Monday, May 18, 2020

The traits of fascism

Max Eastman (1883-1969) was a poet, radical editor, translator, and author. He edited the socialist magazine The Masses (1912-1917) and translated Leon Trotsky into English. He traveled to the Soviet Union where he expected to discover the success of socialism but left in 1924, disillusioned by the bitter struggle that followed Lenin's death in which Trotsky was brushed aside by Stalin. 

One of his books, Stalin's Russia and The Crisis in Socialism (1940) details some of the problems he witnessed in Russia.  One section, reproduced below deals with the characteristics of fascism. It is worth reflecting on today.

There is too much dispute over the connotation of fascism for one simple formula to hold . We can as yet only point to all those traits which are common to the regimes in Italy and Germany, and not to be found in even the most caste-ridden of democratic countries . I have counted twenty-two such traits.

1. Nationalistic emotion is hysterically exalted. "Patriotism is the supreme law of life," was the way Stalin's Pravda expressed it in 1934, and he was then still hampered by relics of the old slogan of Marx and Lenin: "Workers have no fatherland." By now patriotism in Moscow must be pretty nearly the whole law of life.

2. A single party, disciplined, centrally controlled and having a monopoly of the political field, takes over the power of the state . The state is reduced to the position of a false front, whose function is to "ratify" the decisions of the party.

Needless to argue that this system exists in Russia, since it was there that Hitler and Mussolini learned it.

3 . Dissenting opinion is coerced by means of patronage and intimidation to the point where the party and its leaders can assert themselves to be the nation as a totality . The regime is called totalitarian exactly because it is not so, but this is a threat, not a boast . It means that all disagreement or even indifference, where it cannot be bridled, will be ruthlessly stamped out .

In Russia they talk of the "monolithic party" instead of the "totalitarian state," but this only because the system is so perfect that the state can be ignored .

4. The religion of nationalism comes into conflict with supernatural religion. The church, like the state, is permitted to exist, but its priests, and even its God, must recognize the superior authority of the party.

Under "Socialism in One Country"-which is emotionally, even more than logically, the same thing as "National Socialism"-not only religion, but philosophy is regimented by the party!

5 . The new religion finds its focus of devotion in "the Leader," who becomes to all intents and purposes a God.

In Russia, less civilized to begin with, this return to primitive superstition has gone farther than in Italy and Germany. In many minds it has gone to the point of literal deification. The adulation of the "Liubimii Vozhd," printed almost weekly in full-page headlines in the great metropolitan newspapers of Russia-"Our Beloved," "Our Infallible," "Our Incomparable Stalin," "Our Sensitive Stalin," "Our Teacher," "Our Father of Nations," "Our Sun," "Our Soul"-would provoke laughter in any Western metropolis .

6. Anti-intellectualism, in a degree heretofore found only among guttersnipes, becomes a public policy. It takes the form of flattery to the ignorant and lazy-minded, persecution, jail, death, or exile to those who stand for strenuous and honest thought.

Because of Stalin's personal jealousy of the brainier lieutenants of Lenin, and because the prejudice so easily aroused against highbrows was useful to him in over-whelming them, this policy has been more deliberately put through in Russia than in Italy or Germany . Moreover, with one exception, Stalin has not exiled his highbrows, but locked them up or shot them.

7 . Anti-intellectualism also takes the form of a physical destruction of books and records, a rewriting of history and revamping of science to make it fit the momentary needs of politics.

Hitler made a public bonfire, but what Stalin has done in his craftier way to Russian books and documents and films, and even spoken memories-to all recorded truth-makes Hitler's bonfire look like an Independence Day celebration.

8. Anti-intellectualism also takes the form of an attack on "pure science"-described by the Editors of the New Republic as "one of the weirdest aspects of the weird Nazi ideology."

Exactly the same attack on pure science was made, with Marxian flourishes and police assistance, by Stalin's Politburo.

9. The manipulation of public opinion is substituted for its enlightenment. Human minds are regarded as receptacles for officially decreed opinions. It becomes the function of the press and radio to put over the Leader's ideas, and misrepresent those of his enemies . Debate is abolished, dogma enthroned . Whatever intellectual life survives consists of inferences from temporary pronunciamentos of the Leader.

Here Stalin beats Hitler because he is operating upon a more primitive people .

10. Cultural isolation of the country is essential to this operation. The population is taught to believe all sorts of fables about their own merits and prosperities and the desperate condition of the outside world.

In Russia this has gone so far that private citizens cannot travel abroad, and are afraid to have friendly relations with a foreign visitor. It is, as we have seen, a crime of treason, punishable by death, to "escape across the border."

 11. Party control of "scientific fact" (except in the industrial and military spheres) is accompanied by a similar control of creative art. Mussolini decrees the size of women's hips in Italian painting; Hitler suppresses as degenerate all the experimental art-works of the period.

Both Hitler and Mussolini learned this from Stalin, who inaugurated his aesthetic Inquisition in 1930. (See my Artists in Uniform .)

12. Immoralism takes two forms . Political lying and governmental hypocrisy are adopted as a system. Libel and slander become civic virtues . Fake plebiscites, solemn caricatures of judicial procedure, parodies of representative government, are accepted as the normal course . "Fooling all the people all the time" becomes the essential function of the state apparatus.

Stalin's "most democratic constitution in history," with its joker guaranteeing the political monopoly of the communist party and this party's domination in every social organization in the country, is the incomparable climax of this system . It is the most insolent hoax in history . It not only fools the people all the time, but fools them with the same trick, and hands it to them hand-embossed on parchment as the fundamental law of the land .

13. Immoralism takes also the form of state-planned assassinations, frame-ups, blood-purges, Reichstag fires, piracies in the Mediterranean, etc . The worst crimes in the code of civilization become the daring virtues of the totalitarian state.

Stalin, with his deliberate starvation of four to six million peasants, his deportations of whole villages, his millions in concentration camps, his whole counties consecrated to forced labor, his execution of practically every man in the country who has occupied a prominent position within the last fifteen years, makes Hitler's little blood-purge and Mussolini's regimen of castor oil tempered with assassination, look like a sophomore hazing party . If the shed blood of innocent men were measured, Stalin's would be a lake, Hitler's a duck-pond ; Mussolini's could be dipped up by the tank-carful

14 . Besides its own crimes, the state encourages the population to bait, torture and destroy some public enemy. The hate and persecution of this internal enemy serves as a peacetime substitute for war, which is necessary to keep the passion of tribal solidarity on which the whole thing is based at white heat .

What Hitler has done to the Jews compares palely with what Stalin has done to "Kulaks," and to prominent people generally. He has reversed Napoleon's maxim: "Careers are open to all men of talent." The place for men of talent in Russia, generally speaking, is the bloodstained cellar of the Lubianka prison. Still Stalin has not-as yet-overtly persecuted the Jews or other Russian national minorities. He belongs to one of them himself.

15 In baiting the Jews, Hitler revived-from the Old Testament!-the principle of tribal guilt for the crime of an individual.

Stalin has written this principle into the Criminal Code. As we have seen, his treason law holds guilty not only the family of the traitor, but everybody who lived, however innocently, in the same house with him.

16. Besides an object of hate, the tribal passion must have an object of love. There must be some real glorywork to consecrate oneself to . Accordingly, we find in all totalitarian regimes a process of economic revival or reconstruction . Absolute tyranny and complete regimentation of a population does solve-temporarily, I think one or two of the anxious problems of civilization, although at the cost of civilization itself. It is a great way of climbing out of a hole . And only in countries climbing out of a hole have such regimes been established.

 Russia was in a deeper hole than Italy or Germany, and she has more abundant resources. She is a backward nation still to be industrialized. The real job to be done, the object of honest devotion, is bigger, more sure of success, more exciting.

17. The national revival is focused around and sustained by preparations for war. The war industries dominate, and the population is completely militarized from youngest childhood.
In this, Russia, Italy and Germany are alike, and Russia has now joined these other military despotisms in aggressions against peaceful neighbors.

18. Together with militarization goes a reckless campaign for increased population. Birth control is discouraged, abortions are outlawed, large families are boosted with state propaganda . Here Stalin was impeded by Lenin's extremely liberal and humanitarian legislation . He has repealed all that legislation, and Russia is now making cannon fodder with the best of them .

19. Woman is relegated to a subordinate position, and laws are passed against her independence . The totalitarian regimes are male regimes . Woman's business in them is to breed.

Here, too, Stalin has repealed the equalitarian decrees and proclamations of the October revolution. He is traveling in the anti-feminist direction. But he is still a good way behind Hitler and Mussolini.

20. All three totalitarian governments are characterized by a paternal concern for the welfare, or at least security, of the toiling masses-in so far as they are completely submissive . This fact about fascist regimes has been little appreciated in America, but it is the foundation of their success. It is the price at which the German and Italian masses sold their freedom. In Russia, notwithstanding the legends spread by Stalin's propagandists, this concern for the toilers is no more real, and is on the whole less effective, than in Germany . The Russian masses, accustomed as they were to slavery, have sold their freedom at a lower price. In both countries all the unions are company unions, and the company is the state.

 21 . All totalitarian regimes make a liberal use of the phraseology of working-class revolution against capitalism. They call themselves "proletarian" ; they denounce democratic nations as "capitalist" ; Mussolini asserts that he is still a "revolutionary socialist" ; Goebbels promises a "socialism of nations" ; Hitler calls his party "National Socialist," denounces the "Jewish capitalist world" ; Goering describes Germany as a "workers' and peasants' state ."

Stalin uses this language more plausibly than the others, because he stems from a revolution that did involve a rising of the workers and peasants. In so far, however, as it implies that the workers and peasants run the government or receive a slice of the profits of industry, the language is as false in Russia as in Germany and Italy. The profits are disposed of by the new holders of totalitarian power, the class of bureaucrats, whose principal public expenditure is on militarizing the country mind and body.

22 . In all totalitarian regimes, industry, commerce and agriculture are controlled by the state-that is, the party and its leader. "Almost the only freedom left to the German employer," says Geoffrey Crowther, Editor of the London Economist, "is to put his name on the firm's stationery." And Stephen Raushenbush * adds that the German "business-owner," as well as the "homeowner," shows a "perfect obedience" to the state because he knows that "it is perfectly possible for the state to take the last feature of the older system away from him ."

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Random thoughts on lockdowns and their costs.

I have been thinking about the response to the pandemic and the use of lockdowns.  I have many questions but not much in the way of clear answers, so these comments may be treated as thoughts that may be worth discussing.  

My initial question when Sri Lanka announced the curfew was – ‘what is the end game?’

A curfew is only a short-term measure to slow the spread of the infection, it is not a cure. How long must we endure it and to what end?

Other countries seem to be using lockdowns as a measure to buy time; to increase public health care capacity (procuring emergency hospital space, breathing ventilators, medical protective equipment, and testing kits). I have been assured by friends who have been following this closely that Sri Lanka is implementing a system of tracing, testing and isolating all potential infected persons and that there is reasonable, although not complete success in this.

The larger questions are the social and economic costs of the exercise.

Lockdowns are now widely adopted in various degrees of intensity, in many countries. We know the costs of the lockdown tend to weigh more heavily on the poorer sections of the population - their jobs cannot easily be done from home, therefore they are more likely to lose income. They are also more exposed to infection due to the nature of their jobs.

Is a lockdown therefore something of a luxury? Something the richer sections of society can afford but not the poorer ?

More developed countries have tried to ease some of the economic pain by way of relief - it may not be adequate but it is something. The lockdown, however also imposes costs on other countries through the closure of export markets. How do we evaluate these costs? 

For example, what Sri Lanka faces is a near complete closure - almost like being under economic sanctions. Orders for the garment industry, which is estimated to employ 350,000 people are at zero for the next three months at least. Even goods that were shipped are being returned. 

The industry initially faced supply constraints from January/February when China locked down. Buttons, yarn, accessories and fabric were being sourced from Wuhan so factories faced difficulties in finishing products. Then Europe locked down, leading to contraction in the market. Finally Sri Lanka went into curfew-so 2-3 months of slowing activity ended with a stoppage of local operations. 

Some 30-40% of the garment factories claimed they were unable to pay salaries in April and may be forced to close. A 100,000 jobs are at immediate risk. The bigger ones are holding on, MAS/Brandix have closed their factories for 3 months but are still paying workers (management salaries have been cut) but for how much longer can they hold on? The cash crunch arises because the factories have stocks of raw materials and finished goods which they have paid for but are now unable to sell.

The suppliers to the garment industry, from the large packaging material suppliers to the smaller ones who provide staff meals, cleaning services, transport, security etc face a knock-on shock. 

Similar problems seem prevalent in other manufactured exports – I heard of a solid rubber tyre factory that is running at 5% capacity for example. There is no proper information but things seem pretty bad. Tea seems to be functioning normally, experiencing a (probably temporary) boost in March as overseas markets stockpiled groceries. 

Rubber gloves are booming and some factories are adapting to PPE but how many can switch is the question. Supplies of some raw materials for PPE are not easy to source and it may require some retooling of the factory. Margins may not be great either, but better to have some work than none.

Returning to the problem of costs within a particular country, poorer countries have a greater challenge because a much larger proportion of the population is in informal work. Therefore a far greater part of the population will have to suffer deprivation in a lockdown. The costs of a lockdown are much greater in poorer countries and made worse by much weaker safety nets. In India about 80% of the workforce is in the informal sector in Sri Lanka it is close to two thirds.

Livelihoods of two thirds of the workforce may be lost
Sri Lanka has adopted the most extreme measure a curfew, not a lockdown so almost all economic activity has ceased. Unlike most developed nations, almost two thirds of the workforce is employed in the informal sector; people who earn by the day or the week and who may have little in the way of savings. A curfew will deprive them of their livelihood; without income how do they live?
Even where people have income inaccessibility to cash presents another problem. Many delivery services operate only on cash. With banks only intermittently inaccessible even those with money may be unable to buy goods.

Relief measures may not reach those most in need
Sri Lanka has announced relief through Samurdhi but this programme has been criticized for poor targeting. It is believed to reach only some 55% of its intended beneficiaries and may not cover the working poor – the daily wage earners.

Some debt and tax relief have also been offered to businesses but this may not be adequate and is unlikely to touch the informal sector. It may not even reach most SMEs. The majority of Sri Lanka’s businesses are informal and have little or no connection with the tax net or the formal banking sector. Small businesses find it hard to borrow and micro enterprises may find it impossible. Big businesses can make use of debt relief but for small businesses operating outside the formal system; debt relief has little meaning, as does tax relief.

The poor in Sri Lanka will suffer far more under a curfew than those under lockdown in other countries because of the twin impact; they have their livelihoods disrupted and even the little relief offered does not reach them.

Even within the formal sector, if workers are to be paid, businesses need to find the money to pay them. The relief offered by government will certainly help but it does not cover the entire staff cost, so unless a business is able to operate at some level they will find it difficult to pay staff. Under a curfew most businesses remain closed. In such a situation only larger businesses will have the necessary reserves to be able to pay even a month’s wages.

Therefore a curfew or near total lockdown is something that Sri Lanka cannot afford, except for perhaps a short time. Norman Loayza of the World Bank sums up the dilemma:

“we are facing an acute public health, economic, and humanitarian crisis. What makes managing this health emergency so challenging is that if unattended, it could lead to countless numbers of fatalities—yet if drastic measures to contain the spread of the virus are imposed, it can produce a deep recession with business closures, mass unemployment, and poverty.” 

Loayza’s full post, which neatly sums up some of the social, economic – and political costs is well worth reading.

The broader question is how did we arrive here?

If I am not mistaken the train of events was that China, having concealed the problem at first overreacted and locked down a region. Until the Chinese did it I don’t think any country has ever attempted to quarantine such a large area. Then Italy panicked and copied aspects of it and much of the rest of the world seems to have followed on the basis of China's apparent success.

Question 1- ONE region locking down can do so with limited social and economic costs but if the whole world pretty much closes down I think the damage multiplies exponentially - as most travel and trade stops. Does the cost/benefit of a strategy applied in a limited area change completely if applied widely across many countries? If so how?

Question 2 : China claims the lockdown was a success. They initially concealed information but later became much more open. Are the Chinese claims of success quite reliable? I hope we are not basing on policy on information as reliable as their claims with the success of Vocational Education and Training Centers for the Uighurs.....

More philosophically, wondering how what is, in effect, a system of mass house-arrest in an entire region implemented by an authoritarian regime become accepted policy across much of the rest of the world.

Meanwhile the local media, quite dreadful even normally seem to be following the pandemic like a game of cricket with outbreak-by-outbreak commentaries on infection rates, the death count and the ‘curve’; seemingly to show how we are ‘winning the match’.  People seem similarly obsessed and I can’t really understand why.

There are some risks in life which we can eliminate, others can only be mitigated. Some things are beyond our control, call it fate or nature. We can't really hope to defy death and I try not to worry too much about things I can’t control and get on with life. This recent letter in the Economist struck a chord with me:  

There is a trade off of money versus lives. But what is the point of being alive if you can’t study, spend time with friends, or just enjoy the sound of water sloshing as you swim? Not everything has to go back to normal immediately, but we are all going to die, so the real question is whether we’re going to live?

Tony Bruguier
Milpitas, California

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Unfolding train wreck

Something I wrote a few months ago when Islamaphobia was raging. It may yet return.

I have been watching, with growing fear the racism directed towards the Muslims of Sri Lanka.

What makes it  difficult to understand is the rapidity with which it emerged and the sheer intensity of the emotions involved. People seem to be turning against colleagues, neighbours, associates and even friends. Were the Tamils as hated and as ostracised as this?

I have been observing the development of Sri Lanka's conflict since the early 2000's and I dont recall anything like this.

The sensation I have is like observing, in slow motion and at a distance, an unfolding train wreck. One can see it happening, even as we speak, yet unable to do anything to stop it.

What is inexplicable to me is how few people seem to be able to see what is happening and how little people seem to care. How quickly have we forgotten the last war that we no longer see the ground being prepared for another ? How can other minorities, particularly Tamils now indulge the very invectives that were once directed at them? 

We know the venality of the political class but to think that they can once again stoke the flames of racism and hope to contain the resulting fire? Bandaranaike succumbed to the very forces he unleashed. Premadasa parried with Tigers, collaborated supplying arms to eject the Indian Peace Keeping Force-and then fell victim. Prabhakaran collaborated to with the regime in waiting, to enforce a Tamil boycott of elections that scuttled the peace, before it eventually consumed him.

J R Jayewardene alone, the Old Fox, who contributed more than any other survived to die of old age. 

I have been writing about this but it feels like screaming into a hurricane.

Anxiety & Doubt

Anxiety & Doubt
by Erich Fried

don't doubt of
who's saying
he's anxious

but be anxious of
who's saying
he's without a doubt

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Words to Music: Eastern Man, Western Man


Eastern man walks slowly

Afraid of the flash in the sky,

Western Man walks swiftly

Less reason why.

Eastern man walks slowly

Afraid of the bolt from the blue,

Western man walks swiftly

Blind to the view.

Eastern man walks slowly

Shakes as the rockets boom,

Western man walks swiftly

Swiftly to his doom.

      -- Guy Amirthanayagam

Thursday, April 04, 2019

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Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Are Sri Lankans really peace loving? - (updated)

A friend of mine raised a question at a discussion yesterday. He said that there are two statements we commonly hear:

1. We have bad politicians who appeal to nationalist sentiments/play the race card to win elections.
2. All ordinary Sri Lankans are very peace loving and do not share in the racist sentiments expressed by politicians.

His questions were:

1. Can both of these statements hold true at the same time?
2. What if the Election Commissioner had a moment of real insight when he said that most Sinhalese welcomed the attacks on the Muslims?
3. Assuming politicians are elected on the basis of statements made then either one of these statements must be false. Both may be partly true.
3. Given the violence against Muslims in 2013 and 2018, the long conflict with the Tamils, riots and insurgencies (1987-89, 1983, 1971, 1958) are we really as peace loving as we like to think?

On November 6, 1959, ten years after returning to West Germany in the wake of the Nazi period and Holocaust, the philosopher Theodor W. Adorno addressed teachers from the Society for Christian-Jewish Cooperation with a lecture whose central question continues to echo more than a half-century later: “What does working through the past mean?” Underlining the need to confront the persistence of fascist structures within postwar democracy, Adorno argued powerfully against the desire in the German society of the 1950s to “close the books on the past and, if possible, even remove it from memory.” The potential for a relapse into catastrophe was all too real, according to Adorno.

After 1945 antisemitism In West Germany did not die out. Studies carried out between 1946-52 showed a third of the population to be strongly antisemitic while another third was antisemitic. The defacing of a synagogue in 1959 lead to a public repudiation of antisemitism by the media, political parties, trade unions and the church.

From that point on, openly antisemitic attitudes encountered more vehement criticism. The Nazi past and the extermination of the Jews became topics that were given increasing importance in the media, schools, historical research and cultural activities. By the end of the 1980s, only 5% of the West German population was blatantly, and over 15% considerably, antisemitic. Attitudes in Germany were thus statistically in line with average West European populations. From now on, the younger generations proved to be the least antisemitic.

After the most recent violence should Sri Lankans also start questioning themselves as to why this seems to keep happening? It is uncomfortable to think about it, we prefer to do something to salve our conscience, perhaps help a few Muslim friends or charities and then move on. To forget painful incidents seems preferable to dwelling on them.

Should we start by trying understanding the story of these conflicts? What happened in 2013 and 2015? What were the chain of events that lead to 1983 and the war in earnest after that? Can a team of historians with sufficient independence and distance set out a broad common narrative, at least as a starting point. There is a fog of disinformation and misinformation, would trying to dispel this be a start? Different groups hear different stories. They don't interact or understand.

I remember some classmates discussing the habits of Tamils, perfectly harmlessly but in utter ignorance- referring to them in the same terms as we would to Chinese, Indians or other foreigners. They had never had any interaction and only knew of them through fables.

If we are even arguing over history, refusing to acknowledge one-another's mistakes, how do we move forward?

Any one of the events above (and many smaller ones besides) could be dismissed as an aberration. If it was really so, why does the cycle of violence keep returning?

 Adorno’s argument about the need to confront the persistence of the past in the present seems relevant to Sri Lanka today. What do you think?

My friend was interested in hearing the responses from Sri Lankans on these questions. Please put in your views as comments?

I am not trying to debate the issue, just trying to see what people think, just put your thoughts down in the comments section.


Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Muslim owned shop attacked for allegedly selling food adulterated with birth control medication

A Muslim-owned shop and a mosque in Ampara were attacked yesterday after the shop was accused, on social media, of mixing birth control medication in the food being served.

According to news reports, a video was posted on social media by a Buddhist organisation where a man is forced to confess to mixing the pills in the food.

The allegation can easily be proved wrong. All one needs to understand is how birth control pills work. Taking a birth control pill is not like popping a tablet of Panadol, something that will provide quick relief within a couple of hours.

Birth control pills work by regulating a women's hormonal system, to work you need to take a full course over a month. There are number of different formulations and depending on the type, need to be taken daily over the course 28 days, 21 or 91 days. Just to be clear, if it is alleged that the pill is one that makes males sterile, it does nor exist

If anyone in the restaurant was mixing birth control pills in the food then it would simply not be effective, people would need to eat every day from the same place (and stop eating on prescribed days).  If they do not follow the exact instructions it simply does not work. 

Rumour and myth will proliferate amongst ignorant minds. People need to learn to ask questions, not blindly believe what people tell them. The Internet is easy to access, a simple search would have revealed the truth.

Property has been damaged and racial tensions inflamed, all because people seem unable to think.