Politics, Reviews

Book Review: Age of Extremes by Eric Hobsbawm

How can a story so vast, so full of triumph and tragedy, as the twentieth century, be told in one sitting? Can any single volume do justice to the sheer scale of the events that were set in motion after the lamps out all over Europe in 1914; events which culminated in the collapse of a civilisation in the early 1990s?

Born to Viennese and British parents during the dying moments of the Austro Hungarian Empire, in the year of the Russian revolution, Hobsbawm’s own life witnessed the rise and fall of nations – not least the Soviet Union, to which he remained dedicated as long as he lived. It is from this lofty perspective that The Age of Extremes surveys its subject.

Hobsbawm takes a measured, dispassionate tone throughout. Possibly too measured at times, anticipating those that might accuse a lifelong Communist Party member of being unfit to write any form of “true” history. The reader is assumed to have a reasonably comprehensive knowledge of the major events and key players of the twentieth century. It would be quite possible to describe these ad nauseam across a hundred volumes – and still not scratch the surface – so instead the book provides a synthesis. It weaves together the many chaotic threads of the era into a tapestry in which the interconnectivity and causality of events are revealed.

Although he dispenses with crass ideological rhetoric, Hobsbawm’s marxism is clear in his analytical approach. Social forces are described in great detail, while leaders and “great men” fall by the wayside more often as not. The changing shape of the global economy and the evolving forms of social conflict are our constant frame of reference. In keeping with the “history from below” technique which Hobsbawm himself pioneered, moments of great import are contrasted against how life must have felt for the ordinary worker in their own corner of the world.

Though macroscopic in scale, this immense social history isn’t without pathos. Here and there the author shines through the text, even appearing as an occasional protagonist. Hobsbawm paints a vivid picture of the day of Hitler’s ascent to power, as witnessed by a young man reading the newspaper boards in dismay on a cold winter afternoon in Vienna. He appears later in Cambridge at the back end of the 1930s, drinking next to Crick and Watson, ignorant of the titanic breakthrough they were just about to make, and then again listening raptly to the endless hours of speeches by Fidel Castro the 1960s. His presence as an older, wiser and sadder version of himself is especially apparent towards the end of book, as he appraises the wreckage of both the golden age of capitalism (which he identifies as being between 1950 and 1973) and communism in its European form.

This post-mortem of Soviet socialism is high up among the achievements of this comprehensive history. Delicately avoiding the rabid sectarianism that all-too-often characterises works of this nature, he deftly unpicks the structural weaknesses and systematic failures of the Soviet system, simultaneously explaining to the reader why certain decisions were made in the first place and how, for a time, they appeared to be vindicated.

In his own words, he explains how:

The cause to which I devoted a good deal of my life hasn’t worked out. I hope it has made me a better historian, because the best history is written by the people who have lost out. It sharpens your analytical capacity. The winners think that history came out right because they were right, while the losers ask why everything was different, and that is a more profitable question.


Despite his extraordinary insight and the great care taken over the subject (indeed, the Soviet Union can be interpreted as the real protagonist of the narrative), Hobsbawm has none-the-less come under fire from both the left and right on his handling of the subject. Accused of “omissions and misrepresentations whereby communists have always converted history to their cause” by conservative historian David Pryce Jones
on the one hand and being “one long apologia to explain why it was OK to be a Stalinist in the 1950s… and finally a democrat in the 1990s” by ultra-left journal “LibCom” on the other, it just goes to show: if you’re spoiling for a fight, you’ll find one. Hobsbawm himself makes no bones about the fact that as well as writing a history he is also constructing an argument, which is both graceful and compelling, leaving such sectarian attacks on his politics looking childish and empty.

If there is one weakness here, it is in his obvious lack of interest in many of the intellectual developments since his orthodox marxist heyday. Issues pertaining to gender are rarely far away from words like “fashionable” and after waxing lyrical on the cultural significance of his favourite classical and jazz artists, he ludicrously suggests that it will be “down to future historians” to decide if anyone really ever liked The Rolling Stones. Considering this book was written late in the 7th decade of his life, we may perhaps forgive such moments. The only point where this attitude verges on problematic is in his suggestion that Alan Turing’s heroic status within the gay liberation movement is overstated, slightly implying that he brought his fate upon himself due to his sheltered upper class life (Turing called the police after having his flat robbed by a male lover, effectively handing himself in). This smacks of an outdated view of homosexuality as an aristocratic deviancy.

Received at the time by liberal triumphalists as the well crafted but ultimately bitter rant of a defeated ideologue , Hobsbawm’s final predictions for the future grant him, if not the last laugh, than at least the final word. The text ends with some extraordinarily prophetic passages on the potential for crisis within the new liberal world order. These include climate change, the ageing population in the developed nations, religious fundamentalism in the third world, terrorism, unwinnable wars waged indefinitely by undefeatable nations, the disempowerment of the state in the economy and the rise of a universally disliked class of technocratic politicians. In this titanic work, Eric Hobsbawm not only helps us understand what happened, from the perspective of those it happened to, but shows us how we might ourselves step back from the world and comprehend the times we ourselves will live through.

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Hotgothic: I’m Still Yours (CD Single)

Dive bar drug rockers Hotgothic make a sharp break with their established modus operandi with this creamy shot at MOR synth pop. They’ve woken up from their boozed up stupor of anti-rock and decided to actually write a pop song, just to demonstrate that they can if they want to. However – the shrill, isolated synth melody and over-earnest crooning combine to have much the same effect as their previous works, and I’m Still Yours sounds as much a criticism and deconstruction of songwriting as an earnest attempt. The no frills production, synthesised rhythm section and pointed vocal bring to mind a speakeasy version of Sleaford Mods.

 

The B side is a drawn out statement piece. A drawling spoken vocal describes its own minor grievances over a hypnotic, marshal sounding slab of electro. The song gradually increases in intensity as the tone of the vocals shifts from a self pitying appeal to a fascistic sneer. A rather neat comment on the sort of political approach which begins as a rational appeal to self interest and ends up demanding the ideological destruction of society. Fittingly – if somewhat bluntly – the song ends in a chorus of chanted backing vocals on the repeated motif of “I’m know I’m right”. Just in case you had any doubt about what the message of the song was up to now.

The final track on this CD single is an interesting choice. A remix of the title track without any of the ironic deconstruction and all the bells and whistles of 80s driving rock thrown at it. It sounds fantastic; pure fist pumping, aviators, cocaine and open top car driving through LA fantastic…. but by its very presence the brevity of the main single mix more deliberate and striking.

While most rock music pleads with the listener for attention, Hotgothic instead point an accusing finger. In trying (and failing) to be as middle of the road as possible, I’m Still Yours is at once passé and incongruous, enjoyable for its scathing satire as much as for its merits as a smooth slice of electro rock.

Purchase the CD here

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Politics, Reviews

Review: The Shortest History of Germany by James Hawes

Understanding how two centuries of revolution and violence have somehow culminated in the realisation of Germany’s long standing ambition to be Europe’s leading power can be a tall order. In light of current events, this book has the potential to be a timely and relevant contribution to public enlightenment.

Sadly it is nothing of the sort.

The book begins with some excellent exposition on the Roman origins of the German idea. It enjoyably and concisely goes on a little romp through the rise, fall and rebirth of Rome from the perspective of an increasingly Romanised Germanic barbarian. We get a good sense of how the memory of Rome formed a mythical centre of gravity for the emerging mediaeval central Europe. In fact, everything up to the pre-modern age is fairly enjoyable.

As in genuine history,  signs of the trouble to come start to appear around the industrial revolution. Hawes introduces us the great Prussian philosopher, GW Hegel. He explains how, in order to avoid brutal censorship, Hegel and other thinkers of his age veiled their ideas in an attempt to throw the authorities off the scent of their radicalism.

Sadly, Hawes acts more like a thick headed Prussian censor than an educated reader of philosophy. Hegel couched many of his radical ideas for a new social order in gushing admiration for the totalitarian Prussian state. He loudly exclaimed that if a perfect state was ever going to exist, Prussia was well on the way to being it. Like Thomas Moore before him, Hegel is playing to the ego of authority in order to express dangerously radical ideas with relative impunity. Unfortunately Hawes simply takes Hegel at his word on this, and then proceeds to hamfistedly blame him for “all state loving extremists ever since, both of the left and right” – a theme which Hawes determinedly sticks to through the rest of the book.

At first its hard to tell whether all this is deliberate dishonesty or simply the kind of astounding stupidity enthusiastically performed by the apparently well educated (what a surprise that Nick Cohen has given this book his resounding endorsement!).

As the book goes on it becomes clear that the reader is being subjected to a poorly constructed barrage of lies-by-omission, error and ideological nonsense.

The author’s almost obscene hatred of Prussia should probably disqualify him from writing a genuinely useful history of Germany full stop. I won’t go much into this, as other reviewers with better knowledge of Prussian history have already throughly trounced this aspect of the writing (amazing that such a short book can be so a-historical in so many different ways!).

His handling of Marx is fairly typical of sneering liberalism: “a clever writer who was wrong about everything”. A view which totally fails to appreciate that Marxism took off in a big way after World War I because he was, in fact, right about so many things. I was more or less prepared for this particular bit of nonsense, as his view of Marx was heavily insinuated in his earlier discussion of Hegel.

However, it wasn’t until his handling of the 1919 working class uprising that I began to develop a genuine sense of revulsion towards the text.

Rather than address the painful schism that ripped through the German working class after WWI, which resulted in the Social Democratic government hiring mercenaries to violently suppress their own people, he simply shrugs his shoulders and ignores it, blaming incitement by communists for the whole debacle. The only mention of the great German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg is in a picture caption – her ideas are ignored and her brutal murder is entirely omitted.

So ready is Hawes to blame communists for everything, including their own murders (which he implicitly endorses), one wonders how many other victims of terror he’d happily blame for their own fates.

The stench of his fascist semi-apologism becomes almost too much to bear as the book continues, and I was tempted to simply give up several times, despite it being a short and very basic text.

His clear and constant implications about the inferiority of Eastern European society,  his abject hatred of communists and his occasional flirtation with anti-semitism lead me to suspect that, had he been living in West Germany in the 1930s, he’d have been more sympathetic to the rising forces of fascism than he’d like to admit.

His old nemesis Prussia comes to the rescue here, as he’s able to frame Nazism as uniquely driven by those East Elbian barbarians, which his enlightened, civilised, Roman West Germany was unwillingly dragged along with. How like modern Polish far right revisionism this sounds. His awesome liberal chauvinism disallows Hawes from taking a nuanced or self critical view of Germany’s troubled history.

As I mentioned above, the writing at times borders on almost anti-semitic. The clearest example being when he dismisses the post-war East German government as a prefabricated puppet government installed by Moscow. Although there is some truth to this allegation,  neglecting to mention that it was composed of many Jewish anti-Nazi German refugees, some of whom hadn’t been living in Moscow during the war, but living in camps, is unforgivable. Who cares about the truth when it doesn’t fit into a homogenous narrative of good vs evil?

Maybe those East Germans who heroically purged their society of slav and jew hatred were the wrong kind of jews? Communists are always the wrong kind of jews, aren’t they?

He goes on to wax lyrical about the West’s pragmatic decision to reinstate the Nazi civil service and allow them to enact the (Nazi) plan to transfer the entire wealth of the nation (including both war industries and citizen’s personal savings) into the hands of Western facing businesses, while also changing to a new Western backed currency in order to divide the country – first economically and then formally – along the borders of  Western occupation.

Hawes more or less skips the GDR and the cold war as an irrelevant aberration. Strange, as this book is so much a product of the cold war that it could have been written by the CIA. Whether this is because he knows next to nothing about East German society, or because he actively wants to wipe it out of the history books is unclear.

Perhaps the only thing I agreed with in this whole sorry segment is that process by which reunification was undertaken was borderline criminal. However, while I see the economic terrorism and cultural purges of East German civil society as being the issue at hand (including the totally unnecessary dismantling of its world class health system), Hawes objects to his beloved West Germany being saddled with an inferior society to subsidise.

The book concludes by asserting that the modern EU, as led by West Germany, is the natural successor to both Rome and Charlemagne. A fantastically unhelpful lesson to take from modern Germany’s fascinating history and an uncomfortable parallel with the traditional fascistic desire to create ultra-modern states modelled on a glorious mythic past.

Frustrating and disturbing in equal measure.

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Iconic image of the Freikorps mercenaries executing a defiant young communist in 1919. Guess who James Hawes thinks are the good guys in this scene?

 

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Book Review: The World According To Xi by Kerry Brown

Despite being the guiding ideology behind the world’s most powerful economy, Chinese communism (or “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics”) remains an enigmatic and misrepresented force here in the West. Although we vaguely understand that China’s impact on the global order in the 21st century will be enormous, we tend to put it in the same category as the moon and the tides. A distant fact of nature, so huge as to be mostly imperceptible and irrelevant to our daily lives.

Critics of China’s belligerent insistence on maintaining itself as a one party communist state perform the most bizarre mental acrobatics in order to cope with the fact of its existence. Everyone knows that communism is a failed system that collapsed decades ago, incapable of generating and sustaining wealth and modernity. Thus, the Chinese system must simply be a hoax, or a red veneer disguising a fundamentally late capitalist society. Maybe we expect the 88 million members of the Communist Party of China, with its origins in Revolution and a leadership baptised in the fires of Maoism, to simply yell “surprise!”, put on top hats and admit they’ve believed in western capitalism all along.

In this wonderfully concise and accessible book, Kerry Brown gives us a short overview of the global outlook of modern China. For those struggling to draw a line between the enduring images of the Maoist era and our current conception of a superpower which is capitalist in all but name, and then again struggling to understand why such rapid development has produced the neo-authoritarian figure of Xi Jinping, rather than the liberal democratic reforms that were so complacently predicted, this book is an essential crash course.

The book is especially poignant in an era when the western systems which we had assumed China would one day seek to emulate appear to be falling apart. European capitalism is straining under pressure of internal forces which range from progressive separatism to barely disguised fascism. The American empire also appears to be collapsing under its own weight, unable and unwilling to sustain its oversized presence in the world and turning to deeply disturbing political obsessions at home.

Kerry Brown’s analyses of the implications of Xi Jinping Thought (a body of political theory recently added to the Chinese constitution in the tradition of Mao Tse Tung Thought and Deng Xiaoping Theory) is engaging but professionally dispassionate. The book neither advocates nor criticises Chinese governance, offering a digestible explanation of the current reality and allowing the reader to make their own moral and political judgements.

Although The World According To Xi is plainly intended as a short primer, there were many areas I felt could still have been discussed in greater depth. Brown confines himself to describing China’s huge economy as “complicated”, but we  might have benefited from some illustrative examples demonstrating how the relationship between the state, private business and workers actually functions. Although we learn a fair bit about the wider political context in which Xi Jinping exists, we’re no clearer on what party political mechanisms are actually at work. Brown talks a lot about China’s variously hot and cold relationship with Marxism-Leninism, but assumes a great deal of knowledge on behalf of the reader in terms of what Marxism-Leninism actually is. We also get a broad look at how China views itself and its own ascension to superpower status, and some discussion of how this may relate with existing global systems, but we get almost nothing on China’s relationship with its communist neighbours – Vietnam, Laos and North Korea.

The World According To Xi is a fantastic report on the current outlooks and attitudes of the People’s Republic of China under Xi Jinping. I would highly recommend it to anyone looking to improve their knowledge of the subject quickly. For those not especially interested in the nuts and bolts of China’s political economy, this book will provide more than enough information to satisfy. However, if you’re looking for a comprehensive answer to the question of what the PRC really is, it barely scratches the surface.

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Politics, Reviews

Impressions of Cuba

Here are a few words about my recent trip to Cuba with my partner Claire. Although it was just a holiday undertaken in a personal capacity (not any kind of political delegation or solidarity mission), standing in the last great cold war city west of Hanoi I found myself coming away with some strong impressions, political and otherwise.

We don’t speak Spanish beyond asking for basic directions and ordering a beer (and even then, poorly) so the level of insightful conversation we managed was fairly limited – although plenty of people were willing to chat with us as best as we could manage.

As tourists, we mostly interacted with extremely cosmopolitan Cubans and we didn’t exactly travel out to any rural sugar plantations to get the unvarnished opinions of the agricultural working class. So some of the impressions described below will be coloured by the kind of people we met in Havana, Santiago and on the paradisiacal Holguin coast.

Via Cuba’s many museums and sites of historical interest we learned a great deal of their history, and its really impossible to make sense of anything in Cuba without having some appreciation of it.  So this is where I’ll begin, apologies to those well versed in Cuban history, just skip down a bit!

 

The Origins of the Cuban Nation

Since its discovery in the very late 14th century by Christopher Columbus and right up until the turn of the 19th, Cuba was a colony of the Spanish Empire. In true imperial form, the Spanish successfully butchered the indigenous peoples down to the last man, woman and child, proceeding to use Cuba as a clearing house for slavery, a plantation for tobacco and sugar and a naval base to threaten Spain’s British and French military rivals in the Caribbean – a fact attested to by Havana’s awesome colonial fortifications, which are the largest of their kind in the whole of the Americas.

The Spanish population in Cuba became divided between imperial loyalists and those that began to see themselves as Cubans and over the centuries an independence movement emerged. After years of bloody struggles a coherent movement began to form around the political ideas of exiled dissident and poet, José Martí. Similar to Venezuela’s Simon Bolivar before him, Martí developed a strong sense of Latin American and Cuban identity – around which a unified independence movement could coalesce.

Martí and his followers did indeed succeed in returning to Cuba, raising up a bloody rebellion and kicking out the Spanish, for which he is venerated as Cuba’s first and greatest national hero, both by the current communist regime as well as those opposed to it. In many ways, he takes the place of Lenin in Cuba’s communist mythology. Despite being governed by a Marxist-Leninist one party system, it is images of José Martí that appear everywhere in Cuba, from giant monuments to friendly murals, not Marx and Lenin.

Despite it’s eventual victory in 1898, Martí’s rebellion left Cuba a smouldering wreck, its economy destroyed and its population exhausted. Martí himself died heroically while charging towards Spanish artillery in his trademark black suit and on his huge white horse. The USA, keen to see the imperial Spanish driven as far away from their territory as possible vocally supported the new Republic, although provided little physical or military aid during the war itself. However, they were able to exert considerable influence over the vulnerable new state and insisted that their founding constitution exempt the USA from rules of national sovereignty, effectively turning the island into an American military base.

Although spirited attempts were made to create a functioning democracy – and the early Cuban governments were deeply progressive compared to the reactionary Spanish – the requirement for American approval for any kind of serious decision making quickly turned Cuba into a puppet state, its leadership degenerating into a brutal and corrupt class of landowners, untouchable as long as they acted on behalf of American interests. A similar story that would play out again in South Vietnam some 50 years later.

A famous high point of this era is the 1946 conference of the North American mafia, under the pretext of a Frank Sinatra concert, hosted by Havana’s Hotel Nacional with the blessing of Cuba’s then dictator, Fulgenico Batista.

This era of Cuba being used as a shared playground for both the American mafia and military, while its own leadership inflicted political repression, exploitation and misery on the semi-literate working class proved absolutely intolerable to many Cubans. Most especially to one idealistic young lawyer, Fidel Castro.

 

Revolution and the Birth of Modern Cuba

There’s tonnes of material out there already on the Cuban revolution and the exploits and adventures of Fidel Castro and his loyal second-in-command, Ernesto Che Guevara, so I won’t go into any detail here. Suffice to say they succeeded in turning a small guerrilla war against their own government into a full blown uprising and revolution. One subtle but extremely important point is that this was not a communist revolution – it was a nationalist one. Although Che had long been a committed Marxist, and Fidel also converted to socialism through his political life leading up to the revolution, the basis of the war itself was one of national liberation from United States imperialism, with a strong current of pan-Latin American internationalism thrown in for good measure. Unlike in earlier revolutions in Europe, which were planned and lead by established communist parties, the Communist Party of Cuba was formed nearly two years after the revolution had been won. This goes some way to explain the Cuban government’s strenuous efforts to draw a direct link between José Martí and themselves, with the heroic image of martyred Che Guevara (which is almost as omnipresent as the image of José Martí) providing a constant assertion of this legacy.

Cuba’s early alignment with the Soviet Union was partly ideological, and partly pragmatic. The USA couldn’t countenance the existence of the new socialist government, and began a long period of subtle and not so subtle aggression. This included assassination attempts, sabotage, invasion, trade embargo, the introduction of diseases into food and tobacco crops and the occupation of the far eastern corner of the island – an occupation which goes on to this day in the form of the American concentration camp at Guantanamo Bay.

Although the young Cuban government would have benefited hugely from a good relationship with the superpower on its doorstep it found itself forced into deep military and economic ties with the distant Soviet Bloc. During this period Cuba also maintained a strong sense of its own place in the world, playing a leading role in third world liberation struggles via organisations like OSPAAAL and its support for Latin American and African liberation struggles, up to and including taking part in a land war against apartheid South Africa in defence of Angola.

Cuba’s strong sense of both nationalist self determination and ideological internationalism combine to create a very strong impression, even today. Having never been a oppressor country, Cuba’s deep patriotism has a progressive flavour unattainable to the old imperial powers. It does provide an example of what separatist movements like those in Scotland and Catalonia might aspire towards however.

Although communism is the guiding ideology behind the Cuban system, and the government is organised on Leninist principles, it draws its legitimacy from its revolutionary legacy, as well as by the sweeping reforms brought about by the revolution. These include the transfer of both land and homes from landlords to tenants, massive anti-illiteracy drives (Cuba went from some of the lowest to the highest literacy rates in the whole world in a very short time), improvements in hygiene, huge advancements in racial and gender equality and the rapid creation of comprehensive and universal healthcare, education and social security systems. This was accompanied and paid for by mass nationalisations, especially of the holdings of American companies and the assets of the small landowner class – in an unsurprising parallel with the problems of inequality in today’s global order, over 70% of Cuban land was in the hands of about 5% of the population during the time of the revolution.

 

The Fallout of the Special Period: Eating Out in Modern Cuba

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the enduring hostility of the USA caused Cuba to go into what it refers to as “the special period”; a protracted period of austerity and self reliance undertaken in an attempt to survive the loss of its main economic benefactor. This caused enormous hardship upon ordinary people, and set back the course of development and modernisation by decades. The scars of the special period are still there to see today, most strikingly in the form of the dysfunctional railway system, which they had neither the fuel nor industrial capacity to maintain during the special period and have yet to properly revive.

Another legacy of this period is the bizarre cuisine. Despite being an extremely fertile island, much of Cuba’s collectivised agriculture is invested in the production of cash crops like sugar and tobacco. Its lack of agricultural diversity and subsequent reliance on foreign trade for food caused enormous shortages during the special period, which lead to rationing and deprivation.

Although food and fresh produce is now relatively plentiful, packaged goods fill up supermarket shelves, outdoor markets are piled high with meat and veg and a huge chain of state bakeries provides daily bread, Cuban cuisine is still mostly dull and uninspiring. Although there are plenty of innovators and pioneers in this field, and we ate some fantastic meals served by talented and enthusiastic Cuban hosts, the overall culture towards food is still overwhelmingly bland (ketchup is not a garnish, no matter how artfully you decorate the plate with it, comrades). Although Cubans are now free to travel abroad as they please, a long period of restriction on foreign travel and a lack of meaningful inwards immigration means that Cuba hasn’t benefited from the culinary delights of multiculturalism. There’s not even much influence from other Caribbean island cuisines.

One feature of our trip was our regular visits to state owned canteens, which serve almost nothing other than ham sandwiches, cheese sandwiches, “Cuban Specials” (ham and cheese sandwiches) and soggy fried chicken. These places are plentiful and utterly unpretentious, existing solely to keep the population well fed on the cheap. Whether you see this as a marker of the banality of communist failure, or a triumph of the will to survive is really up to your own prejudices.

A particular highlight of the socialist dining experience was our visit to the Coppelia ice cream parlour in Havana. A large, open-plan restaurant ringed by a massive bar with tall chairs arranged along the inside edge. Cubans from all walks of life queue up to enter the enclosure and take a seat at the bar, which serves ice cream of various flavours so cheap it may as well be free. Afterwards they sit in the shade of the palm trees in the large courtyard or the surrounding pedestrianised area, kicking around balls, listening to people performing music and chatting among themselves. Although socialism has yet to deliver the staggering diversity and wasteful abundance of the free market it does provide other unique forms culinary experience, of which Coppelia is a particularly joyous example.

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Cuban Democracy Today: General Election 2018

We actually arrived in the middle of a general election, between votes being cast a few days before and the results coming in.

In western democracies we view political parties as representing different policy platforms based on one ideological premise or another, on a broadly left/right axis. The central democratic principle behind a communist state is the idea that political parties actually represent the interests of antagonistic class forces. This idea was objectively true in the age of Marx and Lenin (when people would discuss the “propertied interest versus the labour interest) and arguably true today, depending on your view of the world.

Following this logic, a society which has eliminated conflicting class forces and installed a government of the working class (“dictatorship of the proletariat”) has also eliminated the need for oppositional party politics. The one party state can work as a collaborative venture for the shared interests of the whole of society. A communist would look at the democratic system in the USA and conclude that it is also a one party state, representing the interests of capital (“dictatorship of the bourgeoisie”), for which elections were just noisy factional disputes at best, but more like empty propaganda in reality. Since the USA has never had a non-millionaire President, and doesn’t have a dedicated party of labour, it’s hard not to sympathise with this view.

Cuban democracy is considerably healthier than what used to take place in the former Soviet Union. Cuba began its democratic development in the mid 1970s, waiting over a decade after the revolution to allow for reconstruction to take place: “If we had an election today, who and what would we vote for? We need to build a country first” Fidel Castro remarked when quizzed by an American journalist about how quickly he would call a general election after his victory.

Cubans vote for delegates from their local area to send to the “National Assembly of People’s Power”. This assembly is the supreme legislating body that signs off on new laws and policy. It also elects the President, so although Cuban people do not elect their leader directly, they elect the assembly that then elects the government (this is more or less what we do in Britain too by the way).

Delegates to the assembly are not paid and membership is a responsibility – not a job. Election campaigns are forbidden and election funding is especially forbidden. Candidates are required to post their biographies on public noticeboards for the electors to review and base their decision upon. A candidate has to be endorsed by over 50% of the electorate to take their seat in the assembly, if they cannot get that then the seat is left empty. Cuban democracy is therefore a much quieter and arguably a more dignified affair than that which takes place in the west.

Most of the possible candidates in the polling district of central Havana were members of the Communist Party, although the two youngest candidates were recent graduates and not full members. One suspects this is because they had some way to go before qualifying for full membership, rather than because they had refused it.

Political change in Cuba is slow and measured, often taking one tentative step forward and  then a quick half a step back. However reforms do happen, as evidenced by their steady transition from state sponsored homophobia to being the most LGBT friendly place in whole Caribbean (and possibly the whole of the Americas). The National Assembly boasts of having recently welcomed its first transgender delegate.

This democracy looks and feels nothing like our own, and is based on principles we more readily associate with the sham electoral systems of the old Eastern Bloc. However, democracy is indeed happening in its own unique way. Raul Castro has announced his intention to retire this year, so it will be up to the new assembly to install new leadership, which may have profound consequences on the future economic and social policy direction of the island. There is a certain amount of speculation that the next president will be a woman, as both Raul’s and Fidel’s daughters have strong political records of their own (Mariela Castro was the driving force behind Cuba’s progressive change in direction regarding LGBT issues), although whether or not Cuba will welcome a third consecutive Castro into the highest office remains to be seen.

 

Dissent 

Although Cuba has long since given up the habit of imprisoning dissenters, the system leaves few avenues open for directly oppositional political expression. However, a keen eyed observer looking out for such things will notice the occasional Orwell reference crammed between the more enthusiastically socialist street art, as well as people defiantly displaying their religious identity despite the state’s officially atheist policy.  Havana does boast an absolutely massive statue of Jesus occupying a commanding view of the city though. Finished in 1958 and blessed by the Pope himself, the completion of the Havana Jesus rather unfortunately coincided with the advent of communism. Whether the decision to leave it standing was out of tacit respect for the people’s religious feeling, or simply because communists love a good statue is unknown.

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Of course there are also the “ladies in white”, a conspicuous religiously aligned protest movement agitating for greater political freedom, who can be seen going about their business in Havana quite regularly but reportedly often receive official and semi official harassment.

A huge portion of Cuba’s landowning class fled the island to the USA after the revolution, especially those descended from slave owning or criminal families, who had retained much of their hoarded wealth up to that point. This initial exodus, combined with Cubas historical restrictions on foreign travel, have been used strongly in evidence that Cuban people are entrapped, with parallels being drawn between modern Cuba and what used to be East Germany. However, travel restrictions have been lifted for over a decade now, and no significant emigration has taken place. Maybe its national pride, maybe its communist brainwashing – or maybe leaving Cuba’s strong social safety net to live in squalor as second class citizens in the USA, alongside the descendants of traitors, isn’t so appealing in big 2018.

 

The CDR: Your Friendly Neighbourhood Stasi

Soviet secret police forces traditionally represented themselves as The Sword and Shield of the Party. The Committee for the Defence of the Revolution (the CDR) can likewise be recognised by its emblem of a figure brandishing a Cuban flag shield and a large sword. However, this is more or less where the similarities begin and end. Like many aspects of Cuban culture, there appears to be an element of implicit good humour in it and the figure is waving a slightly absurd pirate sabre above its head. Rather than a terrifying and secretive bureaucracy, the CDR is organised along the lines of a neighbourhood watch. It’s purpose is to maintain and promote the values of the Cuban revolution at a grassroots level and members paint the logo on their front doors or on the sides of their houses. One particularly charming example I noticed in a very working class district had the letters “C D R” picked out in seashells on the front garden path. Tellingly, they were facing inwards, giving the impression they were picked out in pride by the householder rather than to intimidate the rest of the neighbourhood.

Whether or not the CDR is an admirably open and tolerant expression of political commitment and vigilance, or just another sinister expression of communism’s totalitarian instincts is once again down to your own preconceptions.

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Social Attitudes

Cuba is described with extraordinary rhetoric by hysterical foreigners, but in reality Cuban attitudes can broadly be summed up as moderate and progressive. Despite the complete absence of a free press, Cubans are well informed about the state of the world and under few illusions about the issues of their own society. In fact, so calm and measured are they that you start to wonder how much positive influence our reactionary, cartel owned “free” press is even bringing to our own society.

The two main narratives projected onto Cuba is that is either a heroic worker’s paradise, defiantly standing up to a hated American enemy, or that it is an oppressed slave state who’s population is desperate to open its arms to capitalistic freedom. The truth is actually rather more sane than either, although possibly closer to the first than the second. Cubans recognise their economic problems and many wish for more rapid development in many areas, however they take a deep, nearly spiritual pride in their social achievements, particularly around education and health and would not like to see their society made less compassionate by the ravages of the free market.

Anti imperialism and Latin American unity is still a dominant theme in Cuban politics, although most regular Cubans hold the USA itself in no great antipathy and there are signs that some Cuban youth culture fetishises hispanic Americana.

Without wishing myself fetishise action driven by lack of means, there is something heroic about the innovative spirit of Cuba. In Havana classic American cars from the 1950s are still kept lovingly on the road and in splendid condition, alongside vintage heavy trucks, Czech motorcycles with side cars, Soviet Ladas and a smattering of modern imports.  The architecture of the colonial era is maintained in a sort of permanent managed decline, giving the overall impression of being in the whole of the last hundred years of history all at once.

Cuban society, lead by the communist party, takes women’s issues extremely seriously. Like many third world countries in which women participated in an armed struggle, revolution brought instant leaps forward in gender equality. That said, many feminists of the new left in the 1970s remarked how quickly business as usual was implemented with regards to gender roles in socialist countries. In her 1970 polemic The Female Eunuch, Germaine Greer goes as far as to quote Fidel Castro imploring woman to take the greater part of the burden of domestic duties and child rearing as an example of such regression. However, in modern Cuba no such rhetoric is now present – the government’s central newspaper calls for the advance of woman’s rights as “the revolution that continues within the revolution” and woman make up 50% of the public sector, both in menial and management roles – which in a communist country is the majority of the workforce! In a country in which public advertising is almost non existent, the billboards that line the approach to Havana instead show campaigns against domestic violence. Pornography, like drug use, is completely illegal and from what I could tell the official position of the PCC is to treat woman in prostitution as victims in the first case.

Having not lived a life as a working woman in Cuba, I can’t really comment on the real day to day experience of sexism there. However Claire remarked on more than one occasion that the overall climate felt much less sexist than in the UK, with no intrusive attention on the streets or in shops and no apparent discomfort seen on the faces of woman going about their business. I am given to understand that domestic violence is more of an issue in the rural heartlands, where some tobacco and sugar farmers are known to drink rum like it was water all day while working, and then mistreat their families upon returning home.

Additionally, as of the 2018 general election I understand that Cuba is now the second nation in the world to elect a majority female government, although I have yet to see the official statistics to confirm that.

Police are very present in large numbers on the streets, although unarmed. Gun crime is almost non existent and we didn’t even see a gun in the hands of soldiers – other than the ceremonial AK47 held by the guard outside Fidel Castro’s tomb.

Sport is incredibly important to Cuban people and, like politics, it is illegal for it to be undertaken professionally. This is a double edged sword in many ways – high participation in the national sports of boxing and baseball by huge numbers of the population mean that Cuba produces some of the best sportspeople in the world, and access to high level training is available at small scale clubs on street corners and in parks. On the other hand, a lack of commercial funding means that clubs are often under resourced and have to make do, as Cubans so often do, and high level players are regularly poached by other nations offering massive salaries in return for their prowess.

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A neighbourhood boxing club, kids in training after school

For a nation often depicted as a brutal military dictatorship, progressive politics and peaceful coexistence abounds, both officially and in the attitudes of citizens. Community values are cherished, and no one seems particularly overworked. At 5pm each day, the streets of Havana turn into bustling street parties, with people playing ball games and hanging out of doorways and balconies to drink and talk together. Internet access is easily available, but not in people’s homes. Most urban dwelling Cubans have smartphones and wifi can be accessed in parks and town squares – so although Cubans can be seen busily conducting their online business in public, the vast majority of life is conducted away from the glare of a screen.

Private Enterprise and Public Infrastructure

Somewhat ironically, its on this communist island fortress that expressions of capitalistic initiative most closely match capitalism’s own preferred self image. With the commanding heights the economy in public control, private business is small in scale, owner operated, highly enthusiastic and resourceful. In the west, capitalism’s chief virtues often negate themselves – the family business becomes the faceless corporation and the children of pioneering business owners form a new class of lazy aristocrats, indolent and useless with their piles of inherited wealth. No signs of this are yet present in Cuba.

There is much apprehension both in the capitalist world and within Cuba itself about what large scale changes economic liberalisation will wreck on Cuba’s unique society, with many people telling me that I was “lucky to be going before it changes too much”. However my impression is that economic reforms are being undertaken cautiously and strategically with the specific aims of improving living standards without impacting on the wealth of the public realm as well as diversifying the nation’s revenue streams of foreign currency, shielding it from any potential fluctuations in the value of its primary exports of sugar and tobacco. There is some talk about plans to improve the financial position of the working class by unifying the dual currency system, merging the low value “national” peso used for domestic economic affairs, with the internationally convertible peso, which carries a much higher value. I won’t go into the mechanisms and rationales behind the dual currency system here, as even if you’ve got this far, I doubt you’re up for a long discussion on the financial systems of command economies by this point.

For all the progressive attitudes, safety, highly educated population, beautiful cars and general lack of squalor it’s sometimes easy to get carried and forget that Cuba is still part of the third world. However in those areas that require more industrial and financial resources than can be provided by the good will of the citizenry its still painfully obvious that Cuba has some way to go, and has suffered from its isolation from more heavily industrialised economies. You can’t drink the tap water, and you are encouraged to fold toilet paper up and use the little bins to be found even in the poshest bathrooms, rather than risk clogging the inadequate sewer system. Although constant construction work, repair teams and general activity gives Havana the air of a city on its uppers, the streets are still potholed and some buildings are visibly crumbling.

None the less, there is enormous national pride, collective spirit and a general feeling of  cautious optimism. Signs of (slow) development overwhelmingly outnumber the signs of decay. In today’s world of dangerously unsustainable economic advance, built on the brutal exploitation of the environment and the worker, at the expense of social security, its hard not to feel the Cubans are forging ahead on the better path.

¡Viva la Revolución!

¡Viva Cuba!

 

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Reviews

Live Review: Insecure Men, The Scala, London, 9/03/18

In a museum in Berlin there’s a replica of a flat from the communist era, designed to demonstrate to tourists how sparse and unfulfilling life in the East used to be. If you look at the expressions of the young people, you can see them doing the maths in their head – and coming to the conclusion that between a job for life with a medium sized flat, or living in a shoebox and working for an app, they’d take their chances with the Stasi.

The world was supposed to be better, technology and modernity was going to save us. In the future (about 10 years ago) war and want would be over and a united mankind would be on its way to the stars.

Instead it stayed just as bad – got worse even – but in new and dispiriting ways. Instead of the workers “holding the country ransom” with their unions, its the corporations and their algorithms holding the gun to our back. Even more depressing, we’re now expected to like it.  Free at last from stifling conformity and an overbearing public realm (or “nanny state” as we’re now obliged to call it), we’re dying of loneliness in a sea of meaningless individualism.

Western capitalism has finally crushed its old rivals in the socialist world. It stands alone and victorious, riven with parasites and infections of its own making, lashing out at its own shadow – from the Middle East to the East End of London. Private interests are God and the struggle for the collective good is the sin of our fathers, to be cast off and forgotten.

With a drabness deliberately crossing over into the uncomfortable, Insecure Men are an appeal to the bad old days. In both their lyrics and imagery, they contrast scenes of boring everyday life with jarring fascism, machismo and sleaze. Images of smiling children are placed suggestively next to writhing child abusers. Worn down, decaying council housing is framed lovingly next to glossy corporate advertising, sinister by comparison.

Insecure Men know the world is bad and they know it has always been bad. They write semi-sincere love songs to a time when society’s sickness was borne as an open wound, before the cancer grew up in the heart and lungs and mind – harder to see, but infinitely more deadly.

Their performance at The Scala last night was a stroke of genius. A genuine work of art presented through the medium of pop music. An eight piece band turned the lethargic, delicate album tracks into expansive, immersive pools of sound. The music is neither aggressive nor imposing, it just hangs over you and around you like a smog, or like a feeling of sadness that you just can’t shake.

If this ironic humour and resigned attitude to the failure of modernity is the spirit of our age, Insecure Men are the right people in the right place at the right time.

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Politics, Reviews

Book Review: Ann Pettifor – The Production of Money (Verso 2017)

Going out on a limb, I’d guess that most people who don’t work in the banking sector (and maybe even some that do!) don’t actually understand what “monetary policy” actually is. I certainly didn’t.

In The Production of Money, Ann Pettifor painstakingly spells out the need for the layperson to have a basic working knowledge of monetary policy, especially if we are to save our democracy from the despotism of global finance. She observes that the financial elite – and many of the academic economists who enable them – deliberately propagate a distorted view of the money system, as if it’s behaviour was an immutable law of nature, rather than a carefully rigged arrangement designed to maintain the dominant position of finance over governments, industry and workers.

She dispels the myth that credit is the loaning out of existing, hoarded wealth as if we still lived in the age of robber barons sitting on piles of gold. Money is debt, and credit is the production of debt from thin air. A calculated gamble that it will generate enough new value in order to pay itself back and more.

In a healthy economy, each unit of money conjured up goes towards generating value – by creating employment and enabling productive activity. Thus, the invented credit money has truly become real value.

In an unhealthy economy, dominated by the desire of financial speculators to generate profits at maximum speed with minimum risk, this credit will be used to inflate the value of assets and the ability to extract the highest rent or interest from them. After a given point, if enough of the money in the system hasn’t generated any value in the real economy via productive enterprise, then a simple default at the bottom of the chain of rent generating assets causes the entire scheme to collapse.

You won’t be surprised, then, to hear that Ann Pettifor is one of the few economists who predicted the great financial crash of 2007/8.

Monetary policy relates to the rules set by governments, implemented through a central bank, that control the creation of new money via the issuing of credit by private banks, as well as the rate of interest offered on government debt or loans.

Pettifor argues that the best way of directing monetary policy for the greatest social good is by making credit relatively hard to get, but very cheap (i.e. at low rates of interest). This “tight but cheap” money will mainly be dished out as loans to people with a believable plan to invest it in a productive fashion, and its cheapness will enable that productivity to more easily become profitable.

She argues that we live in an age were the opposite is true – in which we have access to “easy but costly” credit. This means it is easy to become indebted by using accessible credit for consumption or to purchase assets (mortgages and credit cards for example). Credit issued in this way directs people to invest in property instead of business or industry, so they can begin to charge rent immediately in order to pay off the interest, which is in itself a form of rent (you pay rent to the owner of your house, who pays rent to the owner of his debt, and so on). The growth generated by the extension of this easy but expensive credit enriches those with large asset portfolios, but does nothing to improve the economic situation of workers, entrenching inequality.

She also argues that the free movement of capital, which bankers have so very carefully branded as a progressive development for humankind, is nothing of the sort. It has in fact simply made it easier for financiers to invest their money anywhere in the world where rent seeking is most profitable. This means draining potentially productive capital from developed economies to exploit poor – or “sub-prime” – borrowers who can be charged inflated interest as security against their lack of collateral. This sub-prime borrower might be a poor homeowner in Detroit, or an entire nation without a sound financial and industrial infrastructure of its own. Alongside “tight, cheap credit”, dis-incentivising the free movement of capital by taxing it when it moves across borders (“capital controls”) will promote the reinvestment of a greater share of the wealth generated in a particular country into its own real economy, giving greater power to democracies to direct their own development for the greater good.

The Production of Money is a fantastic, informative guide for anyone on the left looking to boost their understanding of money, interest and credit – especially if they already have a fair grasp of more tangible economic activity such as taxation and public spending. However, it doesn’t go much in for visual metaphors or allegory. Although it breaks down complicated financial concepts to an extent, it assumes a fair bit of prior knowledge from the reader.

Pettifor does not hide that she is attempting rehabilitate the the theories of legendary British economist John Maynard Keynes and demonstrate their particular applicability in the post 2008 world. Neither does she shy away from attacks on “orthodox” or “classical” economics, which she regards as a great sham perpetrated by a combination of ruthless vested interests and academic useful idiots. This book is therefore quite a difficult read if you’re not already comfortable enough with the premises behind Keynesianism or Classical Economics to know why they need scrutiny! Although the book is concise, it could possibly use a few primer chapters at the beginning to get the reader up to speed on what it is they are learning to oppose.

If you’ve come to enjoy the good humoure of economics heart-throb Yanis Varoufakis, Ann Pettifor’s no-fucking-around intellectualism is going to feel like a slap to the face. However, The Production of Money is no dry economics text book; it’s a furiously argued, passionate polemic, full of burning rage at the criminality of the financial class and a desperate desire to empower regular people with the knowledge to take back control of a society subjugated by the tyranny of global finance.

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