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.

Economic Depression and Authoritarianism (Musing)

Just been musing, as one does, on the current trend in the world towards authoritarianism.  Of instability and the rise of the far-right in Europe, of defeats for freedom in Russia, Egypt, Syria, Mali, Iran, and increasing authoritarianism in countries like Venezuela, Ukraine, Turkey. I don’t know, perhaps reading this article* has just left me particularly gloomy, but there seems a tough fight ahead for democracy around the country.  I vaguely wrote about this earlier this year.  And I was wondering – this is just me musing – how much of a link there could be between economic depression and increasing authoritarianism in countries. I think there is an undeniable link between economic problems and a growth in right-wing movements, as cultural tensions increase and immigration becomes more unpopular.  But is there a link with the behaviour of the governments which are actually in power?

If we look at history, the best example would be the Great Depression in the early 1930s.  I’ve only studied Germany in great detail, but I know that the economic crisis Germany faced was a significant, if not the major reason the Nazis came into power.  They were able to exploit distrust in official establishments, offer a solution, offer hope.  Of course other factors were also important, and perhaps crucial, such as the aftermath of the First World War, Germany’s newness to democracy, etc.  However, I would presume that the growth of fascism elsewhere was also at least partly linked to the Great Depression.

If we assume that there is a link between economic depression and authoritarianism – or even just say that democracy struggles in these conditions – then we can at least agree that the impact now is less than in the 1930s.  I often remind myself of this if the world ever seems particularly hopeless – it was even worse back then, but we got through it.

Another significant reason there’s been an increase of authoritarianism that’s worth noting, in my view, is the aftermath of the Arab Spring.  Dictatorships around the world have released how real and present a threat their own people pose to them and have consequently taken action to further oppress their people.  Davies’ J Curve suggest that the most stable states are either democratic or totalitarian, so these dictatorships have taken the route of further oppression to stay in power.  This does not mean that democracy is weakening but that it is growing strong enough to absolutely terrify the few remaining dictators.  Of course, the Arab Spring was arguably a result of economic stagnation across the Middle East and North Africa, so there could be another link with economic depression.

As I said, these are just musings – I’m sure there are probably quite a few flaws in my arguments.

*That article really makes you loath Putin, doesn’t it?

Doctor Who: The Crimson Horror (Review)

Contains spoilers.

 

Wow, series 7 of Doctor Who is going by fast!  Episode 12/14, now.  I really am starting to miss the two-parter episodes we have become accustomed to for the last 7 years.  It’s difficult to explain why, but I really think the series is suffering because of their absence; it’s like there’s no place to benchmark where we are on what’s happening, and instead there’s a random stream of sharp, rushed stories.  Generally good stories, sure, but… Hm.  I found out this morning that The Crimson Horror only got around 4.6 million overnight views which, while still promising over 6m views with the timeshift, is undeniably a decline.  I’ve never approved of head-writer Steven Moffat’s manic obsession for ratings, giving episodes, in his words, ‘slutty’ but irrelevant titles like Let’s Kill Hitler, or his admission that getting rid of two-parters is purely to increase views, rather than to increase the quality of the show.  So I suppose I’m gleaming some savage, “I told you so” pleasure in seeing this happen, though I dearly hope the show won’t lose too much popularity.

Rant aside, episode 12 by Mark Gatiss, The Crimson Horror, looked set to be an interesting but conventional addition to the series.  Gatiss is not known for his groundbreaking ambitionwhen writing scripts, but I should have learnt after Hide not to put an episode down as ‘dull’.  It’s directed by Saul Metzstein, who has proven his abilities by directing several well-made episodes of Doctor Who over the last year, including The Snowmen – so no worries there.  It also sees the return of the Doctor’s Victorian Gang, comprised of Silurian Madam Vastra, her wife Jenny and the Sontaran Strax, who are always entertaining.

I must admit, Gatiss surprised me with this one.  This has to be one of the scariest episodes I have watched in a long time.  So many terrors: the red, semi-frozen creaky people; people getting forcibly dipped into red goo; the grotesque ‘Mr Sweet’ attached to Mrs Gillyflower’s chest… The episode made my shudder so many times.  There’s an interesting contrast of horror and comedy which Doctor Who does so well, blown up to the extremes here.  For every moment of intense horror there’s a joke (“Horse!  You have failed in your mission!” … A satnav-boy called ‘Thomas Thomas’, etc) and it shouldn’t work as well as it does, but the two hardly contrast at all.  One aspect of the tone which may have let the episode down slightly was its tendency to go over the top at times – Mrs Gillyflower’s pantomime performance: “DIE!! DIE!!!” for instance.  Not a huge detractor, but was a little distracting.  It was also interesting to see a return to “human on human” violence.  There was nothing very graphic, but having Ada batter her mother with her cane or Mrs Gillyflower firing at the Doctor twice with a revolver felt very odd.  Not wrong, but odd.  Humans being nasty to each other was a common feature of the ‘Classic Series’, but it’s mostly been replaced by ‘fantasy violence’ in the newer series.  Mark Gatiss has said that out of all the episodes he’s written, this feels the most “him”, and you can tell.

Some people have criticised the decision to spend roughly the first half the episode centered around Madam Vastra, Jenny and Strax, but I don’t have a problem with it.  It was nice to see more of Jenny’s character, who has in the past been sidelined by her stranger friends.  Perhaps the Doctor and Clara got caught too easily in Mrs Gillyflower’s plans, but I like that he has a safety net of friends to help him out just in case.  The villain’s plot was a bit bizarre – wiping out humanity with an ancient parasite and then replacing them with biologically perfect “Adams and Eve.”  It’s a common idea in science fiction, but is written creatively.  I quite enjoyed hearing Mrs Gillyflower invent fascism 30 years early – even referring to a Golden Dawn.  And I liked the idea of the… Octogram, was it?  Having the corpses’ eyes recording images was a clever way to quickly advance the plot.  The setting in general works well, feeling the most authentic ‘Victorian episode’ we’ve had for a while.  I enjoyed hearing the grand variety of accents, from the Northerners who populated most of the episode, to Jenny’s London tones, Vastra’s Scots and Strax’s Welsh.  The plan was a bit easily defeated, which is kind of understandable when you consider that Mrs Gillyflower has simply become a mad old woman with an intelligent leach, though for all her earlier successes in planning I’d have thought the team might have found stopping her a bit more challenging once they had got going.  But these are really tiny niggles.

The mystery of Clara is continuing to be mentioned.  I do like the low-key way it gets brought up, although we’re getting very little development.  It’s hinted that the Doctor intended to take her to Victorian London to see how she reacts, which shows he is still unceasingly trying to figure out, but we’re not getting any more clues.  We don’t need more clues, but every time she gets brought up we’re getting the same “dunno who she is” response.  This is meant to infuriate the Doctor, so perhaps this irritation I’m feeling is also intentional?  Builds excitement for the finalé…

The characters were all very entertaining in The Crimson Horror.  Matt Smith and Jenna-Louise Coleman great as usual, and the trio of Neve McIntosh, Dan Starkey and Catrin Stewart were very entertaining.  I found some of Strax’s lines, although humorously performed, a bit repetitive, and I’m still waiting for an explanation regarding his lack of death.  Oh well.  Mother and daughter team Diana Rigg and Rachael Stirling were performed well in their roles.  Rigg sold the part of the “nuts” Gillyflower, and Stirling’s performance brought such a rawness of suffering which added to the moments of horror.  I can’t recall the last time a character has convincingly suffered so much in the show.  Honourable mention goes to the man in the morgue, whose nonplussed response to Freaky Red Corpses verging on amusement made for many laughable moments.

As expected, Metzstein’s direction was highly skilled.  I was awed in the first seconds alone by that shot rising up above the terraces, revealing Victorian Yorkshire into view.  He’s created a tense, atmospheric episode that gave me many genuine scares.  And other little touches, like the slow pan-out to huge industrial noises, only to subvert the viewer’s expectations by revealing a trio of huge gramophones.  There were many lovely surreal touches, including the ‘Adams and Eves’ inside glasses attached to pumps.  Oh, and that flashback scene!  The colours went sepia tone, grains appeared and the audio became muffled.  Made absolutely no sense but I loved it as a storytelling device; it really set the scene.

All in all, a surprisingly enjoyable episode, and by far the best piece of writing I have ever seen Mark Gatiss produce.  I’m looking forward to seeing the team back in the season finalé, The Name of the Doctor.  And Cybermen next week, written by Neil Gaiman… Hopefully this series will go out with a bang.

Final rating: 8.5/10

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.

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?