Saturday, 27 December 2014

The Subversion of Christianity

Reading Leo Tolstoy's religious writings earlier this year made me want to have another go at reading Jacques Ellul's The Subversion of Christianity.  I began to read this book some years ago, only to find that the copy in my hands was a misprint and half the text was missing.  Life intervened, and it took Tolstoy to remind me of it.

In some ways, Ellul was a French equivalent to the Englishman CS Lewis.  Like Lewis he was a prominent Christian intellectual of more or less orthodox Protestant views.  Like Lewis, he had a depth of theological knowledge but was mostly self-taught (although Ellul did complete most of a theology degree before the Second World War intervened) while pursuing an academic career in a different discipline (Ellul in sociology, Lewis in literature).

Of course there are also differences.  Lewis wrote for a popular audience and much of his writing is highly accessible.  Ellul was far more "intellectual" and his writing can be dense and difficult.  However, for both their place outside the theological establishment allowed them to present perspectives and raise issues which would be difficult for someone operating fully within the institution.

The Subversion of Christianity was one of Ellul's later works, first published in French in 1984 and English in 1986 when the author was in his 70s.  In many places he refers the reader to the more detailed analysis of some of the issues in his earlier works.  His basic thesis is that Christianity, by which he means the gospel of Jesus and the apostles, has been subverted and robbed of its power by ideas and approaches imported from elsewhere.

For Ellul, Christianity is not an ideology, an "ism", but the denial of ideology.  It represents a rejection of earthly power and wealth in favour of the crucified Christ.  Nor is it a religion in the usual sense - it is not a way of defining things that are sacred against things that are not but a way of making the whole of life subject to God.  It is not a cultural artefact or even the basis for a culture but God breaking into culture to transform us in his image.  So how is it subverted?

Ellul discusses five sources of subversion.  These are not sequential, but run as themes through the relationship between Christianity and the multiple cultures within which it has been situated.

The first is what he refers to as the process of "sacralisation".  He sees Christianity as the ultimate piece of descralisation in that the boundary between the sacred and the profane is broken down.  In Christianity there are no sacred places or objects because everything is sacred, everything belongs to God.  Christianity did away with the temple in Jerusalem and the shrines in the sacred groves because anywhere and everywhere was the right place to worship God.  It did away with sacred objects or talismans because everything belonged to God.  It did away with priests because anyone could access God directly in humble prayer.  Yet it didn't take long for Christians to recreate their own sacred places, objects and persons - consecrated churches, sacred sites, holy relics and a consecrated priesthood.  The result was that God, who should be understood to permeate all of life and all of creation, was put back into a box, confined to certain places and people while everyone else got on with their lives untouched by his presence.

The second process is the growth of moralism.  Christianity is meant to be a religion of grace, its emphasis on God drawing us to himself through Christ.  Certainly there was a sense that certain behaviours were more appropriate for Christians, but these were consequences of this fundamental act of God's grace, not a moral system in themselves.  Yet from early in its history its leaders began to develop it as a moral system, and to spend their energy on enforcing a set of rules on their followers.  Morality became divorced from grace and the church was turned into an instrument of social control.

The third, perhaps surprisingly, is the adoption during the middle ages of various theological and political ideas borrowed from Islam.  In Ellul's telling, Islam was by far the most advanced and intellectually developed culture of the medieval period and Christian thinkers learned a lot from them, even though this debt was rarely acknowledged.  He points out two particular influences.  One is the emphasis on God as wholly "other" to us and sitting above us in judgement, as opposed to the incarnate God of Christianity.  The second is the idea of the unity of divine law with human law - that God's will can and should express itself in the laws of nations.

This leads on to his fourth process, the process of political perversion or capture.  Of course the paradigm for this is not so much Constantine himself but his lionisation by the church.  Constantine is said to have experienced a charismatic conversion, after which he went into battle with the cross on his banners.  How, asks Ellul, can the cross be turned into a symbol of political power and military conquest?  Yet "Christian" kings and governments have been blessed by the church ever since.  For Ellul this is directly contradictory to Christianity, which sees power itself as a form of idolatry.  He sees Christianity as neither politically neutral, nor as blessing any particular political structure or ideology, but as resolutely anti-political, opposed to political power in any shape or form.

The final process is, in a way, the other side of the coin of the four that have gone before.  Through the 20th century, the certainties of this perverted form of Christianity were stripped away in the face of the rise of nihilistic world views such as Nazi-ism and Leninism, and by the brutalities of the two world wars.  We no longer accepted the sanctity of places, our morality was revealed as hypocrisy, our laws and governments were shown to be completely secular and far from worthy of praise.  Yet at the same time we no longer had a clear sense of what the gospel meant, so Christianity itself became nihilistic, firmly aware of our irredeemable corruption but not of the grace that has come in Christ.

How is it that Christianity was so easily and comprehensively subverted?  There are two elements which, according to Ellul, worked together to ensure this subversion.  The first is that the revelation itself is so difficult.  What is difficult for us is not its "religious" or "miraculous" elements, the sense of God's power and the comfort of his presence.  All of these have been welcome and easily accepted for most of history.  What is difficult is its thoroughly anarchic nature - not in the sense that it is chaotic but that it is so thoroughly opposed to human power and system.  We find this difficult to live by, and try to substitute structure, predictability and secure authority for the unpredictable movement of the Spirit.

The second, which abets the first, is that the things which have corrupted the church are, in biblical terms, "powers" in their own right.  Political power, wealth, the ability to control others, the self-will of moralism, are not simply neutral.  They are active spiritual forces, demanding our attention and allegiance.  The gospel of the New Testament, of Jesus and Paul, asks us to follow a difficult, uncertain path.  The powers of this world tempt us from this path, drawing us aside with their claims of holiness and security.  The devil, as it were, appears as an angel of light.

It turns out that I was right to allow Tolstoy's writing to drive me on to Ellul.  Although the two were superficially very different, the heart of their message is remarkably similar.  Ellul was a careful and thorough scholar, Tolstoy an idiosyncratic amateur.  Ellul was an active lay member of the Reformed Church of France, Tolstoy a perpetual outsider and habitual individualist.  Yet Tolstoy, in his own way, put his finger on the very same ills - the capture of the church by the political powers, its focus on a false and hypocritical moralism at the expense of following Christ, its diversion from the teachings of Jesus to the worship of relics and the mystification of the sacraments.

Yet Tolstoy's answer is, perhaps, too simplistic compared to Ellul's.  For Tolstoy, the only thing worth valuing in Christianity was Jesus' moral teaching, summed up in the Golden Rule - "do to others what you would have them do to you", or alternately "love your neighbour as yourself".  Ellul, with a more thorough theological grounding and the resources of a non-state reformed church around him, has a more holistic view of the gospel as an expression of God's grace.  Ellul presents a very similar challenge to Tolstoy, but he also shows a path to God's grace and acceptance, a path to the peace which the tortured Tolstoy never found.

Despite his damning review of the history of Christianity, Ellul remains profoundly positive about the gospel.  In his final chapter he adopts Galileo's phrase: at his trial Galileo recanted of his "heretical" view that the earth orbited the sun, but as he stepped down from the dock he is reported to have said "eppur si muove"- "and yet it moves!".  Likewise with the gospel.  For all that the power of the church and the tangles of theology and law have obscured it, the gospel still lives and still moves among us.  It cannot be stopped, no matter what - as Jesus says, "the gates of hell shall not prevail against it" (Mt 16:18).  In every age it is born anew despite whatever we may do to it.  Thankfully, we are not powerful enough to kill it off.

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

The Little Drummer Boy

It seems that this Christmas I can't get away from renditions of The Little Drummer Boy.  Here is the one I enjoyed most, from Walk Off the Earth.



I don't really know what's with the dogs.  If you prefer something more traditional here's an a capella version by Pentatonix.


In case you haven't had it drummed into you by years of repetition over shopping centre sound systems and in Christmas concerts and pageants, the lyric goes like this:

Come they told me, pa rum pum pum pum
A new born King to see, pa rum pum pum pum
Our finest gifts we bring, pa rum pum pum pum
To lay before the King, pa rum pum pum pum, 
rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum,

So to honour Him, pa rum pum pum pum, 
When we come.

Little Baby, pa rum pum pum pum
I am a poor boy too, pa rum pum pum pum
I have no gift to bring, pa rum pum pum pum
That's fit to give a king, pa rum pum pum
rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum,

Shall I play for you, pa rum pum pum pum,
On my drum?

Mary nodded, pa rum pum pum pum
The ox and lamb kept time, pa rum pum pum pum
I played my drum for Him, pa rum pum pum pum
I played my best for Him, pa rum pum pum pum,
rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum,

Then He smiled at me, pa rum pum pum pum
Me and my drum.

In our culture, Christmas has become the season for sentimentality.  We cover our houses and offices with shiny decorations.  We send each other cards with hopeful messages inside.  We feel extra compassion for the poor, putting on special meals for poor families and giving their kids presents.  When tragedies happen, as they have this December, they take on an extra poignancy for us for their potential to ruin the peace and goodwill we expect at this time of year.

Children's songs fit right into the mix.  We hear Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, Santa Claus is Coming to Town, Twinkle Twinkle and even, if we are lucky, Away in a Manger.  Christmas has, for many of us, become something for children, and as adults a way for us to recover our lost childhood, our lost innocence.  It is the only time of the year adults are allowed to wear funny hats.

The Little Drummer Boy is perfect for a 21st century Christmas.  It features a child, it's very sentimental and it certainly appears innocent.  But I couldn't shake the question - who was this drummer, and what was he doing there?

The song was written in 1941 by US composer and music teacher Katherine Kennicott Davis, under the title "Carol of the Drum".  She suggested it was based on a Czech carol, but no-one seems to have been able to identify a source so we have to think that its creation was largely her own work.  Davis composed for children's choirs and ensembles so she wrote a simple, catchy tune and a lyric that children could relate to.  It began to reach a wider audience in 1955 when it was recorded by the Trapp Family Singers and since then it's been re-recorded by every man and his dog. Even David Bowie apparently had a go at it.

Pearl Harbour was bombed in December 1941, so if Davis's pupils gave this song its first outing in Christmas of that year its insistent onomatopoeia would have accompanied the marching of soldiers' feet and the quickened beat of American hearts as they prepared for a long and bloody war.  This is more than appropriate - it was almost certainly deliberate - because its central character is a child soldier.

Boy drummers were common in all the armies of the early- and mid-19th century, after which they were replaced by boy buglers.  They didn't generally carry firearms because the rifles of the time were too heavy and had too much recoil for a child to handle.  Nor was their job simply to accompany the soldiers as they marched on the parade ground.

Drums were used for signalling in battle. The noise of a full scale conflict was too great for the officers to shout, and in poor visibility flags and signals wouldn't do the job, so armies used a rhythmic code.  Each rhythm meant a different thing - attack, retreat, regroup, parley, etc.  The drummers would be stationed at intervals just behind the battle lines, where they could pick up and pass on the signal from the commanding officer.

They were favourite subjects of sentimental art in the 19th century, the combination of innocence and heroism appealing to Victorian sentimentality.  They also had a special place in the folklore of the American Civil War, active on both sides of the conflict.  Officially there were age limits but these were routinely ignored.

One of the most famous of these Civil War drummers was John Clem, According to his own story, he ran away from home at the age of 9 and applied to join a number of Union Army regiments before being finally accepted by the 22nd Michigan despite his age.  By the age of 12 he had already been promoted to sergeant and he finally retired as a Brigadier General in 1915, the last serving Civil War veteran.  He is said to have been wounded at the Battle of Shiloh and have shot a Confederate colonel in the Battle of Chickamunga with a cut-down musket made especially for him.

Of course many of the tales about Clem and other Civil War drummer boys are more folklore than history.  Clem seems to have been the kind of man who never let the truth interfere with a good story.  However, they do have an historical core.  There were indeed boy drummers around the world, many of them were very young, and many were wounded or killed.  Even though most did not handle arms they were definitely in danger, and if they were not physically wounded they would still have witnessed unspeakable horrors and been traumatised for life.

So here he is in 1941, on the brink of the war that would bring about the murder of 6 million Jews and end with the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki: a child soldier, traumatised and perhaps bleeding from war, standing desperately before Jesus and Mary and offering the one thing he can do, play a signal on his drum.  I wonder, what did he signal?  Did he sound the charge to summon the Messiah to battle?  Was it the retreat, or the signal to regroup?  Or did he beat the request for parley, hoping to hear the same signal acknowledged from the other side of the lines as the guns fell silent? 

How would Jesus have responded?  The song tells us only that he smiled, accepting the child's gift but perhaps also acknowledging that his signal would be honoured, that his prayers and desires would be fulfilled in due time.

Of course the infant Jesus could not yet speak, but what would the adult Jesus have said?  I like to think that, lover of the prophecies of Isaiah as Jesus was, he may have replied with the words from Isaiah 2:3-4.

For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.

May we all have peace this Christmas, and in Christmases to come.

Friday, 19 December 2014

The Uses and Abuses of Fear

A few weeks ago I wrote about the idea of "lone wolf terrorism".  Now we have had our own version of the same thing, a terrifying and spectacular act of violence in which an Iranian immigrant called Man Horan Monis held a group of staff and customers hostage in a cafe in Sydney's Martin Place for 16 hours.  The standoff ended with Monis' death and that of two of his hostages.


In its wake, government leaders and commentators have been asking the same question I did.  Was Monis a terrorist, or was he just a criminal?  On the one hand, he had a history of espousing radical Islamism and claimed to be acting in support of the Islamic State.  On the other hand, he didn't even have an IS flag to display, and had to ask police negotiators to bring him one.  His previous crimes appear to include writing hate letters to the families of Australian soldiers killed in Afghanistan along with violence of a less political nature including a string of sexual assaults and being an accessory to the murder of his ex-wife.  He claimed to be an Islamic cleric but he doesn't appear to have had a congregation.  Whatever his stated religious and political views, he just sounds like a psychopath.

Of course this is a terrible crime, and his choice of location - in the heart of the Sydney CBD, across the road from the Channel 7 studios - ensured maximum publicity.  We have had several suburban sieges in Queensland this year and none have had the kind of saturation media coverage devoted to this one.

However, I would like to challenge my readers to discuss this crime without using the word "terrorism".  The more I hear the term used the more I think it is misleading, a term designed to confuse and distract rather than to explain and promote understanding.  Terrorism is a term people use to defame their enemies.

A terrorist, you might say, is someone who sets out to create fear in order to promote some kind of political aim.  However, all sorts of people and institutions do this.  Sometimes we call it other things.  In criminal law we talk about "deterrence" - we use the fear of the consequences of crime (fines or imprisonment) to dissuade people from committing crimes.  Over a number of years now Australian governments have used fear to dissuade people from arriving by boat to seek asylum, upping the fear level each time it appears the approach is not working.  We maintain a well trained and well equipped army to deter other countries from invading us or attempting to harm our interests overseas.

In order to assess these uses of fear, it is not enough to label someone a "terrorist".  We need a more nuanced and informed approach to the question.  I would suggest that we need to ask three questions of any use of fear.
  1. What is the objective of the use of fear, and is this objective legitimate or supportable?
  2. Is the use of fear, and the methods used to induce it, ethically justifiable?
  3. Is it effective?
The first question is, in many ways, the most difficult.  Who is to say what is a legitimate aim?  We can probably all agree that robbing a bank is not a legitimate objective, while preventing theft or murder is.  All of my readers probably agree with me that the creation of a totalitarian state based on a fundamentalist interpretation of Sharia Law (or indeed any other kind of totalitarian state) is also an illegitimate aim.  

However, others have used fear in pursuit of aims that are more ambivalent.  The IRA bombed civilian targets in pursuit of Northern Ireland's independence from the United Kingdom, an objective which readers may not support but which they could hardly regard as inherently evil.  Menachem Begin's Irgun group in the 1940s used the creation of fear as a weapon in the struggle to create an Israeli state, while Hamas uses similar tactics now to create a Palestinian one.  I have good friends who support both objectives.  The aim of "stopping the boats" is highly contested in Australian politics but most of us would at least agree that it would be much better if people did not have to risk drowning at sea to secure asylum.

The second question is strongly linked to the first but addresses a different issue and can be framed in two parts - is the creation of fear justified by the objective, and is the method and process for its creation reasonable?  Good criminal law has a way of addressing both these questions.  The consequences, and hence the level of fear, are carefully calibrated to the seriousness of the crime - a jay-walker will receive a modest fine, a murderer a long jail sentence.  The means for its administration are also carefully regulated - there is a process of natural justice which ensures the person's guilt is adequately proved before the penalty is applied.  I say "good criminal law"because it is easy to abuse this process.  Australia was founded by men and women who were transported for life as a punishment for petty theft.

It is easy to conclude that Monis' siege was a illegitimate method for creating fear, as is the recent Taliban attack on a Pakistani school that killed 148 people, 132 of them students.  No objective could justify holding a group of non-combatant city workers at gunpoint and ultimately killing some of them, or shooting school children at their lessons.  When Irgun targeted British military installations the answer is a little more ambivalent, although the bombing of the King David Hotel with its staff of civilian administrators, including may Israelis, seems to more clearly tip the balance to the negative.

We could say the same about Scott Morrison's current crusade against asylum seekers,  Whatever you think of the aim of "stopping the boats", surely the process of indefinite detention violates the kind of natural justice and proportionality built into criminal law.  People are imprisoned without trial, the conditions under which they are detained are inhumane and we are detaining children who could not possibly be held responsible for the position in which they find themselves - and all for arriving on our shores without the proper paperwork.

What are we to say of other acts of war?  Was the CIA's torture of prisoners captured in the invasion of Afghanistan (the use of fear to secure cooperation with interrogation) justified by the use to which their information could be put?  Was the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki justified by the hastening of the end of the war?  We are forced into a calculation of the value of different people's lives, weighing those of the Japanese civilians against those of the American servicemen whose lives were spared by hastening the surrender.  How can we make such calculations?

The final question is not directly ethical, but will affect our judgement nonetheless - does it work?  Does creating fear achieve the objective, or is it ineffective or even counter-productive?

It is not easy to answer this question in Monis' case because his aims are unclear.  He claimed to support the creation of the Islamic State but this is a very imprecise goal and we don't know if he had any more immediate ones.  Perhaps he revealed an immediate objective to the police negotiators but they were reluctant to publicise it.  Perhaps he didn't have one beyond creating mayhem and drawing attention to himself.

In a more general sense, fear helps people to gain their objectives in a number of different ways.  Most immediately, it gains compliance from those in the immediate vicinity.  If someone points a gun at me, I will generally do what they tell me even if I wouldn't do so otherwise.

In a wider sense, fear can shape my actions at a distance under a number of conditions.  Firstly, the fear needs to be credible - I need to feel the fear, to believe that the thing I fear will take place if I don't comply.  A man pointing a gun at me is credible and I will do what he says.  However, I remember in my teenage years being held up on my way home from school by a child wielding a cricket ball and demanding all my money.  I laughed at him and kept walking.

Secondly, the actions it seeks to shape need to be rational and premeditated.  Fear of lengthy imprisonment may be enough to stop me plotting and carrying out the murder of my enemy because this is a calculated, deliberate crime.  It is less likely to stop me from killing him in a fit of rage, since at that point I am not thinking rationally.  

Thirdly, the fear needs to outweigh my desire to do the opposite.  If I was a bank teller and a person holding a gun told me to hand over the money I would give it to them without hesitation.  If they commanded me to kill one of my co-workers I would be a lot more likely to refuse - at least I hope so!  This is the practical problem faced by the Australian Government in its efforts to use fear to stop seafaring asylum seekers.  These people are already being driven by other fears - the fear of arbitrary imprisonment, torture or death in their home countries.  It takes a very strong fear to overcome this, and it is the strength of this fear which has eventually driven our own response to its current disproportionate level.  

The Australian government, with the support of almost the entire population (it is never safe to say "all") is determined to continue to oppose Islamic totalitarianism and it will take a much more powerful fear than that created by Man Monis to change that stance.  However, this fear does drive us to agree to some things we would normally reject - increased surveillance, reduced accountability for our security services, greater powers of arbitrary detention and limits on freedom of association.  In this sense, perhaps those who want to use fear to influence our political direction are having more success than we like to admit.

The question of effectiveness is important because it asks us to think more creatively, and perhaps more humanely, about how we achieve our aims.  We know that fear has only limited success in reducing crime, and that alongside this method we need to use strategies that reduce poverty, address the consequences of childhood abuse and support rehabilitation programs for drug and alcohol addiction.  Greens Senator Scott Ludlum has drawn attention to a range of alternative policy approaches to the deterrence approach to asylum seekers.  And what of our "anti-terror" laws themselves?  Ironically they rely to a large extent on creating fear amongst would-be offenders.  This is unlikely to work on disturbed young men who are ready to die for the cause.  What is our Plan B?

None of this leads us to a neat conclusion.  The use of fear is not always a bad thing.  Even the use of deadly force can be justified in some circumstances.  Exactly what those circumstances are is a matter of fierce debate.  Few people would agree with Monis that his actions were a justifiable use of fear.  However, he and those like him are far from having a monopoly on unjustifiable fear.  

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Cruel Mothers

In the last few weeks we've had some very sad stories in our media.  Police shootings of mentally ill young men, children dying from drinking unprocessed milk, our government winning the right to treat asylum seekers with unprecedented cruelty....  In the midst of this are two tragic crimes.

On November 23 some people out for a Sunday morning cycle heard strange noises coming from a partly covered drain beside Sydney's M7 freeway.  They investigated and found a newborn baby boy abandoned in the drain.  Doctors judged that the child had been there for 6 days.  The lucky boy is now recovering in foster care and his mother has been found and charged with attempted murder.

The drain where the baby was found at Quakers Hill.

Just a week later, two young children playing on Maroubra Beach in Sydney uncovered the remains of another infant who turned out to be a baby girl.  Sadly this child did not survive and the remains were badly decomposed.  The search for her mother is still ongoing.


These stories produce a complex reaction from police, media and the public.  On the one hand, we feel an instinctive horror at the suffering of vulnerable, innocent, tiny children.  On the other hand, we feel a lot of sympathy for the mothers.  What kind of fear or desperation can drive a woman to treat her own child in this way?  All of us who have children know how instinctive is our desire to protect and nurture them.  What can be powerful enough to overcome this urge?

Understandably, the need to protect the children, and their probably troubled mothers, means that the answers to these questions remain confidential.  We can only speculate.  However, this is hardly a new phenomenon.  The scenario of a young mother doing away with her newborn is so pervasive that it inspired not merely a classic folk song but a whole genre, often known as the "cruel mother ballads".  Here is a classic example of the genre, 'Bonnie St Johnstone' from Richard Thompson's 1000 Years of Popular Song.



This follows the classic pattern for these songs - the narrative is interspersed with a refrain which, in this case, simply locates the song geographically.  The woman gives birth in secret (in this case, apparently, in the woods), kills the child (in this case, twins) and finally meets with the appropriate consequence, being condemned to hell while her innocent children play happily in somewhere that is perhaps like heaven.

In this particular song the reason for the crime is unexplained, as it is in our recent real life stories.  However, the reasons are well known in the genre - a child conceived out of wedlock, abandonment by the father who may be a nobleman's son, the fear or actuality of public shame and expulsion from the family.  These crimes, and the songs they inspire, are expressions of the vulnerability of young women in a patriarchal and highly moralistic society.  These young women are forced, without the support and advice of their parents or elders, to make a choice between the life of their child and their own reputation and social standing.  Sometimes this is portrayed as Hobson's choice - how can the child survive when the mother is outcast and forced into destitution?

A classic literary variation on this theme is found in Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles.  Tess is an innocent young girl from a poor family who is seduced (perhaps raped) by her wealthy bogus cousin and conceives a child.  She is not abandoned by her family and bears the child, only for it to die in infancy.  Yet the events come back to haunt her when they lead her new husband to reject her, starting her life on a downward spiral which ends in her committing murder.  Hardy has a fine eye for the tragedy of false and hypocritical morality and the way it can destroy innocent people.  No wonder people do everything they can to conceal their mistakes.

One of my favourite songwriters, Jeff Lang, has a contemporary example of the genre, 'Newbridge' from his 2011 album Carried in Mind.  I wish I could find you an online version to listen to, but you'll just have to take my word for it.  Lang uses the same alternating line structure as the traditional ballads but his refrains are more revealing: "never to grow old...never told a soul".  It tells the tale of a young girl raped by a drunk man from the neighbouring mining camp.

He dragged me off into the trees 
(Never to grow old)
He did with me just what he pleased
(Never told a soul)

And when nine months they came to pass...
I stood at the lip of the old mine shaft...

I brought him forth into this world...
Then down his tiny body was hurled...

Unlike 'Bonnie St Johnstone', she is not moralistically consigned to Hell.  Instead, she carries her own hell around with her, while her rapist remains untouched.

Now he lies there in the mines
(Never to grow old)
He never left my troubled mind
(Never told a soul).

Oh child, what demon have I become?....
Oh child, can't take back what's been done...

We like to think that in our day we are better than this.  Sole parents are often demonised by right-wing politicians but having a child out of wedlock is no longer a cause for ostracism and lifelong shame.  Sole parents are eligible for income security and even if their parents are not supportive there is childcare and other support services.  A young sole parent may feel that others look down on her and many may, but she will also find friends and plenty of other women in her situation who will admire her courage and devotion to her child.  Alternatively, for those whose religion or personal morality does not forbid it, abortion is fairly easily available.

All this is true, but both Lang's song, written within the last few years, and these incidents from the past few months, show that we still have some way to go.  There are still many reasons why a woman would be too ashamed to own her pregnancy or bring her child into the community.  We don't know what these reasons are for the women who left their children beside the M7 or on Maroubra Beach but we can imagine a few.

For Lang's fictional but realistic character it is the trauma and shame of rape.  Other forms of abuse can have the same effect.  Many of the victims of institutional abuse who are currently telling their stories at the Royal Commission took decades to come into the open.  A young girl who is the victim of abuse within her family can face an impossible dilemma.  Isolated and confused, such young women may find themselves in a situation beyond their resources and experience, and be driven towards terrible choices.  Or pregnancy can be complicated by mental illness, preventing the mother from making logical decisions.

Whatever the reason, one thing has changed.  People in Hardy's day or the time of 'Bonnie St Johnstone' lived in small, close-knit communities where they were well-known and recognised.  The problem they faced was that they stepped outside the morality of their communities (even if they had no choice in the matter) and their communities were likely to be unforgiving.  They would be ostracised with nowhere else to go.

In our society, this problem is reversed.  Our community is highly tolerant but knit with gigantic stitches.  Almost any aberration will ultimately be forgiven - if not in your original community then in another one to which you can easily move - but it is easy for people to slip through the gaps.  Nothing is more cliched than the phenomenon of being alone in the big city.  A young woman in trouble can find that she has no-one to turn to.  Left to herself and deprived of the wisdom of friends or elders she can make tragic choices.  How do we build communities that ally our forgiving, tolerant attitude with an ethos of care, where a woman with a child will not only be accepted but supported and helped, given a place and assured that her child is precious and welcome?

Friday, 21 November 2014

Denial in the Saudi Arabia of Coal

Australia's current little piece of political theatre, aside from the lunatic fringe festival that is the Palmer United Party, is provided by the fall-out from Barack Obama's speech at the University of Queensland during the G20.  In speaking about global climate change, Obama said "the incredible glory of the Great Barrier Reef is threatened" and went on to express the desire that his daughters, and their children, would be able to visit it long into the future.


It seems like a mild and self-evident thing to say, but in the delicate and nuanced world of diplomacy it has been understood as a rebuke of the Australian Government for trying - unsuccessfully as it turned out - to keep climate change off the G20 agenda.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop (oddly not Environment Minister Greg Hunt) has come out swinging.  "Of course, the Great Barrier Reef will be conserved for generations to come. And we do not believe that it is in danger," Ms Bishop said.  Her point is that the Australian and Queensland Governments have a strategy to protect the Reef from what she says are its two biggest threats, agricultural run-off and natural disasters (failing to mention dredging and dumping of dredge spoil, over which her government is still prevaricating - oh, and also climate change).  She is apparently sending a detailed briefing to the White House explaining just that.


It would be interesting to read that briefing, because it seems hard to find a marine scientist who agrees with her.  Today the Brisbane Times reports feedback from a number of scientists who confirm that yes, the Reef is under threat.  Even the Government's own report, the Great Barrier Reef Outlook Report 2014, found "the reef to be in poor condition and the outlook for further deterioration".  Even if we deal with the run-off and dredging problems and the impact of cyclones, it will all be swamped by rising sea temperatures and acidity over the coming century.  A rising tide may not lift all boats, but it will certainly kill off a lot of coral.

So what's with all the furious denials from Bishop and her colleagues?  Why not just calmly say, "yes we all know this is a problem, it's great that the US and China are finally promising to do something about their massive emissions."?  Why, despite its official acceptance that climate change is a problem and its much criticised but nonetheless existent strategy for reducing emissions, does the government reach for the denial card almost as a reflex?

A number of countries claim the title of "the Saudi Arabia of Coal", including the US and Mongolia, but in actual fact Australia has the best claim to that title, as Richard Denniss from the Australia Institute pointed out in a recent article in The Conversation.  Australia is currently the world's largest exporter of coal, and has a bigger share of the global coal market than Saudi Arabia does of the oil market.  If Australia sneezes, the coal market gets a cold.  Or Black Lung, or whatever.

This presents Australia with a both an opportunity and a dilemma.  Coal, along with oil, is the major contributor to climate change.  The faster we can move away from coal and oil to renewables, the more we will limit global climate change.  Australia, despite it's small size and limited influence in the global economy generally, has a significant amount of power to influence this process.

If we limit our coal production, the global coal price will go up.  This will make renewables more competitive and hasten their development and adoption over the next few decades, both in Australia and around the world.  In the long run, this will mean some of our coal will stay in the ground, but in the short term what we dig up will be more profitable.

On the other hand, if we rush to produce more of it the price will go down.  The emergent renewables sector will have a much harder struggle, and we will be able to sell more coal for longer.  Good for the coal miners, bad for the rest of us, and the reef.

Which way will our government jump?  Before we could even get around to asking the question the government has answered it loud and clear.  The coal industry has said "jump", and the government has said "how high?".  "Coal is good for humanity," says our Prime Minister.  By which he means "Coal is good for coal miners".  And coal miners back his party, and fund his election campaigns, as well as having key media organisations in their back pockets to whip him with if he steps out of line.

Coal is not good for other members of humanity.  It's not good for Pacific Islanders whose islands are getting swamped.  It's not good for people in poor communities around the world who suffer increasing climatic volatility and food insecurity.  It's not good for the people of Beijing who have to breathe coal smoke all day.  And it is clearly not good for the reef.  But Julie Bishop has her instructions.  If she talks loudly enough she might be able to drown out the voices that are telling us this, and her backers will live to sell another day.  Not so the coral.

Monday, 17 November 2014

Land of the G20

So here we are, in sunny Brisbane, Awestralia, on the day after the G20.


For most of the world the event lasted two days, but for us here in Brisbane it seems to have been going on for months.  We have been peppered with mixed messages all year.  At one moment we were being warned of potential terrorist attacks and violent and disruptive protesters.  The next we were hearing the benefits of democracy extolled.  One moment we were being told about road closures, traffic chaos, public transport disruptions and heavy security around a rather large exclusion zone.  The next were being begged to come into town and join in the fun of the expensive G20 Cultural Celebration.

In the event the terrorists stayed away altogether along with the large proportion of Brisbane residents who took advantage of the long weekend to go elsewhere.  The protests were peaceful and creative, with people dressing up, creating events and generally performing for the huge international media contingent.  This was pretty much all that was open to them, since rules not only excluded them from a wide area around where the actual world leaders were gathering, but placed strict limits on the size of any banners to ensure visiting dignitaries would not have to read any disturbing messages from afar.

These things were strictly enforced, too, in fact some could say over-zealously so.  Yesterday evening I had a chat to someone at church who had been told his sign was too large.  When he was a little slow to pack it up and leave the area he was informed that he was now banned for the duration of the G20, which still had a few hours to run.  His dreadlocks probably didn't help his cause.  Other well-known non-violent activists were preemptively banned before the event, and another woman was banned after she was found carrying a "weapon" which turned out to be a multi-tool. Despite these examples of over-enthusiasm there were only 14 arrests and the specially-established temporary magistrate's court and watch-house only had to deal with one offender during the event.  The thousands of police mainly had to stand around looking impressive and ride their bicycles and motorbikes around the inner city.

There was not really a whole lot to be offended about in the protests in any case.  Many of the main concerns of the protesters ended up being covered in the official G20 communique - international tax reform, combating ebola and global poverty, even (despite our own government's attempt to keep it off the agenda) climate change.  Of course Vladimir Putin may have been a little miffed at some of the things protesters said about him (miffed enough, at least, for his local emissaries to organise a rival cheer squad) but they were only following the lead of our Prime Minister.

Channel 9 vainly attempted to whip up some outrage about the group of Aboriginal protesters who burnt some Australian flags in protest at Tony Abbot's latest attempt to write them out of our history.  "Why did the large police contingent do nothing to prevent it?" asked the reporter in shocked rhetorical tones.  Later at his press conference the Police Commissioner provided the obvious and non-shocking answer that it is not illegal to burn an Australian flag and that the police knew beforehand that it was going to happen thanks to the months of work they have put into building good relations with this and other protest groups.

Oh yes and while we're on the subject, somewhere amidst all this there was a meeting of the leaders of the world's 20 richest countries.  Solemn speeches were made and interpreted and at the end a relatively vague but non-trivial communique was signed, promising actions (not totally clearly specified) to promote global growth, share information and practice on infrastructure development, work towards a legally binding agreement to combat climate change, make better (or at least not worse) attempts to address global poverty and tackle the ebola crisis, continue working towards a system to reduce international tax avoidance, and to combat corruption.

All this came at a cost of something like $100m.  Which makes me wonder (and I know I'm not the only one) why bother?  In this time of international budget emergencies and so forth, was it all worth it?

Of course, international cooperation is better than the alternative, but we need to understand how these things really work.  For a start, the four-page communique was not worked up over the course of the past two days.  It, and the background documents that flesh it out, have been painstakingly negotiated by armies of diplomats and officials from the 20 countries over the 14 months since the last meeting in St Petersburgh, if not longer.  They have been the subject of endless consultation and scrutiny, referred to experts and committees of the 20 participating governments and other international agencies, redrafted scores of times before finally being presented at yesterday's conference and given the formal rubber stamp.  Very little of any value was added at the meeting itself - any last minute alterations were sorted out in the back rooms.

So the whole thing could technically have been done without any kind of meeting at all.  If an actual personal meeting of leaders was required, rumour has it that electronic communications technology is now in an advanced stage of development and it is a relatively trivial technical problem to link 20 leaders together via video from the safety and comfort of their own offices.  It certainly would cost a lot less that $100m.  So why all the trouble?

I think the answer is that it is a powerful piece of symbolism.  Just as the protesters outside the venues used various theatrical techniques to make their points, the leaders inside were engaging in their own form of theatrics.  Even the heavy handed security and police presence was its own form of theatre.  The point was not that the police or the soldiers should do anything, merely that they should be seen.  Indeed, the less they did, the happier everyone was.  Their massed uniforms were enough to create the aura of power.  Much better if the dark underbelly of such power - its brutality and ruthlessness - could be kept carefully under wraps.

The politicians themselves, of course, are mostly past masters at playing for an audience.  The pleasant speeches, handshakes and photo opportunities are what they were all here for, a show of unity, peace and cooperation carefully calculated to assure their various constituencies that things are heading in the right direction, that there will be peace in our time.

I say "mostly past masters" because our own Prime Minister seems to be still struggling with the idea.  His firm handshake with Putin was close enough to a "shirtfront" to satisfy his backers and the aggrieved demonstrators outside, but he did rather spoil it by joining his Russian counterpart in a bout of koala-hugging.


When he opened his mouth, on the other hand, Australians could only cringe at his insistence on trying to interest his global audience in the administrative minutiae of domestic politics.  The Shovel's wry headline about car-parking issues in Warringah is not so wide of the mark, really.

He could have learnt a thing or two from Barack Obama, whose side engagement at the University of Queensland involved the flights of visionary rhetoric we have come to expect, a sweeping humanitarian vision of the US role in world affairs which remains seductive despite the dismal outcomes of the past decade or so of US military intervention in the Middle East.  Still, any keen observer will wonder who exactly Obama was speaking to in this address.  When the head of the host department is unable to snaffle a seat in his own lecture hall it hardly seems likely that any other faculty staff would be allowed in, never mind those pesky students.  The risk of random departures from the script would have been too great.  The theatrics, and the international media, was everything.  Obama's carefully crafted message was designed for the world at large, conveyed via the international journalists who made up a large proportion of his audience.  Really, he could have been anywhere.

Of course all of this took place on a weekend of record November temperatures, as if to dramatise the urgency of the global warming task Abbot and co were trying to pretend wasn't important.  The gathered world leaders would hardly know it.  They only stepped out of their air-conditioned meeting rooms to climb into their air-conditioned limousines (or in Obama's case, helicopter) and get driven to their air-conditioned and security-cleansed hotel rooms.  And anyway, how hot is it supposed to be in...um...what city is this again?

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Lone Wolf Terrorism

Over the past few weeks we've been hearing a new term in interviews and statements from government ministers and the heads of national security agencies - "lone wolf terrorism".  I've been trying for a little while to come to terms with this concept and what it means.

I think it's helpful to think about the deliberate killing of human beings as taking place along a continuum, as shown below.


I'm not suggesting this is a moral continuum.  All these forms of killing are awful.  The continuum is related to the public or political nature of the act.

Murder is essentially a private act.  When Brett Cowan killed Daniel Morcombe he was indulging his own twisted enjoyment of seeing someone else suffer.  When Carl Williams killed or arranged the killing of various members and associates of the Moran family he was protecting and extending his family's control of Melbourne's illicit drug trade.  When Adam Lanza shot 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Connecticut in December 2012, he seems to have been acting out his disturbed obsession with mass killings and violent video games.

Although quite different, each of these are very much private crimes, committed for personal reasons.  Intense public interest notwithstanding, they really only closely concern the perpetrators and their victims.

What, though, are we to make of Anders Breivik?  In July 2011 Breivik shot 77 people in Oslo, Norway, most of them attendees at a Labour Party youth camp.  Breivik was a member of the right-wing Progress Party and published a detailed political manifesto outlining the reasons for his actions.  However, neither the Progress Party nor any other right wing group appears to have approved of his actions, never mind collaborated in them.  Breivik, like Lanza or Williams, was killing for his own twisted personal reasons.  It matters little whether the trigger is a political ideology, a personal business interest or an addiction to violent video games, these are personal, private actions.

At the other end of the continuum, war is very much a public act.  Men and women participate in organised killing and violence at the behest of their governments, in pursuit of political objectives.  It is conducted within a well understood framework of international relations and international law (even if this is often honoured in the breach) which governs things like protection of civilians and treatment of prisoners of war.  Individual soldiers may or may not be passionate about the cause in which they are fighting - they may even disagree with it - and they rarely know the soldiers they are fighting against, much less hate them personally.  They are fighting because it's their job.

In between these two is a lot of murky ground, and some of it is what we loosely refer to as "terrorism".  Terrorism is a highly contested term.  The expression "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter" was apparently coined by British novelist Gerald Seymour in a 1970s book set during the Irish troubles.  It provides us with a way of framing the question: is "terrorism" an act of war, or is it simply murder?

The usual context for terrorism is civil war.  Whereas war between nations is fought between officially sanctioned armies, raised and controlled by governments which are generally recognised to have some legitimacy, civil war involves a conflict within a country, between different ethnic, religious or political groupings who have not been able to reach a working agreement on the governance of their nation.  Most often one of these parties (for instance, the English and the Irish loyalists) represents the official government of the country while the other (the IRA) represents or purports to represent the disaffected or oppressed grouping within the nation.  This dynamic of conflict means it takes place in much more murky legal territory, in which each party will refer to the other as murderers or terrorists.

Such conflicts are generally very uneven.  One side is able to mobilise the resources of government - a trained and well-equipped army, control of official information channels and so forth.  The other has to operate underground with limited resources and firepower even if it enjoys widespread and even majority support within the population.

This means they will rarely try to meet their opponents in open battle.  Instead they engage in guerrilla warfare, using small forces to launch surprise attacks on key infrastructure or undefended installations.  Their aim is not to achieve an immediate military victory, it is to disrupt and weaken their opponents and undermine public confidence in them.  They are there for the long haul, hoping that either the government will eventually collapse under the pressure of war and the unpopular measures they are forced to take in the name of security, or else be forced to negotiate a compromise.

These guerrilla fighters may or may not be scrupulous about who they target.  Some stick to military installations, or more broadly to government infrastructure.  Others are more willing to target civilians, particularly those aligned with their opponents.  Irrespective of how they behave in this regard, they are likely to be labelled terrorists and their will be some justification for this because creating fear is one of their aims.  Official governments can at times be equally unscrupulous, as we have seen in the most recent Israel-Gaza conflict.

This continues to be the overwhelming driver of the type of activity we think of as terrorism.  The Tamil Tigers (inventors of modern suicide bombing) wanted to establish a separate Tamil state independent of Sri Lanka.  Hamas want to overthrow the Israeli rulers of their homeland and replace them with a Palestinian Islamic government.  Islamic State wants to establish an Islamist regime in Iraq and Syria.

At least from our Western standpoint, the leaders of these movements are seen as criminals but there is no guarantee that this will always be so.  Nelson Mandela was imprisoned as a terrorist and supported armed conflict by the ANC, but died the father of a nation.  Menachem Begin was a leader of the Zionist terror group Irgun which carried out attacks on British military and civilian installations, but later became Israeli Prime Minister.  I could go on.  If your side wins, you are likely to be seen as a national hero.  If it loses, you will die a villain.

One of the features of terrorism that has so worried us in the 21st century is its internationalisation.  However, this is not a new development that has arrived out of the blue.  It goes hand in hand with the internationalisation of a number of civil and local wars.  Robert Pape's comprehensive study of suicide terrorism from 1980 onwards identifies that the key common factor in all of them was the bomber's understanding of their own country as occupied by foreign powers.

Hence Osama bin Laden was started on the path to radicalisation by his anger at the heavy US military presence in his native Saudi Arabia.  It is hardly coincidental that Al Qaeda's signature terrorist act involved the bombing of the World Trade Centre in New York and the Pentagon near Washington DC.  These attacks, although showing a geographic reach unprecedented in earlier incidents, still followed the basic guerrilla pattern.  They were organised and carried out by trained, disciplined underground militia groups, operating under a covert but more or less clear command structure with a defined military objective.  They were certainly crimes, but it is still arguable that they were war crimes.

"Lone wolf terrorism" represents a rather baffling and disturbing extension of this trend.  It has been kicked along by an address from IS leader Abu Muhammad al-Adnani in late September in which he incited supporters in Western nations to acts of violence.

If you can kill a disbelieving American or European – especially the spiteful and filthy French – or an Australian, or a Canadian, or any other disbeliever from the disbelievers waging war, including the citizens of the countries that entered into a coalition against the Islamic State, then rely upon Allah, and kill him in any manner or way however it may be,  Do not ask for anyone’s advice and do not seek anyone’s verdict. Kill the disbeliever whether he is civilian or military, for they have the same ruling. Both of them are disbelievers.

This rather chilling summons could be seen as an act of terrorism in itself, given the fear it has caused in various Western nations.  As a statement it retains the elements of war that characterise other terrorist acts.  However, it departs from any form of warfare in that it asks people to act on their own.  In place of planned attacks like the World Trade Centre bombing or Irgun's attack on the King David Hotel, planned and authorised by a central command and carried out by people assigned to the task, it urges random acts of violence by unspecified supporters.

Adnani may in fact have been inspired to make this statement by the killing of British soldier Lee Rigby.  In May 2013 two young men of Nigerian descent killed an off-duty Rigby on a London street near his barracks.  While their motivation was a version of Islamic extremism and they had some links with Nigerian terror group Al Shabaab, it is not clear that they were acting under any kind of specific instruction, and their attack had no clear strategic motive.  It seems they simply wanted to kill a British soldier.

The actions of Abdul Numan Haider may in turn have been inspired by Adnani's statement.  Haider was under investigation by Victorian police as a result of his connections with Islamic extremism.  At a pre-arranged interview with investigating officers on September 23, just a day or two after Adnani's statement became public, he drew a knife and stabbed one of the officers before being shot dead.

How are we to understand the connection between Adnani's statement and Haider's attempted murder?  This is not a piece of guerilla warfare, even on the Al Qaeda model.  Haider acted alone, with minimal planning, no training and little technical know-how.  Indeed, Adnani's statement itself is the opposite of Al Qaeda's tactic.  He explicitly tells his listeners not to conspire, not to take advice or seek approval, to simply go and do it.  Adnani appears to know he doesn't have the infrastructure to launch an Al Qaeda style of attack, so instead he incites his listeners to murder.

In what sense is this different to Lanza's act, or Breivik's?  A troubled young man, acting alone under the influence of an extreme and destructive world view, commits a violent crime against unsuspecting and innocent victims.  Adnani has added another item to the list of influences that can push such young men into violence.  Alongside death metal music, violent video games, right wing paranoia and lifelong bullying we now have extreme Islam.

Calling the resultant murders and attempted murders "acts of terrorism" dignifies them with a heroism they don't deserve.  It holds out the possibility that at least in someone's eyes the perpetrators can be seen as heroes.  It inflates the power of distant extremists by attributing to them the ability to pull strings which, in reality, are not connected to anything.  Intensified surveillance, invasions of privacy, targeting of Muslims and political posturing will not help.  Troubled young men have always done this, under the banner of one excuse or another.  Instead we need to ask - why do we have so many troubled young men?

Friday, 24 October 2014

Capital in the 21st Century

Some of last week's thoughts about privatisation were prompted by reading French economist Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century, passed on to me by my generous cousin Michael.

Piketty's book is economics on a grand scale.  He sets out to tell the story of global capital accumulation over the past two centuries.  To do so, he draws on an impressive (if not quite truly global) collection of historical data on wealth collated by himself and a number of other economists over the past decade, published in sources such as the World Top Incomes Database.

This is not exactly an easy book to read, but nor is it the kind of impenetrable tome produced by so many professional economists.  Anyone who has some basic economic literacy will have no trouble grasping his arguments and if its 500-plus pages seem daunting take heart, there's a fair amount of repetition involved.  If you take economic issues seriously (as we all should!) this book is essential reading.

Piketty's foil, in an intellectual sense, is Simon Kuznets, the post-war American economist who was responsible for the 'Kuznets curve'.  This was the idea that the progress of industrialisation would initially result in greater inequality of income before swinging back to greater equality as a result of market forces and economic growth.  Kuznets summed this idea up in the famous phrase, "a rising tide lifts all boats".

Kuznets' theory is so hopeful and positive we would all love it to be true, but is it?  Well, according to Piketty even the limited data used by Kuznets himself did not really support his theory.  In his more serious academic works Kuznets was cautious and circumspect, but in his popular speeches and pronouncements as president of the American Economic Association he was far more bullish about the equalising effects of capitalism.

Piketty disagrees.  His data series, stretching back as far as 250 years for countries such as France and the UK and almost as far for the USA, paint a very different picture of the dynamics of wealth inequality.  His data show that both income and wealth inequality increased steadily through the 19th century, reaching a peak in the early 1900s.  In the decades that followed the wealthiest people in society lost a large proportion of their wealth due to the triple shock of two world wars and the Great Depression.  As a result, equality was at an historic high in the post-war period, kept that way by the rapid growth necessitated by post-war reconstruction and the institution of high marginal tax rates at the top of the income scale.

This is the world Kuznets lived in, and he took it to be normal and inevitable.  However, since the 1970s the level of income inequality and the concentration of wealth have increased steadily, so that they are now almost where they were a century ago.

Why has this happened?  Piketty explains the process of wealth accumulation through the use of a number of simple, elegant equations.  One of these suggests that where the return on capital (that is, rent, interest, dividends, capital gains etc) is greater than the rate of growth in the economy, wealth inequality will automatically increase.  Hence in high growth environments inequality tends to be suppressed, but in low growth environments it will almost always grow over time.  Wealth will gradually trickle up to the top.

But if we start out equal, wouldn't the return on capital benefit everyone equally?  Perhaps, but this is purely hypothetical.  Wealth has never been even close to being distributed equally.  Certainly we have a middle class which owns modest amounts of wealth, but this modest wealth is held in safer but lower-yielding assets like housing and bank accounts.  Wealthier people hold much more of their wealth in higher-yielding assets like equities, and have the freedom to take risks in order to achieve higher growth.  This means that over time they will progressively claim more and more of the available wealth.  Nor is this a question of hard work.  Once you have the wealth (whether earned or inherited) it will continue to grow without your lifting a finger.

So, is the answer that we should continuously promote high levels of growth?  Piketty is not hopeful about this option.  Over the long run of history, it seems unlikely that growth has often risen much above one percent.  High growth rates are inevitably a result of catch-up - Europe and the USA during the post-war reconstruction, Japan during its modernisation phase, the South East Asian nations of the 1980s and 90s, most recently China and India.  In the process of building infrastructure and acquiring technology to catch up with the rest of the world, these nations experience rapid growth.  Once they have caught up, growth slows dramatically.

Hence, Piketty believes that the decades to come will overwhelmingly see low growth - no more than 2% per year on average.  Even if Kuznets was right, there will be no rapid tide to lift those boats.

So are we doomed to ever-increasing inequality?  The good news is that there are other options available.  The less good news is that the wealthy citizens of all the major economies have a lot of power and wealth, and will fiercely resist anything that reduces that wealth.  Which brings us to the question of tax.

One of the significant contributors to the relative equality in advanced countries from the 1950s to the 1970s was a highly progressive tax system, with the richest people in many countries paying rates of 70% and beyond on the top part of their income as well as substantial inheritance taxes.  These taxes funded substantial social programs - health, education, public infrastructure, income security, public housing - which predominantly benefited those on lower incomes.  Allied with this were highly regulated labour markets which oversaw improved wages and conditions.

However, the rise of neoclassical economics from the late 1970s, personified by Reagan and Thatcher, represented a reversal of these gains.  Top tax rates were cut around the world, estate taxes were reduced or even abolished, loopholes were allowed to proliferate, wages were pushed down.  The result is what we see today in Australia as elsewhere.  A small number of fabulously wealthy people, many of them beneficiaries of large inheritances, live in luxury while the majority live from day to day and the number in poverty increases.  Meanwhile our governments, deprived of sufficient tax revenue, suffer their own form of poverty, running large deficits and borrowing to stay afloat.

Piketty's answer is that we should tax wealth.  His proposed tax is modest - nothing on the sort of amounts ordinary working families can accumulate, then stepping up progressively to 5% on the largest fortunes.  He clearly thinks it would be reasonable to levy much higher amounts - he suggests that fortunes above a certain size could be seen as socially dysfunctional and could be subject to confiscatory taxes.  However, he also understands that even these modest rates will be fiercely opposed by those who would have to pay them.  If you are in any doubt, just think back to the Rudd government's attempt to levy an extra tax on mining company profits.

Such a tax is not currently on any government's radar, and conservative economists and media outlets have been quick to try and discredit Piketty's analysis.  Instead, the solutions on offer, in Australia as elsewhere in the developed nations, are guaranteed to continue the process of wealth concentration.  Deep cuts to social programs will deepen the poverty of the poorest while leaving the wealthy untouched.  Asset sales will transfer wealth from government to private hands, inevitably those of our wealthiest individuals and companies.  Piketty points out that debt has much the same effect but over a longer period - instead of transferring wealth in one hit, it is transferred bit by bit through interest payments.

It's hard not to be gloomy about all this.  The odds are stacked against a just solution.  Our media and much of our political process is firmly in the hands of the super-rich.  They will not give up their wealth without a fight.  Yet while there are scholars like Piketty to point out the truth, and to point the way to solutions that don't further impoverish the poor, there is at least the justification to keep on striving.

Friday, 17 October 2014

When is a Sale Not a Sale?

Privatisation, lately rebadged as "asset sales", is electoral poison for political parties and their leaders in Australia.  In 2008, after NSW Labor Premier Morris Iemma proposed to privatise parts of the state's electricity system, he was rolled at the party's State Conference by a huge margin and resigned as Premier soon after.

Queensland's Labor Premier Anna Bligh didn't quite manage to learn the lesson.  Soon after her government's re-election in 2009 she announced a privatisation process that included parts of Queensland Rail, various forestry assets, the Abbot Point Coal Terminal and the Port of Brisbane.  Anger at this announcement was heightened by the fact that not a word was breathed on the subject during the election.  She may have hoped this anger would have faded by the 2012 election but it clearly hadn't and her party was almost wiped out.

All this left the incoming LNP government with a problem.  The combination of the Global Financial Crisis and structural problems in the Queensland Budget led to large deficits and a lot of debt.  The LNP loves privatisation and their key financial backers were chomping at the bit to get their hands on valuable State assets.  Yet they had ridden into power on the back of anger over just such a sales program.  As a result, they promised to not to sell any major assets (although they have sold many minor ones) without taking the issue to an election.

Finally, after two and a half years of scare tactics about the budget, savage spending cuts, the odd token tax increase and a huge amount of PR dressed up as consultation, the government has released its strategy.  The final document, The Strongest and Smartest Choice: Queensland's Plan for Secure Finances and a Strong Economy, has a fake stamp on the front that says "No Asset Sales".

So that's it, asset sales are off?  Well not quite.  Instead, the government is proposing to lease key assets - ports, electricity assets and water supply infrastructure valued in total at the deceptively precise figure of $33.6b - for periods of 99 years.  Treasurer Tim Nicholls has been proclaiming that this is a very different thing, because we get the assets back in the end.

Yes, but no.  At the end of 99 years (or 50 if the lessee fails to comply with the terms of the lease) the Queensland Government (assuming such an entity still exists) will be able to take its assets back.  WE, of course, will be long dead, as will the original people and companies who signed the leases.  The leases themselves, or the companies which hold them, will have been bought and sold on the open market many times.

But there's more to it than that.  You see, assets are not static things.  The port infrastructure, power stations, poles, wires and pipes that are about to be leased out did not exist 99 years ago.  Nor will they exist 99 years from now.  Assets gradually wear out and need to be replaced.  Technologies become obsolete and need to be upgraded.

So far the government's details on how this will work are a little sketchy, but it seems to to be like this.  The lease fees to the government will not be paid annually, they will be paid up front at the beginning so the government can use them to pay out debt.  The lessees will then, as part of their lease conditions, assume full responsibility for the management, maintenance and renewal of the assets, at their own expense, and have access to all the revenue that they generate.  Is this sounding like a sale yet?

The big difference between this and a sale is that there is an end date.  There are actually two - at 50 and 99 years.  However, a lot will happen before we get to those dates.  In the early years, investment decisions for the lessee will be clear - they have the reins for 50 years, so it is worth spending the money to upgrade the asset knowing they will get the full benefit.  However, at around the 30 or 35 year mark, they will start to examine their expenditure a bit more closely.  Parts of the electricity distribution network, say, are run down and need replacement.  The new items have an economic life of, say, 30 years, but the company only has 15 years left to run on its lease.  Is it financially prudent to spend the money?

To try and secure their investment, they will start to play hard-ball with the government of the day.  "It's just not worth our while," they will say, "to spend the money unless we have the assurance that we will get the return, so unless you extend the lease we're sorry, but we can't upgrade the infrastructure."  They will have the government over a barrel - their lease will have been prepared by the finest corporate lawyers and the government will have no grounds to end it until the 50 years are up, at which point the electricity system will be so run down that voters will be ripping politicians' heads off in frustration.  Leases will be extended well before it reaches that point.

So, it looks like a sale, it walks like a sale, it talks like a sale....  Dressing it up as a lease is pure PR.  The government is proposing to sell assets.  If you support asset sales, go ahead and vote for them.  If not, don't be fooled by the BS about leases.

Here's the thing about selling assets to reduce debt.  The government has a balance sheet (of which a summary appears in the Strongest Choice strategy) which lists its assets and liabilities.  State assets currently total a bit over $300b, with about $40b in financial assets and about $260b in land and other fixed assets.  Against this are set about $130b of liabilities, the largest item being $85b in debt, and the other big item being over $30b in superannuation and other accrued employee entitlements.  This means the State Government's net asset position - its net worth - is just under $180b.

Now if you sell some of the assets to pay debts, the net worth will stay about the same.  The fixed assets will be reduced, and the financial liabilities will be reduced by the same amount (or less if, as the government is proposing, some of the proceeds are passed back to citizens in various vote-buying exercises).  The overall position will not change, our assets will just be rearranged - more cash (or at least less cash liabilities), less fixed infrastructure.

This is where the problem with asset sales as a budget solution comes in.  Government assets are not simply inert things which sit on the books and can be sold to realise cash.  They are items that are used to provide services - electricity, water supply, transport, etc.  These can be provided in two ways - on an economic basis (the users pay a market price and the asset makes money) or on a subsidised basis (the government uses the asset to provide a free or subsidised service - for instance a hospital or school).  If the asset earns money, this money will now be paid to its private buyer not to the government, so while the budget will get an immediate boost through the one-off sale it will take a hit in each of the subsequent 99 years because the revenue will now be going elsewhere.  If the asset sold is the site of a subsidised service the government will now have to pay the private owner/lessee of this asset for the service, so expenditure will go up.

The LNP government says it wants to sell assets to "repair" the budget. Asset sales don't work like that.  If you sell assets, you structure into future budgets either reduced revenue or increased expenditure.  You put off the evil day when you have to either cut services or raise taxes, but that day will come as sure as the seasons turn.  It's not a strong choice, its a wimpish one.  But I doubt the current LNP politicians care.  By the time we all realise this, they will be long gone.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

King Alfred and the Cakes

One of my childhood treasures is a pair of books by C Walter Hodges: The Namesake and The Marsh King.  First published in the mid-1960s, these are what would today be called "Young Adult" novels which I read for the first time in late primary or early high school.  They tell the story of Alfred the Great, the Anglo-Saxon King of Wessex (south England) from 871 to 899 CE, and his conflict with the invading Vikings.

I loved these books and read them over and over again, especially The Namesake, narrated by an engaging character of Hodges' invention, a one-legged boy also called Alfred who is part of the king's household.  They deal with the period from just before Alfred's accession to the throne in 871 to the conclusion of his second campaign against the Vikings led by Guthrum in 878.  I'm sure Hodges would have been pleased with the impression they made on me - to this day my ears prick up whenever I hear Alfred mentioned.

I recently decided to approach the subject for the first time in a more adult way, and bought myself a copy of the Penguin Classics edition of Asser's Life of King Alfred and Other Contemporary Sources.  This volume brings together translations of all the material relating to Alfred that originates in his own time.  It includes the Life written by Asser, a Welsh monk who was enticed to Wessex as part of Alfred's project to improve the educational standard of this clergy and nobles, as well as excerpts from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, some fragments of correspondence, prefaces to some books Alfred translated from Latin to Old English, and Alfred's will.  It also includes a lengthy introduction and notes which provide a scholarly account of Alfred's reign.

I had a kind of vague thought that by reading Asser's Life I would be able to sort out fact from fiction in Hodges' treatment.  Of course life is never that simple.  Asser was a member of the King's household and so was hardly likely to present an unbiased account, especially given he was writing during Alfred's lifetime.  The editors suggest he probably wrote for a Welsh audience, during the negotiation of a treaty between Alfred and some of the Welsh kings in which they acknowledged his overlordship in return for military aid.

Hence we should see the Life as a piece of royal propaganda, showing the king in a favourable light to help secure the deal.  Alfred is presented as a brave and resourceful general, a pious and humble ruler and a man of great wisdom and learning.  In other words just the sort of person you would be happy to acknowledge as an overlord.  The account seems unfinished, petering out in the mid-880s.  Although Asser lived for more than a decade after Alfred's death he obviously didn't value the task highly enough to bother completing it.

The low point of Alfred's reign came in early 878.  The Danes, led by Guthrum, launched a surprise attack on Alfred at Chippenham, a royal estate in the north of Wessex.  Most of those with him were killed.  He was forced to flee for his life and take refuge with a small group of followers in the Somerset Marshes while the Danes overran his kingdom.  From there he gathered his forces and planned a counter-attack, which he launched successfully in May 878.  He regained control and forced the Danish leaders to accept Christian baptism before expelling them from his domains.  This much, at least, seems to be history.  Beyond that it gets a little murky.

One of the most famous stories about Alfred dates from this period.  While he was fleeing the Danes, the story goes, he was forced to take refuge in the home of a poor swineherd.  There he was asked to keep watch over the cakes being baked by the woman of the house.  His attention wandered and they caught fire, drawing a sharp scolding from his hostess to the effect that he could not be bothered tending them but would have been happy to eat them.  The story illustrates both the depths of Alfred's trouble and, more importantly, his humility in being prepared to accept such a sharp rebuke from a commoner.

This story is so engaging and human it would be nice to think it was true.  However, it doesn't come up in any of the earliest sources, which simply record Alfred's flight and Somerset stronghold.  It appears for the first time in a life of St Neot, a saint Alfred apparently venerated, which dates from around a century later.  It is repeated thereafter in various forms in other sources, multiplying as the years passed and gaining enough currency to be included in 19th and 20th century school history books and other such dubious sources of information.

Although the story is almost certainly legendary, it is quite consistent with the picture Asser paints of Alfred - a pious, humble, approachable man, someone who didn't stand on his dignity and had the common touch.  Hence while the story itself may not be strictly true, it illustrates something that may well be true, the character of the monarch and his attitude to those around him.  I say "may well be" because the source of the original description is a piece of royal propaganda, so it is just as valid to interpret the story as an illustration of how good propaganda works.

Then there is a third way it can be read.  It is possible that we should understand this as an illustration of how kings should behave.  Whether Alfred was really as humble and pious as Asser makes out, whether he really was the kind of king who would take a scolding from a swineherd's wife, is beside the point.  A king should be humble enough to accept rebuke when he has done wrong, whoever that rebuke comes from.  Perhaps when the English have revered Alfred down the years this is the message they have been giving to his numerous successors.

True or not, this story is too good for a novelist to pass up.  Nonetheless, the sparseness of its original telling will not do - the story requires context, a place in the overall narrative arc.  Neither Asser nor the later sources are much help.   What is Mr Hodges to do?

Of course as a novelist he is free to make things up.  However, as a historical novelist he has to be very careful what he makes up.  It has to at least be plausible within the context of the time and place, and of what is known of the main characters.  It's interesting to observe how Hodges handles this problem when he tells the story in The Marsh King.

The first thing he creates is a nephew for Alfred. It is a matter of historical fact that Alfred was the youngest of four brothers.  No-one expected him to be king at all, never mind by the age of 21, but his brothers fell one by one to battle or misfortune and there he was.  It is also a matter of historical fact that his eldest brother Aethelbalt scandalised his realm by marrying his father's young widow, a marriage considered incestuous even though she was not his mother.  There is no record of any offspring that I can find  but in Hodges' telling there is a son, Edgar, abandoned by his mother and brought up by loyal retainers on his father's English estate, of which he eventually becomes master.

Once we accept Edgar's existence what comes next is equally plausible but also not strictly historical.  Alfred is invited to attend young Edgar's wedding and, despite the misgivings of his lords, agrees to attend, wanting to show kindness to his nephew.  However, Edgar and his ambitious foster-father have tipped off the Danes to his impending presence.  Guthrum's men stage an ambush, intending to kill Alfred and invade his kingdom while it is leaderless.  Guthrum promises in return to install Edgar as king, a title to which he has some small claim.

Once again this is plausible in the context of the times.  The Danes had already installed an Anglo-Saxon puppet ruler in the kingdom of Mercia, just to the north of Wessex.  Although there is no evidence they planned to do the same in Wessex, it is not out of the question, and in any case Hodges doesn't over-play his hand - Edgar is never crowned.

Other parts of the story show the same blend of fact and fiction, or at least of known and unknown. Alongside a disaffected nephew to explain the ambush, he supplies an exchange of kindnesses to explain his escape.  While on the estate Alfred befriends the young daughter of the house, and she warns him of the ambush in the nick of time and helps him to escape through a hole in the fence.  Pure children's literary fancy, but good fun and once again rooted in Asser's description of Alfred's character.

Another detail shows how Hodges subtly modifies his sources to build a story.  According to Asser, Alfred suffered a chronic illness which left him in more or less constant pain.  He doesn't provide enough information for any attempt at diagnosis, so Hodges feels free to modify it slightly for his own purposes, from a constant source of pain to an intermittent illness.  Hodges' Alfred can be healthy for weeks and even months, and then be afflicted with weakness and fever which disables him for a few days before he returns to full strength.

This provides him with a plot device that he exploits to the full.  Alfred is struck down with his illness as he flees with young Hildis and one of his bodyguard.  King and child are forced to take refuge with the swineherd (remaining anonymous for fear of further betrayal) while the bodyguard struggles on through the snow to find help.  They stay there for a few days while Alfred recovers and his followers find the way back to him - long enough for him to burn a batch of cakes and be scolded for his negligence.  Alfred's thankyou gift of several bags of flour and a dozen perfectly cooked cakes is a nice addition, wholly of Hodges' own invention.

In purely factual terms none of this is historical at all - it is a modern fiction built around the bones of an ancient one.  Yet it presents a picture which is in some respects strikingly historical.  Asser, who tells us none of these things, tells us that Alfred was humble, gentle and approachable and had a sharp sense of humour.  Hodges doesn't tell us these things in so many words, but in this story Alfred shows kindness to his nephew even though his advisors urge him not to, almost dies for it but is saved as a sort of reward for another act of simple kindness towards a young girl.  He burns the cakes and takes his scolding in good spirit, before responding later with an act of self-deprecating humour.

Asser's portrait is, as I said, a piece of royal propaganda, aimed at convincing the Welsh that an alliance with Alfred would be to their advantage.  Hodges, of course, was far removed from the realpolitik of the 9th century and uses the story to illustrate his own concerns.  The Danes (who in keeping with Asser and the spirit of the time he designates as 'the heathen') attempt to conquer and rule through betrayal, brutality and venality.  Alfred (the Christian king), on the other hand, rules with kindness, justice and mercy, keeping promises despite the risks involved and forgoing revenge even if it seems to others the wiser course.  It seems at times that Alfred will be defeated, but in the end he wins and saves his kingdom, in no small part because his own kindness is repaid at the crucial moment.

Was Alfred really such a paragon of virtue?  It seems unlikely.  The further we get from him in time, the more his legend grows.  For those of his day and the years that followed. Asser's boosting aside, he was simply seen as one of a line of competent, successful Anglo-Saxon kings.  It was only later, when the Normans had taken over the realm from his descendants, that he acquired the tag of "the Great".

Yet this myth has its own purpose.  It provides a model of leadership with reflects how we would all like to be led.  For Hodges, who lived through both world wars, the Saxon-Danish conflict no doubt reminded him of more recent events.  Perhaps Guthrum, with his brutality, his cunning schemes and his huge imperial ambitions, represented Hitler and Alfred represented Churchill, a man who for all his faults was both a lover of learning and a thoroughgoing democrat.  And if Guthrum is a much nicer version of Hitler then Alfred is certainly a cleansed and exalted analogue of Churchill, an ideal model of which all rulers will ultimately fall short but from which, if we are lucky, some may still derive inspiration.