My book Porn Panic!, which was published in August by Zero Books, is an unusual book, and has had strong reviews – from those on both sides of the porn debate. The book charts attacks on pornography – in part from a personal perspective – and then takes a big step back to take a broad look at the state of our society today; and concludes that we’re not in a good place, nor moving in a good direction. This is more than a book about pornography: it’s a book about fascism.
It’s no secret that authoritarians will always target sexual libertines, nor that authoritarian states consistently attempt to suppress the sexual urge. This is a lesson that has been learned repeatedly through history; every spike in sexual freedom has eventually been met with a conservative backlash. The pattern is so marked, and so consistent, that it almost seems burned into our DNA. And of course, it is: sex is such a fundamental part of the human psyche that it plays a hidden role in most of our behaviours. Sex is about far more than either reproduction or pleasure. It forms a vital role in our economic and social life; it is probably the most valuable commodity we as humans trade, and it was certainly the first. Sexual freedom offends, because it threatens so many vested interests.
So when, as a tech entrepreneur in the mid-90s, I built some of the earliest Internet porn sites, I was uniquely positioned to watch the backlash unfold. Indeed, I fully expected the backlash, and watched with interest. After all, I live in the UK, a country that has gone through more contortions than almost any other to stop its citizens watching smut. Would our prudish authorities simply roll over as the digital network swept away their carefully assembled powers of censorship? Not a chance.
And similarly, the grassroots backlash was to be expected. What took me by surprise was the nature of the backlash. In a country where religion has withered to a point of virtual irrelevance, a Christian campaign for decency would be simply laughed off. Instead, the anti-sex fury came from my tribe, the political left. A conservative strand of feminism, born in the USA in the 1980s, was at the core of the anti-sex reaction. Its first victims were strippers in east London, who fought back as feminists and trade unionists attempted to put them out of well-paid work and kill a niche culture. One of the strippers, who features in Porn Panic!, referred to herself as the “canary in the coalmine”. She understood like few others that a tsunami was building.
From strip clubs, the movement surged forward, attacking sexual expression in all forms, and then expanding to attack free speech in general. It was a movement of the left that embodied all the worst attributes of the old conservative right: it began to attack concepts of racial and sexual equality that had been the outcome of the liberal revolutions of the 1960s. It was inherently anti-science, preferring to create new facts that suited its ideology. This was a new fascism, and its ideas were entering the mainstream.
So here we go. I’m about to blow my MoronWatch anonymity after 2,325 days on Twitter. There are a number of reasons for this; foremost is that my book was published today, but there are various others. Before I enter into a long and sentimental ramble, I might as well cut to the chase.
My name is Jerry Barnett, and my book, Porn Panic!, was published today by Zero Books. The book is about porn, but really it’s about the politics of sex and censorship, but really it’s about the decline of the progressive left and the rise of a new fascism. In my humble and highly-biased opinion, it’s a unique, timely and important book. I wrote it based on my experiences over the past years, including my six years of online “work” as MoronWatch.
Besides rambling on social media, and writing books, I’m a software engineer by background, a tech entrepreneur, a photographer, and (as I’ve repeatedly referenced) a lifelong anti-fascist. I’m also a parent to beautiful kids, an ageing raver and a natural-born rabble-rouser. My Jewish background, my time spent as a racial minority in black communities, and my mixed relationship (my partner is of Nigerian background) are all among the reasons for my hatred of racism and fascism.
MoronWatch has changed substantially in the past six and a bit years, for a variety of interlinked reasons. Some of this is covered in my book, but let’s try to pick it apart a little here. I actually first joined Twitter in 2009, a year before I began moron-watching. Twitter allowed a promiscuity of social contact, breaching walls between strangers in a way that Facebook did not. It allowed for more open and more intelligent discussion (as well as for more shouting and trolling) and I enjoyed it immensely. But I became fascinated that I could read the ramblings of people I didn’t like: Nick Griffin of the British National Party for example. Now I could. On the other hand, following Nick Griffin might cause some of my Twitter friends to raise eyebrows. How to follow such people (and take the piss out of them) anonymously? And so, on 15th April 2010, MoronWatch was born.
MoronWatch was unusual – possibly unique – in that I only followed people I didn’t agree with, never people I did. I began by following Nick Griffin, a variety of other right-wingers, religious fundamentalists and some propagators of superstition such as homeopaths and astrologers. It’s worth pausing for a moment to note just how stupid the zeitgeist has become in such a short time: by the standards of today’s purveyors of anti-science bullshit – natural remedies for cancer, chemtrails and a million conspiracy theories about everything – homeopaths and astrologers seem positively quaint and harmless.
MoronWatch was also unique for another reason. From the start, I aimed to tease and mock, but not to bully. I followed people with stupid views, and interacted with them, rather than block them. I tried to open discussions and change minds. As a result, I developed a broad audience, religious and atheist, moron and non-moron. Although many people that I followed blocked me, many more followed back, and many of these got the joke.
Without consciously planning it this way, MoronWatch became a hub of Twitter discussion, debate and entertainment unlike any other. I only realised how unusual this was when an academic study – into online climate change debate – named my MoronWatch account as one of a tiny handful worldwide that was widely followed by both climate change believers and sceptics. Of course, as readers will know, I believe strongly in the danger of man made climate change, and have often attacked sceptics; but the fact was, I was among the rare few that didn’t just preach to the converted in their cosy little echo chambers (indeed, I blogged on the danger of online echo chambers).
The early speed of growth in my followers took me by surprise. A thousand, two thousand, ten thousand, twenty thousand followers within a couple of years. I turned my attention to the rise of the new far-right, especially the English Defence League, which I saw as a genuine threat.
After a few months of being an exclusively Twitter character, I began blogging as MoronWatch, and created the obligatory Facebook presence. My early articles tried to replicate my Twitter persona, but flippant piss-taking and use of the word “moron” didn’t work so well in long form as it did in 140-character tweets, and my blog identity slowly evolved in a new, more serious, direction, attracting a new audience.
But slowly my worldview began to shift, for a number of reasons. This was my first engagement with left-wing politics since my activist days, which began in the late-70s and had fizzled out by the early-90s. But I soon began to see that the left was no longer as I remembered it. Some of the slogans remained the same, but the movement was a different animal entirely, and the world, too, had changed enormously.
I experienced little moments of awakening which came with increasing frequency. A young man – an ex-EDL member – told me that he had joined the group because of hostility that he and his friends had experienced from Asian immigrants in his northern town. He had quickly left the group once the its racist nature became apparent; and yet his experience of the political left – which should have been reaching out to people like him – was of anti-racist protesters who turned up to march in his town, and joined some Asian youth in pillorying and attacking young white men. The anti-racists, instead of trying to bridge divides in working class communities, had effectively declared class war on communities that were struggling with the effects of the mass immigration. I noted that the left was turning against its original base: white working class people. I predicted that this would benefit the nationalist right. Today, Brexit, Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen prove me right.
Meanwhile, I was earnestly informed that, under new “theories” of the left, brown people could not be racist. The left was abandoning its old, core beliefs of equality, unity and solidarity and replaced them with an imagined hierarchy of “oppressions” that looked remarkably like the racist hierarchies of the old, white supremacist right. People were being judged by the colour of their skin, not the content of their minds. We had gone through the looking glass.
The new left had, I was learning, largely abandoned class politics for a bigoted set of ideologies known as identity politics. Now people were being arbitrarily graded by race, sex and sexuality. Unity had given way to arbitrary division. Now, non-white people, women, homosexuals, trans people and other groups were deemed to be “oppressed”, whether they themselves felt oppressed or not, and regardless of their actual life experiences. Bit by bit, I awoke to the reactionary and divisive nature of many on the new left. My reaction to this was horror. I could find humour in the reactionary right, but could not view the intellectual and political decline of the left with anything but sorrow and anger.
Meanwhile, I had become involved in free speech and sexual freedom activism. Through this, I encountered new activist communities, and again was surprised to find that anti-sex and anti-free speech conservatism, once associated with the right, was now deeply embedded in the movements of the left, from the Labour Party to trade unions, the feminist and anti-racism movements.
My writing began to shift, acknowledging that, if I was to “watch morons”, I had to be true to myself and point out stupidity everywhere, including (no – especially) in my own tribe. In January 2012, I wrote a piece on reactionary feminism, Feminists or Fascists? In July of that year, I more broadly critiqued the left for the first time, with a blog post: I Never Left The Left – The Left Left Me. The title of the last piece summed up my feeling then, and now: I could no longer associate myself with a political left that had broadly adopted conservative, bigoted attitudes; and worst of all, had become deeply rigid and unintelligent in its thinking. The intelligent commentators in politics were increasingly to be found on the centre-right and libertarian-right than the left. I set out to explore the idea of left-wing libertarianism, and wrote a well-received post on Right-wing vs Left-wing Libertarianism. I saw self-obsessed, self-pitying middle-class ‘liberals’ appropriating oppression from the poor.
I began to turn my attention towards new ‘morons’ to watch. The Guardian, a paper I’d loyally read for many years, had become involved in propagating anti-sex moral panics, and had adopted much of the worst bigotry of identity politics. I wrote pieces including an analysis of The Guardian’s Sexual Hang-ups, and another in response to a deeply racist article about pornography in Africa. Via the Guardian, I discovered the ludicrous new-left idea of “cultural appropriation”, and again was horrified that racist and divisive ideology was now being propagated by ‘liberals’.
My anger with the left was not just borne of a feeling of tribal betrayal. I saw a dangerous rise in fascist attitudes that were becoming standard in many left-wing circles. As a veteran anti-fascism campaigner, this horrified me, and increasingly absorbed my attention. There appeared to be little critique of the new-left from commentators of the left. I felt a detailed commentary was needed. In January 2013, to escape British winter and London distractions, I took a cheap laptop to Gambia and began to write Porn Panic!
My personal life changed too: my son was born in Spring of 2013 and my daughter early this year; between babies and writing, the time I’d had for social media evaporated, and MoronWatch became a quieter online presence.
Porn Panic! is my attempt to coherently tie together the various trends I’ve documented over the years, from reactionary, anti-sex feminism to racism and authoritarianism across the political spectrum, and to growing attacks on free speech by the British Establishment. I quote George Orwell more than once in the book; surely he remains one of the most visionary commentators of the 20th century. In particular, Animal Farm, his satire on the Soviet Union, in which the revolutionaries and the establishment blur into each other until they are one and the same: “The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which”. Depressingly, Orwell seems more relevant today than ever.
We are in a new era, in which the left-right divide appears to mean little. Instead, the liberal values of the Enlightenment – liberty, equality, reason – are under fierce attack from extremes of both left and right. Fascism is with us, in numerous guises. To quote from Porn Panic!:
“Fascism again stalks the West, in both recognisable forms and new ones. In France, draconian restrictions on speech and assembly have followed the Paris shootings of November 2015; in Poland and Denmark, the far-right has gained unprecedented ground in elections. Meanwhile in America, Donald Trump clownishly suggests that as President, he might: “… go see Bill Gates [and talk to him about] closing that Internet up in some way. People will say ‘Oh freedom of speech,’ these are foolish people. We have a lot of foolish people.”
And sadly, Trump’s comments closely match some from the British left who have chosen to shout FREEZEPEACH at people on social media who dare suggest that censorship might not be a good thing.”
I hope that MoronWatch followers will enjoy reading Porn Panic! I’m especially pleased that it was recognised and published by Zero Books, a left-wing publisher. Today, far more than in 2013, there is fast-growing recognition on the left that it has deep, even existential problems. And today, as I’ve warned for some years, the rise of a new fascism is undeniable. Some of the book’s ideas will be familiar to regular blog readers, but much of it is new.
As things stand today, Donald Trump looks set to become the Republican candidate. I have to confess, I dismissed this possibility until fairly late last year. When Twitter and Facebook followers suggested I updated my Bush avatar to a Trump one, I rejected the suggestion on the basis that by now, we’d barely remember who Trump was. I’ve now remedied my mistake.
Trump has played his hand perfectly, and rallied a strong base consisting primarily of white, working class voters. He boasts of self-funding his campaign, and this is kinda true; but in reality, his campaign has been ultra-cheap, thanks to endless free publicity from those who hate and fear him. While I generally enjoy sharing stories about crazy right-wing politicians doing crazy shit, I’ve backed off in Trump’s case, because that’s what he wants us to do. He delights in being called a fascist, a Nazi or a new Hitler: that’s exactly how his PR campaign works. It’s not that most of his supporters actually want to elect a new Hitler: it’s that they delight in watching shrieking middle-class “liberals” predict the end of the world every time Trump does something deliberately Nazi-like.
The left has run out of language with which to make Trump look bad. If shouting “FASCISM!” 99 times didn’t work, it’s unlikely a hundredth will make any difference. Trump cleverly got the fascist accusations out of the way early. Now he can do anything he wants, and his supporters recognise it for what it is: he’s taking the piss out of the politically-correct left, and they love it. He dangles left-wing activists like puppets. He says or does something outrageous, they respond, his supporters roar their appreciation. Donald Trump could appear at a rally in Nazi uniform and a Hitler moustache, and his supporters would laugh and cheer, because they get the joke.
I’ve predicted all this repeatedly, ever since (perhaps 5 years ago) I found I could no longer stomach what the left has become. Identity politics is fascism distilled and made palatable for a new era. The new left has demanded that language be policed in order that no “oppressed” group be offended in any way. It has insisted in labelling successful, middle-class black people oppressed, while telling poor white people they are privileged. No wonder Trump’s support comes from the latter group. They hate the sneering, privileged elitists who have insisted on calling them privileged, and who can blame them?
So it’s the new left, not the right, that’s responsible for reintroducing fascist methods into modern politics. Identity politics and political correctness are not progressive, liberal or democratic ideas. They are ideas for dividing people by race and gender; for creating false definitions of privilege and oppression; for destroying equality and solidarity, which were the keystones of the old left. Trump is surfing a tsunami created by the collapse of liberal values. Political correctness created taboos that The Donald has taken the greatest pleasure in demolishing.
But while his opponents have protested over his populist grandstanding, they have largely ignored the really dangerous part of his message: nationalism. While most commentators have focused on his more outrageous outbursts, they have ignored his core message, which is an anti-free trade one. And here is the true menace in modern politics: Trump’s attitudes to free trade are shared by Bernie Sanders, and by Jeremy Corbyn. A recent Guardian article pointed out that some Sanders supporters would rather vote for Trump than Clinton, quoting one supporter: “Bernie and Trump agree a lot on healthcare, Iraq war, campaign finance and trade. I really want to move on to something new, new ideas from outside the box. Maybe Donald Trump can provide that.”
How can the left stop a populist menace from rising to power when they often agree with him on the important issues?
Defence of free trade has been left to the centre-ground; but this is shrinking as politics becomes more polarised. Meanwhile, the extremes are growing stronger. People object when I compare the rise of Corbyn and Sanders to that of Trump, Farage and Le Pen, but they shouldn’t. On this most vital of issues, they are all on the same side.
The huge fact of the past couple of decades is this: between 1990 and 2010, almost a billion people were lifted out of poverty. This era has been mankind’s greatest, but in times of rapid change, there are losers as well as winners. In this case, the losers have been the lowest-skilled workers in America, Europe and Japan. And it is exactly these people who flock to Trump and UKIP, just as exactly these people flocked to Hitler and Mussolini. Free trade is, understandably, a dirty word to those workers who have seen manufacturing shift to poorer countries; naturally, they want things back as they were, even though that can never happen. But it is the intellectual bankruptcy of the left that is making way for the rise of the populist right.
The progressive left – to which I’ve pledged allegiance for most of the past four decades – is on its deathbed. We remaining progressives need to help it on its way, because it has become the lubricant for the rise of a new fascist era. Those who still think politics is divided into left and right fail to understand what is going on; and those on the left who refuse to attack Donald Trump’s anti-free trade message will be the ones who bring him to power. He probably won’t ban Muslims, or build a Mexican wall, or deport millions of illegal immigrants; but he will try to introduce a new era of protectionism and nation-vs-nation disunity. And we know how that tends to end up.
As I write this, I’m blocked on Facebook, and have been since last Thursday. My personal account, and three pages I run (including MoronWatch) are all blocked to me; so is Facebook messenger. For my thoughtcrime (explained below), I am not allowed to even have private conversations with my friends. If I try to Like a family photo, I’m told my action ‘might be abusive’. Welcome to 1984.
MoronWatch began on Twitter, a platform I have always enjoyed for its free-ranging discussions and ‘promiscuous’ social networking: unlike the rigidity of Facebook, Twitter is a far more interesting and diverse platform, which quickly puts like-minded strangers into contact with each other. Although I began by following people I knew, I quickly found that – unsurprisingly – people I didn’t know were often more interesting.
Most people self-censor heavily on Facebook. We remember that people we know in real life – our boss or our mum, for example – can see our updates, so we dumb ourselves down. On Twitter, we craft new social networks that suit us; on Facebook, our offline social networks come online.
Free speech is liberating and cleansing, but it frightens and infuriates control freaks; for this reason, it is Twitter, and not Facebook, that has faced the greatest calls for censorship. There is a rising War on Twitter, as I outlined in a blog post two years ago. In response to this (and more importantly to Twitter’s poor financial performance), Twitter is reining in free speech, belatedly trying to become as bland – and corporate-friendly – as Facebook.
To paraphrase a great tweet I saw long ago: ‘Twitter makes me love strangers; Facebook makes me hate people I already know’. However, Facebook is by far the more successful platform, and not to use it would be foolish. After ignoring it for a while. MoronWatch started a page there, and that has been growing ever since.
On Thursday, I posted a flyer on my page, which advertised a White Pride rally, planned for Swansea in March. The flyer had originally been shared for discussion by a black friend, and I thought it would be perfect MoronWatch material. Indeed, it generated a long discussion thread, and was shared further. The flyer was pretty vile: although it purported to be promoting a day in which white culture could be celebrated, in practise it attacked immigrants and in particular took aim at ‘Jews and sh*tskins’ (a word I haven’t heard for a while).
I should point out here, for those that aren’t too familiar with this blog, that I’m a Jew, and my lovely partner, and mother of my children, is a sh*tsk… sorry, I mean black person. I’m also an anti-fascist activist, and have been since my teens a few decades ago.
One problem with censorship is that it is necessary dumb. Once the ludicrous concept of ‘hate speech’ had been ruled unacceptable, censors can’t tell the difference between genuinely hateful speech, parody, and discussion of hateful speech. Another problem with censorship is that it simply doesn’t work. Silencing discussion of a problem doesn’t end that problem, it just pushes it into corners where nice, middle-class people can ignore it (or at least, ignore it until it’s too late to do anything about it).
But the biggest problem with censorship is that it comes from a fascistic attitude that societal problems are best dealt with by empowering the state and corporations to silence things we don’t like. Instead of engaging in discussion about racism and other forms of bigotry, we beg the state and corporations to make it all go away, and in doing so, we surrender our ability to deal with problems in our communities. In the 1980s, racism was dealt with by bridging the divides between angry communities. Now instead, we build a virtual wall between the communities, and pretend everything is fine.
Facebook is just one platform, but it is a huge and powerful platform. Increasingly, its methods are leaking into public discourse. Last year, MPs recommended that ‘trolls’ should be banned from using the Internet. Presumably, this would include people like me, who try to counter far-right extremism online. We are stepping over the threshold from democracy into dictatorship, and doing so under the guise of ‘defending liberal values’. But the most fundamental of liberal values is free speech. No-ifs, no-buts, warts-n-all.
How can we deal with fascism if we can’t talk about it?
Facebook provides no due process. My right to free expression has been curtailed for five days, and there is apparently no right to appeal or any form of fair trial. My only recourse was to complain, which I did – below is the message I sent to Big Brother – sorry, I mean Facebook’s support team.
I am a Jewish anti-racism campaigner with a black partner and mixed-race children. I shared a white supremacist flyer on my page (which promoted a planned march in Swansea) in order to alert people to the nature of this group, allow discussion, and help plan a fightback. For this, I was blocked for propagating ‘hate speech’.
Your action demonstrates the sheer fuck-witted stupidity of all censorship regimes, including your own. Your moderators cannot possibly understand the context and nuance of every post, and clearly can’t tell the difference between ‘racism’ and ‘discussion of racism’. In suppressing discussion of such vital issues at a time when fascism is rising in Europe, YOU are contributing to the rise of fascism. YOU feed into conspiracy theories on the far-right that aids its recruitment and YOU make life for minorities (like my family) more difficult and potentially more dangerous.
Clap for yourselves
PS: I reluctantly self-censored the word sh*tskins in this post. I don’t believe in such censorship. It does nothing to counter racism; it merely exists to protect the easily-offended – who appear mostly, in my experience, to be uptight white middle-class people.
The first in (what I hope will be) a regular moron-of-the-week feature.
History has just been made. The world’s leading human rights organisation, Amnesty International has finally, belatedly, accepted that sex workers are people with rights, and has called for their trade to be decriminalised.
For liberals, this kind of decision would once have been a no-brainer. But liberalism has become infested with puritanical, authoritarian ideas, and many liberals are highly illiberal when it comes to core issues of individual liberty – most of all, when sex is involved. Almost 4 years ago, I began to wake up to this, and wrote a piece about the Guardian’s sexual hang-ups. My observation that the secular left and the religious right had almost blurred into one entity was one of the catalysts that ended my Guardian subscription, and began my growing disenchantment with the increasingly conservative political left.
It was unsurprising then that the Guardian, so often a flag-waver for human rights, could not bear to apply its regular principles to the yucky issue of prostitution. In the run-up to Amnesty’s vote, a Guardian editorial implored the organisation to focus on other things. The piece was dishonest, suggesting that Amnesty was calling for some kind of global libertarian-inspired, unregulated free market in sex, which it most certainly was not.
The editorial almost reached self-parody, suggesting that Amnesty should pay heed – not to sex workers who were overwhelmingly in favour of the move – but to Hollywood celebs: “The letter signed by film actors who are normally reliable allies of Amnesty shows how damaging it is.” Don’t listen to the dirty hookers, listen to Kate Winslet!
The idea that actors know more about prostitution than prostitutes was widespread, and seemed to form a key part of the case against decriminalisation. But in this Internet era, sex workers can (for the first time) organise en-masse and speak for themselves. So we had the wonderfully named article Sex workers tell Lena Dunham, other celebs, to STFU about shit they don’t understand. And this was capped by an even more perfect tweet from the pornstar Stoya:
Given that the workers themselves wanted to be decriminalised, and that the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that this would make life better and safer for them, the Guardian and other opponents were reduced to relying on the dubious link between trafficking and sex work, and the accompanying implication that sex workers are largely the powerless “trafficked” victims of global patriarchy. The left’s favourite nonsense-word-du-jour, neoliberalism, often appears in this false argument: IT’S THE NEOLIBERALS MAKING WOMEN DO TERRIBLE THINGS! Replace “the neoliberals” with “Satan” and you effortlessly switch between the “progressive” and the fundamentalist argument.
In fact, the trafficking argument against sex work is often a cover for anti-immigration attitudes (yes, they exist on the left too, just a little better hidden). When police raid brothels in the name of “saving trafficked women”, they often arrest those without valid papers and send them off for deportation. And thus, we have supposed progressives and feminists supporting anti-sex, anti-immigrant policing activities. Where do the liberals end and the far-right begin?
As if to underscore its own hypocrisy, the Guardian’s front page was yesterday dedicated to people who had truly been trafficked and exploited: Lithuanians who had been trafficked into the UK and exploited in the egg industry. There was no Guardian call for eggs to be banned. Illegal immigrants who take on low-paid agricultural work are allowed to have employment rights. Those who take on higher-paid sex work are not.
The decay is widespread: the trade union Unison has also vociferously opposed decriminalisation. And so we have, possibly for the first and only time in history, a trade union refusing to support workers in need of representation, and instead calling for the shut-down of an entire industry. Imagine if unions took this approach wherever they encountered workers being exploited: it is about as far from trade unionism as one can imagine (not all unions have followed this strange lead – the GMB for one has a branch for sex workers).
Amnesty’s decision is more than symbolic. It is a part of a tide that is slowly, finally, turning. It’s just a real shame that, rather than champion members of the world’s oldest profession, so many supposed liberals as well as supposed Christians have chosen to turn their backs on them.
I’ve attracted some anger from Twitter and Facebook followers for my scepticism over Syriza and the mess in Greece. This is an attempt to clarify why I believe the left has been misled by Syriza and the supposed anti-austerity movement, and become increasingly nationalistic in the process.
With yesterday’s referendum (supposedly) rejecting austerity, the long-running Greek tragedy seems to have come to a head. But the events also highlight two longer-running and more worrying tragedies: the seemingly unstoppable rise of European nationalism, and (regular readers will know this is a recurring interest of mine) the intellectual collapse of the political left.
Without some understanding of the economics behind what has happened to Greece, one is left with empty slogans, applied in a childlike fashion. Austerity bad, banks bad, people good, elite bad, Syriza good, Germany bad. Where the reality of the situation comprises a long string of corruption and errors, instead we’re presented with idiotic conspiracy theories: They want to bring down Greek democracy; They want to punish Greeks for electing Syriza. In terms that a 5 year old would appreciate, we have heroes and villains, goodies and baddies.
From the moment of the financial collapse, Greece has been a tricky one for the left to explain, as we tried to find a way to blame capitalism for the disaster. While the crashes in America, Ireland and Spain were largely due to market overreach and a frenzy of property speculation, Greece’s problem has always been the state. Before the financial crash even took place, Greek governments had run up eye-watering levels of debt, which had become freely available because of the decision to allow Greece to join the Euro – a decision that, in hindsight, pretty much everybody accepts was a mistake.
Now the left attempts to blame shadowy ‘neo-liberal’ forces for the creation of the debt: ‘the banks’, ‘the elite’ or ‘the establishment’, implying that ordinary Greeks did not benefit from the spending spree. But ordinary Greeks did benefit, and once the money taps had switched on, they insisted they stayed on. For any political party to attempt to end the fiesta would have been political suicide. The money was spent on creating public sector jobs with little purpose other than to spread wealth downwards, on early retirement and on generous pensions. Furthermore, many ordinary Greeks decided that paying tax was tiresome, so didn’t bother.
Having joined the Euro, Greece had become a third-world economy pretending to be a modern, European one. Like a teenager winning the lottery, the outcome was never going to be pretty.
None of this was ever secret. Economic commentators would express amazement at the way southern European countries happily trampled the Euro rulebook, and some predicted eventual disaster. So the financial crash came, and as Warren Buffett amusingly told us, when the tide goes out, you find out who is swimming naked.
And so the immense bailouts began. Vast amounts of money were pumped into Greece, and enormous debts were forgiven. So it’s puzzling today that the left should be whining about the need for ‘solidarity’, or the need for something like the Marshall Plan that rebuilt Germany after WWII. Here was solidarity on an unprecedented scale. Taxpayers from rich countries pumping money into a poorer country to keep it from the brink of collapse.
Of course, this money was injected out of self-interest; but then, so was the Marshall Plan, and so is aid to Africa. Collapsed economies threaten instability, and create economic ripples that weaken other economies. But still, the action demonstrated the inherent liberalism of the EU project: wealth was being redistributed from rich to poor on a huge scale.
And naturally, the bailouts and debt write-off came with strings. There would be no point trying to save Greece without its conversion to a more dynamic, self-supporting economy. Greece has almost no exports. Without a massive economic restructure, Greece would simply come back for more, over and over again. So the demands for austerity and economic reform did not come from a position of neo-liberal anti-democratic evil, as so many on the left have convinced themselves.
But still, the depth of the austerity measures was misguided, and prevented economic recovery. Although the left seem to think that they alone have been saying this, in fact many commentators have said this since the start of the bailouts. Given Greece’s economic infantilism, and the prospect that they would be permanently supporting the nation, nobody can blame the EU or IMF for distrusting the ability of the Greek government to take the nation off welfare, or trying to force its hand.
The accusations that the austerity was some kind of punishment, or an attempt at a coup, are beyond ludicrous. The very people demanding austerity were those who lent the country money, and most certainly wanted their money back. So the austerity, however misguided, was not the result of a conspiracy, but dual forces: a pigheaded approach from the lenders, coupled with Greek bureaucracy, corruption and ineptitude.
Ironically, the economic signs were cautiously beginning to improve in 2014. Then politics intervened to destabilise the situation again. Nobody can blame the Greek people for being angry or exhausted, and so the election of Syriza in January was unsurprising. Syriza came to power by peddling an attractive lie: Greece could both reject austerity and stay within the Euro. This could only be possible if the electorate of the Eurozone countries were prepared to subsidise the nation forever. And no electorate would ever do that. The governments of Germany and France had been subsiding Greece despite the will of their electorates, but would eventually be overrun by nationalistic forces if they continued to do so indefinitely.
Greece’s new leaders have behaved like overexcited children, and have burned bridges with the very bodies keeping Greece afloat. The (now ex) Finance Minister Varoufakis built a reputation for sweeping into meetings and giving lectures on economics to some of the world’s top economists. Then finally, with a new deal almost agreed, Greece’s government abrogated their responsibility to make hard decisions, and instead called a referendum.
Yesterday’s vote was unbelievably misguided at multiple levels. It asked ordinary people to answer an incredibly complex economic question; the proposals voted on were no longer on offer anyway; criminally, the effect of the one-week delay on the Greek economy was catastrophic, estimated to have cost Greece €1.2bn: money that the country hardly has to spare, and which must be added on to any new bailout package.
But most of all, the vote repeated Syriza’s core lie. The people were told they could reject austerity while remaining in the Euro. So of course, they did. But regardless of Prime Minister Tsipras’ reassurances, this was essentially a vote on Euro membership. Without understanding what they were doing, the majority of Greek people voted yesterday to leave the Euro. Tsipras, of course, now says he has a strengthened mandate to negotiate, but those days may be over. Syriza has blown the chance to negotiate for the past 5 months, choosing instead to call their lenders ‘Nazis’ and make revolutionary speeches – it’s highly unlikely they can do any better now.
Greece will probably have to leave the Euro, possibly beginning this week. It’s estimated that this will lead to a further 25% fall in the economy, on top of the 25% already lost since the crash. This will be catastrophic, and seriously threaten Greek democracy. Syriza and the European left will, of course, present this as further evidence of a neo-liberal coup; but it’s simply further evidence that the left has lost the plot.
The greatest tragedy of all this is that nationalism wins. The anti-austerity left suddenly finds itself in bed with an anti-EU right, from Greece’s Nazi Golden Dawn party to our very own UKIP. Nationalism is the order of the day in Europe, and we’ve learned twice over in the past century what that can mean. The right rails against the free movement of people; the left rails against the free movement of goods, services and capital. But these are two sides of the same coin.
While I no longer subscribe to many of the Marxist ideas I once did, I am still as strong an internationalist as ever. The embrace of nationalism across the political spectrum is sad indeed. Sadder still, that the left has mostly abandoned internationalism altogether, and that the libertarian right is now the strongest bulwark against nationalism.
This is the end-game of the collapse of the progressive left, which began 30 years ago. If there is a liberal, progressive force in European politics today, it is hard to identify it. Left and right increasingly morph into one, nationalistic blob. With Syriza about to be discredited by a total failure to deliver, it’s likely the far-right will rise again. Vote Syriza, get Golden Dawn.
Last week’s Queen’s Speech contained the standard Tory fare, and prompted the usual, largely justifiable anger. Yet the interesting stuff was tucked away at the bottom of the 21 point list. Undoubtedly, the outright weirdest point on the list was at number 20, the Psychoactive Substances Bill, which promised to outlaw all “legal highs”.
The tabloid press has done a good job of convincing people that legal highs are a threat to humanity, and the standard “hang ’em all!” comments can be found on social media. But in reality, legal highs are just drugs that haven’t been banned yet. Coffee, alcohol and tobacco are all legal highs: and two of those substances are responsible for around 99% of all known drug deaths, both legal and illegal.
Government after government, Labour after Tory after Labour, has banned legal highs for no reason whatsoever. In 2005, the last Labour government banned magic mushrooms. This, despite the fact that the drug has probably been used for thousands of years, causes no known harm, and probably has multiple medicinal uses. Labour also banned mephedrone for no particular reason other than media outcry: as I blogged here, it was later discovered that legal mephedrone availability had led to a steep decline in cocaine use. This has now probably reversed. Substance after substance, often more beneficial than harmful, has been banned. Among all the bans, other potentially important substances have been attacked, notably cannabis, LSD, ketamine and ecstasy. This kind of act is simply cultural vandalism, and is our reward for electing puritanical dullards to represent us.
Science has made a mockery of all these bans. For every banned substance, a dozen new ones reach the market. The legal process can’t keep up with the technology. So, some Baldrick-like Tory policy-maker came up with a cunning plan! Why not just ban ALL recreational drugs? That way, anything that reaches market is instantly illegal by virtue of being a drug. Somehow this piece of outstanding idiocy made it into the Queen’s Speech, and probably soon into law.
Why is this thinking so stupid? Because we are chemical beings, and infinite substances have a “psychoactive effect”, including our foods. Try fasting for a day then eating a piece of dry bread: your mood will be rapidly uplifted as the starch reaches your system and is metabolised. Starch, our main source of energy, is a drug – as is its faster-acting sister, sugar. And that’s just the beginning. Cheese contains opiates – substances related to morphine and heroin. Did the government just ban cheese sandwiches and cheeseburgers?
Worry not! The new law will, apparently, make exemptions for drugs already in daily use, including caffeine, alcohol, tobacco, and foods: these exemptions merely underline, rather than do away with, the ludicrous nature of the law. Now, if one puts one’s pills in a cheese sandwich, do they count as food?
And, of course, existing medicines will also be exempt. But if I use paracetamol as a hangover remedy, am I using it medicinally or recreationally? If I take Viagra for a sex party rather than to remedy impotence, is it now a legal high? Hilariously, the drug at the forefront of this ban – laughing gas – is also a food additive (it’s used to whip cream) so is still freely available on Amazon.
Here’s the thing: virtually everything we put into our bodies is a drug, and many drugs have recreational as well as other uses. This is why the entire anti-drug narrative has always been nonsensical: it simply attacks mankind’s chemical nature. We’re all drug users, every one of us.
This legislation does, at least, do away with one big lie: every drug that’s ever been banned to date has been labelled dangerous, whether it really is or not. The new law at least finally admits that our worthless drug laws are not based on harm, but on morality. They don’t measure a substance based on its ability to hurt us, but on its potential for being enjoyable. Finally, some honest politics!
One wonders why they didn’t go beyond drugs and ban everything fun. But then they would have ban their own creation of idiotic laws, because one suspects certain politicians get a masturbatory thrill from trying to micro-manage our private lives so carefully.