtesy congratulatory calls a day and would be known not to engage in conversations with foreign leaders and counterparts. When the strikes against Syria were initiated, no ally were informed beforehand and when the Czechs (who represented the US in Syria) insisted upon speaking with RT, they were told he had taken a long weekend and was planning to have dinner with his wife and calling it a night. His relationship with Trump, whom he did knot know previously and vice versa which is a rarity in modern Washington politics, was notoriously acrimonious while RT, displaying Texas swagger, once “would have” referred to Trump as a “moron”. He was keen on concise briefings that would not be over two pages and often one in true business style preferring the latter as he was not “a fast reader”. In a further shrinkage of the State Department’s remit, Jared Kushner, the “son-in-law” was given point position on the Middle East peace process and would conduct US diplomacy in that part of the world also given his proximity to MBS who was widely perceived as a reformer before the hotel arrest of many of his family members and quite later the atrocious Kashoggi killing in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. RT actually though Kushner was engineering his demise so Nikki Haley, the US Ambassador at the UN and former governor of North Carolina could replace him. The State Department was further sidelined in its diplomatic role or lack thereof as a group of three and four star generals were in charge of the Office of the President, National Security Council and Defense Department. Three months before his abrupt firing in March 2018 and when asked what his experience had been at the State Department he replied, laughingly, “interesting”.  Not having wanted the job in the first place but advised by Renda, his wife, that he needed to serve he did not expressed any outrage upon his dismissal and replacement by an obscure congressman who had been running CIA. Two months later at the Commencement ceremony of VMI or the Virginia Military Institute, home of may a leading Southern commanders during the civil war, he would unleash a scathing attack against Donal Trumping and his debasing style of leadership. 

RF went through what RT did while at State which is a big external consulting-driven review of the health of American diplomatic organs, something we are told was derived from his engineering background but reflected his business experience and what new CEOs do when taking the helm. In some ways, there is nothing wrong with that, except that State was not Exxon and the dynamics at play were very different. The result of this survey of 35,000 State and USAID personnel was a very protracted and disturbing process with a lot of adverse reactions from the diplomats below. Many career officers felt that RT did not understand the culture or was taking too harsh an approach their department, many not feeling that the business approach was warranted. This combined with low communication with staff did not help the process during RT’s tenure, all the while he had communication issues wth Trump who wanted a SecState on “the same wavelength” that is to say loyal above all. RT focused on a technology revamp finding a lot of old PCs in his department, something that would have been welcome if the changes were focused on this. He came up with a plan to reduce department funding by 27% or a USD 10 bn economy while Defence was getting a 52 bn increase, reflecting America’s change of international and diplomatic focus. Health programs on HIV, malaria and polio were slashed and the US contribution to UN peace keeping missions was halved. He shuttered State’s Office of Global Criminal Justice responsible for setting policy on war crimes and other similar entities and initiatives that did not fit the “America First” ethos. While there was widespread outrage internally and even within Congress at the broad and cavalier nature of the cutbacks, RT surprised even more by turning down some of the money that some US Senators (often in bi-partisan way, like with Senators Corker and Cardin) wanted to give to State like with the USD 100m already appropriated, this without any process attached, to counter Russian propaganda, creating a precedent that baffled many (apparently he did not want to anger unduly Russia, wanting to try to develop or restore sounder relations). The RT era saw a succession of developments for State such as pink slips for 1,300 diplomats and hundreds of senior positions sitting empty. 

Clearly many senior diplomats and even SecStates had criticised the State Department in the past, such as, RF reminds us with again Richard Holbrooke in a key Foreign Policy article in the 1970s  at the start of his career or even James Baker under Reagan who complained about “the too many bureaucratic layers”. While reform was necessary, all the more not much had been done over the years (probably as State was busy carrying out US diplomacy) the extent of the changes, often seen as cuts and thus ultimately a withdrawal of America’s foreign capabilities and influence, it is arguable if such a harsh approach was needed in our times, given the multiplicity of challenges facing America and the West even if fitting the new leadership ethos. Interestingly George Shultz, Reagan’s SecState, was also coming from the business world from Bechtel, the construction and civil engineering company but unlike RT he saw the value of the State machinery, stating that “while we can cut special envoys, we need regional bureaux, ambassadors and people who know the local layout”. Madeleine Albright was even more direct about RT’s approach to reengineer the State Department, together with Condi Rice after a while and of course Hillary Clinton. Collin Powell, who was seen as model of evenhandedness and caution was up in arms about what he saw as “ripping the guts of the organisation” and “not filling the positions they even plan to keep” while “mortgaging the future in not bringing new blood in”. John Kerry, RT’s predecessor felt that it would be extremely costly as it would take years to rebuild in terms of expertise and capacity even if the budgets were fixed post 2020 assuming a new President from either party. 

The Iran certification of the 2015 nuclear deal pitched Trump against RT, the latter believing hat there had been no case to say that Iran had not fulfilled its part of the agreement.  Leaving the Paris agreement on climate change led the US not having a seat at the table while giving an advantage to foreign countries and their companies, China especially. When the number two US diplomat in Ankara has to tell the Turkish government that the US was withdrawing from the agreement, he preferred to resign and issued a stern statement (that should be read in the bold-k). When cancelling the “one-sided” deal with Cuba that the Obama administration had done to reinstate relationships with the old enemy, the State Department was the last to know. The Western Hemisphere Bureau in charge of Cuba policy was not informed until the day of the announcement. The Assistant Secretary for that area had not even been nominated to run that office. 

When DT attacked Kim Jong Un at the UN, General John Kelly, White House Chief of Staff put a palm to his face and rubbed his temples not believing what he was hearing about “Rocket Man” from the US President. When North Korea launched missiles that flew over Japan in August 2017, Trump issued an ultimatum that “North Korea not make any more threats to the United States” adding that ” they will be met with fire, fury and frankly power the likes of which this world has never met”. Presidential historians could not find a more aggressive language from a commander-in-chief echoing, though it is unlikely Trump may have known it, Harry Truman warning Japan of a “rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth”. State could not massage the message onslaught but wanted diplomacy to prevail. Trump then declared: “I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man. Save your energy, Rex, we’ll do what has to be done”. When meeting a South Korean official, Trump announced he would meet Kim Jong Un before informing RT and just after RT had said hours earlier that the US was still a long way from negotiations. The decision was taken out of the blue and without broader diplomatic context. By that time, the State team led by Yuri Kim which had managed a sizeable North Korea unit no longer existed while the East India Department still lacked a permanent Assistant Secretary one year into the Trump presidency.   

During his first trip to China as SecState, RT used the key words of Xi JinPin to stress the focus of the US-China relationship that should be based on “principles of no-conflict, no-confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation” as if borrowed by the perfect little globalist if such a book, which Fareed Zakaria would have written, existed. That was in fact “code” for establishing the power parity between the two now superpowers something Barack Obama had refused as it also meant the US letting China having its ways on Taiwan and the South China Seas dispute, something US allies in Asia-Pac quickly noted. Once again the State experts of the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs had not been consulted as if they were mere bureaucratic necessities who should not help craft messages let alone ensure policy impact. It turned out that the message had been drafted by Jared Kushner’s team at the White House and that RT, a great believer of the win-win mantra at Exxon had felt good about it, not seeing the need for any second reading by people who knew China.      

I have not covered on purpose all the Trump period – the most exciting of all periods in more words than one, while we seem to live through it at Twitter pace – which needs a good and quiet recap so much the unfolding tragedy at stake, the last episode being in Syria with the withdrawal of US forces and the de facto defeat of the West. You will enjoy RF’s book.  

Warmest regards,

Serge

The Diversity Delusion- Heather Mac Donald

28-1-19

Dear Partners in thought,

I would like to talk to you about some aspects of “The Diversity Delusion”, a book by Heather McDonald, which is focused on a highly sensitive topic in America today which gradually is becoming one in different and local ways throughout the Western world. McD looks at the shortcomings of the diversity drive from different angles notably race and gender and what she sees as the pandering that corrupts the university and culture in America. Admittedly this is an “engaged” book and McD is a well known conservative writer so will take a rather negative view of diversity drives and their evolutions as the book title suggests. Peggy Noonan who wrote McD’s book cover praise is indeed a well known critic of anything liberal and Hillary Clinton in particular, setting the stage for the reader. McD was known as the author of “War on Cops”, another title underlining her position on policing in America at a time when there was a debate on this matter following the death of individuals, especially African Americans, in clashes with police throughout America. She is the Thomas W. Smith Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributor to City Journal, an American public policy magazine. A self-described former aspiring academic with roots in deconstruction and post-modernism, she has been the target of violent protests from student activists for her work on policing. A New Yorker, she is an accomplished student herself with a BA from Yale, an MA in English from Cambridge and a JD from Stanford Law while her writing has appeared in a vast array of publications such as The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The New York Times, The New Republic and Partisan Review. In other words, while her work is clearly divisive she is no light weight and is well grounded, which should provide prima facie for solid material to be discussed.    

In her own words, “The Diversity Delusion” is an attempt at understanding the rise on campuses in the demand for “safe space” and expressions, often violent, of reflexive accusations of racism and sexism, mixed with “a contempt for the Enlightenment values of Reason and due process which increasingly infuse businesses, government and civil society” through a total refusal to let opposite views being aired. McD sees the roots of this evolution in a set of ideas (she opposes virulently) dominating higher education that individuals are defined by their skin colour, sex and sexual preference and that discrimination based on these characteristics has been the driving force in Western civilisation, making America a deeply bigoted place, where heterosexual white males rule and continue to deny opportunity to everyone else. She believes that these ideas that can be called diversity or identity politics have remade the university in America and shaped future leaders through new fields focused on race, ethnicity, sex and gender identity. Not supporting what she sees as campus self-pity, McD feels on the contrary that American college students are among the most privileged human beings in history, benefitting from great institutions and unparalleled access to knowledge, who otherwise act as spoiled brats. She feels that the claim of ubiquitous racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, ethnocentrism and xenophobia is now firmly part of the non-academic world as well, where it is being used to silence speakers and ideas with which favoured victim groups disagree, thus creating a shrinkage of civility and endangering civil peace as well as free speech itself.        

I was hesitant to write a Book Note about “The Diversity Delusion”. Anyone doing this is open to be whipped one way or another given the topic at hand. It takes a balanced mind to address such a sensitive topic even if one will already or eventually side more or less on one side of the fence based on values and societal beliefs. Such a topic needs if at all possible some distance to be reflected upon, preferably from Mars, in order to be discussed serenely which is not to say that distance will erase for some the trauma associated with the absence of diversity. Distance will not erase the racism or sexism to call things by their name or will lead others to accept the direct and indirect regrettable consequences that too much focus on diversity may have brought on society and, given the book angle, university campuses and culture in America. It is debatable if one can take a view on matters of racism and sexism that there is a grey area and it is not a back and white matter. However it may be possible to find some grey area in reviewing diversity and whether it is a deluded concept as a way to correct the ills of racism and sexism and their various mild and awful expressions. I thought that it was useful to air some thoughts in as a dispassionate way as possible, which arguably may not be possible, also realising that some radical left ideas need to be opposed, all the more as they give rise to populism and their opposite extreme right features, sometimes shaping election results within a democratic context. It should also be clear that opposing radical left ideas when they should be opposed should not lead to pandering to their opposite radical right stances.  

Diversity is inextricably linked to a dual phenomenon that started in the late sixties and seventies again in the US and found a fertile ground there, called Affirmative Action and Political Correctness or PC-ness to use its current appellation usually not by its promoters. Affirmative Action arose from the fact that minority students (then, at the time, African Americans as what the blacks in the US were gradually called) were under-represented in college based on admission that favoured standard testing and a traditional academic path often not achievable by them for social reasons. While there were clear cases of societal imbalances in colleges that were clearly white, things changed as minority student college applications started being looked at with less stringent requirements. After a few years, the inevitable backlash came as with the famous case in California where a Jewish American student stated that he had been rejected for the benefits of African-Americans even though he had achieved much higher standard SAT test scores. Political correctness then was noticed in the language and ways of America, all driven by a goal of not offending minority groups in a majority white America. 

A recent poll showed that 75% of Americans were tired of political correctness, which sounds like a large majority. It is clear that the numbers don’t tell the whole story and should be analysed closely. There is no doubt that the PC-ness drive as it was felt by many and for many years in the white middle working class led “to some extent” to the Trump ascent to the White House. To be sure Trump’s core voting base was driven by a rejection of the bi-coastal elite and the perceived effects of globalisation but the anti-PC drive and the rejection of measures to favour minority groups out of of a sense of societal guilt and correction also mattered to the “left outs” as these moves were never designed to help them either. It was not the only reason, also noting that PC-rejection is well spread across the political landscape outside of the activist and true believer groups, but it was an additional element that was associated in the American heartland and the white (male) “left outs” with the bi-coastal cosmopolitan elites that liked and could afford to be supremely liberal to the point of expiating for all the ills suffered by the minorities, starting with slavery and its mutations for the vocal elements of the black minority. 

Great achievements have been noted in minorities reaching the top echelons of American society in all walks of life, very often distancing themselves from their ethnic group. American suburbs count many African-Americans who are medical doctors, lawyers and bankers. Hollywood is full of minority actors across races. However there is no denying that many in the black community feel trapped and see no access to the social mobility elevator in a parallel with the white left outs of many Trump-supporting middle America states for different reasons which obviously do not include race. It is hard to simply rejoice about the few who have made it outside racial determinism or despair for those who have not though improving their conditions in spite of an early poor deck of cards looks possible even if a daunting process at times. It is difficult to point to affirmative action as the driver behind the societal rise of the Asian-American communities – and are they a struggling minority today? – as many have done very well in terms of ensuring their children have reached the higher echelons of society, creating the unusual problem that if only tests mattered, elite colleges might have too many of them, this incidentally leading to some form of reverse discrimination and unofficial quotas to law suits like with Harvard in 2018 of the same nature as the one in California by the white Jewish student protesting against affirmative action decades ago. What is more surprising today may be the activism on campus emanating from minority students, African-Americans (many the children of those doctors in the suburbs) and their supporters in particular, who display often violent opposition, defining primarily themselves through campus activism, to what they do not like to see and hear, feeling empowered to fight for causes that relate to race.                    

McD’s book covers four major parts, each divided into a few sub-parts. The key parts are Race, Gender, the Bureaucracy and the Purpose of University. This is a very wide and far reaching book and as such I wanted today, while encouraging to read the whole book which is clearly not without a very conservative and divisive viewpoint, to focus on the Race part not so much as it is about race but as it deals with free speech or its organised ban and the reconstructing of history on American campus and beyond.    

McD talks about what she describes as “the hysterical campus” and the violent demonstrations that took place on various campuses in the last two years like at Claremont McKenna, UCLA, University of Missouri, Yale or Emory. She describes in detail those demonstrations (including two involving her) staged for different reasons against speakers – silencing tactics – or professors, courses and administrators whose topics or views were not liked by groups of student activists, most of whom being minority students finding those views and talks offensive to their beliefs or simply as they fought for existence as a self-described oppressed minority in an adverse environment. Screams of “Black live matter” and “Let’s stop the fascist” abound and the rejection of any dialogue is the rule in what McD sees as an attack on free speech and founding American and Enlightenment values (and indeed the First Amendment). She also stresses that in many if not most cases the university administrations and certainly a large section of faculty side with the protesters, when not encouraging them and while some protesters are punished when there is destruction of property others receive special statuses, and even prizes, upon graduation for taking a stand to defend what values they believe in. McD stresses that these “oppressed” students actually are staying in very good conditions at very well endowed colleges. As an example of business being infected by these new diversity ideas, McD covers the well-publicised case of James Damore, a Google engineer who had published a paper criticising Goggle’s diversity focus which he deemed to be harmful for the overall Google quality as a firm. Interestingly McD talks about Proposition 209 which in 1998 was a California vote on stopping affirmative action drives on California campuses which passed but was fought back by university administrations and admission committees who wanted to have student bodies that would represent society at large, this instead of what would result from standard admission requirements and other usual tests like the SATs.   

In her book McD covers well-organised groups opposing the expression of free speech via talks by visiting speakers on campus in the name of their right to free speech though allowing no discussion in a very terminal way as would be the case in dictatorships. It is often the expression of the strongest as the modus operandi is to disturb often violently the organisation of talks albeit on sensitive topics that were initially allowed by the administrations of universities. These groups are driven by a righteous cause of correcting historical wrongs that would have led to societal stagnation for members of minority groups, notably among African-American and to some extent Latino groups.  This approach can also go further in opposing an academic curriculum as the authors who would be studied would be too representative of Western civilisation such as the leading white philosophers of the Enlightenment or the musicians like Mozart simply as representing white society that dominated the times. While one can understand grievances expressed by the descendants of slaves and taking an extreme case, the challenges that may have been associated with growing up in drastically impoverished areas if not ghettos, common sense should not condone violent rejection of free speech simply as the drive behind the violent opposition is seen as hallowed and a respectful dialogue can be engineered.  

Taking down the statues of confederate generals as they fought for slave states, changing the names of colleges (like at Yale) as the man on the front porch, who happened to a be US Vice President in the mid-19th century, had a cotton plantation with slave workers or trying to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes, the godfather of Rhodesia, at Oxford’s Oriel College have been very sensitive topics and the subject of much violent activism on campus and elsewhere. On one hand nobody should condone slavery. And everybody should oppose the white supremacist hijacking of those topics as during the bloody events in Charlottesville in the summer fo 2017. On the other everybody should live with their history while rightfully making sure some of the dire aspects are not repeated. Confederate generals fought for their states and many like Robert E. Lee, who decided to fight for his own Virginia after being offered the command of the Northern armies, did so out of patriotism at a time when the economy of many confederate states were reliant on cotton and so slaves initially purchased from Africa. This is history and by today’s standards would be unacceptable but it is dangerous to rewrite history to fit the times as the Soviets erased unwanted individuals from official pictures. While rewriting history with today’s lenses is not sound for any nation that should of course remember all the good and bad aspects of its history, removing statues or changing college names brings little change beyond polishing the resumes of activist leaders for having won their drive. It may also eventually erase key tragic blemishes like slavery from historical memory which would achieve the opposite of the inner reasons for the activist leaders to address the matter in the first place. It is also true that to the visiting Martian devoid of any agenda that American campuses could be seen today as cradles of fierce and temperamental activists who decided to focus on causes in order to exist while wittingly or unwittingly starting a career for themselves. 

Rejecting violent activism on campus and elsewhere is not like rejecting student activism which is eminently healthy and shows a societal commitment on the part of the young generation. There are also many forms of student activism on campus, some of which can be quite vocal but also based on dialogue. One of these involve students who wish to steer their university endowments to invest ethically and not only focus on returns. Even if at times mutual trust is not always involved, student activists get involved directly or more often indirectly addressing ad hoc committees in the way their university endowments invest. Experience shows that at times the process is not always smooth as noted with the recent exchange between David Swansen, the famed CIO of the Yale Endowment Fund and the Yale Daily News, the student newspaper that usually ends up representing the views of endowment activists on campus. However a respectful, if at times intense, communication can be managed and compromises found as long as free speech is respected on both sides. While the focus on racial discrimination is of course one of the most sensitive topic today, together with gender equality, one would wish that a respectful and rational dialogue take place on American campuses with the objective of fostering a more harmonious environment where students can also focus on their studies and keep learning “how to think”.           

It is difficult to discuss serenely the matters that McD covers and, like I did, others which relate, however distantly, to them. Society’s wounds may indeed be too recent to reach an appeased dialogue while there are still traces of bigotry that perdure. However, common sense should also dictate that as much progress was done on those sensitive, key matters and while society should work further at creating a more harmonious and inclusive environment, it would also be helpful that activists opt for dialogue in spite of violent rhetoric and hatred, refusing to hear opposite views if they are constructive all the more within an academic context. Activists who refuse exchanging views as they do not tolerate dissent can only achieve the opposite of what they seem to wish to gain which would be to become the fascists they decry and encouraging a societal response that may go back to the very ills at stake and may indeed include racism and exclusion. It is arguable that those minority students who have been admitted to elite universities should certainly be entitled to voice their opinions as they wish but focusing on dialogue, seizing the opportunity to keep changing society from within and becoming the active leaders of tomorrow. 

I recommend the reading of McD’s book as even if it is representative of a one-sided conservative and in many respects reactionary view, it covers the main areas of intellectual battle (often physical too) on American campuses today that may indeed have consequences on society at large, first in America and then, as often, more globally. I hope that I was able to express some balanced and respectful viewpoints, enshrined in common sense and rationality, even if the topics at hand are highly sensitive so we can always thrive for a much needed dialogue and eventually a more balanced society away from the extremes.  

Warmest regards,
Serge                   

The Quantum Spy – David Ignatius

16-1-19

Dear Partners in thought,

I wanted to tell you about “The Quantum Spy” from David Ignatius, the well known Washington Post Associate Editor and International affairs columnist but also the master of the intelligence novel as the John Le Carré of the CIA. DI was also an adjunct professor at the Harvard Kennedy School of Public Policy in the field of International affairs, providing another useful dimension to his story telling. He gives unparalleled credibility to his novels, five of which have been famous including initially “Agents of Innocence” (which got plaudits from the CIA itself) and “Body of Lies” (which was made into a great movie with Leonardo di Caprio and Russel Crow) but also “Bloodmoney”, “The Increment” and “The Director” all with a central focus on the CIA involving Jordan, Pakistan, Iran and finally Langley itself.  He also published a very good book about an exchange between Brent Scowcroft and the late Zbignew Brzezinski, then two veterans from the opposite sides of the “aisle” though non-partisan and level-headed foreign policy experts, which makes us regret another time in American history. While some have seen him as an apologist for the CIA, I have always enjoyed the quality of his craft and the precision of his story telling that always produces an amazing mix of fiction and reality very much along the lines John Le Carré did for British Intelligence and probably far more accurately given his connections.  

The Quantum Spy is about the new frontier of spying which is not cyber warfare even if we read a lot about it, only last December with the alleged cyber attacks by China on various US entities like the Navy or stories about persistent hacks of the EU Commission over recent years, not to mention the saga of Russian hacks and fake news dissemination at times of key electoral contests in the West. The Quantum Spy is focused on Artificial Intelligence or AI and quantum computing and its staggering leapfrogging developments which as always can be used for good and less good matters depending on where one stands. DI is very good at crafting the best stories taking into focus the latest genre and protagonists be they Al Qaeda, ISIS, Iran and its nuclear power quest or cyber security. Incidentally, Fredrick Forsyth, a veteran, now 80 years old, spy and international intrigue novelist (“The Day of the Jackal”, “The Dogs of War”, “The Fourth Protocol”, “The Negotiator”) just released “The Fox” with a novel plot that goes beyond sheer technology and focuses on the intersection of the mind and cyber warfare.    

The Quantum Spy starts when the CIA Deputy Director for Operations visits a tech entrepreneur who was just approached by a VC platform it turned out owned by Chinese interests to purchase his company. The entrepreneur, being a patriot and having a relative working at the CIA, decides to have a chat with Langley to see how he could “contribute”, which will happen very fast, given that quantum computing is the area the CIA also focuses on. We then go into Singapore and take part in a “convincing” session between Harris Chang, a Chinese-American agency man and his target, Dr. Ma Yubo, who is a scientist working for the Ministry of State Security, China’s main intelligence service, in the area of quantum computing. The scientist happens to know there is a mole in Langley who wants “to work on world peace” by helping China through Project “Xie” (“scorpion” – a little over the top maybe) to steal America’s edge in quantum computing so the world can share science. The crux of the story of course is to identify the mole in a backdrop of the “overseas Chinese”, as called by mainland Chinese for the Chinese Americans working for the US and all the more for the CIA (actually seen as traitors if not turned), who might naturally be subjected to ancestral calls of duty. The list of 35 suspects narrows down to five, including two Chinese Americans. We then embark on a journey into a little-known world of scientists who work, knowingly or not, for US national security with many projects being funded in the government’s hope that one will break through and “go black”when tech companies that joined the “program” leave campus to relocate on airtight intelligence compounds. Upon reaching that milestone formerly independent tech companies then find themselves in an SCIF or “Secure Compartmented Information Facility” now with only one client, their perimeter surrounded by fences and guards at the entrance. And when foreign employees have to leave as they would get no security clearance, making the CEO of that quantum computing research company lament (in a possible wink from DI) that it creates a hiring problem as “we don’t have enough smart Americans” on offer. As an added benefit for the likes of me and my 19th century skillset, readers, who will feel they are on a tour of Q’s office in the James Bond movies, get a friendly basic tutorial of the Idiot’s Guide type on “universal problem-solving” quantum computing and its Qbits, how they should ideally separate and really “cold” that world is at 450 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. Incidentally in an uncanny reality joins fiction development, IBM just released the first standalone quantum computer, IBM Q System One, which is not for sale and will actually work on a capabilities’ rental basis for now.  

The “enemy” unlike most of the intelligence novels of the Cold War and the last 15 years is not Russia (I felt happy for my good Russian friends) but for a change China, which is quite topical given the news and US foreign policy approach at large, if only on trade. As an aside, China has been rapidly on the rise, putting aside temporary growing economic pains, and indeed wishes to secure a world leadership role which I see as a natural move if I were the Chinese leadership, putting aside our different conceptions of democracy and political governance however important they may be. In some ways, the Trump administration is right in making sure China is not left unchecked when and if accessing (not to say stealing) intellectual property or taking advantages of WTO rules and other similar market features on trade (*). However, that China spies on other countries to advance its interests is no news and is actually what all countries, especially major powers, do even like the U.S. via the NSA on its own allies as documented under the Obama Administration. That is not to say that the US and the West should not take counter-measures, which the former in particular should do in conjunction with its Western allies instead of antagonising them, also on trade matters. Personally I am more in favour of engaging with China and working with China on trade and other matters with the objective of anchoring them in a multi-dependant world where all parties benefit even if at times in different areas. This approach is sounder than the actual and inimitable Trump style of launching trade wars where nobody wins (as the soybean producers and their employees in the Midwest, many of whom supported a more assertive and “America First” Trump style and policies, would now attest). Once again it does not mean that the West should not react in cases of spying as in the case of cyber attacks against the EU which would have gone on for years. Engagement with China should not preclude firm stances when the line is crossed so all parties’ focus should be on win-win and mutual benefits and growth.  

     The Quantum Spy is also a look into the Chinese intelligence apparatus which is far less well known by readers than their equivalent in Russia with the old KGB and more recent FSB and SVR. We see the surprising rivalries between services epitomised with the fight between the Ministry of State Security, which would be the equivalent of an MI6, and the PLA (People’s Liberation Army)’s various units known by a number such as 2PLA in the book.  The services are vying for intelligence leadership and control with 2PLA naturally carrying the ideological party torch while the MSS would be a hotbed of corruption and laxity also generated by too much proximity to the West over the years in their work. The MSS-PLA feud is also a reflection of Shanghai, where MSS staffers usually come from, vs. the rest divide and a rejection of the internationalist elite in a strange “déjà vu” for us Westerners. Incidentally Ma Jian, the vice head of the MSS and counter-intelligence who was arrested for corruption in 2015 in one of the PLA-driven periodic purges was condemned on 27th December for life in jail as he would have received illicitly EUR 14 m equivalent from Guo Wengui, one of the Chinese billionaires and regime critics now asking for political asylum in the US. This is another example of the campaign by Xi-Jinping to eradicate corruption since its leadership started in 2012, resulting one can read in a staggering number of 1.5 million sanctions of party and related officials to date. As China is involved, you can expect a few mentions of Sun-Tsu’s  Art of War and the expected Tao of Deception in the way the MSS will handle Project “Xie” though this approach is no longer Chinese as the book will show.  

Lastly The Quantum Spy is also about the Chinese-Americans and what it means to be one. They are Americans through and through, “red, white and blue” (as in the case of Harris Chang, a former U.S. Marine major with stints in Iraq) some of whom working for the government while carrying an heritage that is more vivid than that of European descent. Whilst they do not experience overt racism as African Americans still may and are a minority that has been hugely successful in all aspects of American life, they are not part of the mainstream but dwindling white majority that has made America. There are still a lot of involuntary reminders that their skin is not white as old habits are slow to die even if they do. While Chinese students have excelled at joining top universities (to the point some feel discriminated against as affirmative action benefitting other minorities reduced their intake) they are still organised as associations on campuses, as we see in the book and are quick to defend their rights when feeling these are trampled. One of the features of the book is the drive by the MSS to remind those Chinese-Americans of their roots so they finally do the “right thing'” and indeed help China’s interests. Not being a specialist of this specific matter it is hard to assess the relevance and accuracy of that drive though my own experience dealing with Chinese-Americans in the field of business is that they are more American than Chinese, at times not even speaking the language fluently. This is not to say that obvious roots would not be a fertile ground for China to exploit in order to gain an advantage in many areas though like with anything the individual traits may matter more than race itself in terms of succeeding to exploit those roots.  

The Quantum Spy is a very well-written, multi-facetted book with a great story pace and host of characters who do not carry black and white (or yellow, if I may) features and also reflect the ever changing battlefield of intelligence in our times. Once again DI projects his known credibility in relation to intelligence story-telling and writing craft and it is no surprise that both Leon E. Panetta and Michael Hayden, who ran the CIA under two very different administrations from 2006 to 2011 have only praise for DI and his realism and “could not put down” the book. 

Going back to old ways, I dedicate this book note to my young friend Qi, doubtless a patriot and a man with global lenses. 

Warmest regards,
Serge                                                                     

(*) It should be noted that China has made great conciliatory moves recently in amending the laws to ban forced technology transfers from foreign companies operating in China, responding to Western concerns over cyber-espionnage or having 38 governmental agencies agreeing to crackdown on Intellectual Property rights infringements – also as China saw these moves as “win-win”. For more read the excellent FT op-ed from Key Jin in the FT dated 3 January 2019. 

It is clear that the Huawei-originated diplomatic spat between China and Canada (started with the jailing of Huawei’s CFO in Canada on espionage-related grounds) may overshadow these positive developments especially when a Canadian drug smuggler is now having to appeal a death sentence in China, creating, aside from the unusually harsh but hardly innocent sentencing, a very tough case that may not help soothe relationships with the West at a time of trade disputes even if it may hopefully be a tactical move on the part of the Middle Kingdom.          

Roller-Coaster (Europe 1950-2017) – Sir Ian Kershaw

28-12-18

Dear Partners in thought,

I would like to speak to you about “Roller-Coaster – Europe 1950-2017” a book by British historian Sir Ian Kershaw on the story of Europe and in superimposition the European Union and its predecessors in the years following WWII to our days. IK is one of the leading British historians today having made his mark with “Hitler” and “The End”, the former depicting the rise and years in power of the fateful German dictator and the latter going into the fall of Nazi Germany in late 1944 and early 1945. It is a fascinating book all the more for those who were alive during the period but were too close to it to understand it fully. It is a monumental book that captures the road traveled for 70 years focusing on its main themes but also providing ample details at many relevant levels. It is also a very timely opus at a time when the EU is going through struggling times and Britain is in the midst of dealing with Brexit in what is the most important crisis of its post-WWII history. While IK goes through modern European story and the major world events that impacted it, starting with the Korean war, he also spends time on the societal changes that took place in Europe and the world and altered perceptions of race, gender, religious belief and many features of humanity.  Incidentally this book is clearly important to understand where the EU (and its predecessors) comes from and has achieved for its member countries’s populations especially in times when easy attacks against its very nature and institutions fuse from extremist parties wanting to win elections in pointing the finger “outside”, this time to Bruxelles as the source of all ills in a well-tested fashion.

Looking at the various chapters of IK’s great book, which is a gold mine for all the detailed events that took place since 1950 in Europe, it should be fair that my comments are tainted by my own analysis of these though bearing in mind that IK and I would belong to a broadly similar camp of thoughts. In any case, the book is a must read for anyone wanting to get a very thorough account of that period of European history, especially for the younger generations who have not lived through it and thus lack historical memory to understand our times.      

In The Tense Divide, IK brings us to the real start of the Cold War with a world dividing itself in two hostile camps years only after the greatest onslaught in the history of humankind with far out events affecting Europe very directly and organisations such as NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) or the quickly aborted EDC (European Defence Community) being set up, the former as a US-led Western response to the Soviet threat in Europe. Interestingly the US already thought Europeans were not doing enough cost-wise to defend themselves while many European countries were wary of getting West Germany rearmed, the latter which did not really happen even if it contributed in other ways. It is the time of the nuclear weapon and space races which will redefine what war would mean. We are reminded of nuggets such as the Soviet Union wanting to join NATO for tactical reasons only to be rejected while the famed “missile gap” becomes a major driver for the US hawks like John F. Dulles to engage the Soviets only to realise much later that the US had 17 times more usable nuclear weapons than the Soviet Union when JFK entered the White House. It is a time of fear and resolve and one where conflicting forces seek to shape the future of a new, post-war Europe and world when the former still held centerstage in global affairs.     

In The Making of Western Europe, IK goes through the European project which should be a great reading for our times when it is under attack with Brexit and extremist parties even if counter-intuitively polls today show that there is an increasing majority of citizens of EU member countries supporting the EU. It shows the incremental steps, initially focused on coal and steel but growing wider and the key roles played by the main proponents of Europe such as Konrad Adenauer or Jean Monnet with their “never again” overriding peace driver especially between France and Germany that had been at war three times (if we include Prussia) since 1870. It is actually amazing to see that this construction of a new Europe takes place involving the fiercest earlier foes only years after WWII and in spite of all the atrocities that were unleashed. Reason seems to prevail with a departure from wanting to make the loser, all the more given what it stood for, “pay” like at Versailles in 1919, also as another mega-conflict looms and all hands will be needed on deck.    

In The Clamp, IK goes through the less than smooth tightening of the Soviet noose over all of Central and Eastern Europe and how that process went with the Yugoslav break-up (1948) and eruptions of nationalistic backlash in Berlin (1953), Budapest (1956), Prague (1968) and later in Warsaw (1981) with various degrees of bloodshed. Unlike today nationalism in the East was associated with patriotism and a fight for independence. The Communist parties throughout Central & Eastern Europe win elections like in Czechoslovakia and tighten the noose while gradually eliminating any dissent. This approach is also tried in Western Europe, like France and Italy, where the local Communist parties are the strongest in the political landscape and basking in the WWII victory also enabled by Soviet forces but will ultimately fail.         

In Good Times, IK goes through the economic prosperity associated with the post-war era, this for 30 years roughly until the 1973 oil shock and was named in France “Les Trente Glorieuses” (the glorious thirty). It was a time of societal advancement where people could climb up the ladder (a distant memory for our times and many as judged by the recent Yellow Vests uprising in France) even if some countries like Britain suffered shortages for many years until the fifties. It is a time when households can afford the new tools of prosperity like a television or a washing machine and cars become affordable and an increasing social status symbol across Western Europe and particularly its leading economies.  

In Culture after the Catastrophe, IK reviews the changes in the art, literature, theatre, music, religious attitudes and popular culture that took place in Europe against a Cold War backdrop. European culture during the 1950-1970 prosperity era in the West looked into the future with an increasing optimism. There was a deep sense that mankind coud achieve anything with an almost religious belief in science as exemplified by military-led early space exploration and the many advancements in medicine. Pop music becomes the ubiquitous medium and universal language of the youth which listen to Elvis Presley, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones in the West but also increasingly beyond the Iron Curtain representing the first signs of what would become an irreversible freedom course in later years. All is not easy as Europe goes from an unremitting despair brought by the greatest slaughter it ever knew to reach a present day of shallowness of the beginning of a materialistic consumer society that people equate with happiness. Some cannot forget as shown with the famed line of philosopher Theodor Adorno: “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric” which encapsulates the struggle between the shadow of the past and the desire to break from that past and also its values. Most people wanted to forget and not revisit past misery, squarely looking at the future. In the 1950s and 1960s interest in the two world wars and the Holocaust were actually much lower than in the last quarter of the century as if the memories were too vivid and impossible to handle.      

In Challenges, IK deals with the strong “political turbulence” experienced, west and east, during the late sixties in quite different ways. In the West with the student protests and riots and the request for more individual freedoms of being. In the East with the Prague Spring and the quest for national freedom. The turbulence did not last for very long but had a deep impact especially beyond the Iron Curtain and was a prelude to the eventual fall of the Soviet bloc, which reacted quite harshly to this evolution and demand for freedom. The Invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968 was the last lesson the Soviets imparted on its bloc in Europe that led to a strengthening of all the regimes in the region, some mixing it with some superficial gifts of freedom (Poland and Hungary) with strong doses of local nationalism. In Western Europe, the changes brought by the student protests and their revendications for “other values” came at a time when the economic boom would stall, creating a different backdrop for a new age.          

In The Turn, IK focuses on the end of the good times and indeed the 1973 oil shock that prompted the end of the long lasting post-war boom at many economic and societal levels with the “negative primacy of economics” taking hold. Incidentally the oil shock of 1973 propelled  the oil barrel from USD 2.76 to USD 9.76 while the second oil shock set the barrel to USD 50 with its massive adverse economic impact, a level which in a crashing oil market in 2018 is considered abysmally low forty years on but in a much different and heavily globalised economy. This is the end of optimism that had characterised the previous two decades but the period also carries its fair share of positive developments with the peaceful end of authoritarian regimes in Spain, Portugal and Greece. The seventies appear as a transition decade also market by a “detente” between the superpowers and their two camps only to end when a “second Cold War” seems to start with the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and at the beginning of the eighties as the Soviet Union struggles to find a path forward at the end of the Brezhnev era that will herald a quick succession of caretaker leaders until Gorbachev.    

In Easterly Wind of Change, IK focuses on Mikhail Gorbatchev, the new Soviet leader as of March 1985, and Perestroika (reconstruction) which would change the nature of the ossified Soviet Union ultimately to a point of extinction on 25th December 1991 after its sphere had already collapsed after its own regional bloc in late 1989. This chapter is key as it marks the end of a divided Europe and indeed a world which for ten years will be globally unipolar and growing with the US at its helm, this without major crises in Europe with the notable exception of the Balkan wars pitting former Yugoslav states against each other and reminding the world of atrocities not seen on the old continent since WWII. While the world grows linearly and without major troubles, other powers start slowly emerging like China while a chaotic post-Soviet while Yeltsin-led Russia feels increasingly neglected by the world leader and Cold War winner, paving the way for a resurgent power seeking back its national pride under Putin.  

In Power of the People, IK deals with the period 1989-1991, which many of us lived through and was a true European revolution, largely fresh of bloodshed, enabled by Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbatchev and combined by the power of the people in all the nations of Central & Eastern Europe under Soviet control. Such a revolution was enabled by the gradual disintegration of the Soviet Union whose leadership allowed for the collapse of its satellites states throughout CEE. There had been a prelude in 1980 with the Solidarnosc (Solidarity) movement that was later banned but was a catalyst for many in the Soviet Bloc. In late 1989 all the Soviet satellite regimes collapsed one after the other in a very short time period, most peacefully, like the DDR (with the actual Berlin Wall collapse), Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, some more bloodily like Romania where 1,000 lost their lives, including leader Nikolai Ceaucescu and his wife. German reunification quickly ensued even if serious concerns were initially raised by Britain and France but also the Netherlands remembering a strong Germany and its habits of overreaching. Ultimately that revolution would end with the collapse of the Soviet Union itself, which its leader who had put the whole winds of change in motion had never wanted and would even regret.      

In New Beginnings, IK focuses on the early years of transition following the end of the European divide which after a period of joy shifted to ethnic war in the former Yugoslavia and a feeling of misplaced hopes of rapid life changes for the populations of CEE that were faced with a strong economic transition while Western Europe was trying to unite more through the EU and the changes heralded by the Maastricht treaty. These new beginnings marked by challenging and hopeful developments would go on until 9-11 in New York which were the real start of a new century with a markedly different agenda where Islamic fundamentalism, once barely noticed, would be the new challenge for the West and indeed Europe.   

In Global Exposure, IK goes through the dual narrative of the West’s fight against Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism (and its consequences such as the invasion of Iraq and the unsettling of the Middle East) as well as the advent of a globalised world which would in turn bring its many political and economic challenges. A greater number of ordinary Europeans become more aware of the intrusion of the rest of the world into their lives, this being maximised by the rapid spread of the internet. The new millenium was marked by two deep societal events: i) The 9-11 attacks albeit on US soil had a profound impact on Europe beyond the devastating introduction of Islamic Terrorism for the US in terms of attitudes towards immigration and multiculturalism and ii) the arrival of the globalised economy and its pervasive effects on everyday life all enhanced by computer technology developments and the vast expansion of a deregulated financial sector, all with instantaneous connectivity across the globe, creating an interconnected and interdependent world as never before and relying upon the credo that it would bring both growth and peace as nations that trade prosper and don’t make war.         

In Crisis Years, IK addresses the economic crisis dubbed the “Great Recession” that started in 2008 which was a turning point in the positive story behind globalisation and free markets, particularly financial. The Greek crisis as major test for the Greek people but even more so for EU resilience with the first attack on the German continental view of the future and the globalisation credo led by Alexis Tsipras (who would, like Matteo Salvini today, be more concilient later on) and Yanis Varoufakis (who would never relent even after leaving office while aptly marketing his message through lucrative books and speech tours).  The Syrian war that takes place at the end of the Arab Spring, itself a consequence of the US desire to reshape the Middle East in the 2000s leads to the most massive influx of migrants from various regions into Europe, creating crisis points notably in Italy. This massive influx of migrants in 2015 leads Germany and Angela Merkel to open borders based both on humanitarian reasons but more so on quasi-existential demographic shortages, this leading to strong opposition and the rise of populist movements across Europe. Russia finally reasserts control of its historical near abroad, scuppering EU dreams of eastern expansion, by seizing control of Ukrainian Crimea albeit a Russian-populated area and starts supporting separatist movements in eastern Ukraine, prompting the beginning of a new quasi-Cold War with sanctions being levelled at Russia and its oligarchs’ interests globally. Brexit, once unthinkable, becomes the potential future of Britain in June 2016 after a referendum that was not needed and a campaign where facts were markedly low and emotions high on both sides.   IK finishes his book addressing what is a “new era of insecurity” where history is “now” as we live through events unfolding in front of our eyes, at times too close to the action to fully understand them while being peppered by news, often via now omnipresent social media, that project news that are either increasingly biased and fact-less or far too many to absorb. Europe has been a roller-coaster of ups and downs with a heady mixture of great achievements, severe disappointments and even disasters. Europe abruptly left the insecurity of the Cold War to reach the insecurity of the multi-facetted crisis of the last decade with the strong economic blows of the Great Recession, the multiple Al-Qaeda and ISIS-inspired terrorist attacks on its soil, an externally resurgent Russia looking for a lost role, an overtly and determined ambitious China on the path for global leadership and now the rise of populism under its many forms filled by fears of the adverse impacts of globalisation, uncontrolled immigration and an ever technology-driven world altering minds and eating jobs while creating social divides between its elites and the “left outs”. Europeans should however remember that they are now living peacefully, in freedom and under the rule of law especially those residing in EU-member states and as an integral part of the leading economic bloc in the world, some of us at times forgetting what they take for granted.  
I highly recommend this book as for some of us born and living in that old world and regardless of nations, it is about who we are, Europeans.  

Warmest regards,
Serge  

Serge Desprat- Dec 28, 2018 (Prague)

Winners Take All – Anand Giridharadas

 27-11-2018

Dear Partners in thought,

I would like to talk to you about “Winners Take All” from Anand Giridharadas, a book focused on “the elite charade of changing the world” as stressed by its sub-title. Although not presented as such, this book is de facto an insider’s investigation on how the global elite efforts “to change the world” through setting up their own programs, charities, foundations and the likes actually change nothing or not much and preserve the status quo, obscuring, according to AG, their role in causing the problems they later seek to solve. This book is about the global elite, the power of money, the desire to change the world that may be motivated by a range of noble and also selfish reasons, the increasing societal divide and the rise of populism triggered by a backlash against this elite and their galaxy in spite of their many efforts to change the world in ways that some like AG find less than sincere. It makes readers reflect more deeply about the “do gooding” of the global elite that has naturally been always well received in modern times but might be for some a smokescreen to hide the original sins of social inequality globally. If anything this book is a great basis for a needed debate.

AG, whom I discovered on CNN’s Fareed Zakaria’s weekly GPS (one of my favorite shows for its overall set-up, the quality of Fareed’s insights and the high caliber of his guests) last September, is teaching journalism at NYU and is a contributor on the main stage of TED. A recipient of the Pointer Fellowship at Yale and of the New York Library’s Helen Bernstein Award, he was a foreign correspondant for the New York Times from 2005 to 2016 and has written for the New Yorker and The New Republic. An Aspen Institute Fellow and an analyst for MSNBC, he started his career as an analyst at McKinsey which his bright mind, sharp thinking and 21st century “bright new world speak” easily shows.

AG draws a very contrasting view of our world to set the stage for his book. America (the book is US-centred) leads medicine, genetic and biomedical advancements while the average American health remains relatively poor compared to that of peers in the Western world and life expectancy actually declines in some years. America creates new learning ways via video and internet while children test more poorly in reading than in 1992. America becomes “European” in the quality of its food yet obesity and related conditions keep rising. Everybody can access a wider tech toolset to becoming entrepreneurs yet there are markedly much fewer of them than in the 1980s. In spite of Amazon and its online bookstore and Google having coded 25 million books, illiteracy stays the same and less and less Americans read a book a year. AG feels that in spite of all the tech-driven societal advancements America’s “progress machine” allowing people to better their lives have benefitted only a very fortunate minority that was already socially on top with the average pre-tax income of the top tenth nearly doubling since 1980 (seven times for the top 0.001 percent) whereas the bottom half of Americans or 117 m individuals stayed the same, at times mirroring conditions known in the poorest emerging countries (like for life expectancy of poor American males) in spite of 35 years of breathtaking changes mostly led by a continuing tech revolution. In simple terms, the picture shows the 10 percent group owning 90 percent of the wealth. AG provides a long list of similar conclusions which has led many millions of Americans, on the left and right, feeling that the game has been rigged for a very long time, leading to a constant condemnation of the system, a blow to the American dream and the rise of different streams of populism.

AG’s focus is thus on the elite who have decided to take ownership of and manage societal inequality issues using their business approach and while being the beneficiaries of the system they have created. They want to do good to correct the wrongs that they often engineered however unwittingly in the pursuit of their lives and activities. AG goes on a journey into this elite world, notably tech entrepreneurs who amassed fortunes and see a world changing role for themselves, exploring their rationale, and the do gooding galaxy of individuals who created a life for themselves assisting these aspiring existential game-changers.

The common theme of all the exchanges which AG had with various figures for his book is that they are indeed “grappling with powerful myths” that have promoted a unique power concentration in our times, allowing “the elite’s private, partial and self-promotional deeds to pass for real change and leading many “decent winners” believing that doing well by doing good was an adequate solution in an age of exclusion, making them feel better in terms of protecting their own privileges while averting more meaningful change to the status quo.

AG starts telling us about Hilary Cohen a Houston born and raised 2014 graduate from Georgetown at a time when she had to decide what to do after college, looking at management consulting, the rabbinate and the non-profit world. Hilary is representative of the young elite American college students stirred by a desire to “change things” though this time through capitalism and market solutions rather than government, creating a new approach to solving social inequality. Investment committees and driven entrepreneurship start mattering more than sheer democratically-flavored social and political actions of older days. Business encourages this trend awarding scholarships to these elite students to make them focus on “doing good” while “doing well”. One example is Georgetown’s Baker Scholarship named after the founder of Citbank and de facto maker of Harvard Business School and targeted at liberal arts students which Hilary obtains in her senior year. The era of “social” everything dawns on elite campuses: social innovation, social business, social enterprise and of course social and impact investing. Business language starts permeating the sphere of social change with “fostering innovation and providing unique skill sets”, “engaging global leaders to drive social change at scale” or “leveraging the power of capital, data, technology and innovation to improve people’s lives”, all messages that resonate with students like Hilary and equipping them for their new life missions. When Hilary receives an offer to join McKinsey, arguably the leading strategy consulting firm in the world, she does not know what to do in spite of the firm’s strong social message, wondering if she really would fulfil her desire to “doing good” by working on the problems of McKinsey’s corporate clients.

In finally taking that job, Hilary joins what AG calls MarketWorld, which is an ascendant power elite that is defined by concurrent drives to do well and to do good and focused on free market and voluntary action to solve societal issues. MarketWorld that recruits among the best is a combination of “enlightened business people and their collaborators in the universes of charity, academia, media, government and think tanks”. Their thinkers become “thought leaders” and they have their own language and territories, the latter being the famed global elite conferences around the world such as Davos (The World Economic Forum) or Aspen (The Aspen Institute), promoting the culture and state of mind that make them a global network and a community. To MarketWorld social change is not antagonistic to their needs and should be supervised by the winners of capitalism making the biggest winners of the status quo playing a leading role in the latter’s reform. Going back to Hilary, she realises very quickly that while she learns effective tools to solve corporate problems, these tools are not all obvious cure-alls across domains. She starts doubting if that social message, however noble, was not actually a way for top firms’ recruiters to capitalise on the trend for social betterment among elite students. In an ironical twist AG stressed that not content to replace government as the main agent of social change, MarketWorld advises it on how to run countries better as demonstrated by Obama’s closeness to Mckinseyites and his predecessor’s passion for Goldman Sachs alumni. The fact that these business agents of change, notably in the financial sector, having optimised everything and created fewer jobs through automation, layoffs, offshoring and dynamic scheduling while reaping great spoils for themselves along the way did not prevent them from being the self-appointed agents of social change and be accepted as such simply because they could solve problems well. Hilary, her doubts about really being groomed to change the world increasing (was she not a bit naive one might ask) ended up working in the McKinsey team Obama hired to work on his plans for a foundation, a fact that both silenced and conjured her doubts on business and social change. In the end even tough she was conflicted (though still admitting her role at McKinsey also carried prestige and lifestyle that she was not oblivious to), the work was exciting at many levels and she joined the Obama Foundation full-time allowing her to focus more squarely on doing good, even if in a very business-like way given the foundations…of the Foundation.

We then discover a number of MarketWorld examples in action. The common feature shared by all these MarketWorlders, to different degrees, is their belief that business itself is an important agent for good and societal change. Even if one could argue that the inventors and subsequent developers of the PC and internet did change the world, business as a direct force of societal change may not be a universal value in our times beyond making lives of users of products and services more efficient and pleasurable. AG introduces us to Dallas-based Stacey Asher and the world of business executives in top segments, like in her case hedge fund management, who have an epiphany (she in an orphanage in Africa) and decide to go and do good – again the business way, setting up a charity-like hedge fund to help the needy, she in the realm of fantasy sports where football teams are now stocks with proceeds going to the winners’ favourite charities. We then read about Justin Rosenstein, not even thirty, already a Silicon Valley star, having helped start Google Drive and being the co-inventor of the Gmail chat before inventing the dreadful “Like” button on Facebook (he may not be sure about his exact legacy on the latter). Justin who lived very modestly and was deeply spiritual and keen on “values” did not know what to do with his Valley wealth (though he still lives in a California-flavored communal residence) and decided to set up a new company that would connect people through work collaboration software to companies like Uber, Airbnb and Dropbox, thus “doing good” and changing people’s and workers’ experiences if not lives . We then discover Emmett Carson, a young African American who came from the Southside of Chicago focused on “social justice” a terminology too close to “win-losey” for the Valley where he had moved to advise tech entrepreneurs on the matter that he retitled his focus as being on “fairness”, which was better accepted. In doing so Carson understood that “if no one questioned the entrepreneurs’ fortunes and their personal status quo, they were willing to help” so they could also change the world in ways that had their buy- ins.

Here AG makes us discover the beauty of the “win-win” (the fourth commandment or habit of Stephen Covey’s opus named “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” and how they should think) promoted by “philantrocapitalists”. Win-Winism, that is rooted in Adam Smith’s social benefits of selfishness, is the mantra of the wealthy do-gooders and brings with it things like social enterprises, social venture capital, impact investing, benefit corporations, double and triple bottom lines, shared value theories of business’s enlightened self-interest, give one-get one products and the likes, all centred on what is good for the winners is good for everyone else. Win-win is also about about giving as it makes you happier and “being selfish and giving”. Win-win looks to be about having its cake and eating it too, more than once, the latest internally minded-win-win having been “Getting Syrians back to work – a win- win for host countries and the refugees”. And all of this against a backdrop of painlessness and promise that what has been very good for me will certainly be good for you who may not have drawn the right set of cards.

We then get a glimpse of one of those elite do gooding gatherings which is the Summit at Sea on a cruise ship and get introduced to a few attendees (many women entrepreneurs among those he describes) and their thought leaders who all seem focused on making sure business itself can bring the most impact and change in the lives of millions in the world. To be sure these gatherings may have the feel of sects as they all vocally and safely express that message, all looking alike in their profiles and win-win aspirations. The Summit at Sea cruise is about having “cascading effects on humanity”, “making friends who are going to impact your pocket books” and while “the boat is not about getting drunk and getting naked. Well it’s sort of about that but it’s also about social justice”. Then AG presents Pishevar a veteran Valley venture capitalist who would have trained Uber’s founder Travis Kalanick in the art of LA clubbing (indeed picking clubbing clothes for him, the bio detail being rather odd) but would see himself as a key architect in the prolongation of life (living longer and healthier of course) right at the corner of the next few years, encouraging all not to take risks (very un-business-like) physically at least so they stay alive to experience the new age. Pishevar and other like him insist they are “rebels” disrupting what is not well in everybody’s life, again stressing the key role of business in win-win changes to alter distant individual conditions while preserving the bigger societal one. As such the two companies he backed, Uber and Airbnb, are shown as disrupters of “monopolies” and providers of other choices for all, even though they ran into myriads of problems with their stakeholders prompting radical changes and a less messianic approach. These live examples are part of a never- ending succession of stories dealing with the do well-do good crowd of entrepreneurs and their thought leaders who give words and ways to the do gooding win-win elite and their galaxies.

The chapter on “thought leaders” is quite interesting as it deals with a core group of the MarketWorld galaxy. AG offers an enlightening comparison of the older, critical though demised public intellectuals like Yin & Yang and now deceased Gore Vidal and Bill Buckley vs. the newer, systemically non-disruptive but fashionable thought leaders like Yin & Yang Thomas L. Friedman and Niall Ferguson. Basically these thought leaders who come from academia or various softer corners of business provide views, usually non-threatening to the status quo built by their elite followers and backers, on how to better lives and also the world. AG provides us a real tour of the new “profession” and how many thought leaders gradually accepted to forget about their once critical approach of society to be part of the MarketWorld tour where they get paid handsomely to do speeches or talks (Niall Ferguson, the well known historian, who understood the power of communication more than most of his academic peers, makes USD 50,000 to 75,000 by speech or talk). Many thought leaders who command hefty fees for their talks happily paid by business attendees so they know how to live better lives, feel better about their success and change the world the win-win way, often start becoming such Market World beacons by stumbling into the limelight realising how easy MarketWorld participants will pay them for feel good stories devoid of culprits. All of them emphasise solutions to improve the system but not to change it due to the fact that attendees and backers are it. So the focus of the thought leaders is squarely on fighting poverty and not the less than backer-welcome “inequality”. Reading AG, one would feel that anybody can be a thought leader as long as one already publishes anything widely read and works through agents who sell their clients on the speaking and talking tours (note on the inside book cover: AG has also an agent which is happy to book him for “select” engagements).

We then travel through the worlds of investment banks and strategy consulting firms and their “protocols” which can be applied to “fight poverty” with McKinsey and Bain being leading examples of AG’s chapter heading that “arsonists do make the best firefighters” in our MarketWorld times. As a former “arsonist” myself, I would argue that the tools one learns at these elite firms are indeed very applicable to managing one’s life and likely to be quite relevant to addressing efficiently mega- issues such as reducing poverty. These McKinsey protocols (Read Ethan Rasiel’s illuminating “The McKinsey Mind”) are in the same vein as and a natural extension to what good colleges teach students so they can “think”, something I notice when observing my young strategy consulting associate daughter when managing her own life. AG points out that the leading advisers to corporate clients which have cemented our system and helped craft what has become a very “winners take all” field are often the ones joining and leading do-gooding platforms, these having usually been founded by billionaire philanthropists having created their wealth through market-astute and well-timed business endeavours. AG takes the example of the Soros Open Society Foundations and especially the Economic Advancement Foundation whose CEO was ex-McKinsey, Goldman Sachs and “extractor” Rio Tinto though had a peculiar Mongolian musicology scholar background in his early days. Taking the example of a Soros foundation is incidentally and unwittingly very interesting as George Soros is not just the 1992 British Pound killer but also someone who tried to change things for the better concretely in Hungary and throughout Central & Eastern Europe and is also subjected to direct and overt antisemitic rants from the likes of Victor Orban to Facebook’s now fired lobbying firm (read FT’s Rana Foroohar’s “Facebook puts profits before democracy” on 19th November). AG’s point however is that taking the master’s tools to dismantle his house is rather peculiar, even if one can see the value and efficiency of the tools that could be deployed for other goals than creating inequalitarian wealth in the first place.

We then go to the world of foundations to see that they were despised when the titans of the early 20th century, like Carnegie or Rockefeller, set them up as they were considered too obvious tools of the plutocrats of the day. Times changed and the many foundations funded by early and modern tycoons focused on improving the lives of many like The Ford foundation and are now seen as the tools of goodness in modern societies. We focus on Darren Walker, the President of the Ford Foundation, a gay African American poster child of the American dream come true, who wants to change his focus from the doing good to alleviate poverty to making his donors focus on the roots of inequality that led to poverty, wanting to force them to look at the origin of their wealth and what could be done to change the system rather than curing its ill developments. We know more about his high profile donors like the Tisches or Sacklers who are engaged in huge philanthropy but whose fortunes also relied in part upon cigarettes or addictive drugs (some key donors like Laurie Fisch being conflicted but not yet ready to be the odd one out to contest the “status quo”). As we follow Darren addressing his audience comprising mostly junior executives at private equity firm KKR, his new mantra does not register as they too prefer to focus on cementing the success of their early careers so they can, one would hope, donate later some of the proceeds of their privileged existence, following the earlier Andrew Carnegie who thought it was fine to maximise one’s financial rewards through business activities so one could then donate lavishly later rather than being less inequalitarian in the first place (Carnegie, who surprisingly was much in favour of steep inheritance tax as he wanted to promote donating most of one’s wealth when alive, could condone on one hand activities that would cut costs and jobs so his bottom line would be higher while making sure that the excess financial rewards resulting from these selfish capitalistic policies would be donated…).

In what I think is the most powerful and relevant part of his book (also as it touches upon the raison d’être of Desperate Measures), AG then leaves the “do gooding” arena and the sheer win-win mantra to focus on the global elite itself and its struggles as of 2016, especially post-Brexit and even before the unlikely Trump ascent, to understand and then deal with the populist outbreak globally. We focus on the Clinton Global Initiative that was launched in 2005 by Bill Clinton and was modelled on the Davos’s World Economic Forum albeit on a smaller scale but focused on world changing projects and sponsor/attendee commitments. In other words tangible deeds beyond just feel-good words. The CGI took place for 12 years during “UN Week” in New York, that is during the United Nations general assembly week when all the heads of state would congregate to the Big Apple. CGI quickly presented itself as the alternative to the public, governmental way of solving world problems right at the time of the colossal state flop exposed by the management of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Every year the center of gravity of UN Week shifted from the UN itself to CGI as it attracted all the private and public world decision-makers in a Bill Clinton-engineered drive from solving problems away from exclusive government, public service and collective action to the markets via partnerships (key word) among entities private and public. Over 12 years (the last one was in 2016 as Hillary was deemed to go to the White House) CGI inspired 3,600 commitments, improving 435 million lives in 180 countries (a statistic that AG stressed was not easily verifiable). A good example of the CGI business-focused approach on win-win is exemplified by the subject of women’s equality or gender diversity where panels were filled by corporate ladies and men at the expense of feminist intellectuals and fighters for the cause. In typical CGI fashion, a key topic like women’s equality would be packaged in a win-win approach as it was not just the right thing to do, but also the business-smart thing to do given its USD 28 trillion market opportunity.

This CGI gathering of the MarketWorld elite meeting with state leaders was described by Niall Ferguson, a regular, as the “tribe of the rootless cosmopolitans” representing the “the everywhere companies” facing the ire of the “somewhere people” in other words the “One world” vs. the “place”, illustrating a conflict not only involving the rich vs. the poor even if that division could also apply in the new confrontation. As of mid-2016 the focus of CGI attendees was on that new divide and how to manage if not to solve it. Their main initial reaction was that the key problem was that they might have done a bad job of selling “One World” and its open borders, globalisation, technical progress, trade, rule by data and indeed MarketWorld supremacy. To follow AG’s approach, it is is interesting to note that the debate had gradually moved from “doing good” and “how to” to the roots of poverty if not yet inequality as CGI attendees were not yet ready to challenge the system that led to populism and from which they benefitted.

Dani Rodrik from the Harvard Kennedy School, though working from an elitist beacon (and a cosmopolitan himself as being a Turkish-born American), started to say that globalisation should not jut be rescued from the populists but also from its cheerleaders, its new model having put democracy to work for the global economy instead of the other way around. Jonathan Haidt, from NYU’s Stern School of Business, stated that “the new cosmopolitan elite acted and talked in ways that insulted, alienated and energised fellow citizens particularly those having a predisposition to authoritarianism, adding that “globalists were utopians, believing in change” and “the future and that anything that divides people into separate groups or identities is bad; removing borders and divisions is good”. Clearly CGI attendees knew what the problems were but did not know how to address them lest they broke the system. This section of the book is quite key also in helping understand the great divide and the populist outbreak, which is triggered not by poverty but by identity even if the two are linked (incidentally one of the great criticisms one hears of the globally-minded win-win fixation of the elite is that it is focused on exotic, far away lands and not on deprived areas back at home to help fellow citizens).

One of the worries expressed by Bill Clinton himself was actually whether this populist anger against the elite (be it bi-coastal or urban, this across the West) would not lead to a form of elite secession that would leave the left outs even more behind. At the same time, AG reports his presence at a panel comprising market reformers Mauricio Macri, Matteo Renzi and Sadiq Kahn where the latter as Mayor of London, just post-June 2016 British Referendum on the EU, would note that London had voted massively Remain as expected for a prosperous place but that its superior economic status and well-being also benefitted the rest of the UK thus following the win-win scenario, this in spite of London being clearly today a cosmopolitan city for the privileged few be they professionals, investors and/or residents (including the absentee kind for the latter) as some of us know only too well. AG goes at length providing many examples of the disconnect between the globalists and their populist foes noting that global CEOs do not deal with local issues and do need votes, solving problems outside and beyond politics, particularly locally where identity and related issues matter to the residents. It is notable that while well-meaning CGI attendees were debating reacting to populism they did so within themselves in a safe environment with none of the populist propagandists or their followers present (one could argue that the presence of a Nigel Farage or a Marine Le Pen, all acutely vocal and perpetually electorally-focused, might not have resulted in a constructive debate).

AG spent some time on Bill Clinton and his last CGI valedictorian address in September 2016. He then made a passionate plea for people to make the right choices and opting for “bridges over walls” to reflect the CGI mantra, an admirable globalist dream though also itself intolerant of other dreams focused on identity and “the place” however baselessly politically hijacked today for short-term electoral purposes. In doing so Clinton framed the “choices” as not hearing the case for communities wanting to resist the globosphere and smeared at for favouring resentment and difference. Clinton would suffer as Hillary would lose to DT but also as his globalist concerns (so far from his Yale Law School days and early political career) were repudiated by an “America First” campaign or what he saw as the rising conflict between “inclusive cooperation” and “tribal nationalism”, even mentioning the shaping of a long and strange third world war that would actually be a global civil war of epic proportions. In an interesting wink to the lecture circuit and the thought leaders, Clinton stated that he had made (in late 2016) 649 paid speeches since leaving the White House and paid 50% in taxes while giving most of the rest to poor people who needed help, including some of his own family for their medical bills, adding that he took the money from rich people “and that unlike Robin Hood, I didn’t have to hold an arrow on ’em”. (Don’t we miss Bill and the optimistic 1990s?).

Going back to his very core topic, AG finally gave us an interesting viewpoint of an opponent of MarketWorld in the person of Chiara Cordelli, an Italian political philosopher at the University of Chicago who had co-authored “Philanthropy in Democratic Societies”. Chiarelli was attending a panel discussion hosted by a leading hedge fund philanthropist who was also willing to deal with the book’s critical views of modern day “philantrocapitalists”. One of the panellists was none other than Sanford Weil, the maker of Citigroup and the ardent repealer of the Glass-Steagall Act pre-financial cris, whom all who met him know his strong personality. Weil was never keen on government, preferring the private sector involvement, to sort out the ills of the world, this notwithstanding for some his role alongside others in triggering the great financial crisis that led to a massive state bailout of Citi and the banking sector, making now rich people like him having to “step in” as a do gooder as government was broke. Cordelli at some point replied to Weil that “the government is us”. Following the panel, Cordelli reflected on the role of the “very rich” and MarketWorld to address public problems which she saw was like “putting the accused in charge of the court system”. She objected to the fact that the global elite did not see see why so many people in the world needed there help in the first place and whether their actions contributed at all to that. She felt that MarketWorld’s actions, however effective, did not seem to compensate for any harm done, even if unwittingly. She saw a difference among culprits, the worst group marked by “direct complicity” being those having campaigned against inheritance tax, the tax avoiders and the creators of low wages and precarity so common in our gig economy while the better group comprised those who “lived decent lives and attempted to make lives slightly better through the market”. She saw in all these types of efforts not one single moral act with helping but two through a parallel act of acceptance of a system all winners benefitted from, making these elite characters look, in an arguable image, like the owner of a painting who later finds out it had been stolen and has an obligation to return it to its rightful owner, adding that by doing a relatively modest bit of good while doing nothing about the larger problem is akin to keep the painting. Trying to be balanced, she argues that “not every bad thing in the world is your fault if you fail to stop it” though that citizens of a democracy are collectively responsible for what their society allows and have a duty towards those it systematically fails, the burden falling more heavily on those most amply rewarded by the ultimately arbitrary set of societal arrangements. She sees the “winners” as bearing responsibility for the state of the institutions and for the effect they have on others’ lives as we are nothing without “society” (that also allows for a stable environment critically enabling business to thrive) that indeed protects the rights of all without any domination by others. She sees society as giving the “framework for hedge fund managers as well as violinists or tech entrepreneurs to exist” as they indeed can live in a civilisational and regulated infrastructure that is taken for granted. Her solution (a concept keen on MarketWorlders) rather than focusing exclusively on private initiative is to return to politics as the place where we go to shape the world, which MarketWorld might argue is already represented by the likes of Michael Bloomberg, the real mix of a billionaire, philanthropist and keen politician.

While some chapters might be superfluous or repetitive, the book makes for an entertaining read if somewhat tedious at times so grating the description of the elite characters, clearly done on purpose, can be repulsive as if leading the reader to go for revolutionary pitchforks. The book is very rich, almost too much if that were possible. It contains a deep mine of facts though sometimes making for an arduous reading in relation to fluidity. Looking at the core tenet of the book, I am not sure I buy the argument that wealthy people should not try to do good as it serves also their purpose of feeling better and maintaining the status quo and that the younger generations, even at elite universities, should not think about philanthropy even if crafted along a business minded path. It seems to me that the elite wanting to contribute or “to give back” is good in itself and that it is also fine if it helps them feeling better or maintaining the world as we know it. While I also believe in doing good via more democratic and government-related ways, this should not stop the business and entrepreneurial elite from helping improving things along the way even if they have far more benefitted from the system than others. Would we all be better off if the elite including the Bill Gates of this world and their foundations were not “engaged”? Would we be better off if we left the doing good to government only? And going to the core of the matter, would we better off without capitalism which has created these elites as well as its resulting inequalities and if yes what would AG offer us as a viable alternative route short of going the phalanstery way? I am afraid that we live in an imperfect, capitalist but improvable world that has the merit of working, admittedly more for some than others, and that alternatives are non- existent in practical terms. What if the Utopians were not the globalist MarketWorlders but those who are against the system however imperfect and inequalitarian though free enterprising we know? I believe we should fight to reduce poverty and inequality together within the system that we know as it has also the most positive features that we can hope for including freedom and innovation even though it indeed creates an elite that also over time can be self-perpetuating but which may also be a form of a lesser evil.

It is true that some very wealthy entrepreneurs may lose a sense of reality but that does not mean that they are all bad people. The fact that they wish to protect their gains and wish to appear as benevolent is only all too human. I believe that it is important to develop a nuanced approach to this topic of doing well while doing good. I would naturally see those wealthy entrepreneurs who think that business in itself brings goodness as delusional and trying to find shelters for their guilt or covers for their greed. Business by itself is about the bottom line and making entrepreneurs wealthy by serving the needs of customers who buy their goods and services. I see those who genuinely wish to develop a win-win outcome as well intended and see no reason why they should not, knowing it will require a social effort to do good and that business in itself is not enough to do good. I see wealthy entrepreneurs who set up independent foundations and part away with a substantial part of their wealths, the epitomes being Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, as the real leaders of the genuine win-win game through meaningful deeds to indeed change the world, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation being a game changer in that respect not only for its peer group but also for whole continents and human ailments. Today the top eight billionaires control as much wealth, six of them tech titans, as the bottom half of the world population so have the means to change lives and be impactful. Yet for one Bill Gates and his eponymous Foundation the current leader of the pack, Jeff Bezos, even if involved in charitable activities, pales in comparison in what he “gives back”, arguably preferring to change people’s lives by giving them a better on-line buying experience though by the same token not pretending to be a goodness game changer. Interestingly enough, Bill Gates, ever the gentleman tycoon, was strangely very laudatory of this book, while a potential “class” target of AG, and wrote a stellar support for it: “In Anand’s thought-provoking book his fresh perspective on solving complex societal problems is admirable. I appreciate his commitment and dedication to spreading social justice”. Bill Gates is definitely coming across as a good man (or, having read AG, could be he very cratfy after all?).

It is very hard to know what AG thinks and whether the book is an activist’s pamphlet or a mere account. At the very least his “critique” should be more clearly stated as reflecting an insider’s and not just an observer’s account, this not taking away that his rich book is a very enjoyable and thought-provoking read. If cynical one could be forgiven for wondering if AG did not find a clearly controversial subject so he could write an engagingly differentiated book on it fulfilling his destiny as a thought leader (even if potentially a risky venture given his critical focus), the very role he seems to castigate in his writings even though he is very part of MarketWorld himself. It should be a moot point as, even if he is indeed part of MarketWorld, he would be entitled to criticizing the current “system” though by the same token should then also offer systemic alternatives, even if likely utopian, focused on replacing capitalism as the roots of all evil. In all fairness, AG stresses the “Cordelli solution” as a possible start and somewhat back to basics way to deal with the societal issues at stake, which could also involve the joint partnership of politics and government taking back some of the lead with MarketWorld more in a critical and well-funded supporting role, which the latter could live with as not lethally system threatening and quite realistic not to mention self-preserving as more politically astute. To go back to an old book note, perhaps we need more RFKs and not just wealthy tech entrepreneurs to show up and take the lead.

Warmest regards,

Serge

 

Serge Desprat- 27th November, 2018 (Prague)