German Ghost Border Strikes Back

Upon analysing the results of the recent German Election, which has been a huge victory for Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), I came across this fascinating graph.  It’s one of a series showing where each party has its base (Social Democrats in north-west, CDU in the south – and everywhere else, really) and this particular map shows where votes for the ‘Die Linke’ (Left) party are concentrated.  Just as I discovered with religious observance, there’s a clear east-west divide along the former border of the Iron Curtain.

I can see two immediate responses to this.  A Marxist might say that the Communist government of East Germany so successfully instilled its ideals into the population that, as with religion, they continue to advocate the state’s beliefs long after it exists.  Others might argue that this is merely the inevitable result of increased poverty in the east as a result of inefficient rule, or due to the difficulties the region must be facing in adapting to a capitalist system.

Either way, I continue to be fascinated by how history is so clearly alive today in the most surprising ways.  Do you know of any other examples of these ‘ghost borders’?  Please let me know!

 

Ideologies of Europe

Ideologies

I’ve just completed one of my main Summer projects: a video charting the rise and fall of ideologies across Europe over the last few centuries.  For those interested, you can watch it here.

The wide variety of ideas on how we should structure society and govern ourselves which have sprung up from Europe have always fascinated me.  From hereditary monarchies to liberal republics, Communist Utopian dreams to Fascist order and discipline – and even the idea of no structure, no state, in occasional anarchist societies; we’ve attempted the lot.  Most have failed, or been brought down, but there’s no reason to suggest what we’re experiencing now isn’t simply a brief period of calm which, as I discovered while researching the video, are extremely common, before another tumultuous divergence.  My favourite aspect of the video is watching the consensuses change: seeing the ideals of authoritarianism and ‘tradition’ dissolve while new accepted forms of governance emerge.  Is our current system of capitalist democracy here to stay, or will something currently unimaginable one day usurp it?

See, this is a prime example of how studying history is always relevant.  From the past, we can extrapolate the future.

A Democratic China?

One of the largest topics of debate in international relations these days seems to be ‘The Rise of China’.  It’s a theme mentioned practically in every news channel you watch, or rooted somewhere in any newspaper you might pick up.  That China is a rising star in the world is undeniable; its GDP has risen to be the 2nd largest in the world and it’s taking an increasingly important role in world affairs.  Thankfully, China’s leadership appears to have chosen to express this position of power through economic means, including investing in many developing countries around the world, rather than following the US route of attaining military hegemony.  China’s growth needn’t be a threat to the West simply because it’s a shock to the status quo – while worries about the effect corrupt deals could have in places such as in Africa, my only real concern would be if China decided to use its position to advocate Communism and authoritarianism outside its borders.  Instead, China seems committed to the principles of peace and stability and, after economic reforms of the 80s and 90s, has completely abandoned a Communist economic system while currently maintaining a Communist government (which completely defeats the purpose).

The question on many lips is this: will China, having adopted Western neoliberal ideas of the free market and private enterprise, also follow through and liberalise its political system?  The government has proven very successful thus far at warding off domestic unrest, largely I expect because of the country’s incredible economy (we have much to thank China for; its economic success has been praised for keeping the world from complete disaster during the financial meltdowns since 2008).  Since the brutal suppression of protests at Tienanmen Square in 1989 there has been no large pro-democracy movements, despite the cases high-profile dissidents such as Ai Weiwei and Chen Guangcheng.  Indeed, China’s unprecedented economic success has caused many in the West to consider whether economic growth and democracy must necessarily go hand in hand, as surely China is proof that an authoritarian country can be successful, right?

Yes and no, is my largely unprofessional opinion.  History has shown time and time again that economic development in the country – greater infrastructure, a growing middle class, rapid urbanisation – results in unrest within authoritarian countries.  An affluent middle class grouped together in urban areas with access to information will soon realise that they have no say in the political process; this is unavoidable.  China may effectively sensor the internet but bits and pieces will trickle through.  Meanwhile the number of Chinese people taking holidays abroad is skyrocketing, and there’s nothing the government can do to stop them realising how much more political freedom people have elsewhere.  Combine these factors with a gradual slowdown of economic growth and I would argue that the government is on a direct collision course with its citizens.  There are claims of ‘Chinese exceptionalism’ which, like all claims of national exceptionalism, is merely a vain justification of certain policies.  China has a vastly unique and wonderful culture, yes*, but human nature remains the same.

So working on the assumption that a democratic transition is likely, we must now speculate the course this will take.  Will we see cautious policies to open up the political system, perhaps similar to what’s happening in neighbouring Burma, or will there be an Arab-Spring style uprising?  I’m inclined to predict the first option.  In fact, BBC world affairs editor John Simpson recently said that “Leading Chinese dissidents now believe the stage is set for multi-party democracy in maybe 5, 7, 10 years”, describing these dissidents as “surprisingly optimistic“.  He is of the view that China’s new leadership is aware that political liberalisation is necessary for continued development and that the real question is how this would be achieved.  Don’t confuse this with the idea that its leadership are Liberals – I believe them to be very Conservative – but this is in many ways an issue of pragmatism, not ideology.

Another curious question is, if this remarkable feat is ever achieved, what implications would a democratic China have?  While its possible a nationalistic government could be elected that would make the world a much less peaceful place, which would not be unusual  for a new democracy, chances are any elected government would be more moderate.  I can’t imagine even a democratic China being best buddies with the West – it has too many of its own interests to consider – but there would certainly be the opportunity to improve relations which wouldn’t exist under authoritarianism.  A democratic China would possibly be the best thing that could happen for the cause of spreading democracy worldwide; while I don’t expect it would join the West’s desperate fervour to impose democracy upon various countries, it would at least recognise that such a spread would be desirable.  For this reason, a democratic China would probably use its considerable influence over North Korea to force reform and openness.  Without Chinese support I find it unlikely to think that the Kim regime could survive for long.  There would probably also be much good news for human rights in Tibet, even if full independence might initially be off the agenda.

Also, what would a democratic China look like?  Would it keep elements of its Communist system or adopt a multi-party system as in Japan, India and South Korea?  A close example is the Soviet Union which completely dismantled its Communist style of governance in 1991 and adopted a Western model of governance, though China’s transition would probably not be quite so dramatic and therefore not so extreme.  And what would become of the flag?  Would it return to the flags of 1912-1949 republic?

Much of this is wild conjecture at best, though I think the odds are in favour of there being some political opening occuring.  It would be very nice if this happened as soon as 7 years time, while other commentators have suggested it’s more likely to occur during the 2022-2032 sixth generation of leadership.  It’s impossible to tell, though I suspect something has to change during my lifetime.  I’m excited to watch and see!

*One I would absolutely love to experience to a greater extent, incidentally.

 

Pariah States Stick Together

Today, Panama has announced that it stopped a North Korean cargo ship passing through the Panama canal from Cuba which contained materials used in the construction of missiles under the guise of trading sugar.  The ship was suspected to have been carrying drugs when the much more sinister reality was discovered.  The need for secrecy was so imperative that apparently the crew resisted the search and the captain even attempted suicide.  Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli has said that this violates United Nations resolutions on arms trafficking.

This kind of lucrative cooperation between pariah states, hostile to many of their neighbours, is not unusual – particularly not between Communist countries (at least, the few countries which remain Communist in name; in reality all have abandoned the essential principles of Socialism and North Korea no longer even refers to Communism as its official doctrine).  To see similarities between the countries, simply look at their flags!  Both exist in a world which increasingly rejects their economic and political models and face threats from the USA.   I’ve read similar stories in the past regarding Iran and North Korea.  Of course, once you start looking at the Middle East these kinds of secret deals are everywhere: Iran and Russia to Syria; Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Libya to the Syrian opposition; Iran to Hezbollah; probably most of the countries mentioned to Hamas; etc.

Secret agreements between countries has always been a feature of international relations.  In the wake of the Napoleonic Wars there were various understandings that some great powers, most commonly Austria, would step in to prevent revolutionary uprisings and prop up Monarchies in any way possible.  Before the First World War a complex web of alliances spanned the globe.  During the Cold War the tap really opened and weapons flowed to Africa, Asia, South America – everywhere, really – in the many proxy wars between Capitalism and Communism.

However, since the collapse of Communism this business really has begun to dry up.  The fact that an Arms Trade Treaty can pass through the UN is proof of this.  The last 20 or so years has seen this business occur largely between the small number of authoritarian, isolated countries that still remain opposed to the international consensus – usually countries particularly opposed to the USA.  Even during this period the number of such ‘rogue states’ has dwindled – 2003 saw the collapse of Hussein’s Iraq and 2011 saw Gaddafi’s Libya fall, for instance.

I’m sure the vision of many – a vision that I share – is that one day we’ll see a world of democratic, friendly countries working in harmony with one another.  This is unlikely to happen for many reasons – tensions between the mostly democratic South America and the USA is proof of this – but I do believe we can get to a stage where the more ‘rogue’ states are integrated enough with the international consensus that the need for such illicit arms transfers might become a thing of the past.  At the moment, all we can do is work towards preventing these illegal transfers of weapons (and continue cracking down upon those which are are still legal, though that’s a different issue) and edge slowly closer to this dream.

2013 Venezuelan Election Results

Following the death of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez last March from cancer, who was never well enough to be inaugurated into his fourth term as president, another election was called.  The two main candidates were Chavez’s successor, fellow socialist Nicolás Maduro, and the centrist Henrique Capriles.  Capriles stood against Chávez in the 2012 Presidential election and won a respectable 44.3% of the vote, but few expected him to be able to have a realistic chance of winning this second election.  One opinion poll suggested he would receive at little as 26% of the vote, though the Maduro’s divide seemed to narrow in the run-up to the election.

A lot was at stake for this election.  It has been seen as a judgement on Chavez’s very own socialist ‘Bolivarian Revolution’, on whether Venezuela would continue down this route or perhaps adopt a more neo-liberal approach.  I personally was rooting for Capriles, not because of his economic policies but because I believed he was the best option for democracy in Venezuela.  As I commented when Chavez died, he had left behind a sketchy reputation for political freedom.  Maduro seems worse.  He has accused the USA of, somehow, being behind Chavez’s cancer, he has labelled the opposition ‘fascists’, he has expressed homophobic beliefs, and his political views have been described to be as extreme as Communist.  It would surprise me to see a Venezuela under Maduro become a less ambiguous dictatorship, along the lines of Russia or Kazakhstan.

Maduro won, of course.  However, I think most people were surprised to see the actual results: 50.66% for Maduro and 49.07% for Capriles.  Far narrower than anyone expected!  This is a cause for hope; although the lower-than-usual turnout will have harmed Maduro, who was hoping to play on Chavez’s intense popularity, it means that half the country does not want an autocratic, slightly insane ruler.  Probably.  Therefore, if Maduro were to attempt any shift towards a dictatorship – and I’m not saying he will – there will be more resistance.  Capriles has refused to accept the results, demanding a manual recount after the votes were first counted by machines.  I doubt this will achieve anything, but there is no harm in the opposition flexing its muscles.

Where will Venezuela go under Maduro?  The next Presidential election is scheduled for 2019, which gives him six years in power.  Anything could happen.  Will the bubble burst?  Will he consolidate political power?  Could he actually be a good, democratic ruler?  We shall have to wait.

Doctor Who: Cold War (Review)

Contains spoilers.

 

It’s strange to think that Doctor Who’s 9th episode of series 7, Cold War, is a historical episode set in the year 1983, considering that the original series of the show was actually nearing its end during that time.  30 years ago.  Feels too near to count as a historical, yet, it also feels a long time ago.  Mark Gatiss has returned to write his fifth story for the show, and has again tackled a companion’s first trip into the past – as he previously did with The Unquiet Dead (2005) for Rose and Victory of the Daleks (2010) for Amy.  Gatiss has a reputation for writing consistently decent episodes, but never anything special or that impressive, so I was curious to see how he would tackle this episode.  Returning to direct is Douglas MacKinnon, who has previously directed the The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky (2008).

Firstly, I really love the concept of being trapped on a submarine with a deadly monster.  (In fact, I actually had a similar idea myself for a spin-off/fanfiction series I wrote a couple of years, though that was with a Dalek – so I feel slightly bitter towards Gatiss for stealing it!).  A sense of claustrophobia is successfully developed; when the TARDIS disappears; the submarine is stuck; there’s nowhere to run – it’s brilliant edge-of-the-seat viewing.  In many ways, this felt a very traditional episode.  Cold War has clearly taken notes from the 1960s’ ‘base under siege’ stories, and also has a lot of similarities with the 2005 episode Dalek.  Gatiss has been criticised for, again, writing a good episode but nothing revolutionary.  Which is fine, as long as we do get the more experimental pieces from time to time.  My only criticism of the writing was that the pacing felt a bit off, at times – almost as if the plot was being stretched out to fill the time slot (unusual for Doctor Who; generally the opposite is true), though for such a small-scale story, despite the global implications, this may have actually added to the tension.

I also enjoyed how the Cold War period was realised in this episode.  From the costumes the Soviet workers wore, the stars littering the submarine (even if historically inaccurate) and the stream of references to things like America and nuclear Armageddon, the setting immediately feels convincing – I particularly liked the line which went something like, “I know telling the truth might be a foreign concept to you, sir…”  Excellent dig at Communism, there.  One thing: the actual Russian soldiers didn’t feel entirely convincing.  The lines about “Oh, we’re speaking Russian” were a bit forced, and the crew felt more British than Russian.  Not sure how that could have been improved – the crew wouldn’t necessarily need to have had Russian accents, though that might have helped.

Of course, the true focus for Cold War was the return of an Ice Warrior, who were last featured in an episode as far back as 1974 in The Monster of Peladon.  After a 39 year hiatus they’re back and, unlike previous returns such as the Cybermen and the Silurians, have remained very loyal to the original designs.  The scales, the hissing voice – it’s all there!  I lament the loss of the clamp-like hands, but that’s a minor detail.  My first impression was how wonderfully well lit Skaldak, the Ice Warrior, was in every scene, particularly once he had crawled out of the suit.  Tiny flickers on the side of the screen as he ran down corridors were also very effective.  I wasn’t completely convinced by his final CGI appearance outside of the armour, however – the edges and proportions just didn’t feel that real.  But I appreciated seeing an Ice Warrior outside of his armour – a first for the show – nonetheless.  Gatiss did a good job of briefly explaining their history; in fact, he did a better job than most previous writers for them.  Though I don’t find the idea of a mighty Martian Empire existing 5,000 years ago all that realistic but, I suppose, who cares?

Matt Smith and Jenna-Louise Coleman were perfect as the Doctor and Clara, as I have come to expect.  Coleman is very nicely fitting into the role, now, and Matt Smith still surprises me three years into the role.  Most of the crew members were well acted; David Warner as the 80s pop fan Professor Grisenko particularly stood out to me.

Overall, this was a very decent episode.  The Cold War submarine setting was used to its maximum potential, and the return of an Ice Warrior was by no means underwhelming.  Perhaps Cold War was a rehash of successful Doctor Who ideas, but they are successful precisely because they work.  This may not be remembered in the future as the greatest episode, but for now it has achieved its aims rather well.

Final rating: 7.5/10

Brave New World of the 21st Century

I love Aldous Huxley’s novel, Brave New World.  So much so, in fact, that I chose to write

my Advanced Higher Dissertation about it.  Published in 1931, it reflected Huxley’s concerns over the consequences of living in a society powered solely by the forces of profit and consumerism, of control by happiness and pleasure.  I wasn’t blown away upon first reading it, mostly because I rushed through it in a day whilst trying to find a counterpart to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, but having studied it and allowed it to retire in my mind, I felt a return was needed.  What struck me most upon re-reading the book was how many parallels there are with modern life.  Similar sentiments are shared in the preface, where it’s suggested that the fall of Communism and the triumph of neo-liberalism has brought us over-closer to the world of Brave New World.  So I thought it worth a brief blog post discussing whether or not the novel did predict the direction of society’s future.

The book opens with an audacious sequence within, essentially, a baby factory, where clone groups are created and assigned into castes, which determines their occupation and social class.  While this technology sort of exists, and is being developed through stem-cell research, it’s a divisive moral issue and not something I can see being implemented anytime soon.  Huxley appears correct to assume that society cannot survive without a class system, however; although less obvious than in his time, divisions in wealth and status are just as significant now as they were then.

Where I think Brave New World is most relevant is in its portrayal of economics.  There are frequent jokes about how everything in Huxley’s world is based on the level of consumption it can create – so, children are given hi-tech games rather than a ball, people are conditioned to hate nature so they’ll play outdoor sports rather than go for walks, etc.  They worship Henry Ford, creator of the modern assembly line.  This obsessive, mad need for economic growth above all else has many parallels with our world of today.  Sure, the people are happy, but that’s only because it suits the ruling oligarchs to have a happy, consuming, unquestioning population.  Huxley never addresses the issue of living in a world of finite resources, but this is surely a flaw of both the book’s economic model and of our own.  There is virtually no debate on whether we actually need growth.  If there’s any doubt of the level of consumerism in society today, simply turn up to see a movie at the cinema on time.  You’ll endure 20 minutes of highly-paid efforts to sell you useless things like expensive cars and perfume.  I rarely watch an advert without thinking of Brave New World, now.

Granted, there is an argument for economic growth if a country is (a) developing and (b) growing in population size.  I suppose for (a) there is no ‘end point’ of development for a country but I would mark it at a point where the living standards of the population have reached an acceptable level.  (b) is fairly straight forward; if a population grows, you need to produce more stuff to sustain the growth in order to prevent lifestyle changes.  However – and this could be Brave New World’s greatest flaw – neither of these conditions exist in Huxley’s world.  The oligarchs actively prevent scientific and technological progress, and they have capped the population at a level most suited to worldwide stability.  So, why is there such a need for growth and consumption?  I’m not an economics expert by any means so perhaps I misunderstand the arguments.

I don’t think we’re quite yet at the level of art mutilation as we see in the book; thus far we’re still allowed Shakespeare and the Bible.  At least half of the world has no significant censors on cultural endeavors, whereas in Brave New World, the ideas of conflict, love, jealousy, and family are prohibited as dangerous concepts for society, which has never quite been so radical in even the most oppressive dictatorships in reality; indeed, many dictatorships need a strong patriarchal model and a scapegoat to act as an object of hate in order to survive.  The destruction of knowledge, however, is more convincing.  While on the lowest end of its atrocities, the German Nazi regime’s systematic destruction of books never fails to sicken me.  Though again, apart from some oddball countries like North Korea, this is less prominent today.

Politically, the world of today bears no resemblance to that of Brave New World.  Far from being united, we are continuing to splinter into ever-smaller countries through the principle of self-determination.  Half the world is democratic, half is dictatorial but no country really fits the mold of being a ‘benign dictatorship’.

Finally, I think most of us could testify that consumerism and economic growth has not led to the stress-free, thoughtless blissful life which Huxley envisaged.  There could be parallels made between the drug soma and high rates of drug use in the developed world today, most prominently alcohol but also illegal drugs as well as the use of anti-depressants, but, other than Linda – who spent time outside of ‘civilisation’ – there’s never such a great dependence on soma.  Modern life is extraordinarily stressful, with jobs, lack of jobs, taxes, relationships, lack of relationships, bullying, death, natural catastrophes, etc etc.  We are far from abolishing unhappiness.

In many ways, Brave New World is an ingenius satire on the nature of modern life, but we’re not quite yet at that terrifying state Huxley imagined.  Who knows, though – perhaps it’s not far off?