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Sam Harris collided with Ben Affleck recently on Bill Maher’s show. Affleck accused Harris of being racist and presenting opinions that are ugly while discussing the behaviour of what Maher called the “Muslim World”. The video spread and inspired lots of reflective opinion pieces. The opinions seem polarised, even in the new atheist community. The original video has been shared with the title “Affleck 1, Harris 0” as often as with the title “Harris 1, Affleck 0”. It’s interesting that people who consider themselves rational are happy to accept the rants of a man who thought that germs were a conspiracy.

Harris responded to this case specifically by arguing that Affleck was belligerent, which may well be the case, and wrong, and to the general case in an article asking “Can liberalism be saved from itself?” in which he criticises liberals for having a blind spot for Muslim extremism.

A few days later I noticed a post on the Richard Dawkins Foundation’s facebook page by Jerry Coyne in which he criticises “liberals” for holding to “the notion that Muslims should be held to a lower standard of behavior than people in the West”. This, for me, has purged any respect I had for new atheism movement, at least for its guiding lights.

In his recent posts about the Gaza conflict, in which Harris argues that Israel is the worlds most humanitarian ethnic cleanser, he had an exchange with Andrew Sullivan. In it he said that “the problem with invoking history in this discussion is that you have to decide when to start the clock”. There is another name for history: the facts. It’s inconvenient and complicated; more so because it’s relevant. A person considering themselves a scientist and ignoring history is, well, doing something wrong. The facts that Harris prefers to cite are from opinion polls, like the ones that ask Muslims if they think it’s OK to kill to protect Islam. Opinion polls are great but they tell you nothing about causation, they just tell you about how people say they conceptualise things. Harris of all people, being a neuroscientist, should be well aware that people telling you how they think might not be the best source of data on action causation. Also, Harris never mentions what the results would be of a poll asking Americans, either Christian, Muslim, Jewish or Atheist, whether it’s OK to murder to protect the USA, or ‘Freedom’ or ‘Liberty’ and ‘Democracy’ or some other culturally loaded concepts that mean something different to everyone.

It got me thinking: how extreme are Muslims, really? I thought it would be interesting to take stock of things that have actually happened. To solve the problem of when to start the clock ticking I thought, surely, the start of the span of living memory would be reasonable.

This history begins shortly after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire a few years after the First World War. The Ottomans were Muslims and operated the Caliphate. This event is the end of anything that could be called “the Muslim World” in any coherent sense. Contrary to T. E. Laurence’s stories the majority of Muslims were perfectly happy to be part of the Ottoman Empire, but as usual, like most populations, they had no say. The Ottoman territories were carved up and shared out largely between Britain and France. Three regions: Baghdad, Mosel and Basra, home to three different ethnic groups (roughly Sunni, Shia and Kurdish) were formed into the Kindgom of Iraq. A leader was inserted, Faisal, a man who as far as I can tell never even lived in Iraq, as a kind of compensation from Churchill who was a big fan and friend of T. E. Laurence. He felt that the Hashemites should be rewarded. There was no election. Faisal was a member of the Hashemite clan, descendents of Mohammed, they had tried to grab control of the Ottoman Empire during WWI and were hacked off that Britain didn’t give it to them after they organised the “Arab Revolt” (which was a military power grab). Later, Faisal’s brother was made King of Transjordan, by Britain, without election to keep him happy. What did the Muslims at a large have to do with this so far? Not a great deal.
Between the world wars there was a huge change in worldwide geopolitical landscape with the Russian Bolshevik Revolution. Muslims were involved, they comprised several ethnic minorities in Russia and as such have been subject to various and systematic oppression for centuries.

Not long later WWII happens. Anti-Semitism, which wasn’t unique to Germany, or even Europe (although Jews in the Middle East were given broadly free mobility), was given lethal form when Europeans busied themselves conducting one of most awful chapters in modern history. What did the Muslims have to do with that? Not a lot, although they were drafted to fight through colonial mandate.

WWII ended with the US nuking two cities. Now, in the land of extremism, surely the nuking of two cities must be the King and Queen. These events are even more extreme when you look at the narrative surrounding them. You can find plenty of rational, educated and moral people arguing that it was unfortunate but necessary and that it shortened the war, indirectly saving lives. Some even argue that not only was it moral, not doing it would have been immoral. The justification for these atrocities is based on lies. The US high command had been told that the Japanese were ready to surrender and had no capacity to fight. We know now because the documents were declassified. The Japanese had one condition: that the Emperor retained the status of god. The Whitehouse wouldn’t accept that, America doesn’t get told what to do, and so chose to nuke them instead.

Later Britain lost control of its South West Asia colonies because of anti-colonial revolts and the prototype Israel-Palestine conflict being developed by terrorists that would later be given a state to run. Britain formally handed the situation over to the UN who issued the resolution making Israel a thing. What did the Muslims have to do with this? Well they weren’t pleased with the idea of the UN drawing more lines on maps and declaring them states, not such an unusual reaction, but their opinions didn’t matter (their disapproval of that resolution is somehow used as grounds today to argue that they have no rights to a Palestinian state and therefore no rights to resist Israel’s expansion). Arabs were seen as a set of backward and numerically irrelevant tribes.

Shortly after Israel became a state there was an Arab-Israeli war, although it’s more accurate to say that a civil war that was already under way continued. Israel took 60% of the land designated by the UN as Palestinian. Note that the states involved: Israel, Syria, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt, all states that were either literally created by the west or at least highly steered by western neo-colonial influence. The West (with Russian interference) had essentially created a series of units of influence designed to act as agents in the Middle East that had their own interests and often fell out with each other. There wasn’t a great deal of democracy going on, more a set of warlords, balanced precariously in place, trying to get more control.

At about this time a civil war broke out in Burma, which never ended. On the one side are a series of pro-Government movements, starting with the Anti-Fascist Peoples Freedom League, Buddhist and Socialist in ideology. Later the DKBA, a Buddhist movement, joined the anti-government side, together with various military ogranisations. The US supports the anti-government side, as does Mujahedeen. The war kicked off after Burma gained independence from Britain and the situation escalated sharply when the state declared Buddhism as the official religion.
In parallel a war broke out in Malaya. The locals weren’t happy about the way the British were running their economy (as a means to get the stuff Britain needed to recover from WWII, what elites now call globalisation). They had moved from Japanese occupation to British neo-colonialism. Protests were punished and eventually a continuous war broke out.

A few years later the US goes to war with North Korea, which was one of the most advanced economies in Asia, second only to Japan, and literally bombed the whole country to the ground. Recently declassified documents mention US generals in awe of their own destructive power as they watched villages washed away by the water burst from the dams they were destroying. Islam had nothing to do with this.

Later the US decides to attack Vietnam because they didn’t like how they were organising their own country. The US had been running proxy terrorism plans to undermine Vietnamese integration, then decided to switch to overt attack. They attacked the south but dressed it as an attack on northern insurgents in the south, even though there weren’t any. They destroyed the country. There are people being born right now with deformities resulting from the chemical weapons dropped on their grandparents.

At the same time the world almost ended. The US became annoyed because Russia moved nukes to Cuba. US had had nukes in Turkey pointing at Moscow for years, but that doesn’t matter, the US can do what it wants, it can nuke cities and everyone will think it’s fine. Kennedy calculated the odds of nuclear war to be 50:50. Pretty extreme. As far as I’m aware he didn’t read the Quran. Good times.

So far this has sketched a significant chunk of murder and mayhem, covering the first half of a lifetime of history, and so far the Muslims have had little involvement with the exception of the WWI (the Ottoman Empire could have easily been on the side of the British if Churchill hadn’t impounded some war ships that were supposed to go them and there were plenty of Muslims fighting against the Ottomans too) and the Israel-Palestine conflict. Many of the conflicts that involve Muslim populations, that are the backdrop for our impression of Muslim extremism, are largely extensions of the Palestine conflict in some way, in which the west is complicit.

Those are the big obvious conflicts but there are of course many others. There are also whole continents worth of history of carnage that I haven’t mentioned. There were and are various armies, many citing Christian ideologies, marching around Africa turning children into soldiers and sex slaves, situations tangled in old colonial pathologies. There’s also plenty of history of terrorism in the South Americas, of US rigging elections to get their representatives in power and resorting to kill squads and terrorism when that doesn’t work out. The west’s hands are bloody from both of these histories and neither can claim Islam as a factor. There are also lots of examples of extreme violence if you look at the history surrounding China but although Muslim populations feature Islam can hardly be said to be a significant factor there either, and much like in the case of Russia Muslims are very much the minorities.

Since the point of this is to get a perspective on what we can call Muslim extremism in reality we can look at conflicts in reverse order of deaths focusing at events in the last century that involve Muslims in any systematic sense:

The first would be WWI with Muslims fighting on both sides. The next is the Iran-Iraq war. It started when Iraq, under the control of the Ba’ath party, US/UK endorsed and supported and equipped, invaded Iran. The UK, thanks to Thatcher, who liked Hussein a lot, had given him lots of weapons. The US declassified Iraq as a terrorist state so that they could sell them chemical weapons. The Iran-Contra weapons scandal was happening during all of this. And just to add an extremist jewel to this crown, the US shot down an Iranian passenger jet flying over Iranian airspace for no reason other than, apparently, to try out their weapons.

The next would be the Soviet war in Afghanistan, a recent episode in the Russian version of a familiar story of colonial intervention. Russia pulled out and the country went into a continuous civil war that lasted for decades. The Russians left lots of weapons behind. This is the context in which the Taliban, often thought of as a perfect example of Islamic craziness, came into power backed by, you guessed it, the west. They only became bad guys when they started thinking that they had a right to the oil resources inside Afghanistan in the mid 90s.

Next is the Algerian Civil war, which seemed to be largely a nationalist revolt against a brutal French colonial regime.
Next the Bangladesh Liberation War, which was a nationalism conflict, resulting in the Independence of Bangladesh. The conflict seems to have stemmed from perceived economic exploitation of one region over another by a state that didn’t want to loose control. This template of violence can be seen over and over in history, in fact, the US War of Independence has that exact template but we don’t consider that an example of extremism.
The Somali War started in the 80s and has never really stopped. The conflict is a government/anti-government affair beginning as resistance to Siad Barre. The US joined in on the anti-government side. Guess who supported Siad Barre until just before the war.

The Syrian Civil war is another ongoing conflict borne of resistance to an oppressive (incidentally secular nationalist) regime. The Muslim population are the victims in this situation, subject to a small group of warlords who took power in a military coupe and never gave it up. The Arab-Israel conflict actually helped the Assad regime take power in that it was seen as a strong contender that was able and willing to stand up to Israel. Note that at the moment the west is figuring out how to destroy Islamic State, which would help Assad a great deal.

The ongoing war in Darfur has resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths and displaced millions. This conflict seems to correlate mostly to Arab/non-Arab ethnic sets rather than Muslim/non-Muslim ones.

Next is the First Iraq war. This is a big one in terms of deaths. Remember that not long before both the US and UK bent over backwards to give Hussein weapons of mass destruction. If you are going to give a warlord such weapons, someone is going to get gassed. He had already ethnically cleansed Kurds by the time the Iraq war began but we didn’t care. The conflict between Iraq and the Kurds goes all the way back to 1912 and started with one King Faisal of Iraq, that Hashemite clan leader the British put in power I mentioned earlier.

The Islamic Insurgency in the Philippines, which is an interesting choice of name, is another conflict arising from resistance to colonial rule. Each time the current colonial power went to war with someone and was defeated the locals were taken over by the winner and so there is continuous resistance, termed ‘insurgency’. You can tell when the resistance can be called ‘extremism’; it’s extremism when the colonial power is the US.

That gets us down into the sub 100 000-death conflicts and so far Islam hasn’t featured as a significant predictive factor. You might think it callous to lump these conflicts together based on kill-count and pass over them, which is true, every death is important, but 300,000 Americans died since 1970 in industrial accidents. How many people have died because we have devoted resources to developing Viagra or curing baldness instead of Malaria/Aids/Ebola/Rabies/Small Pox/Naeglaria treatments? We have policies killing more people than these conflicts.

What’s interesting is that the examples of extremism that leap to mind aren’t present above. We tend to think of historically small events involving relatively tiny death counts as somehow extraordinarily relevant, for example 911, or the attack on Pearl Harbor, or videos of someone being beheaded. Meanwhile the west is apparently free to carpet bomb cities or murder people in mountains in Afghanistan and the world is supposed to be thankful. To any objective analysis it seems that the discriminating variable is level of technology. If you kill a few dozen people with a predator drone that’s fine, do it with a home-made car bomb and you’re an extremist.

It could be argued that I have ignored the content of what people like Harris are saying is extremism, that they were more talking about women being forced to wear head coverings or treatment of gays. As it happens forcing women to hide their faces originated in Ancient Greece, not the Middle East. In the Middle East it was the other way around: certain women weren’t allowed to wear head coverings. Anyway, that just reasserts the question: why are some things “extreme” and other objectively more extreme things not? Why is being an extremist a sin while knowingly creating, training and arming them isn’t? It seems that the form of argument used by Harris or Maher or Coyne is to create a box called extremism, put a tiny set of real events into it, leaving ourselves out, and.. what do you know? It’s full of the warlords we put in power!

Muslims have been involved in some huge and terrible conflicts but they have also had nothing to do with many of the biggest and worst, and the schematic of these conflicts tend to be transferable across history, geography and culture (resistance to oppression and unwanted government regimes). There is a difference in quantity but also of quality. Conflicts involving Muslims tend to be local border disputes and civil wars, nothing like the type of global conquests that the west engages in. And, again, even those local conflicts have arisen with significant western interference. Viewed in the grand scheme Muslims are relatively meek. And when you swap Muslims for some other group, and keep the West, you see the same patterns of violence and “extremism” in other parts of the world.

So perhaps non-Muslims so critical of Muslim extremism should redirect their energies away from worrying about what Muslims are up to and toward modifying the behaviour of their own states.

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One way to measure a civilisation’s developmental progress is to look at the extent to which people’s lives are at the mercy of the environment. We can establish perfectly comfortable living standards in places that at one time would have been inhabitable only with extraordinary effort, or perhaps not inhabitable at all. It’s debatable about how far along that process we are, given that we are facing an imminent existential threat caused by how we have chosen to interact with the environment, but it is easy to see that technological and sociological development, at least in principal, gives rise to the possibility of completely abstracting our survival from environmental variables.

This line of thought is what, to me, uncovers how ridiculous our idea of alien invasion is.

Stephen Hawking recently said “If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans”, which is almost an exact quote from The Day The Earth Stood Still. Alien invasion would involve traveling a vast distance through space, either requiring a lot of time or a lot of energy, or both. Doing that would require a level of technology so advanced it can produce the required energy and provide such a level of abstraction from environmental threats that survival in space is not a problem. Why would a civilisation capable of that invade us?

Imagine this: You live in a comfortable home in a developed country with a nice job. You don’t need to worry about anything except getting to work on time. You decide to get on a plane, fly to the other side of the planet, taking a piece of wood with a nail in it with you, so you can bludgen a few natives on some desert island somewhere and steal their huts. And you do that because you like the fruit that grows on the few dozen trees outside. Why would you do that? Do you want that fruit that much?

This is the basic premise behind the vast majority of alien invasion narratives, including Hawking’s. The narrative hangs together with a piece of story telling proclamation: they want something we have; either oil, slaves, human brains, water or some vague idea of our ‘resources’. They have the technology to get here and destroy a whole planet but they are still dependent on plundering these basic things out of the ground?

The comparison to the West Indies, and my metaphor, break down for even more fundamental reasons. In those narratives the invader and the victim are both the same type of being. They have the same biology and therefor the same basic requirements. Alien planets are … alien. We have evolved to live in our world, we would almost certainly not find alien planets particularly comfortable, to say the least. What makes those planets beautiful and welcoming to the aliens would make them biologically terrifying to us. So imagine flying to the other side of the earth to live near a sea of acid breathing carbon monoxide near trees of poisonous fruit saturated with germs that can stroll past your immune system unnoticed… that invasion seems less appealing.

There’s also a much more philosophical objection to the idea of comparing our interactions with aliens to our past: aliens may well not think like us at all. The dynamics of human thought that give rise to our patterns of history might not even exist in alien minds. It could be that those patterns are purged from the cosmos by galactic darwinian selection: those races obsessed with imperialism at all costs may well always remove themselves from the universe before ever getting the opportunity victimise other planets. We are almost a case study in that. It could be that getting to the stage to be able to tackle interstellar travel requires a level of social cohesion that would-be invaders just don’t possess.

In my opinion there are only a few simple examples of alien invasion stories that hold any water: those in which the aliens invade not for any economic reason but because it is intrinsic in their nature. One example is the Borg. Another is from Babylon 5 in which the Vorlons find a way to travel to another universe and find a race that considers all other sentient life to be an insult. The Day The Earth Stood Still is a bit of a deviation in that the aliens invade because they see humans as a potential threat. In the original they saw our development of nuclear weapons as an indication of our destructiveness, which just raises the question: why would this be a significant problem to these advanced aliens? In the recent remake the producers reverted to a more standard alien invasion premise: we are are destroying a resource, our planet, and they have to intervene to stop us in order to secure that resource. This just raises the usual questions and further, why did the aliens see their only option to be killing us all with a magic black cloud? Why not get it to wipe out all of our polluting machinery? What’s the worst that would happen? People dying?

There could be realistic examples that are far more complex. A keen reader will have noticed that I could turn this whole argument on its head. If it is more realistic to imagine the alien’s motives to be simply some ingrained and irresistible psychotic behaviour, then it could be argued that that is exactly how humans behaved in the past and so drawing analogies to those events is a valid observation. Sure we can cast our history of conquest into terms of resource and economy, but ultimately we could have found alternatives, we didn’t need to do what we did in order to get what we needed. We chose the psychotic solution from a multitude of possibilities. Perhaps alien invaders would do the same. Perhaps they would hold to an economic model that resonates with their psychotic nature because its the only one that would allow them to act on that nature. And perhaps it would raise obvious questions like: “why did you come all the way here to kill us to steal something you don’t need?” This idea doesn’t quite hold because our invader ancestors conquered places to make someone somewhere rich by gaining control of the sole supply of something (initially land, then fossil fuels). Consumption of oil, and indeed, our need for land can’t exactly be explained in terms of psychotic motivations: we really do need land to live and oil is on first sight a good source of energy. It’s more accurate to say that a small section of society was in a position to act in a psychotic manner to get more of what they like at the cost of the rest, and the rest fit into this system by having valid needs for things like land and energy. The option to gain a fair share of land and enough energy by non-psychotic means we usually kept off the table. The motivation was always economic, by which I mean it was some people getting what they want by exploiting control of the supply of what all people need. Psychosis wasn’t the only fundamental factor, it was more a choice of strategy in response to an economic reality. If you took away that economic reality would the psychotic choice still be on the table?

Is it plausible to imagine a civilization advanced enough to have the technology to travel between stars to murder aliens and plunder their worlds either for some economic reasons that persist despite their advancements or for economic reasons that some of those aliens have developed (by infliction upon themselves without wiping themselves out) in order to engineer a situation in which they can murder aliens and plunder their worlds? When they take our land what will they do with it? Sell it to each other? To do what? Grow food they can’t eat? Set up factories? Why not set them up in space? What would those factories produce? The Roman Empire plundered gold but they only did that because gold what what they made coins out of and they did that because it was a good material to make coins out of. Again, it’s just a substance that is needed for some reason. What substance and what reason would the aliens be captive to? Why? Because they’ve, by some insane marketing scheme, tricked themselves into thinking they need to invade Earth? When the US invaded Iraq they secured oil that Americans bought. What would the aliens secure? Who would buy it and why? Have the aliens sustained a price bubble in the Earth property market? How? Why?

This is why alien invasion stories are always so nonsensical to me. There is never even a partial explanation for why the invasion is happening. It’s surprising that Hawking would enter into such a discussion and make such a simple claim as to assert a similarity to human history.

 

There is a great documentary on Netflix called “The Spirit of ’45”. It got a 75% critic score on Rotten Tomatoes. The low scores mostly come from The Daily Mail, The Guardian and The Sun… so, make up your own mind about that. The documentary is a bit patchy. It glances over the years between about 1955 and when Thatcher came to power. It also doesn’t give a clear description of how the state was organised during those years. Some interpret this as selectivity with the aim of misdirection. Perhaps it is, but I think including these things would have strengthened the movie’s position. And it does have a position. The main ideological objection to the documentary seems to be that it makes workers out to be heroes while casting the establishment (including the police) as thugish villains. Nigel Andrews from FT.com points out that the documentary “doesn’t spare a frame for the concrete block dropped by NUM protesters from a motorway bridge”. That is a fair point in of itself. Omitting things from a documentary that are relevant is a flaw. However, I’m not sure how he thinks this fits into his overall criticism. Police are people. NUM protesters are people. The country was in a state that caused people to do extreme things, and some people are stupid. So what? Is he arguing that socialism is really the result of people wanting to throw bricks off bridges? Or the result of people not wanting to be beat up by police? I suspect not. I suppose he’s just making a childish “I know you are but what am I” argument.

Anyway, I didn’t mean to make this a meta-review.

At the beginning of the 20th Century the British Empire was nearing the end of it’s life. The Empire had brutalised most of the planet in order to secure the economic interests of ‘Britain’ and yet Britain had some of the worst slums in Europe. This had not gone unnoticed. A small set of the population were rich and thought of, explicitly, as tyrants. A huge number of people were living in a state of poverty and could only work when fickle market forces happened to allow it. The healthcare system was private or voluntary, and as such practically non-existent.

Then WWII happened.

Many talk about how the war affected the economy in purely abstract economical terms. The war created demand, which sustained the economy. Even if you accept that, of course, war is intrinsically a bubble. Any demand created by the war would disappear as soon as the war ends, which it has to eventually. Also, wars tend to end abruptly. One day you are producing munitions at maximum capacity; the next two thirds of your industry is useless and you have huge stocks of stuff you don’t need. As it happens it’s quite easy to retool industry from war to useful production, so it’s not all bad.

This overlooks the impact of the war on people, and how psychology affects the economy. The war taught people a very clear lesson: everyone can have a job. During the war there was little involuntary unemployment. People openly questioned “if we can have full employment killing Germans, why can’t we have full employment doing something useful?” And this isn’t an abstract statement about what people where thinking. This idea was out in the open, in the news, in public discussions, in labour movement speeches.

As soon as the war ended an election was called. The Labour movement won by a landslide. This was the first time in British history that a Labour movement got into power.

It’s interesting to note at this point the similarity to the US today. The US has no labour movement party. It has only Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. It has an empire that spans the world founded on military power. It is extremely powerful and yet, by any metric, it’s homeland is a third world country. It’s only apparently developed because a small section of the population (that is a parasitic class) raises the averages. It’s also, arguably, nearing a breakdown in it’s power. It has long since lost control over China. South America, too, is becoming independent. The Arab Spring is bringing about, to some extent, sovereign rights over middle-eastern domestic resources. China is gaining momentum as the new US and India and Brazil are huge emerging markets.

Many of the ideas that were alive during the 30s in the UK, the recognition of vast disparity of wealth and power, the overt revulsion over individualism and market speculation, the idea of worker control and ordering a society system around improving people’s lives first and improving the markets second can be seen in protest movements in the US.

There is, however, a qualitative difference. Whereas the UK saw a Labour movement, the US’s protest comes primarily from the anti-globalisation movement. The Occupy movement isn’t as such a worker movement (although they are all clearly workers in the nominal sense), it’s also a customer movement. I think this difference can be explained by the fact that the UK in the 30s was industrialised whereas the US (and UK) economy right now is financialised. As a result workers rights are a problem but so are financial customers’ rights [1].

When the Labour party got into power they did some truly awe inspiring things (whether you agree that the changes were good or not you can’t disagree they were significant). Today, a political party will knock together a few million pounds, make a slight change to policy (and commission a marketing / branding campaign) and call it revolutionary. The Labour Party literally changed the fundamental mechanics of our whole society and implemented things that people today take as a granted component of life.

For the first time normal people could do progressive things like ‘see (with glasses)’ or ‘not die in childbirth’ or ‘make a fair wage’ or ‘not be get killed in mines’.

The Labour Party was explicitly Socialist. That’s uncontroversial. The Labour manifesto talked about pubic ownership of means of production. There are a few ways to interpret this in a practical sense. That is, there are many ways to implement socialism. What was implemented was a form of State Socialism. Since then State Socialism has been taken as what Socialism is, and any criticisms of Socialism you will find will be, in reality, criticisms of State Socialism [2].

State Socialism is an interesting system. It has to comprise of two interdependent systems.

1) A Top-down planning and administration

The chosen means of action in a State Socialist system is a top down administrative system…

2) A Bottom-up feedback

…but in order for the system to qualify as Socialism it must have a means by which workers can control their work. So there must be a parallel system by which decisions can be made by workers that filter up through the system to be then translated into administrative policies to be passed back down. 1 is the state part and 2 is the socialist part.

If the bottom-up component of this system is deficient then what you have is effectively totalitarianism (actually, a big corporation).

One of the causal dynamics in Politics that is often ignored is a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. The government is never really purely Labour or purely Conservative. The government as a real thing (rather than a theoretic construct) is much more complicated. At the time, and like always, there were many who were totally against socialism in whatever form it might take. The Conservatives, during the 1945 election, had Hayek’s Road to Serfdom republished. It is effectively a tirade against Socialism, and in a more broad sense one of the many religious texts on which fanatical neo-liberalism is based. Like minded individual’s insisted and predicted that Socialism had to fail. The problem is that those making the prediction also had the power to make their prediction a reality.

So it makes me wonder if to some extent UK State Socialism, rather than Libertarian Socialism, came about as a result of there being individuals in powerful positions who didn’t want Socialism. Firstly, if you want to implement Socialism in a previously State Capitalist country you have to make some huge changes, but if you opt for State Socialism there are many conventions and paradigms that you can keep. Chiefly the overall top-down administrative systems. So, in this sense, State Socialism could be seen as a kind of conformist type of Socialism, a reformation of State Capitalism. Secondly, those who are dead set against Socialism (that is worker control over capital) have a say in how the system is to be implemented and will try to retain the structures that have served them in the past, and further will try to steer the system towards an implementation that they have the power to disrupt (for example by interfering with the bottom-up component of the system while installing themselves in positions to benefit from the top-down part of the system, or by interfering with funding and investment.)

Many argued that the new nationalised systems were, in the end, not so dissimilar to the old tyrannical systems in that many of the tyrants (including Lords and Ministers) had been placed into the system in positions of power, and the theoretical bottom-up component, worker representation, was deficient. Over the coming decades British industry suffered from a lack of investment, which could have been created by the public sector but would have been considered to ‘Keynesian.’

A reoccurring pattern followed: private interests conspired to interfere with the public sector, knowingly sabotaging it, then asserted that all Socialism is flawed and claimed credit for predicting it, using that as justification for more austerity and less market regulation, which resulted, ironically, in an increase in state expenditure during the Thatcher years, imposition of free-market economics on some and huge protectionism measures for a minority. This set the basis for unfettered speculative schemes, transferring most economic effort into abstract markets that have no productive output, which eventually lead to the financial sector discovering it could make more money speculating on the mortgage market than actually financing productive enterprise or people’s lives. The result was a huge speculative bubble in the property market that everyone except neoliberal fundamentalists could see was a problem. When the bubble burst it almost destroyed the world economy and had huge repercussions on peoples lives.

[1] It’s interesting that, if you think about it, customers aren’t significantly different to employees. In fact customers are like perfect employees. They have all the benefits of employees, well, there’s only one: they cause money to go into the employers’ pockets, but have none of the drawbacks. The employer doesn’t have to do any of the stuff associated with maintaining employees.