uemurakawasaki.jpg

In Reality, All News is “Editorialised”

I turned off the news last night. This isn’t entirely uncommon; news programmes in Japan often devote an interminable amount of time to something terribly dull, so I switch off, but last night I turned off the news because my partner and I looked at each other and agreed that this just wasn’t something we wanted to watch any more.

Here’s why. The trial began yesterday of an 18 year old (now 19) and two 17 year old accomplices who, almost exactly a year ago, murdered a 13 year old boy by stabbing him and throwing him naked into a freezing river in Kawasaki. It’s a horrific and disturbing case, and while there are key details that most audiences probably want to know (what the context to the killing was, what kind of previous contact the victim had with his killers, and so on), the sentence I just wrote is probably all you need or want to know about the physical details of the actual killing.

If you watched the news last night, you got so much more. Using a 3D recreation of the courtroom, 3D models of the various parties to the trial and voice actors dubbing the recorded statements of the accused, the news chose to repeat pretty much the entire cross-examination of the accused killers regarding how, exactly, they carried out the murder. In a segment which probably lasted around ten minutes (and felt far longer, though we switched off before the end), we got multiple accounts of precisely how the attackers beat and cut their victim – how many stab wounds, in what parts of his body, and which parts they cut first; how they held the knife as they slashed his throat; how parts of the box-cutter they were using broke off in his body; how they decided to throw him in the river when they were done; all played out over shots of the desolate riverbank where the killing took place, pictures of an artist’s rendering of the murder weapon (complete with blood and gore, in case your imagination was failing you) and, in case you hadn’t been punched hard enough in the gut by all this, pictures of the 13-year-old victim smiling in the sunshine. I’ve got a strong stomach for this kind of thing – I’m fascinated by true crime stories, unfazed by horror movies, and spent the best part of two years conducting research into Japan’s death penalty system and its death row inmates – but I turned off the TV midway, because the extent to which this mid-evening news show was wallowing in detail little short of pornographic of the savage brutalising of a child was genuinely, deeply upsetting.

This was “just the facts”. Everything the TV news chose to show was “fact”; the statements of the accused are facts, what they did to the boy is a fact, what the murder weapon looks like is a fact, what the victim looked like when he was happily smiling for the camera the previous summer is a fact. Yet how those facts are presented – the choice of whether to present them, in what order, with what emphasis – is intrinsically a subjective, editorial decision. Contrast the way in which this case is presented with, for example, the reporting of teenagers stabbed in knife crimes in London; “a 13 year old was stabbed to death by a gang of older youths and his body thrown into a river” – absolutely horrific, but shorn of the lingering, stomach-churning descriptions of where he was stabbed, and how they held the knife, and what it looked like when they cut him, and so much other detail that’s purely “fact”, but that makes a huge, powerful impact on how you perceive and think about the case.

Allow me to put this in a little context. In the past few months, Japan has seen a spate of high-profile news broadcasters being removed or shuffled away from their positions. Two of the mainstays of evening news broadcasting, TV Asahi’s Hodo Station and TBS’ News 23, are losing their well-known hosts (Ichiro Furutachi and Shigetada Kishii, respectively), while NHK’s current affairs show Close-Up Gendai has declined to renew the contract of long-standing anchorwoman Hiroko Kuniya. The circumstances and factors contributing to each change differ, but it’s hard to ignore the common thread between them; each of these presenters has been critical of the Abe administration’s policies, especially around the deeply controversial Security Bill which passed late last year. There are other factors in play as well, of course – Kuniya, for example, is almost certainly as much a victim of Japanese TV’s discomfort with allowing older women to front shows, especially shows seen as being aimed at a male audience – but for three such high-profile and long-standing broadcasters, all critical of the Abe administration, to be removed in such a short space of time is quite obviously no coincidence.

To be clear, the removal of these broadcasters is extremely unlikely to have been demanded or ordered by the government. Rather, it is largely a consequence of a chilling effect on press freedom that has come about due to a perception (accurate or not) of the Abe administration being more willing to take reprisals upon its critics – a sense that broadcasters are expected to “play ball” with the administration to a greater extent than before, enforced not by overt censorious action but by expressions of displeasure, criticism and – rather often – by sudden attacks from right-wingers not associated with the government, but willing to make life hell for its media critics. The environment this creates is not quite the authoritarian one Abe’s critics in the foreign press and elsewhere would claim, but neither is it an ideal one for press freedom – it bears a strong similarity to the media environment in countries like the United Kingdom at the moment, for example.

One common defence of this effective narrowing of the media’s broadcasting remit from supporters of the Abe administration is to refer back to Japan’s Broadcast Law, which includes a demand that news broadcasts should be “politically impartial”. Anchors like Furutachi and Kishii, in expressing dislike of the Security Bill or other government policies, are argued to have violated this law by “editorialising” the news they were presenting.

This concept of “editorialising” is profoundly ignorant of how news and current affairs broadcasting actually works, for a number of reasons. Firstly, shows like News 23 and Hodo Station make a distinction between the segments in which they present the news, and the segments in which they comment upon it; if the Broadcast Law is to be interpreted as strictly as conservatives would like, it would appear to be illegal for anyone to ever present an opinion regarding current affairs on Japanese television. “Yes,” say the conservatives, “news and current affairs should be just about facts!” – which is the second reason for this being nonsense, because “facts” themselves are, by their very nature, subject to editorialisation. “Today, the Yen fell against the Dollar” is a fact, of course; but the decision of whether to broadcast that fact, how much prominence to give it and what imagery to accompany it with is intrinsically a subjective, editorial decision, and Japanese TV news, in presenting the “facts”, makes extremely powerful editorial statements without having to directly state any view. That’s exactly what happened with the Kawasaki murder case on last night’s TV; the choice of which facts to present, the level of detail in which to present them and their contextualisation with background images and video added up to a strong editorial approach with a very different impact from, say, the standard reporting of a teenage stabbing in London.

Why report on the Kawasaki case in such grotesque detail? I’d argue that it’s an editorial decision, conscious or otherwise, designed to support the status quo. Japan has an extremely low crime rate but retains a high level of support for the death penalty (one of the only developed countries to do so), a high degree of trust for its justice system despite multiple revelations of abuse and corruption, and an extremely high tolerance of aggressive, authoritarian tactics from its police force. This status quo makes perfect sense if you recognise the essential disconnection between “actual crime” and “fear of crime”; Japanese people are vanishingly unlikely to be the victim of a violent crime, yet their fear of violent crime is, in study after study, higher than the fear of people living in other, far more violent, nations. How do you maintain that? You linger almost lovingly on the gruesome, shocking details of what crime you actually have; you focus on every murder so intently that when people think about crime, it’s not the everyday safety of Japanese life that comes to mind, it’s the one-in-ten-million psychopaths whose crimes are etched onto the nation’s collective imagination.

Japan’s not the only place that happens, of course – and I’m not arguing for a second that this is some grand conspiracy to keep the population in fear, as there’s really no conspiracy needed; gruesome dramatisation of tragic crimes sells newspapers and boosts TV ratings, and supporting the status quo for the authorities is just a side benefit. What I am arguing is that “just the facts” is not a solution to the supposed problem of “editorialising”; it’s merely moving the editorial decisions to a different, more subtle and arguably more insidious level. A news anchor saying “I don’t like this legislation” is a statement you can challenge or disagree with; a news show presenting “just the facts” in a way designed to nudge your thinking in a clear direction is a much tougher thing for most viewers to challenge or even perceive. Next time someone complains about news being “editorialised”, ask them what they really mean by that; because in reality, there’s no such thing as “just the facts”, and the demands of conservatives that news broadcasters stop “editorialising” the news are actually just demands for a different kind of editorialisation – one that supports the conservative status quo.

 

 

Bernie-Sanders.jpg

Splitting Iowa – Clinton, Sanders and the New Left

To state the obvious up front, Hillary Clinton is going to win the Democratic nomination. There is almost no permutation of the various demographic, political and procedural factors in the upcoming caucuses that permits any other outcome; barring radical shifts in the political landscape or the breaking of huge, unexpected scandals, there’s no way you can run through the maths and arrive at delegate totals for the Democratic National Convention in late July that hand the party’s candidacy to anyone other than Clinton. Anyone predicting or even simply hoping for a different outcome is, of necessity, predicating their hopes upon a black swan – an entirely unpredicted shift in support or the breaking of an as-yet-unknown scandal – and while such things can and do occur, especially in the unpredictable mire of the systematic weirdness of the US’ primary system, they’re not a wise thing to base your predictions upon. So, to hedge slightly; absent something utterly crazy happening, Hillary Clinton is going to win the Democratic nomination.

That’s not to detract from the scale of Bernie Sanders’ success in Iowa. As I type, Sanders is 0.2% behind Clinton in the caucuses, 49.8% to 49.6%, with only a handful of counties still to report. It’s a rounding error; as close to 50:50 as you’re likely to get in the peculiar and inaccurate delegate system used in Iowa’s Democratic Party caucuses. Though even such a tiny margin will allow the Clinton camp to declare a victory, Clinton and Sanders will split the state’s 42 delegates half and half.

Why, then, call this a success for Sanders? Because six months ago, the polls (I’m using FiveThirtyEight’s excellent aggregated polls) gave him around 22% of the vote in Iowa, to Clinton’s 54%. Three months ago, it was 32% to Sanders, 54% to Clinton. A month ago, on January 1st, it was 36% to Sanders, 52% to Clinton. Sanders topped 40% for the first time three weeks ago. Today, in the actual caucuses, he’s on 49.6%. In the past six months, Clinton has dropped 6% in Iowa, and Sanders has surged 29% – suggesting that undecided voters are breaking strongly for the Sanders camp, and a small number of Clinton supporters are changing sides.

It’s not enough to win the nomination. David Wasserman at The Cook Political Report rightly observes that in order to actually win in July, Sanders needed to do much, much better in Iowa, a state whose demographics are much more favourable to him than many of the upcoming states. Sanders resonates with white liberals, while Clinton enjoys a strong base of support among ethnic minorities; it’s easy to forget that the Democratic Party isn’t just the party of white liberals, but also the party of many ethnic minorities who do not share the same degree or form of liberalism as white Democrats. This isn’t to say that those support bases might not move around – Sanders’ momentum could yet give him a boost within groups that have thus far stayed strongly loyal to Clinton – but based on track records thus far, most upcoming races (with the exception of the New Hampshire primary next week) ought to be far easier victories for the Clinton camp.

Nonetheless, Bernie Sanders has accomplished something hardly anyone expected him to; he has turned the Democratic primary into a contest rather than a coronation. Only a few months ago, there was a strong movement to try to “draft” outgoing Vice President Joe Biden into the nomination race, largely because Democrats feared that turning the whole thing into a state-by-state victory lap for Clinton would look extremely bad; voters, the conventional wisdom goes, want to see candidates fight for the nomination, and hate the sense of being handed a candidate anointed by the “party elites”. At that point, Sanders was a rank outsider; a self-declared “socialist”, the reasoning went, could never present more than a distraction, acting as a magnet for a minority of malcontents and fringe voters rather than a genuine contender.

Well, Sanders just came neck-and-neck with Clinton in Iowa, and short of an act of god, he’s going to win New Hampshire next week. The Clinton camp won’t be panicking – she’s still got this in the bag – but the Democrats have a race on their hands, even if it’s a much more politically interesting and ideologically divided race than the somewhat tame pot-shots between a handful of centre-left candidates that the party establishment might have wanted.

Two things are important for the Sanders campaign from here on out. The first is to avoid isolating Sanders too far from the mainstream of the Democrats, for the simple reason that his ability to influence American politics rests not on winning the nomination (which he almost certainly won’t) but on pulling the Democratic Party’s discourse to the left by energising and revealing the breadth of support for more left-wing policies than were previously considered palatable to the party base and, more broadly, to the American electorate. Sanders doesn’t have to win for his policies to win; if his success and momentum proves major support for policies like free college education, those policies can be integrated into the Democratic Party’s mainstream agenda, assuming that Sanders’ campaign hasn’t isolated itself too far from the party mainstream. Thus far, Sanders’ civil and gracious campaign has done a good job of this; assuming things don’t turn very negative in future, there’s a reasonable chance that Sanders’ most popular policies (and perhaps even Sanders himself) could be a part of a future Clinton administration.

The second thing the Sanders campaign needs to do is to keep up its momentum and energy, not because it’s going to win off the back of those things, but because it needs to be in position to catch the ball if – if – Clinton drops it. A huge scandal (something we don’t know about – email improriety and conspiracy theories about Benghazi don’t count, as any negativity resulting from them is a) largely confined to Republican voters anyway, and b) already baked into Clinton’s polling numbers by now) could upset the apple cart; the Sanders campaign needs to be firing on all cylinders for a couple more months, just in case. It’s not wise to base your political predictions on black swans; it’s equally unwise to leave yourself in a position in which you’re unable to capitalise upon a black swan if one should hove into view.

While the American commentariat is losing bowel control in shock at a socialist – a socialist! – being even an outside contender in a high-profile primary race, Sanders is arguably most interesting when you consider him in a global context. In the context of other developed nations, the emergence of a more radically left-wing candidate with strong support, especially from young voters, isn’t shocking; it’s perfectly in keeping with the patter of the past five years. Across Europe, the New Left has surged, starting in countries most traumatised by the financial crash of 2008 but growing in strength in nations simply suffering from the widespread malaise of the world’s developed economies – where decades of neoliberal policies have almost completely decoupled GDP growth from income or quality of life improvements for most of the population, and especially for younger people who face a markedly more insecure and uncertain future than their parents’ generation did. The success of Bernie Sanders in the US is, in this context, a mirror for the success of Jeremy Corbyn in the UK or even the recent resurgence of Kazuo Shii’s Communist Party in Japan; signs, perhaps, of the Millenial generation (born in the 80s and 90s) rejecting the neoliberal consensus of their immediate predecessors (Gen X, those born in the 60s and 70s) and turning to “outsider” figures, rejected by Gen X and the Boomer generation, as an immediate alternative. It’s notable that Sanders, Corbyn and the Japan Communist Party are all rather venerable; their messages aren’t new, they’ve simply finally found a generation with whom they resonate.

There are, however, essential differences between Sanders and his overseas counterparts in the New Left – not least that American politics is a rather different environment. Most notably, the New Left in most countries has had an untapped well of young people engaging with politics for the first time to draw upon; in many countries, voting turnout among under-35s (the Millenials) has been tiny, and energising this group to turn up and vote that has produced such remarkable results as Jeremy Corbyn’s election as UK Labour Leader. In America, though, this well has already been tapped, to some degree; Democrats already had a “Corbyn moment”, way back in 2008 with Barack Obama. A significant cohort of Millenials boosted Obama in 2008; some of those may wish Obama had been more radical, and side with Sanders, but the reality is that Obama’s approval rating among Democrats is pretty great, and the natural flow for Obama supporters who approve of his record is to back Clinton, the key member of his administration, not Sanders, the radical outsider. Sanders still does very well among the young, but they’re not the untapped wellspring of radical support that they have transpired to be in the UK and across Europe.

One final thought. Older voters may roll their eyes at the radicalism of the Millenials, but I think a great many older voters genuinely fail to comprehend the economic mess that faces the Millenial generation, who are bearing the brunt of some disastrous and short-sighted policy-making dating back as far as the 1980s. No post-war generation in the developed world has ever been expected to pay so much for education, or been greeted with more uncertain employment prospects after graduation; no post-war generation has faced so many formerly “middle class” occupations being reduced to low-paid, short-term, unstable work; no post-war generation has faced such a dizzying ratio of housing costs to average wages, or such a grim ossification of social mobility. The Millenial generation is, for the most part, saddled with huge debts and told to repay them with earnings from the least worker-friendly labour market in post-war history. That they would turn to alternative politics for solutions is entirely unsurprising and reasonable; it’s the notion that the existing neo-liberal business-as-usual consensus can continue under these circumstances that is ridiculous.

Given that, the eye-rolling should perhaps be replaced by sighs of relief, because populations under severe economic pressure do not necessarily flirt with the radical left; there is a far uglier alternative on the radical right. In the 1930s, economic catastrophe for ordinary people drove them towards radical-left and radical-right solutions; the radical-right won the day in many countries, and, well, the 1940s happened. Today’s radical-left solutions, shorn of the dead-end revolutionary ideology that made the far-left just as unpalatable as its far-right counterpart in the 1930s, are a much more appealing thing for the set-upon Millenials to flirt with than the far-right alternatives – which, based on the rhetoric of the Right across Europe and the USA, have evolved far less in the past 80 years and represent a far greater threat to democracy, stability and security.

Supreme Court of Japan

Don’t look to Japan’s Supreme Court for Social Change

Japan’s Supreme Court today announced a pair of decisions that are attracting significant media and public attention. The one dominating most of the headlines, it seems, is the ruling that a law forbidding married couples from keeping their original names (rather than one party changing their name) is perfectly constitutional, a decision which is already attracting a degree of scorn from commentators. The other, arguably much more interesting from a political and legal standpoint, is a ruling that a law demanding that divorced women wait six months before remarrying is unconstitutional.

The ruling on “waiting periods” for divorced women is a blindingly obvious piece of law – Article 14 of the Constitution guarantees “no discrimination in political, economic or social relations because of race, creed, sex, social status or family origin”, and the six-month rule applied only to women. The law pre-dated the 1947 Constitution – it was introduced in the late 1800s as an attempt to ensure clear parentage for children born after a divorce, and aside from being discriminatory, is clearly outdated in the modern era of DNA testing (edit: I should note that the court hasn’t demanded that the law be entirely removed, only that it be dropped to a 100-day period, but this is because that’s what the plaintiff in the case asked for, and to the best of my knowledge the Court isn’t empowered to demand that the Government go beyond that in its legal revision. There’s still no waiting period for men who wish to remarry, so the law remains unequal. Hat tip to @anjin_miura on Twitter for pointing this out.). Despite being the sort of ruling on constitutional law that a reasonably bright five year old could manage given sufficient candy incentives, this is still a landmark ruling for the simple reason that it’s incredibly, vanishingly rare for Japan’s Supreme Court to declare a law unconstitutional. Since it was first convened in 1947, the Court has only struck down laws on ten occasions. By comparison, the US Supreme Court (which is, in theory, the model for Japan’s Supreme Court) has struck down over 165 Acts of Congress and almost 1000 state laws on the basis of unconstitutionality in its 226-year history, with the vast majority of those occurring in the 20th century. This underlines the importance of any occasion on which the Japanese Supreme Court actually chooses to rule against a law – no matter how past its sell-by date the law may be.

It also explains, in broad, contextual terms, why the challenge against demanding the adoption of a partner’s surname failed. Even the non-Americans among us are very used to seeing extensive reporting of the US Supreme Court, which regularly turns the tiller of American society with sweeping rulings on social issues, from civil rights to equal marriage. There’s an expectation, perhaps, that the Japanese Supreme Court should be willing and empowered to do the same thing, and a degree of disappointment and even disbelief when they turn out to be far more tame and conservative than their US counterparts.

There are, however, solid legal and political reasons why the Japanese Supreme Court is how it is – and they’re mostly grounded in the 1946 Constitution itself, a document which is revered by Japanese liberals for its pacifist stance but which, in many regards, was flawed from the outset and is now really starting to show its age. The 1946 Constitution established both the Diet and the Supreme Court, and unwittingly created an ill-defined relationship between them, in which the powers and responsibilities of each body are problematically vague. Article 41, establishing the Diet, states that “the Diet shall be the highest organ of state power, and shall be the sole law-making organ of the State”; Article 81, establishing the Supreme Court, says that it “is the court of last resort with power to determine the constitutionality of any law, order, regulation or official act”. So which of them, then, is the highest organ of state power? Does the Supreme Court have the power to command the Diet? Does the Diet have the capacity to disagree with Supreme Court rulings and plough ahead regardless? The language of the Constitution leaves that frustratingly vague, and in a forehead-slap inducing Catch-22, the only bodies with the power to interpret the Constitution’s meaning in this regard are the very bodies whose roles are uncertain in this instance.

The compromise that’s been in effect since 1947 is very straightforward and typically Japanese; the Supreme Court doesn’t rock the boat. When a law is utterly, blatantly in violation of the Constitution, it strikes it down (these are often laws predating the constitution’s promulgation). When a law is in a gray area, in which clauses of the constitution seem to conflict with one another or where there’s a simple lack of clarity, the Supremes shrug their berobed shoulders and toss it back to the Diet, bowing to parliament’s role as the “highest organ of state power” and requesting that they draft legislation to clear things up one way or another. This compromise is made altogether easier by a peculiarity of the Japanese legal system by which it’s impossible to simply request a judicial review of the constitutionality of a law; individuals wishing to challenge a law have to prove that they have standing (i.e. demonstrate that they have suffered damages due to the unconstitutional legislation they’re challenging) in order for their case to be heard. As a consequence, some attempts to challenge laws in the Japanese courts fail not because the law is found to be constitutional, but because nobody can prove to the court’s satisfaction that they’ve personally suffered damages on account of the law; the arguments over constitutionality aren’t even broached before the case is thrown out.

What’s happened in the case of the surnames issue, then, is that the Court has decided that the Constitution doesn’t have anything direct or blunt enough to say on the matter, and thrown it back to the Diet for a legislative solution. Could the court have ruled otherwise? Sure; the plaintiffs argued under Article 13 of the Constitution (“All of the people shall be respected as individuals. Their right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness shall, to the extent that it does not interfere with the public welfare, be the supreme consideration in legislation and in other governmental affairs.”) that demanding that one partner give up their family name was an undue interference in people’s lives, and a more activist-minded court could absolutely have agreed with that position. It would, however, have risked a run-in with the government, which takes a conservative stance on family issues, and that would have sailed the ship of state far too close to the awkward questions over the roles of Diet and Supreme Court that nobody wants to ask or answer. The safe ruling, which is on rock-solid legal ground, is to say that the Constitution doesn’t really say anything one way or the other on this issue, giving the Diet free rein to implement whatever legislative solution it likes (in this instance, most likely a continuation of the status quo).

Incidentally, this is a somewhat gloomy preview of what’s going to happen if and when legal challenges on equal marriage work their way through Japan’s courts. Article 14, as cited above, does not offer protection from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and Article 24 defines marriage as being “based only on the mutual consent of both sexes… maintained through mutual cooperation with equal rights of husband and wife as a basis.” An activist or progressive court could happily rule that Article 14’s list of protections is non-exhaustive and that its protection from discrimination on the grounds of gender directly implies protection for sexual minorities, which takes legal precedence over Article 24’s mention of both sexes since equal marriage would extend, rather than curtailing, the protections Article 24 is designed to provide. Japan’s Supreme Court is not an activist or progressive court; it will rule that the present marriage rules are constitutional, and throw the whole issue back to the Diet (where the Abe Cabinet, deeply socially conservative, will bat them it of the field).

There’s no point being angry or disappointed in the Supreme Court over these rulings; it is what it is. The Court is operating from a far weaker and less well-defined position than its US counterpart, its capacity to carry out judicial review is hobbled by legal restrictions, and the Constitution on which it must base its rulings is riddled with contradictions and anachronisms. The Court’s long-standing habit of passing responsibility for decision-making on most issues back to the Diet is pretty much the only option open to it – and simply means that, for those who decry slow progress on social change in Japan, the buck stops with the democratically elected government, not with the Supreme Court or, for the most part, the Constitution. It also, incidentally, means that for significant progress to be made on an issue like equal marriage, a constitutional amendment would be required – meaning that perhaps some liberals could find common ground with conservatives who are determined to change the (extremely high) bar for constitutional amendment.

Coalition_Airstrike_on_ISIL_position_in_Kobane.jpg

Syria: A Triumph of Action over Intelligence

Insanity, we are so often told, is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Quotes to that effect are regularly attributed to both Albert Einstein and Benjamin Franklin, though there’s no evidence that either man ever said it. Even shorn of the weight of authority that comes from being uttered by men of genius, the concept sticks with you because it makes obvious, intuitive sense. You don’t stick your hand into the fire a second time to see if it burns again; “once bitten, twice shy” is a powerful instinctive behaviour for good reason.

The comparisons between Tony Blair committing the UK to war in Iraq in 2003 and David Cameron committing the country to bombing Syria, as passed by Parliament yesterday, have often referenced this convenient definition of insanity. Blair’s misadventure in Iraq, its horrific consequences and the calculatedly dishonest “intelligence” which supported it remain a millstone around the neck of the Labour party. The strides the country made under Blair’s premiership are forgotten under the weight of opprobrium heaped upon his arrogance and egotism over the war and his stubborn refusal to acknowledge, even now, the awful mistake it represented. Twelve years later, Cameron’s insistence that Britain must join in raining bombs on Syria certainly feels like deja vu, and has left many wondering out loud if another Prime Minister will find himself so despised over another committment to another hopeless war.

There are key differences, of course. Cameron has not committed troops to Syria, as Blair did to Iraq; there will be no British soldiers returning in coffins on carrier planes, at least not yet. Cameron has also, bluntly, made little or no effort to make or manufacture a case for war. Blair and his spin doctors burned the midnight oil to create a compelling, if almost entirely dishonest, case for the invasion of Iraq; Cameron, perhaps recognising that the lies supporting the Iraq War were the very petard upon which Blair was hoist, has instead chosen to justify the bombing of Syria in only the most broad, rhetorical strokes. It’s a cynical masterstroke; opponents of the war find themselves grasping at thin air, because there’s no case for war to rebut, no intelligence to question. The logic is as ephemeral as mist; ISIS may back attacks in the UK, as they did in France (though the extent to which ISIS in Syria actually aided or participated in the organisation of the Paris attacks, as opposed to merely lending their name to an attack from domestic extremists, is entirely unclear), so Syria must be bombed, not because bombing will reduce the risk of terrorism – the government isn’t getting pinned down into claiming that, oh no sir – but because something must be done, and suddenly we’re off into the realms of pure rhetoric, where anyone daring to question whether dropping more high explosives on a volatile region that’s already essentially hosting a proxy war between NATO and Russia might be a bad idea is a “terrorist sympathiser”.

You can’t argue with that; you can say it’s mad, or offensive, or grotesquely stupid, but you can’t argue with it because it isn’t a coherent argument in itself. In the absence of a case for war, counter-arguments are like tilting at windmills; Cameron has won the debate by refusing to participate in it, instead sitting back and letting the British media work itself into a froth over the internal politics of the opposition, leaving the position of the government nigh-on unquestioned. What few facts have been permitted to enter the debate are so nebulous as to be almost laughable; 70,000 moderate rebels are ready to liberate the ISIS positions Britain will weaken with bombing, apparently, but who those rebels might be, where they’ve been up until now, and why British bombs are going to accomplish what could not be accomplished already by American bombs, Jordanian bombs, Canadian bombs, Australian bombs, French bombs, by a veritable fusion cuisine nightmare of international high explosive flavours; these things could not be explained, to the exasperation of even many in Cameron’s own party.

Do David Cameron or his closest advisors honestly believe that British bombs falling on Raqqa are going to make the slightest positive difference to the situation in Syria, or to the security situation in the UK and around Europe? I wouldn’t dare to judge – I’d note that for all his dishonesty, one thing that’s clear about Blair’s intervention in Iraq is that he genuinely, truly believed that it was the right thing to do, his failure not being hypocrisy but rather an egotistical belief that the facts should adapt themselves to his gut feelings. Perhaps Cameron, too, is possessed of a genuine and fervent belief that bombing Syria is the correct course of action; but if so, what a terrible indictment of Britain that a man who graduated from its finest university and now resides in 10 Downing Street is unable to articulate or explain his belief to the people he is meant to represent and lead.

It’s hard to escape the notion that what Cameron is actually bowing to here is the powerful one-two punch of the domestic urge to Be Seen To Do Something, and the international need to Be Involved. The former urge is found in every political system; no matter how intelligent or advisable the “do nothing” course of action may be, conventional wisdom and opinion polls alike prefer politicians to be people of action – even if the action is awful. I compare and contrast the UK with Japan a lot in my research work, and here I’d note that in Japan, Prime Minister Abe’s policies are disliked by the majority of Japanese voters – but the same voters seem to like the fact that he’s doing something, even if they don’t like the actual thing he’s doing. Inaction earns you no brownie points, and no votes, it seems.

As to the international need to Be Involved, this is also a strong drive in some countries, but Britain suffers from it particularly; it seems intolerable to some parts of the British public, and to a much larger swathe of its political classes, for the likes of France and Australia to participate in a military operation alongside the United States while Britain abstains. Is this a legacy of empire? A deep-seated desire to confirm and reconfirm the “specialness” of the US-UK “special relationship”? It’s impossible to say for certain; perhaps a little from Column A, a little from Column B, but the effects are easy to see. Britain, which since bailing out its financial sector has been aggressively tightening the belts of all the children, disabled people, low-paid nursing staff and single mothers who caused the global financial meltdown with their wanton investments in high-risk financial instruments, is never short a few billion quid to throw at putting Union Jacks alongside the Stars and Stripes while the bombs rain down.

Britain is committed now; the first strikes on Syrian targets begin today, though one wonders how many of them will turn back, as bombing flights from some other nations have, upon finding that there isn’t anything but rubble and civilian homes left at their target coordinates to drop ordinance upon. The origins of ISIS are complex and varied – I don’t buy the simplistic account of their creation being a direct consequence of the invasion of Iraq, though that was clearly a major contributing factor. A catastrophic drought in Syria; the malign influence of Saudi Arabian wahabbism; the machinations of embattled Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, who nurtured the rise of ISIS as a “common enemy” in hope of restoring Western support for his rule; the violent melting pot of the Syrian conflict itself, in which a rapid evolution towards more and more extreme, aggressive tactics occurred as more moderate leaders were killed off; all of these things have fuelled ISIS’ rise. If you want to go right back to basics, the very borders of the Middle Eastern states, drawn for the convenience of the departing Imperial powers and the puppet governments they left behind, and entirely ignoring religious and ethnic divides across the region, arguably made for a volatile group of states effectively ungovernable by anything but strongmen. The bottom line; it’s complicated, and I struggle to think of an instance in history when a complex Gordian knot of politics, economics, religion, identity and history has ever been cleanly cut by bombing it from the sky.

What, then, should Britain do? This question is the trump card of the pro-bombing argument, one that plays directly into the Be Seen To Do Something urge of the political system. If not bombing, then what? If not attacking the vicious, medieval state that is ISIS, then what would you do about them? (And it’s about here that anyone saying “maybe we shouldn’t be doing anything at all” gets called a terrorist sympathiser.)

Well, maybe Britain shouldn’t be doing anything at all. Maybe, bluntly, it’s not Britain’s place to do anything at all; maybe the share of the responsibility for the godawful mess in Syria which is borne by the UK (for some of it most certainly is) is not best assuaged with high explosives, or bullets, or terrifying close encounters with Russian jets in foreign skies. Maybe what Britain should be doing instead is helping those who need help – providing support to refugees in the region, and finding the moral courage and backbone to assist those who have come to Europe fleeing the very Islamist terror it claims to be so committed to defying. Maybe, instead of sending British bombs plummetting after the American ones already raining on Syria, Britain could do far, far more to secure itself and help the Middle East by bringing its diplomatic and economic strengths to bear – by putting actual pressure on Saudi Arabia to pick a damned side and pull its weight against ISIS; helping the embattled Kurds could be accomplished by convincing the UK’s supposed NATO ally, Turkey, to stop attacking them.

Doing these things would require a long overdue reconsideration of Britain’s role in the world, and its relationships with some deeply unsavoury countries (particularly Saudi Arabia) with which it’s altogether too cosy. Far easier, then, to Be Seen To Do Something; to be the Prime Minister who set his jaw, Took The Tough Decisions and decided to drop bombs on some people in Syria. After all, any grumbling in the media will be easily eclipsed by their ongoing hounding of Jeremy Corbyn, whose role in the vote on bombing has been discussed in far more depth than Cameron’s own. There will be a legion of armchair war experts to mumble adages about eggs and omelettes in the event of any unfortunate images of dead civilians being circulated. Finally, should this all go terribly wrong, as Iraq did, and merely spread further extremism across the region and put more lives in the UK and Europe at risk, the proponents of war can always suck at their teeth, shake their heads and wonder out loud why some Muslims are so violent. The utility calculation is a no-brainer. Cameron has Done Something, and for now, at least, he’ll be rewarded for that – even if there’s no sense or reason to what’s actually been done.

Shanghai_by_night

Control, Freedom and the End of China’s Boom

Yesterday’s New York Times featured a well-written and quite balanced article looking back over eight years of a China-based correspondant’s experience of the country – “Notes on the China I’m Leaving Behind” (hat tip to Peng Jingchao for the link). Ignoring the uncomfortably convenient anecdote in the last paragraph, the author’s description of the evolution of Chinese society in the 21st century is one that strikes a lot of interesting notes.

I work with two fantastic researchers who are investigating the Chinese media and the systems through which control is exerted over media narratives at a state and regional level in the country. In essence, they are trying to lay bare the cogwheels and levers that the New York Times piece hints at – the mechanisms that allow the shaping of narratives and belief systems, even while encouraging the outward appearance of more freedom, more marketisation and more democracy. It’s tricky research; most of these systems are not formal or legislative, but conducted through mutual understandings, through winks and nods and carefully coded speech, and can only be uncovered by looking at the fine detail of the outcome in the form of actual reporting of events across the country’s various media outlets.

What I’ve gleaned from watching their work progress, and from talking to other researchers who engage with Chinese social media and the control of information on China’s separate, mirror-world version of the Internet, is a sense of just what an extraordinary and darkly impressive enterprise the Chinese government is presently engaged with. It is committed to market capitalism, to economic growth (at almost any cost) and to the advancement of living standards and growth of the middle class; it is also committed to keeping the Chinese Communist Party firmly in control of the nation, and as such, its objective is to decouple democracy from capitalism, severing economic freedom from political freedom. In a philosophical sense, what China is doing right now is an utter repudiation of the beliefs that underpinned the West during the Cold War; by advancing capitalism without democracy, markets without freedom, China would prove that these things were never inextricably linked, that one can happily thrive without the other.

That’s not exactly news, of course. Countries like Singapore – which, I suspect, China’s leaders have viewed as a hugely instructive model – have effectively managed to combine fantastic economic growth and high standards of living with deeply undemocratic regimes for many years. They provide just enough of the trappings of democracy to keep international relationships nice and smooth (democratic countries often make uncomfortable noises when dealing with undemocratic states) and to allow their comfortable middle classes, enjoying the benefits of economic growth, to dismiss the complaints or unrest of less-advantaged groups as mere “troublemaking”. China is this socio-political experiment writ large upon the canvas of the world’s largest state; an attempt to generalise the model successfully implemented by the ruling elites of Singapore and elsewhere upon a population of well over a billion people. Its tools in this enterprise range from the blunt force of arrested and imprisoned activists to altogether more subtle and powerful techniques of information control – through education, through media and, increasingly, through the very Internet tools that activists so often lionise as harbingers of democracy.

Buried in the New York Times article is, I think, the most important truth about this whole process – that the Chinese authorities are afraid, primarily, of one thing, namely the Chinese people. In discourses about China, at least those taking place outside China (and especially here in Japan, a country which by and large doesn’t know quite what to think of the huge, vastly important neighbour with whom it shares such a complex and contested history), there’s a tendency to emphasise China’s external relationships. A great deal of focus is placed upon territorial disputes with Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines, on the curious and difficult relationship with Taiwan and on the complex, inter-dependent and occasionally belligerent jostling for power with its fellow superpower, the USA. When people talk about internal relationships in China, they talk of Tibet or the Uighur people, about the contested status of Hong Kong, or about the treatment of prominent activists like Ai Weiwei. I’m not a China specialist by trade (though as mentioned, I work with several), but I can’t help but feel that these foci miss the point; they’re chosen through the lens of what people outside China care about, and miss the reality of what people within the country, and people within the government and the CCP, care about.

I’d contend that the most important relationship within China, the one that really matters, is none of those listed above – it’s the relationship between the Chinese Communist Party and the huge, burgeoning Chinese middle class. These are the people who have benefitted from China’s economic growth, who enjoy a quality of life undreamed of by their parents or grandparents and who are deeply proud of China’s rise in the world (but who also still tend to see China as being bullied, disrespected or put down by powerful rivals like the USA and Japan). They are also a generation far more educated than their parents’ generation, far more exposed to global influences – and thus far less likely to accept the “elites know best”, top-down rule of the CCP. If the CCP ever loses power, it will not be because of Tibetans, Uighurs, human rights activists or interventions from its neighbours; it be because the Chinese middle class demands democracy en masse, either violently or otherwise.

Right now, that isn’t happening. The majority of the China experts I speak to see no deep wellspring of democratic sentiment, no silent majority wishing for democratic freedom. They see a middle class that’s far more interested in its freedom to consume than in its freedom to vote; a population lifted in the space of a single generation from rural poverty to urban comfort. They have flat-screen TVs, smartphones, cars; they take holidays abroad, eat well, often consuming exotic food their parents would never have tasted, buy consumer goods and electronics, and each year sees an incremental increase in quality of living which, in almost any country you care to mention, easily quenches any thirst for democratic freedom. When life is so materially better today than it was ten years ago, why risk it all by speaking out for something so abstract, so removed from your own daily existence, as democracy?

Why, then, are China’s elites afraid? Because sustaining power through economic growth can’t be done indefinitely. Economies slow down or go into recession, and the meteoric growth of a country transitioning from a rural, agricultural economy to an urban, high-tech economy is largely an exercise in picking low-hanging fruit. Giving apartments, cars and TVs to a billion people who didn’t have them before is pretty heady stuff, economically, but as the rest of the developed world has been discovering for the past decade or more, eking out growth becomes a hell of a lot harder once all that low-hanging fruit is picked. China, too, is slowing down; it has announced much lower growth numbers over the past year than in previous years, and many good economists even question those numbers, suspecting that the figures are being artifically inflated to keep things looking good. If growth stalls or, worse, starts to go backwards, it will create two major sources of unrest within China – firstly, those still in poverty who have been anticipating that economic growth will reach them eventually, but now fear that they have ended up on the wrong side of a permanent socio-economic cleavage within the country; and secondly, the new middle classes, who have become accustomed to rapid improvements in their quality of living and now find this movement stalled. Oddly, history shows that it could be the second group who are most dangerous to China’s authorities; a concept called “revolution of rising expectations” emerged in the 1950s (though Alexis de Tocqueville had explored similar ideas as far back as the mid-1800s) which showed empirically that it’s not the impoverished and hopeless who rebel against governments, it’s the segments of society that have seen rising standards of living and abruptly find their raised expectations unfulfilled.

It is inevitable that this will happen in China – which is why the authorities are so determined to explore every other avenue of control available to them, before the economic honeymoon period comes to an end. This is the most powerful and important motivator of the behaviour of the Chinese state right now, and I don’t think it’s extreme to say that almost every single action taken by the Chinese state can be read and understood in the context of this desire to control its own middle class. Its international disputes – over mere rocks and reefs in the South and East China Seas – are often explored in economic or military terms, but are arguably far more important in internal propaganda terms, by setting up minor conflicts with Japan, America and their allies which can be easily exploited for nationalist propaganda purposes. The suppression of activists and the international condemnation it attracts is played as the cultural imperialism of the West directed against China and its system of values. Trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership are presented (not entirely unfairly) as evidence of China’s rivals trying to contain its economic growth; and of course, historic disputes with Japan, over everything from Nanjing to Yasukuni and back again, are used to stoke nationalist sentiments and give the Chinese people a sense of facing a common enemy (a strategy which Japan’s own hapless nationalists fall over themselves to enable, over and over again, like particularly unintelligent dogs in a Pavlovian experiment).

Not everything that the Chinese authorities are doing to secure their position in the post-boom years is bad, of course. The country’s economic growth has vastly improved the standards of living of hundreds of millions of people. The nation’s lack of democracy shouldn’t disguise its extraordinary achievements; the sheer number of people who have jumped in single generation from village peasant lives barely changed since medieval times to being urban, college-educated professionals is staggering and hugely impressive. Nothing has moved the needle on the world’s problems with poverty in the past decade as much as China’s advancement. Under Xi Jinping, the country has also started to tackle the political corruption that was endemic at local levels, an effort largely designed to stamp out a likely source of future unrest in the Chinese people.

It’s anyone’s guess whether any of this – the information control, the stoking of nationalist fires, the careful shrouding of the harsh machinery of totalitarianism in the soft language of democracy and freedom, or even the laudable crackdown on corruption – will count for anything when China’s economic growth finally stalls badly enough for its middle classes to feel the pinch. But this is the context in which we need to read what’s happening in China today. The authorities know that the stability and security of their position has enjoyed a blessed existence under the protection of the country’s economic growth, but they see the end of that protection in sight. Extending economic growth is a priority, of course, but building the structures that will protect their position in a post-growth world is the motivation that drives China’s authorities today – and this is the only analytical lens that makes sense of the country’s actions towards its neighbours, its trading partners and its own people.

Praying for Paris; Fearing for the Future

Waking up to the horrific news coming out of Paris – as yet formless and confused – and watching it coalesce and take dreadful shape over the course of the day has been a grim and unsettling experience. There is a horrible deja vu; the gunfire, the police on the streets. Paris, cradle of civilisation, of culture, of democracy, under attack from forces of barbarism and darkness who strike not so much at the people of the city (though this they also do, lethally and tragically) as at its soul – at its cosmopolitanism, its liberalism, its decency and its tolerance. 

All of those things are going to be sorely tested in the weeks and months to come. Overclouding the gut-wrenching sense of empathy for those murdered and their families, and for a city stricken (a feeling I recall well from the London bombings a little over 10 years ago) is a hollow sense of fear for what this means. For what’s going to happen next. 

I don’t know who perpetrated the Paris attacks. Nor do you, no matter how strongly held your beliefs may be. We’ll probably find out in due course how this atrocity was inspired, planned and executed, but our shared ignorance hasn’t stopped plenty of people from taking to social media (or worse, TV and newspapers) to deliver the stirring verdict that best fits their favoured prejudices and world views. The briefest flick through social media today is tremendously depressing; outnumbering the messages of sadness and condolence, it seems, are those blaming either ISIS, Refugees, Muslims, or all three of the above – and demanding awful revenge against their chosen targets. 

Maybe ISIS was involved – I don’t know, and not do you, but it’s worth noting that despite media-induced fear, ISIS has never before shown any inclination to engage in international terrorism, being content to confine its special brand of hellish evil to its own “state” in the shellshocked remains of Iraq and Syria. Perhaps some terrorists smuggled themselves in among refugees; I don’t know and nor do you, but every shred of evidence for this popular xenophobic meme thus far has been proven to be a laughable hoax, and the refugees themselves are risking everything to flee Islamist violence, not to incite it. As to “Muslims” being to blame; sure, maybe that’s so, but only if you’ll also accept that “Catholics” were responsible for all IRA bombings, that “Christians” bear the burden of all Klu Klux Klan murders and that “Buddhists” need to shoulder the blame for the indiscriminate slaughter of the Rohingya people. Hell, let’s pin Stalin’s purges and the Khmer Rouge’s killing fields on “Atheists” while we’re at it?

One thing I do know about these attacks is that they shared a common objective with every terrorist attack; to provoke, to outrage and to drive a wedge between sectors of a society. Assuming this is an Islamist attack – home-grown or international – it is inspired by a belief that Muslims cannot and must not live within the rules of a secular society, and a willingness to attack that society and destroy its harmony in order to make that awful belief into a reality. 

The fear hollowing out my heart today is that it’s going to work; we will give these evil bastards everything they want, because their attacks will push us where we are weakest. European Muslims, many of them resident for generations, will be attacked and further marginalised (turning the more volatile among them towards the arms of jihadis, just as incidents like Bloody Sunday in Northern Ireland sent countless new recruits to the IRA; but hey, who needs real, sustainable security when you can have misdirected revenge and self-righteousness instead?). Refugees fleeing Islamist violence – whose plight we should understand better than ever today – will see doors slammed even more firmly in their faces. Cosmopolitanism, the greatest threat to fundamentalism and violent ideology ever devised, will see a sunset as voices entreating for engagement, for compassion and for the upholding of European values in the face of evil are held in contempt as “soft”, as “appeasers”, as “friends of the terrorists”. It happens already – a standard part of the US political narrative, a common line of attack on the UK’s left wing – it will happen even more often in the weeks to come. 

These battles will have to be fought; evil has struck once again at Europe’s soul, and we must now contend with those who would respond by ripping out that soul entirely and replacing it with a heart of tin. But not today. Please, not today. Save your blame for when we know who to blame; save your hate for tomorrow, and express instead your love and sorrow to the people of Paris today. I’m very afraid of what happens next; but I know that what needs to happen now is love, support and space for grief. 

l_yx_himo_01.jpg

Cries of “Misandry!” didn’t sink Himozairu

Acclaimed manga author Akiko Higashimura (famous for Kuragehime, or Jellyfish Princess, a series about female otaku) this week cancelled her latest series, Himozairu, after just two chapters, following an online outcry. The publisher, Kodansha (it was being serialised in their Morning magazine) announced the author’s decision on their website, noting that it was in response to various feedback received over social media.

There was some discussion over what had happened in the Japanese language press – here’s the Asahi Shimbun, Jiji Press, Mainichi Shimbun (all traditional news providers), Blogos and NicoNicoNews (portal news sites), and Joshi-Spa and Cyzo Woman (online women’s magazines). Some TV news sites devoted short segments to getting talking heads to give their views on the manga and its cancellation. It was all fairly civil, low-level stuff – there’s certainly no indication in these accounts or on Higashimura’s own Twitter account to suggest that she was facing some awful, GamerGate-esque campaign of hatred (though don’t get me wrong, those things do happen in Japan and they’re spectacularly horrible).

Then the Asahi Shimbun translated its story into English, and it spread from there to fansites (here’s AnimeNewsNetwork’s take) and eventually to the mainstream media (here’s the Washington Post). The narrative as it’s reached the Washington Post, and hence a wider audience, is that Kodansha and/or Higashimura have been forced to pull the series due to a “torrent of criticism” from people who think the comic is “demeaning to men” because it shows them “doing laundry, cooking and washing dishes” – and that suggesting that men should learn domestic skills in Japan is “close to sacreligious”. The Post concludes that in Japan, “there’s no room for women to even dream about a world where men might whip up dinner and pick up their own socks.”

Those of you who read Japanese might now find it interesting to flick through the links provided above and contrast the tone and content of the Japanese articles with that of the Washington Post piece. The Post’s narrative is that this is a backlash from the patriarchy to the mere suggestion of men doing housework; Post writer Anna Fifield links the manga’s message to the likes of Sheryl Sandberg and Anne-Marie Slaughter and accuses the manga’s critics of rallying to a call of “misandry!”. It’s a strong message, not least because it fits so neatly with the established narrative; we know that Japan is a sexist place that’s far behind other developed countries in its treatment of women and in the workplace opportunities which they are offered. We know that career women in Japan are criticised for failing to have babies and stay at home to look after them, and that women who do have babies are forced out of their workplaces. Fifield’s account in the Post fits that narrative neatly and gives us something straightforward to feel outraged about for a few minutes of our coffee break.

Yet in the original Japanese news coverage, the story is quite different. Sure, the Asahi piece notes that critics disliked the manga for “putting down her male assistants” (“mocking” or “looking down on” might also be reasonable translations), though I note that the “and other men” part added to the English translation of the piece is not in the Japanese original. Other stories give lots more context to the criticism, though. Jiji Press cites a critic saying that the manga “doesn’t show consideration for house husbands” (literally, men engaged in work in the home). The Blogos piece notes, alongside a sense that the manga ungently mocks its subjects, criticism of the manga’s conflation of “himo” (parasitical men who live off their spouse’s earnings) and “house husbands”. The Joshi-Spa piece accuses the manga of looking down on unmarried women and house-husbands alike. Only the Cyzo Woman piece implies that the gender-related nature of the manga earned it unwarranted bashing, suggesting that Kodansha’s staff should have realised it wasn’t suitable for free publication online (make what you will of that – I think it’s rather condescending, personally).

So which is it? Did Himozairu fall to a hate campaign by thin-skinned men horrified at this assault on traditional gender roles? Or, on the contrary, did critics who disliked its very support for traditional gender roles and mocking of men who fall outside those roles derail it by convincing the author she had made an error in her depiction?

Though it’ll be hard to say for sure until such time as Higashimura makes a further statement on her decision to suspend publication, I lean towards the latter interpretation. Firstly, because the former interpretation seems to have crept in when a (dubiously translated) Asahi Shimbun article was picked up and spun into quite a different narrative by the Washington Post, seemingly without reference to any other original sources (seriously, the WaPost story cites the translated Asahi story and the AnimeNewsNetwork story, which itself solely cites the translated Asahi story, and not a single other source – I found the seven articles above in under five minutes on Google!). Secondly, because the content of the manga itself is genuinely uncomfortable not from a weird Men’s Rights Activist perspective but from a progressive perspective. Its essential contention is that “loser” men who are no good at getting ahead in “proper” careers should learn household skills in order to attract a career woman who’ll marry them as a “kept man”. This is incredibly problematic; it implies, all at once, that only “loser” men should do household work; that house husbands are men who have failed at other things; and that the relationship between a career woman and a house-husband is an unequal, “kept man” situation. Looked at from another angle, it’s also not saying anything progressive or praiseworthy about women who become housewives and their relationships with their husbands.

Honestly, the problems with this manga start from the word “himo” itself, which the Washington Post gently translates as “string”, implying that it refers to a man who lives off his wife’s purse strings. It’s got far more negative connotations than that; it also means “leash”, for a start (and the manga refers to women who marry “himo” men as their “owner”), and more troublingly means “pimp”, in the sense of a man who lives off a woman’s (immoral) earnings. It’s a term utterly steeped in regressive, traditional and unpleasant gender connotations. Perhaps Higashimura intended to challenge those connotations and reclaim the term; if so, she went about it entirely the wrong way, starting from the very moment when she described (in the pitch line for the manga!) her “training” for housework and chores as being aimed at “men who have dreams, but have no money, no job, no popularity and no style”.

Japan has huge problems with gender; roles are traditionally constructed and strongly socially enforced, which contributes to a lack of opportunity for women (slowly but surely being overturned by a combination of policy and economic reality) and a relentlessly sexist media environment, not to mention being a major factor, I believe, in both the low birth rate and the high suicide rate (especially among men). There is, however, progress occurring, both on a policy level (criticise Shinzo Abe’s motivation for Womenomics all you like; the policies are real and they’re slowly, all too slowly, starting to move previously intractable business culture in a good direction) and on a cultural level (the outcry over sexist heckling in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly about a year ago would probably never have happened in the recent past, because nobody would have thought it untoward). It’s important that we don’t try to pigeonhole gender issue related news events into our own pre-selected narrative for convenience, because doing so risks missing the important detail of the picture. In the case of Himozairu, my sense of what has happened is not that the patriarchy has lashed out and silenced a woman’s voice, but that a very talented young author has reconsidered her stance on an issue of gender following progressive criticism. If so, it’s a good thing – and I for one would love to see Higashimura return to the issue in future with a more thoughtful approach.

Abe-Shinzo.jpg

Abe’s Reshuffle Gun is Firing Blanks

Cabinet reshuffles are a big deal in Japanese politics. Where in other nations a reshuffle is generally of interest only to those with skin in the game and those desperately afflicted with a fascination with politics (it’s no way for a person to live, I assure you), in Japan reshuffles are given enormous attention and seen as key milestones in a government’s tenure. This is understandable when you look at the history of Japanese democracy in the post-war era; the Liberal Democratic Party has ruled, with or without the support of a minor coalition party, for around 56 of the past 60 years. When every election returns the same party to government, merely expanding or reducing its majority, the only real vehicle for reform lies in cabinet reshuffles – whose outcome has traditionally been determined by the jockeying for position between the LDP’s various internal factions. The hegemony of the LDP has made reshuffles more politically important than the majority of elections.

This makes reshuffles into a powerful tool for a prime minister; as well as providing a means to placate, reward or punish party factions for their support (or lack of same), the reshuffle has also traditionally been a magic bullet for the all-important cabinet approval rating. Cabinet approval is the public opinion figure which every prime minister must watch with anxious eyes; when it drops below a certain level, conventional wisdom suggests that the prime minister is now an electoral liability to the LDP and should be replaced, making him vulnerable to challenges from within the party. A reshuffle is a shot in the arm for cabinet approval – voters generally seem willing to give a new cabinet time to prove itself, so the approval rating shoots up after a reshuffle.

Abe Shinzo, the current prime minister, has lived a charmed life in terms of his cabinet approval ratings thus far. Indeed, his approval rating is a conundrum that puzles many commentators on Japan. Abe’s rule has boiled down to a succession of deeply unpopular measures – last year’s 秘密保護法 (Official Secrets Bill) and this year’s 安保法 (Security Bill) provoked major ongoing demonstrations around the country, while the slow-but-sure restarting of nuclear power plants continues to be opposed by a significant majority of voters and provokes headline-grabbing local protest with each restart. Meanwhile the much-vaunted “Abenomics” economic programme has had a mixed reaction from economists (it’s largely only managed to crank the levers of monetary stimulus, and has failed miserably to provide the kind of economic reform originally promised), and definitely a failing grade from voters, many of whom have seen their real incomes drop precipitously in recent years and almost none of whom say they have felt any benefit from Abenomics. In poll after poll, the Japanese people hate the Abe cabinet’s policies – they don’t like the bills it passes, don’t support its broad agenda on security and energy, and don’t feel any benefit from its economic policy. Yet in the same polls, they continue to support the cabinet, and the LDP, at a remarkably high rate.

This is only a puzzle if you consider the government in isolation; look at it in the context of Japan’s opposition parties, and it makes perfect sense. To describe the opposition as a disaster would be far too kind; the opposition is a miserable, useless catastrophe. The Democratic Party of Japan, the main party of opposition, has no coherent policy platform and almost zero visibility on key issues; other parties such as the Japan Innovation Party are consumed with in-fighting, and opposition parties split, merge and split again with a weary regularity that makes it perfectly apparent that their membership are far more concerned with shuffling for position and status in a tiresome game of musical chairs for avaricious old men, than in actually representing a constituency or, god forbid, a coherent ideology. Even as the government faced widespread resistance from the populace in passing legislation like the Security Bill, the main opposition parties were distracted with the side-show, the cat-herding pipe-dream, of assembling a broad opposition alliance. It was once said (by one of his own backbenchers, no less) of the well-meaning but slightly hapless Irish opposition leader Alan Dukes, “if it was raining soup, the man would be out in the street with a fork”; it rained miso soup for Japan’s opposition in recent months, and they all ran out into the streets holding chopsticks. If the Japanese electorate dislike Abe Shinzo’s policy platform, they despise the opposition, and have supported the Abe cabinet largely on the basis that any alternative to the LDP is, at the moment, nigh-on unthinkable.

Even so, the Abe cabinet’s approval rating sank to a low (albeit still far higher than justified by support for its policies) ebb when the Security Bill was passed, so; quick! Pull the reshuffle lever! Out with the old, in with the new, and back in with some of the old. There are new faces in some quite prominent positions (I plan to write a little later this week about former pro wrestler Hase Hiroshi’s appointment as Education Minister, which is already shaping up to be very interesting), some hints about which factions are in Abe’s good books, and lots of speculation about what it all means for the theory that he’s going to anoint fanatical right-winger and historical revisionist Inada Tomomi as his successor; she would be Japan’s first female prime minister, marking a real “two steps forward, three steps back” for the progressive cause. The conclusion of most commentators, incidentally, is that leaving her in charge of the LDP’s Policy Research Council, rather than promoting her to a more public cabinet position, suggests that she’s not the shoo-in for the succession many had assumed.

The lever duly pulled, the new Abe Cabinet (“Abe 2.2”, perhaps, as it’s the second cabinet of his second run at the prime minister’s job) sat back and waited for the approval bump… Which never came. Approval did rebound slightly from the level it hit after the security bill passed, but even in the most optimistic of polls, this looked like a dead cat bounce – the natural rebound when even the most moribund of objects hits a hard floor – rather than a boost from the reshuffle. In approval terms, at least, the reshuffle has been a total write-off; perhaps reflecting the increasingly presidential style of Japanese prime ministers since Koizumi Junichiro in the early 2000s, public attention seems focused on Abe himself, and cabinet approval rating is inexorably tied to his person, regardless of the cabinet with which he surrounds himself.

This is troubling for Abe, who has managed – largely off the back of the weakness and disarray both of the opposition and of the much-diminished LDP internal factions – to stay in power for almost three years, far longer than most Japanese Prime Ministers of recent decades. It seemingly removes from him one of the key weapons in the Prime Minister’s arsenal, rendering the reshuffle useless for juicing public opinion numbers – though of course, it may simply be that this reshuffle was handled incompetently, being carried out while the public was still angry over the passage of the Security Bill, and thus burdening the new cabinet with that anger rather than giving them a fresh start. On the other hand, it also reinforces the importance of Abe Shinzo himself, suggesting that while Prime Ministers may still fall victim to weak cabinet support ratings, the era of the disposable and nigh-on faceless Japanese Prime Minister (honestly, even political science academics here struggle to recall some of the nobodies who have held the office in recent decades) is over. Abe will be toppled only when someone within the LDP is strong, prominent and supported enough to topple him; the old system, in which a Prime Minister could be deposed by a broad group of plotting factions without a figurehead, and replaced with whatever doddering codger they felt well-disposed towards that week, is no longer viable. This will make it easier for the PM to see threats coming, the most obvious of them at the moment being Ishiba Shigeru, the hugely ambitious if questionably competent Regional Revitalisation Minister who recently launched his own LDP faction, seemingly with a view to challenging Abe for party leadership in the future. If Abe’s approval slides heavily again (the next big challenge is next year’s double header of House of Councillors elections and TPP ratification), it’s from Ishiba that the only truly credible attack on his position would come – and until the opposition parties get their house in order and start providing a believable alternative, that internal LDP drama is, once again, the only way that Japan’s government is going to see change or reform.

19621569840_e7c8a7edb2_b.jpg

Neoliberalism’s triumph: claiming the word “realistic”

Get Real. That’s the message being sent in almost every piece of media coverage of Jeremy Corbyn’s one-month-old leadership of the Labour Party, a message which has intensified and become ever more shrill as his speech to the party conference approached. Hyperbolic attacks on Corbyn’s history and political stances (he’s a danger to Britain, he hangs out with people we don’t like, and if you take some of his words out of context, turn them upside down and squint at them through an alcoholic haze, it looks like he once said something tasty about Osama Bin Laden) have done their job, but are limited in their broad efficacy; the segment of the population who lap up this kind of material and internalise its messages are people who were already inclined that way in the first place, and delight in such stories simply because they confirm their pre-existing notions. For the majority of the rest of the UK electorate, who do not wake up in cold sweats at the thought of Reds under their Beds, or simmer with horrified outrage at the slightest departure from the government’s fairytale security narrative, such breathless tales of villainy have a short half-life; they would not survive prolonged contact with the reality of Corbyn’s personality and policies.

What’s much, much more damaging with that group of the electorate – the group Corbyn’s Labour actually needs to care about if it’s to have a hope of winning in 2020 – is the broader base of the Malthusian pyramid of anti-Corbyn media messaging. In the hierarchy of what you need to take down a populist left-wing leader, allegations of shocking Commie wrong-doing are merely the sharp tip of the pyramid; the broad base needs to be made up of a heady mixture of concern trolling and tooth-sucking that can be lumped together under a single headline; Get Real.

Corbyn isn’t realistic. Even if you accept that the ideals proposed by the veteran MP are lovely in theory – a Britain without weapons of mass destruction, with health, education and transport back in public hands, a more robust and caring system of welfare for the sick and the needy, and so on – you are exhorted to accept that they are not realistic in practice. This prong of attack is vital to undermining a return to the left by the Labour party, because survey after survey (with the caveat that I still think that British opinion polling methodology is broken and must be taken with a pinch of salt) shows that a fairly solid majority of the British public actually agrees with Corbyn’s policy prescriptions and stances. These people may be temporarily swayed against New-Again Old Labour (what are we to call the party now?) by personal attacks on Corbyn, but that’s not going to keep them off-side until 2020; there’s a real chance that a Labour party united behind its new leader and with four and a half years to reinforce and market its policy positions could turn enough of those preferences into votes to make a big difference on the political landscape. Heading off that possibility is a matter of convincing those voters to ignore their policy preferences, and thus convincing the Labour party to split and infight, convinced that it cannot win with Corbyn at the helm.

How do you convince voters to ignore their policy preferences when making their political choices? You suck at your teeth, shake your head sadly, and tell them that their preferences would be lovely in an ideal world, but that they are not realistic. The electorate responds strongly to this notion of realism; if you want a dramatic example of that in progress today, look to Japan, where the support rating of the cabinet of prime minister Shinzo Abe has consistently been far above the (vanishingly low) support rating for any of its headline policies. The electorate don’t like the policies, but they have been sold on the notion that they are realistic, or rather, that the alternatives (supporting opposition parties or otherwise demanding change) are unrealistic. Poll after poll confirms that a very significant portion of the Japanese electorate supports Abe’s government despite disliking everything it does. This is much to do with the fragmented and disorganised nature of opposition parties in Japan, but that’s the point, in a sense; the electorate prefers the “realistic” option of the organised, successful, tough-talking LDP, despite disliking its policies, over the “unrealistic” option of the fragmented, bickering opposition parties whose policies they actually like.

That’s what the Get Real message aims to do to Corbyn – to push the electorate into seeing him as a dreamer and a fantasist, someone with ideas that are nice but unrealistic and unsuited to government. This isn’t a new idea, nor is it unique to the UK’s situation; such rhetorical spin is a standard ingredient of neoliberalism everywhere in the world. The great triumph of neoliberalism since the 1980s has been to position its stances as being realistic, essentially coining or laying claim to a whole swathe of phrases which have become commonplace in political discourse. Aside from “realistic”, consider phrases like “taking tough decisions” or “fit for government” – neoliberal spin points baked into our conventional political rhetoric, whose seemingly innocent neutrality disguises the power to put anyone expressing a non-neoliberal point onto the back foot. Discussing a left-wing policy idea almost immediately invites a demand to prove that it is “realistic”, putting the discussant on the defensive; the same demand is almost never made of neoliberal policy ideas, and can be laughed off with ease when it is made – rhetorical weapons, once established, are not easily turned against their creators. Why should proponents of neoliberal policy have to prove that their ideas are “realistic”, when we all know that neoliberalism is realistic?

This is the unspoken assumption at the core of every article telling Jeremy Corbyn (or Bernie Sanders, or Pablo Iglesias, or Alex Tsipras, etc. etc.) to Get Real – an assumption that our current system, the neoliberal economy and society which have been built since the early 1980s, is realistic. Moreover, it is an assumption that the neoliberal institutions and structures of today define the limits of what can “realistically” work. Every idea outside that sphere must justify itself and demonstrate its “realistic” credentials; but the game is rigged, because “realism” is defined in terms of the very neoliberal institutions that the New Left seeks to challenge. If you’re not neo-liberal, you have to prove that you’re realistic, but if you’re realistic, you’re neo-liberal; Catch-22. Thus, “realistic” becomes twisted in its very meaning; it is imbued with innate ideology, becoming a herder’s whip used to drive political thought back towards the present status quo, all the while claiming in wide-eyed innocence that it is free of ideology and merely talking about cold hard facts regarding what is and is not possible.

The hand-wringing authors of articles demanding realism from Corbyn and his shadow cabinet would no doubt bristle at the accusation that they are doing little more than writing in support of a neoliberal status quo – to their minds, they’re just talking about what’s realistic, which is surely, surely, a fixed term whose meaning cannot be subverted or altered through political will? Yet truly it has been subverted, in a way that is most dramatic if viewed across the span of decades. Little by little, neoliberals on both sides of the Atlantic, and elsewhere besides, have pushed further and further to the right – digging in and establishing the boundaries of the “realistic” around their current positions before advancing a little further rightwards, dismantling a little more of the state, introducing a little more of the market, or a distortion of the market, then digging in for long enough for this to become the new “realistic” status quo before moving again. Compare 2015 to 2010 and the movement is apparent (look at how the debate over the NHS has shifted from “no privatisation” to “which bits is it okay to privatise”) but minor. Compare 2015 to 1995 or earlier, though, and it is hugely dramatic; the complete destruction of social housing, the dramatic attacks on support for the sick and disabled, the sweeping privatisation of health, education and even some parts of the nation’s security forces, the extraordinary subsidising of for-profit industries through in-work benefits for underpaid workers; these are all policies which would have been extreme, radical and unrealistic in earlier decades. Today they are government policy, and nobody challenges their realism. The centre has moved; what is realistic has kept pace with where the neoliberal movement has brought us. Today’s neoliberalism is an extreme version of the doctrine of Thatcher or Reagan, yet its grand triumph is in managing to align the political meaning of “realistic” with its own extremism.

Language is important. Hijacking a word like “realism” is an incredibly tricky thing to do (it helps when the owners of most of a nation’s media are on board with your ideology, though), but it affords a huge advantage, one presently being brought to bear on crushing Jeremy Corbyn. Coining your own terms is also a powerful tool; think of terms like “trickle-down”, “personal responsibility”, “wealth creators”, “hard-working families” or on the negative side of the equation, “scroungers”, “benefit cheats” and “something-for-nothing culture”. Once established in the public imagination through constant media repetition, such phrases encapsulate neo-liberal ideologies in bite-sized pieces of daily vocabulary, which are powerful rhetorical tools that are extremely hard to challenge in the popular imagination. Language is how we define the world around us, so creating widely adopted language which defines it according to your ideology is a huge success for any political movement. (It doesn’t always work, of course; look no further than “Big Society” for an example of a neo-liberal catchphrase which never managed to effectively penetrate the popular consciousness and vocabulary, but swam around, unloved and unwanted, in Conservative talking points and speeches for several years before finally being taken out to the back of the woodshed and put out of its misery.)

Is Jeremy Corbyn’s policy platform “realistic”, then? The answer depends largely on how you define “realism” and to what ideological mast you are pinning your colours. Ian Dunt wrote an excellent piece for Politics.co.uk this week about how the Labour conference’s decision to back a like-for-like replacement of Britain’s Trident nuclear weapons system (which Corbyn had opposed) was taken on the grounds of being “realistic”, yet is, taken on its own merits, a crazy stance which actually risks putting Britain in contravention of its supposedly firmly-held support for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Here, “realism” has been taken both within and without the Labour Party to mean something ideological, not something actually “real” in a sense that anyone with an empirical view of the world would recognise. The same can be seen in responses to economic, social and geopolitical policies proposed by left-wing leaders the world over. The only thing “realistic” is what we’ve got now – yet what a depressing and bleak world-view that must be to inhabit, since what we’ve got now is failing so many of the country’s inhabitants (and indeed the world’s inhabitants) in such dramatic and harmful ways. Neoliberalism, like its twin deity Globalisation, has had its upsides and its good points, some of them dramatic; but to pretend that it is the only “realistic” game in town is an intellectual dishonesty, one which those genuinely concerned with the future of the left (as distinct from those merely concern-trolling) would do well to abandon.

4600982228_c5df9c6e65.jpg

The PM, the Pig and musings on Power

I’m going to try to do something perhaps unwise, perhaps impossible; I’m going to try to write something serious about David Cameron and “pig-gate”. I’m even going to abstain from porcine puns – because for all that this story is gleeful tabloid filth, I think that at its beating heart there is an important story about control, about authority and about the nature of power in modern Britain.

(If you’re in the dark regarding “pig-gate”, the details are relatively simple; billionaire tax exile and former Conservative party deputy chairman Lord Michael Ashcroft has co-written, with journalist Isabel Oakeshott, an unauthorised biography of David Cameron. It is not flattering, and includes allegations of drug-taking among other things, but the attention-grabbing assertion is that during an initiation ceremony for an Oxford student society, Cameron “put a private part of his anatomy” in the mouth of a dead pig – and that photographic proof of this deed exists.)

Previous revelations about Cameron’s behaviour as a student at Oxford – such as his participation in the restaurant-trashing Bullingdon Club, whose initiation rituals include burning a £50 note in front of a homeless person – have not harmed Cameron’s career much. Such antics are undoubtedly odious but are largely the kind of thing lapped up by those already ideologically opposed to him rather than the sort of story which hurts his base of support. How this latest revelation will play out, though, is tough to predict; it should not need to be said that cases of bestial necrophilia among leaders of major nations are uncharted territory.

The danger to Cameron’s career is that this makes him a laughing-stock, his public seriousness as a political leader forever deflated by the cat-calls and innuendos which will, undoubtedly, follow him for the rest of his life. A leader who becomes a political liability to their party is not long for their job; up until now, the security of Cameron’s position has been based on being the most likeable and statesmanlike of the Conservative front bench. For how long can a leader be followed around every public engagement by snorting noises, pig-related heckling and constant mockery before his party decides that he’s no longer suited to being its public face? This calculation is no doubt being pored over and debated at length by the Conservatives today. There will be those who point to sexual scandals of the past and point out that they blow over eventually, but I don’t know that those models can be applied to something so utterly visceral, so profoundly embarrassing and so downright grotesque. I don’t know if this kind of story, once attached to the person of a politician, ever goes away.

I suspect that David Cameron will limp on in 10 Downing Street, not least because he will understand the historic shame of being the Prime Minister who resigned over the thing with the pig, but his authority will be weakened to the point where a leadership challenge over a rather less intimate issue in the relatively near future will give him an opportunity to bow out with some grace. Whether this scandal is ultimately his undoing or not, it is clearly a calculated attack. Lord Ashcroft feels snubbed and sidelined by Cameron, who seemingly declined to offer him the cabinet position to which he felt entitled; the billionaire’s revenge is to dig up this singularly humiliating moment from the prime minister’s past and ensure that it is splashed on the front page of the Daily Mail, the preferred scurrilous tabloid rag of the very heartland of Conservative voters.

Lord Ashcroft, pollster and political guru in his own right, knows as well as anyone else what this will do. This is not a playful aside in a fun little unauthorised biography that he’s putting together as a hobby with his journalist pal, Oakeshott; this is a carefully targeted, focused attack designed to wreak career havoc upon, and cause huge personal embarrassment for, a man whom Ashcroft sees as disloyal, or as having stepped out of line. And here, I think, is something much bigger and more interesting than the scurrilous details of Cameron’s vivid indiscretion; here is a rare public example of how power is wielded by Britain’s elite, of how control is exerted over those they wish to manipulate, and of how those groomed for success from a young age can be destroyed should they be seen to diverge from the steps they’re told to dance.

Initiation ceremonies or “hazing” rituals, often of a painful, humiliating, transgressive or sexual nature, are a well-documented part of the culture of many organisations run by and for young men, especially those from positions of privilege or in elite institutions. Hazing is a fixture, albeit usually in less extreme form than many might imagine, of “greek life” at US colleges; initiation rituals of some description are relatively common in elite societies at top educational institutions elsewhere. Such rituals seem to be an especially important part of extremely disciplined groups such as certain military units. The primary social function served by these rituals is to accelerate and deepen the bonds shared by members of the group, and the sense of loyalty to the group each person holds. By committing transgressive acts together, members develop a sense of sharing in a mutual secret, thus instantly creating trust; by overcoming some humiliation or pain, new members deepen their commitment to the group, as their internal logic reasons that if they are willing to endure such an ordeal, it must mean that the group is important and deserving of loyalty (otherwise, they would have made a terrible mistake and gone through all of that suffering for nothing). Through these acts bonds are forged, networks established; the “old school tie”, used as a metaphor for Britain’s elite networks, is also a metaphor for the actions and rituals, transgressive or otherwise, which created those networks during the formative years of their members.

That much is somewhat understandable; in truth, few of us are not part of a “network” based in some way on the same psychology, even if our networks are perhaps less likely to involve prime ministers and billionaires. Bearing witness to one another doing embarrassing things, usually if not always under the influence of alcohol, is a fairly standard part of the socialisation process, especially for young men; it may not be quite as ritualised or organised as ceremonial events which require very specific orders from local butchers, but moments of embarrassment or transgression shared with close friends are a basic building block of many of our relationships.

The ritualised, sexually grotesque nature of Cameron’s initiation sets it apart somewhat, of course; but what’s also different about this kind of ritual in elite circles is the calculation behind it, the power and control it affords, and the self-perpetuating network of influence it creates. Consider this scenario; at elite institutions, those earmarked – by wealth, by title, by connections – for future leadership roles are forced, as impressionable young people, to carry out humiliating acts in order to gain acceptance by an in-group. That same in-group will, over the course of their lives, help advance their career massively in ways both overt and covert; membership of that group essentially secures their success in life. The cost of entry, paid by all members of the group, is participation in humiliating acts; acts which will forever wed them to the group, because should they later act in a way contrary to the group’s interests or desires, their “indiscretions” can be brought back to destroy their careers or personal lives.

Precisely this kind of model of control is sometimes operated by groups with a clear hierarchy – one could argue that Catholic confession is a variation on the model, and Scientology’s “auditing” is a very clear case of a system designed to ensure compliance by extracting humiliating personal information from its subjects and then holding that information over them in case of disobedience. Political and business elite networks are different; there’s no evidence of a shadowy cabal or secret Illuminati who run this kind of scheme among the elite of Britain (or the USA for that matter). There is no need for such conspiracy theories; this system is self-sustaining and decentralised. It’s in the interest of people in the group to promote the careers of their fellow group members, precisely because they have control through their knowledge of that person’s transgressive acts; similarly, it’s in the interest of that person to promote the careers of the other members for the same reason. It’s a community of mutual self-interest and reliance, bonded together by a Mexican stand-off of embarrassing private information. The structure survives and is passed down to successive generations of elite young men precisely because it is self-policing, self-sustaining and remarkably effective.

How serious are the acts we’re talking about here? Who knows, honestly; the punishment unleashed on Cameron for his “betrayal” of Ashcroft includes allegations of drug-taking, along with the lurid story about the pig, but nothing of terrible legal gravity; for all that conservative commentators like Louise Mensch look terrible for trying to defend Cameron today, there is some extent to which this behaviour is “youthful indiscretion”. Certainly it’s far less reprehensible than the “rituals” of other groups of elite young men which have included, among other vile things, the drugging and gang-rape of young women. Is this the most humiliating or illegal thing Cameron has done? I have no idea; I hope so, but regardless of his personal behaviour, it’s clear from other accounts of hazing, ritual intituation and in-group behaviour that the limits to the behaviour of young men desperate to cement their inclusion in a desirable social group are often shockingly low, and lowered even further by alcohol and drugs. The more transgressive, horrifying and illegal the act committed, the more the network “owns” its members. There’s a vast difference between distasteful student hijinks and truly horrible acts like rape, but the underlying logic of the network of control would only be strengthened, not undermined, by the increasing severity of the acts involved.

“Follow the money” is one of the most important exhortations to bear in mind for those investigating political power and influence, but not all control is financial. The control exerted by elite networks is based on long-standing trust and loyalty, but also, in some cases at least, by a black and rotten heart of what is, in effect, life-long blackmail. Britain’s establishment, at least in part, can be visualised (for those of strong stomach) as a group of powerful men standing close together, each with the balls of the man next to him held in a powerful grip. Michael Ashcroft just squeezed, very publicly indeed; yet his relevations, though tremendously damaging, may be tame indeed compared to what the friends and compatriots of some of our other political, media and business leaders just so happen to know about one another.