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.


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.


Security bill passes; what next for Japanese politics?

Japan’s controversial and widely disliked new security bill was passed into law early on Saturday morning, as the LDP, their coalition partner Komeito, and a handful of smaller parties pushed the bill through the Upper House following weeks of protests both outside and inside the Diet. It’s been a messy passage for the bill, with the vote delayed on multiple occasions and finally taking place, following widely publicised and rather embarrassing scuffles on the Diet floor, in the small hours of the morning of the 19th.

This bill is arguably the most significant step towards the normalisation of Japan’s military since the formation of the JSDF (Japan Self-Defense Forces, the country’s don’t-call-it-an-army which despite being not-an-army has the world’s sixth largest military budget) in the 1950s. Many pacifists and some left-wing politicians maintain that the very existence of the JSDF is in contradiction of Article 9 of the nation’s constitution, which renounces war and the use of force in international disputes, and states rather clearly: “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained” (「陸海空軍その他の戦力は、これを保持しない」). Maintaining the legality of the JSDF is a complex dance whose steps have become well-practiced over the past few decades; the nature of the equipment the forces use (largely speaking defensive and short-range, nothing overtly capable of attacking other nations), the operations on which they are deployed (most often disaster relief operations within Japan, though non-combat roles in peacekeeping missions overseas have, with much controversy, been introduced in the past couple of decades) and even the training they undertake is all calculated to reinforce the not-an-army nature of the JSDF. The dance works; the JSDF is an established, accepted and popular organisation, and opposition to its existence on constitutional grounds is a moot point.

The constitutionality of this latest security bill, on the other hand, is far from moot. Constitutional scholars have lined up to condemn the bill; those supporting it are so thin on the ground that even the expert (Waseda University professor Hasebe Yasuo) called by the LDP to testify at Diet hearings turned out to think the bill was unconstitutional. The bill opens up the possibility of Japanese troops being permitted to engage in combat in overseas operations – up until now, Japanese troops could not even return fire when fired upon, and thus had to be protected by troops from other countries when they engaged in reconstruction or peacekeeping missions. It also enables “mutual self-defence” (集団的自衛権), meaning that Japan may, in some limited circumstances (though just how limited remains worryingly unclear) come to the defence of an allied nation that is under attack. Both of these changes required the alteration of the government’s official, legal interpretation of the constitution; this reinterpretation is, according to practically every eminent legal scholar or practitioner in the land, a step too far, breaking rather than bending the constitution.

The consequence is that protestors against the security legislation come from two major schools of thought. The first is the anti-war group, which includes the recently very high-profile youth group SEALDs – a group who have been at the front-line of the regular public demonstrations against the bill and who are presented, not entirely honestly, as being a spontaneous upwelling of youth activism against remilitarisation and (if you’re talking to one of those given to more extreme rhetoric) fascism. In truth, SEALDs is at least partially a very successful rebranding exercise by the same aging protest veterans who have been shouting down the Abe government over remilitarisation, the state secrets bill and nuclear power for several years; with media attention for their protests fading, they cleverly pushed younger faces to the fore, creating a compelling narrative of Japan’s youth being awoken to political participation in defence of their nation’s pacifism. This is not to doubt or pour scorn upon the genuine and heartfelt nature of the protests voiced by the young people who have become SEALDs’ public faces; merely to suggest that we shouldn’t get too excited about the political awakening of Japan’s youth, as there’s little evidence that it yet extends beyond the handful of bright youngsters at the demos.

The second group protesting the bills, generally far more quietly and with far fewer signs equating Prime Minister Abe with Hitler or Stalin, disagree on the basis of constitutionality, as outlined above. There are plenty of people who, I think, are relatively comfortable with the moderate changes being proposed to Japan’s security position but deeply uncomfortable with the government’s decision to ignore or bypass the constitution in order to achieve these changes. Others are concerned that the government’s deaf ear to public opinion represents a disdain for democratic process, although the Abe government would no doubt point out (with some justification) that it was resoundingly returned to power in a general election last December, when the security bill was already firmly on the agenda.

In theory, if the security bill is unconstitutional, there is a safety mechanism within Japan’s model of democracy – the Supreme Court, which is empowered to make rulings on the constitutionality of legislation. Despite the near-unanimous judgement of legal scholars (and even of some Supreme Court alumni) that the legislation fails to pass the constitutional test, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who truly expects the Supreme Court to strike down the bill. Unlike the US Supreme Court, which has many failings but does largely manage to act as a counterbalance to the power of the government, Japan’s Supreme Court is noted for its unwillingness to rock the boat and has only issued judgements going against government legislation on a handful of occasions since the 1950s. For it to strike down a bill which is so high-profile, so essential to an LDP programme of government and to a prime minister’s career, and so central to the future structure of US-Japan relations, would be one of the most extraordinary upsets in postwar Japanese politics; it is almost unthinkable. The most likely outcome of a Supreme Court hearing is a mild expression of legal discomfort that falls far short of actually declaring the legislation unconstitutional, a formula which the court has also preferred in its rulings on the legality of recent Japanese elections (which have consistently violated rules on the discrepancy of population and hence vote values between rural and urban constituencies).

SEALDs and other protest groups have vowed to fight on – but in reality, if the Supreme Court does not strike down the legislation (a remote possibility at best), the chances of it being repealed are vanishingly remote. No future LDP government will reverse this legislation, and realistically, barring some extraordinary change in the political environment which places the Japan Communist Party or the Social Democratic Party in power, no other government will either. The DPJ, still hugely diminished since its crippling electoral defeat in 2012 but still the best chance of a non-LDP government at any time in the foreseeable future, has taken the side of the protestors; but by the time it comes to power again in any imaginable scenario, the security alliance between the US and Japan will already be operating on the basis of the new rules enabled by this legislation. It’s one thing to refuse US requests to engage in certain kinds of operation and engagement for many years – as Japanese governments have done, to great US frustration, for decades – it’s entirely another to pull out from existing engagements and commitments, deliberately passing legislation to restrict operations and defy US wishes. As the DPJ discovered last time they came into power, when Prime Minister Hatoyama was forced to resign over his foolish unilateral pledge to defy the US’ plans for its military bases in Okinawa, drastic alterations to international agreements, especially those which would fly directly in the face of the US-Japan Security Treaty, make very poor campaign pledges. With the bills passed, the DPJ – if they have any sense – will likely dial down their rhetoric and start engaging with other issues (again, if they have any sense, they’ll focus on the economy and the utter disappointment of Abenomics).

The bill, in short, is now a fait accompli, failing a deus ex machina appearance from a Supreme Court that suddenly finds itself in possession of a functioning spine. The mainsteam political parties will likely recognise it as such and withdraw from campaigning on this issue, leaving groups such as SEALDs looking increasingly fringe and isolated. Yet there’s still value to their continued campaign, because much of the fear of this bill comes from a slippery-slope argument; a belief that for Abe, this bill is only another step on a path that will push Japan back to its pre-war imperialism, hardline nationalism and fascist militarism. The bill would be controversial no matter who proposed it, but it’s all the more hated because it’s Abe at the helm; and while the bill itself is now in a very solid position, continued protests against Abe and his policies may spread discomfort with his leadership and embolden his rivals within and without the LDP. History could come full circle; just as Abe’s grandfather, the “Showa monster” Kishi Nobusuke, managed to pass the 1960 revision to the US-Japan Security Treaty but was forced to resign in the aftermath, so too may Abe’s security bill pass safely while simultaneously igniting the flame that will eventually smoke him out of office.

There’s just one problem; there’s really nobody convincing on the stage who might step forward to challenge and replace him. Until he’s actually got a rival, does it even matter how little the people trust Shinzo Abe’s motives and policies?


“Unelectable”: the most meaningless word in Britain

Jeremy Corbyn is the new leader of the Labour party. He was elected in the first round of the STV-style race by a thumping margin over his three rivals, each of them a New Labour type of some flavour or another, none of whom ever really threatened his lead. At the outset of the campaign he was seen as a “token leftie”, his candidacy a matter of lip service to the party’s left-wing, just as Diane Abbott’s candidacy in 2010 had been. As his lead in the race became clear, Corbyn found himself denounced both within and without the party as a loony leftie, a communist, a friend of terrorists, a throwback, a threat to national security and plenty else besides. Labour’s membership, perhaps convinced of the need for major change by their surprise defeat in the general election, elected him anyway, handing him the greatest mandate a leader of a British political party has ever enjoyed.

The preferred buzzword of Corbyn’s detractors now is a simple, one-word argument; “unelectable”. From New Labourites watching “their” party dance from their grasp, to Tories perturbed by a leftward shift in the political landscape, via a news media largely sympathetic to right-wing framing, the word on Corbyn is that he cannot win an election (apart, presumably, from the one he just won). To the New Labour faithful, Corbyn’s presumed unelectability is a matter of bitter despair, which may yet play out in splits or defections. To the Conservatives and the media, “unelectable” is a word spoken half in jeering mockery and half in self-reassurance.

I’d like to dissect that word and its meaning a little. The implication is that Labour’s supporters (almost a quarter of a million of whom voted for Corbyn) are entirely out of touch with the nation and have elected a leader who will only serve to further alienate the broader electorate. This assumes that the British electorate as a whole is on the political right of Corbyn, are closer ideologically to the Tories’ position, and will therefore reject Labour outright at the next election in 2020. This assumption is based on the Downs model of political decision-making; there are some problems with applying that to the UK which I’ll go into momentarily, but first I’d like to address the elephant in the room.

The elephant in question is this; those arguing that Corbyn is “unelectable” today were incapable of predicting the outcome of this year’s general election only hours before it was held. Political opinion polling in the UK is in a state of unimaginable crisis. Its methodologies are broken and the data it produces is junk. This does not mean that in the absence of data we may assume the preferences of the British people to be whatever we feel like; but it does mean that anyone throwing around terms like “unelectable” is uninformed at best, and at worst, an outright charlatan. If predictions of electability in the UK actually held even as much water as a sieve, Ed Miliband would be Prime Minister and you’d never even have heard of Jeremy Corbyn. Perhaps, in time, opinion polling in the UK may elevate itself back to a position of trust, but for now, organisations haughtily proclaiming the likely outcomes of Corbyn’s leadership (or anything else, for that matter) based upon hastily-conducted polls are to be treated with no more respect or gravity than tin-pot prophets, mystic oracles, and grannies with a knack for interpreting tea-leaves.

Coming back to the Downs model, then; the reason some people think Corbyn is unelectable is because the Downs model predicts that in a two-party system, both parties will veer towards a centrist position and their policies will become increasingly similar. This is based on an assumption that two-party systems emerge in nations where the electorate’s political preferences fall roughly on a bell-curve, so that the country is broadly politically homogenous and there’s a big swell of voters in the centre of the graph, for whose votes both parties compete. Supporters of this model would point to New Labour’s abandonment of various Old Labour principles (e.g. Clause IV, its commitment to socialism) and the Conservatives’ move away from core tenets of social conservatism (e.g. dropping support for the homophobic Section 28 and instead supporting equal marriage) as evidence for this process in the United Kingdom.

The Downs model, however, is a massive simplification – Downs himself acknowledged that the two-party system he described was an ideal, and that it would never be stable in a country which was not extremely homogenous in political preferences. That’s clearly the case in the UK; the share of the vote enjoyed by the two main parties has fallen steadily in recent decades, and parties such as the Greens, UKIP and the Liberal Democrats (though the latter has been laid low, at least temporarily, by their unpopular participation in coalition government) have seen their vote share rise, even if gains of actual seats have been held back by the archaic First Past the Post electoral system. Turnout in general elections is also fairly disappointing; a third of registered voters don’t bother to cast a vote, implying either apathy or a sense of being poorly represented by the candidates on offer, or most likely, a bit of both. The overall picture is of precisely the lack of homogeneity that Downs predicted would cause instability in the two-party model; so boldly basing the claim of Corbyn’s unelectability upon an assumption of a stable two-party system is foolish at best.

Besides; are we truly expected to accept that Jeremy Corbyn’s economic ideas, which are broadly centre-left and would not raise eyebrows in any developed social democracy, are a radical departure from the British political norm, while simultaneously accepting that the present Conservative government’s policies are just business as usual? Those policies include the privatisation of the National Health Service and of major parts of the police, military and education systems, relentless attacks on disability benefit and in-work benefits for low income earners, and the marketisation of third-level education such that higher-ranked universities may charge significantly higher fees to students, none of which seem remotely in line with the post-war political consensus of the UK. Shorn of the millstone around their necks that the Liberal Democrats became in the last parliament, the Conservatives have lurched sharply to the right. In fact, based on a comparison to the centreline of British economic policy in the post-war era, Corbyn’s policies are no more radical, “loopy”, or “crazy” than those currently pursued by the Conservatives; if anything, they are more centrist.

So Labour goes left; the Conservatives go right. One might equally shout “unelectable” at either one of those parties, for all the valid data we have to go upon. In truth, though, the question of electability is neither here nor there, because there isn’t going to be an election until 2020. Rather, the question that’s playing across the minds of more tactical thinkers in Westminster, I suspect, has everything to do with another political concept – the Overton Window. This is a political communications theory which essentially says that the general public, as a consequence of public and media discourse, develops a “window of acceptabilty”; any idea or policy which falls outside this window is crazy, insane and dangerous. Crucially, this window moves; people change their minds, often surprisingly rapidly. Supporting equal marriage in the USA would have been outside the Overton Window a decade ago; today it’s firmly in the middle. That doesn’t mean everyone agrees with it, but nobody in the mainstream of politics will brand you a radical, insane threat to the nation for supporting it any more.

The triumph of the Tories since the financial crisis of 2008 has been in hauling the Overton Window of UK politics firmly to the right. Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats have been complicit in this; both parties essentially supported, or did not challenge, Conservative narratives about overspending prior to 2008 being somehow responsible for the financial crisis, about immigration being a “problem”, about people on benefits being “scroungers” (an amazingly successful and utterly depressing neo-liberal coinage), and so on. Even with the somewhat left-liberal Ed Miliband in charge, Labour seemed to think that its best chance at returning to government was to align itself broadly with Conservative policy. This caused two problems; firstly, as George Monbiot would have it, many voters seemingly reasoned “why vote for the echo when you can vote for the shout?”; secondly, it meant there was no pressure on the Overton Window, which rapidly slid rightwards, supported by the majority of the British news media, which is largely owned and controlled by offshore billionaires with a clear vested interest in right-wing economic policy.

For Corbyn to bring Labour left as the Tories continue to swing right creates, for the first time this millenium, a genuine battle over the direction of the Overton Window. The only way to move that window, after all, is to get out and pull; only by proposing, supporting and defending policies in the “loony” space at the edges do you haul the window of political acceptability into your court. Corbyn won’t face election for nearly five years; he has at least three years to drag Britain’s perception of what is acceptable, sane policy back onto ground that is more comfortable for Labour. In the process he will, I hope, ignite genuine debate and give the electorate some sense that there is a genuine choice emerging in British politics. Where we go from there is anyone’s guess; but until we see the results of that process (which will be messy, and bloody, and will get very, very nasty along the way), anything we say about 2020 really is nothing more than a guess. “Unelectable”? Come back and talk about that when there’s an actual election on the way. Until then, Corbyn’s job isn’t to win an election; it’s to change the landscape of British politics so that future elections have any hope of being won from the left again.

JSDF troops with their flag

Oh! What a Lovely War Bill

Today, Japan’s lower house of government, the House of Representatives (broadly equivalent to the House of Commons in the UK, and rather less equivalent to the US Congress), has passed bills permitting Japanese military forces to participate in action against nations which are not directly attacking Japan. This will be the first time since the end of the Second World War almost exactly 70 years ago that Japan has permitted itself this right, and represents one of the largest changes to the nation’s security policy since its independence was restored by the Allied occupation in 1952.

It’s not a popular change. Opinion polls suggest that fewer than 30% of Japanese people support the bill, opposition parties have protested that the bill is being railroaded through parliament, and tens of thousands of people have gathered at rallies in Tokyo over the past few weeks to protest the legislation. It’s not popular with constitutional scholars, either; Japan’s post-war constitution, authored by Americans but supported by a majority of the Japanese people, renounces war and the use of force in international disputes, and forbids the maintenance of “war potential”. Last year, the government sought and achieved the latest in a series of revisions to the legal interpretation of that article (Article 9), which would allow the Japan Self-Defence Forces to participate not only in direct self-defence of the Japanese nation, but in “collective self-defence” – the right to assist Japan’s treaty allies should one of them be attacked, even if that attack is not directly on Japan itself. Today’s bill is the next step in pushing that change into law, but constitutional scholars remain convinced that the reinterpretation has stretched Article 9 past breaking point; a large majority of them have come out against the bill.

The prime minister, Shinzo Abe, knows it’s not a popular bill. After it passed the committee stage yesterday, he commented that the government has failed to explain the bill adequately to the public and will need to work on that in future; it’s easy to roll one’s eyes at such a statement, but this sort of cart-before-horse, father-knows-best approach is pretty much de rigeur for politicians all over the world when matters of national security or international relations are being discussed. It doesn’t excuse such behaviour, but it’s nonetheless worth pointing out that this doesn’t make Abe a fascist or evil; it just means that he’s a politician.

Besides, popularity barely matters. Though it’s taking its toll on the government’s approval rating, the LDP and its coalition partner, Komeito, could pass the bill through the Diet by themselves, having secured a large majority in the hastily called general election last December. Opposition politicians have resorted to frankly bizarre measures to register their displeasure, holding aloft placards during committee sessions and physically mobbing rival politicians in scenes bordering on fist-fights. The refrain, over and over, is that a bill with such low public support cannot be passed through the Diet in this manner.

This is, for better or worse, utter nonsense. The public does not support this legislation, but it hasn’t been sprung upon them as a surprise; changing the basis on which Japan’s military participates in international security is one of Shinzo Abe’s most long-held and clearly expressed desires, and the constitutional re-interpretation enabling this new law was passed before the general election last December. That election returned Abe’s LDP and their Komeito partners with a slightly larger majority than they had before. Any government, anywhere in the world, would look at that situation and conclude that whatever the public’s misgivings about this specific legislation, the LDP’s mandate to pass it is unarguable. Opposition parties were unable to turn the public’s dislike of Abe’s military ambitions into votes last December, so what aspect of democracy (as distinct from constitutionalism), exactly, is Abe riding roughshod over by passing a bill he’s openly been promoting since 2012?

It’s not that I don’t understand the anger and fear surrounding the bill, much of it focused on Abe himself. For all that he has learned to shut up about his own revisionist views of Japan’s Imperial history and decidedly neo-conservative ideas about how to make Japan’s society “beautiful” again (much of which is, as with neo-conservatism in general, little more than Fascism Lite with far less snazzy uniforms), he has been altogether less successful at getting other members of the LDP to do likewise. A great deal of the protest around the bill seems to be based not so much on fear of what collective self-defence will mean for Japan, but on a broader fear that Abe and his party want to move Japan away from the post-war pacifist consensus; to promote an ultra-nationalist agenda through schools and universities, to construct and impose rigid concepts of morality and “traditional” notions of societal duty, to adopt a more aggressive stance on the world stage and generally to return Japan to its more oppressive pre-war status quo. Opponents, who have dubbed the security legislation as Abe’s “War Bill” (which I use entirely facetiously in the title of this post), see that bill as being a huge step along the way to that objective.

They’re not wrong about Abe’s objective; you only need to read the man’s own words, in his book “Towards a Beautiful Country“, or look at the wish-list of constitutional change he and his LDP colleagues came up with before he came back to power in 2012. A man’s personal ideas and the policies he pursues in government may not always align, but it’s not unreasonable to fear the objectives of a man who has clearly laid out intentions to change his nation’s society in dangerous and worrying ways, and whose rule in government is effectively unopposed due to chaos within the ranks of opposition parties.

This broad unease only lends itself to making the protests and opposition to today’s bills seem fractured, discordant and uncoordinated. Part of the problem is that taken on its own merits, the bill is entirely reasonable. One may argue for or against the need for Japan to change the terms on which it engages with its security partners, but there are a great many logical and reasonable grounds for the claim that collective self-defence is required by the present international environment. For Japan to continue to exist securely under the US defence umbrella, even as the global influence of the US is increasingly challenged and the broad security environment of Asia remains unstable, seems untenable. A more even relationship in which Japan’s substantial military prowess forms part of the deterrent to conflict across Asia, and in which Japanese troops play a normalised part in activities such as UN Peace-Keeping Operations (as those of other militarily neutral countries, such as Ireland, do without difficulty), has much to recommend it. Ranked against that, protests claiming that this “War Bill” represents a rise of militarism – despite the fact that even with its implementation, Japan’s military engagement will remain pretty much the most restricted of any developed nation – are all too easy to dismiss.

Herein, perhaps, lies the core dichotomy and problem of Shinzo Abe’s leadership of Japan. His person suggests that he should be a disastrous leader – he is an unrepentant (if recently wisely silent) historical revisionist with barely-concealed fantasies of a return to the social and political order of Imperial Japan. His ultimate goal is a complete rewrite of Japan’s constitution which would dispense with its pacifist and human-rights oriented nature in favour of a stricter, more duty-focused constitution which he believes to better reflect “traditional” Japanese values. In some ways, this personality has indeed been disastrous; relations with China and South Korea, for example, deteriorated sharply under Abe’s leadership, though it’s unfair to lay the entire blame for that at his doorstep when the leadership of both of those countries demonstrated equal if not greater intransigence and historical dishonesty. In other ways, though, this personality and the stances it has created have been almost exactly what Japan needs; Abe’s policies have been pushed through with a force and vigour that has been sorely lacking in Japan for decades, and have seen kickstarts to employment, to inflation, to the role of women, to the broader economy, and to necessary adjustments to the nation’s international role. In each case, one can argue that Abe has pursued the right policy for the wrong reason – often horrifyingly wrong – but nonetheless, he’s achieved more in his years in power thus far than anyone since Junichiro Koizumi in the mid-2000s (and Koizumi, I’d argue, pursued the wrong policies for the right reasons, which is far worse).

Abe’s personality and his party’s regular gaffes colour everything they touch. Even as a supporter of its content, I will find it deeply uncomfortable to watch the “war bill” pass today, with the storm-in-a-teacup of protest making little or no odds to its progression through the various stages of government. I will find it even more uncomfortable if the Supreme Court, a far less aggressive and independent branch of government in Japan than in the USA, permits the bill to stand despite its extremely dubious constitutionality. I’d like to see Japan’s security position change, but I’d like to see it done right – with a constitutional amendment by popular vote, following a proper campaign of education and outreach about the reasons for its necessity. When a politician’s vigour and force extends to simply ignoring constitutional legalities, then no amount of democratic mandate (which, again, the LDP unquestionably possesses at present) can justify their actions. But perhaps that’s Abe in a nutshell; doing the right things for awful reasons, in awful ways, and making even those who support the actions uncomfortable along the way. He may be the most effective prime minister Japan has had in decades; he may simultaneously be the worst leader the nation has had in the post-war era.


Greece: Debt Relief is the only way forward

The Greek people have voted in a landslide to reject further austerity measures demanded by the “Troika” (the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund) in return for financial aid that would allow it to continue repaying its debts. This leaves Europe, and indeed the world, in unknown territory; nobody really knows what happens, or can happen, when a sovereign state that belongs to an international currency threatens to default on its debts after rejecting the proposals of the ECB et al. Conservatives and neo-liberals, unsurprisingly, are predicting apocalyptic scenarios; the complete collapse of the banking system and economy of Greece, the confiscation of all bank deposits over €8000 in the country, the expulsion of Greece from the Eurozone and potentially even the collapse of the Eurozone itself. Greece, the neo-liberal lobby wails, is risking the entire European Project through its intransigence.

French economist Thomas Piketty is having none of it, and if you read one thing about the Greek situation this week, it should be Piketty’s absolutely searing and on-point interview with German newspaper Die Zeit. Piketty’s core point is that Europe’s success stories in the post-war 20th century were all based on exactly the kind of debt relief which the Troika now seek to deny to Greece. Germany’s debt burden in the immediate post-war era was around 200% of GDP, but within ten years, it had fallen to 20%, largely thanks to negotiations which cancelled huge swathes of German debt. That debt relief was given with the understanding that an economy simply cannot grow and thrive (and thus have any hope of paying off its debts) while it is shackled by enormous public debt, and the so-called German “economic miracle” of the mid-20th century was a product of the willingness of German’s creditors to forgive its debts in favour of peaceful growth and stability. Exactly the same logic was applied as recently as the 1990s, when former Warsaw Pact countries such as Poland (whose political leaders now parrot German’s hard-line on Greece) saw the majority of their huge debts cancelled in order to support their growth and development.

Compare that to the situation of Europe’s so-called “PIIGS” – Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain, the countries which lost out most severely in the 2008 financial crash and which were forced by the Troika to assume the enormous private debts of their banking systems as public debts. Each of these cases is different – Ireland, at one extreme, had a very low and manageable level of public debt which was then completely destroyed by the nationalising of debts from the country’s huge, failing banks; Greece, at the further extreme, had serious problems with national debt all along, which it attempted to hide with manipulation of its public accounts, but were compounded by the forced nationalisation of huge amounts of private debt. Each was dealt with similarly, however; the Troika forced the national government to take on private debt from failing banks as public debt, then demanded that the country impose incredibly severe austerity in order to service its now-enormous debt burden.

That austerity has been absolutely horrific in its effects. Pensions, education and health budgets and support for the sick and disabled have been slashed. New, regressive taxes which target poor and middle-income people have been imposed. Infrastructure projects have been halted. As a consequence, unemployment has risen drastically (especially youth unemployment, which is now a full-blown national crisis in countries such as Greece and Spain), the economies have shrunk, and the vicious cycle has continued – because a shrinking economy makes it even harder for the government to pay back its debts.

It’s all apparently become too much even for the IMF, one of the members of the Troika, which broke with the party line at the start of this month and published a draft report which said what everyone in Greece has known for years – the country’s debt burden is unsustainable. It cannot and will not be repaid. Attempting to torture the money out of Greece – for that is precisely what the austerity measures being imposed right now amount to – isn’t going to work; the astonishing economic pain which countries such as Germany wish to impose on the Greeks will just result in an even smaller economy with even less capacity to pay back its debts. In other words, the left-wing government of Greece, which just received a resounding vote of confidence from its people in the referendum, is absolutely right to reject the Troika’s demands. Whatever happens next, even if it is as bad as the neo-liberal doomsayers predict, will be a short, recoverable shock compared to the many, many decades of stunted growth, harsh austerity and drip-fed ECB handouts that lie in store for Greece in the Troika’s plans.

None of this is to say that Greece is a poor, abused and angelic figure; the country falsified its accounts for years. However, it wasn’t ordinary Greek people who have lost their pensions, their healthcare and their public services who did this. It certainly wasn’t young Greeks whose employment prospects have completely evaporated who did it; they were children when it happened. The austerity tortures devised by the Troika would go so far as to extend the punishment to people who aren’t even children yet; decades from now, the private debt nationalised at the demand of Europe’s fiscal masters and the public debt held over Greece like a weighted sword will still be being repaid, at huge personal economic and human cost, by people who haven’t yet been born. This is precisely the scenario that led to the debts of countries like Germany and Poland being forgiven; yet it is seemingly a scenario that moves few hearts in Germany and Poland today.

Whether hearts are moved or not may not matter. It’s entirely likely that Greece simply cannot be removed from the Euro, whose currency union mechanisms were originally designed to be irreversible, and that the Troika – already fragmenting thanks to the IMF’s draft report – will be forced to return to the table with the Greek government and work out something different. That “something different” will have to include debt relief in some form; and yes, the rest of the PIIGS will demand that the same rules apply to them. There will be howls of protest from neo-liberals in Germany and elsewhere; but not because some natural order has been upset or some terrible debt-dodgers have been allowed to “get away with it”. Rather, the howls will be because the great neo-liberal con perpetrated in the wake of the financial crisis has failed; the con which demanded that all the money which the wealthy had placed in too-good-to-be-true financial instruments and dodgy banks should be indemnified and protected from risk by the national governments (and thus the ordinary people) of the countries in which those banks were based. The wealthy individuals and corporations threatened ill-defined economic chaos if governments did not allow them to use ordinary taxpayers and public services as “human shields” to protect them from the storm of their own making; governments, in thrall to neo-liberal thinking, acquiesced across the board. If Greece wins its argument with the Troika and receives a debt relief settlement, and the other PIIGS follow suit, it will be a sign that after seven long years, that neo-liberal bluff is being called.


A Return to Blogging

To say that I have been lax about updating my blog would be an insult to people everywhere who are merely lax. I have been downright neglectful; the last post on this journal was made in 2012, just before the election which brought the LDP back into power in Japan. (I predicted that the LDP would win, but would still need Komeito to govern, lacking the super-majority predicted by some commentators; this was correct. I also predicted that Abe Shinzo would be gone within a year as Japanese politics returned to its merry-go-round of disposable prime ministers; this was completely incorrect, with Abe turning out to be incredibly resilient, not least thanks to the lack of any credible alternative either within or without the LDP.)

I need an outlet to talk about politics – both personally and professionally. This blog ought to be that outlet, and thus, the neglect stops here. Obviously, a blog last updated three years ago has no readers, so this post is more a pledge to myself, to be witnessed by any souls who stray across my writing in the coming weeks and months; I’m going to update more often, at least a couple of times a month. If I don’t, please call me rude names.

By robfahey Posted in meta

Japan in 2012: Anger, Apathy and the Ballot Box

Tomorrow, Japan will hold a general election for the first time since 2009. A lot has changed since 2009. At home, the impact of the 2011 Touhoku Earthquake is still felt, especially in the area of nuclear power policy; abroad, Japan has ended up in unwelcome territorial disputes over a handful of rocky islands with South Korea and, more worryingly, China.

Tomorrow’s election won’t be about any of those things. Not really.

The 2009 election was momentous for a simple reason – it elected the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) to office. This was the first time since 1955 that the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) had not held power. The LDP was created in 1955 as a broad but tightly managed coalition of conservative political groups – including many whose wartime histories were murky, to say the least – and it held the reins of power throughout the remainder of the 20th century, becoming so deeply intertwined with Japan’s powerful bureaucracy that it could be hard to tell where the LDP ended and the civil service – the machinery of government itself – began. Yet in 2009 they were thrown out of office, losing to the DPJ in a landslide.

Tomorrow, it’s almost certain that the people of Japan will vote the LDP back into office. The most likely scenario is that they’ll have a majority (along with their perennial coalition partners, New Kōmeitō, which is effectively the political wing of the powerful Buddhist group Sōka Gakkai and as such commands a moderate but very reliable share of the vote from Sōka Gakkai followers), but will still need to work with other parties to get legislation through the Upper House. Some media outlets, though, are confidently predicting that the LDP, with New Komeito, will enjoy a “supermajority” – 320 seats in the Lower House (Japan uses the Westminster parliament system, so this is equivalent to the House of Commons in the UK), enough to force through almost any legislation it wants, regardless of how the Upper House may vote.

How might we interpret this? After less than three and a half years in office, Japan is throwing out its first non-LDP government in 54 years and inviting the LDP to return – what does it mean?

A few broad ideas have been thrown around by the press and a variety of commentators. One idea is that Japan is lurching to the right, politically – that the re-election of the conservative LDP, which includes factions with some worryingly revisionist views about World War 2 and a hawkish desire to “re-interpret” Japan’s pacifist constitution, means that the Japanese people are becoming more militaristic and hardline in their views. Another idea is that the election is a referendum on the DPJ’s handling of the Touhoku Earthquake, the Fukushima nuclear disaster and subsequent events. So; “it’s all about militarism”, say one group of talking heads; “it’s all about nuclear power”, say another.

Those are nice, convenient talking points. They’re also incredibly simple, which should ring warning bells. They betray a deep desire to find a simple narrative for this election, when none exists, and they speak more about the biases of their authors (who are personally obsessed with “Japan’s attitude to WW2” or “Japan’s attitude to nuclear power”) than they do about the feelings of the Japanese electorate. In less polite terms, they’re flat-out wrong.

This is not to say that issues like militarism and nuclear power haven’t featured in the election – but they have not been major issues. On militarism, many of the politicans involved have form, but have seemed to quite deliberately keep their mouths shut. The LDP is led by Abe Shinzo, a man who was previously prime minister for a fairly disastrous one-year term in 2006/7. He is well-known as a hawkish character with rather revisionistic views on Japan’s wartime history and a strong desire to “re-interpret” the constitution to allow the building up of Japanese military power, but during his period as Prime Minister, he reined in those impulses (although he never seemed happy doing so, and this may have contributed to his early exit from the job). He’s reined them in once again on the campaign trail this year – he’s been gaffe-prone as ever, but not over issues of national security or history. Other hawks are also to be found on the campaign trail; the newly created Japan Restoration Party (Nippon Ishin no Kai), for example, is led by Osaka mayor Hashimoto Toru, who wants a referendum on the pacifist clause of the constitution (Article 9) and picked a bizarre fight with teachers over the treatment of the Japanese national anthem in classrooms. His new political partner is former Tokyo governor Ishihara Shintaro, a loud-mouthed and vainglorious right-wing ideologue whose entire career has been spend picking bizarre fights with intellectuals, pacifists, foreigners, women or whichever minority group he could think of to insult on the spur of the moment. Yet even these two characters have kept squeaky-clean through the campaign, avoiding being tarred with the nationalist brush as much as possible. Hashimoto has even emerged as an extremely moderate voice on foreign policy, suggesting, for example, that Japan should share administration of the disputed Senkaku and Dokdo islands with China and South Korea respectively.

Why put firebrands in charge but then make them shut up? Because there’s no appetite in Japan for right-wing, nationalist firebrands. The “lurch to the right” narrative about Japan simply collapses when you look at ground truth – across every meaningful opinion poll, the Japanese people strongly support Article 9 of the Constitution (which renounces the nation’s right to wage war) and reject advancing militarism or nationalism. Having neighbours like North Korea or China is frightening, certainly – and recent events have made the region feel even less safe – but the last thing the Japanese electorate wants is a hawkish leadership who directly provoke their neighbours through such actions as military build-up. Moreover, in this election in particular, the opinion polls are clear – foreign policy as a whole is a long way down people’s lists of concerns.

What of nuclear power, then? As it turns out, that’s a long way down the list of concerns as well. Perhaps that’s because the status quo isn’t working out too badly – most of the nuclear reactors are still offline and Japan hasn’t experienced any power shortages (the impact of boosting imports of fossil fuels in order to cover up the shortfall may not have been felt yet – expert commentary on that differs greatly). Either way, it doesn’t seem to bother people greatly that none of the parties are committing to a rapid end to nuclear power, or that the LDP in particular doesn’t seem committed at all to winding down the nuclear power industry which it was so directly instrumental in creating. Only one party, the Tomorrow Party, focuses on nuclear issues; it’s led by Kada Yukiko, the likeable and sincere governor of Shiga Prefecture, but mostly made up of former DPJ politicians who bailed out of the party a few months ago, following their powerful faction leader (and DPJ co-founder) Ozawa Ichiro. Everyone knows that Ozawa is the real power behind the Tomorrow Party, and neither Kada’s role as a human shield nor the party’s strong anti-nuclear stance is likely to prevent it from being wiped out at the ballot box.

Okay. So it’s not the military, and it’s not nukes. What, then, are the people of Japan voting on? How have they made their decision to return to the embrace of the LDP?

That’s a trick question. They haven’t made that decision at all. The sad, dull reality of the 2012 General Election in Japan is that the populace isn’t returning to the LDP; they’re not actively choosing to elect Abe Shinzo as their next Prime Minister. They’re just getting the default option, because “None Of The Above” doesn’t feature on their ballot papers.

With only a handful of days left before the election, the LDP was sitting at around 23% support in the opinion polls. This is a party which is expected in some quarters to get a “supermajority”. Twenty-three per cent. A “supermajority”. To put that in context, that’s the same percentage of the vote as the Liberal Democrats in the UK got in 2010 – and in the 1997 UK general election, when the Tories were wiped out by a Labour landslide, they still got nearly 31% of the vote.

Still – the LDP are doing better than the DPJ, who languish at 11% to 14%, depending on which polls you read. The newbies in the Japan Restoration Party manage similar numbers – 8% in the lowball polls, 13% in the optimistic ones.

Who’s really winning this election, according to the polls? “Don’t know”. Only days before polling closes, “Don’t know” is in for a sweeping victory, with around 40% of the vote. After all the wrangling, the posturing, the temper tantrums for the cameras, the angry accusations, the manifestoes, the TV appearances and the endless shouting of slogans from the loudspeakers on top of cars in busy urban areas, nearly half of the people of Japan still don’t know who the hell they want to vote for.

Six months before an election, that’s understandable. Three months before an election, it’s understandable. A month in advance, you’d start to worry. Less than a week in advance, those figures no longer mean “Don’t Know”. What they actually mean is, “None of the Above”. What those voters are really saying is, “A plague on both your houses”.

Whether the LDP wins a supermajority or not; whether the DPJ is all but wiped out or manages to save some face; whatever happens in the election will come down to whether those 40% of voters decide to turn up, grit their teeth and vote for the least-worst option (which might well help the DPJ to save face, since Abe Shinzo’s right-wing tendencies do scare people a little, and his incompetent tenure and humiliating resignation in 2007 isn’t so long ago) – or whether they just stay at home, which would probably let the LDP romp home with a large majority but a deeply questionable mandate.

Why is this happening? If you want a neat, simplified narrative, here’s one. The LDP – and its conjoined twin, the Japanese bureaucracy – is in decline. A fragile coalition of otherwise competing interests and viewpoints was held together through the 60s, 70s and 80s by Japan’s economic miracle. Dissent was silenced by financial generosity, each special interest group or uppity politician bought off with gigantic amounts of public cash being spent on their pet infrastructure projects and local communities. Everyone got rich, so everyone stayed quiet. Nobody wanted to upset an applecart so brimming with rich harvest.

Since the financial crisis and the end of Japan’s bubble economy in the early 1990s, things have been a lot more uncertain. The idea of the LDP and the bureaucracy managing Japan with stunning competence has been demolished by two decades of flatlining growth, declining levels of full-time professional employment and currency deflation. However, the impact of this has been delayed, for the simple reason that Japan is still a great place to live. It’s safe, it’s secure, it’s convenient – outside central Tokyo, it’s even fairly cheap. Healthcare and education are good. Poverty exists, but it’s hidden away on the margins. The applecart isn’t quite as full of ripe fruit as it once was, but it’s still not a good idea to upset it.

At the same time, dissatisfaction has set in – and it’s only grown as generations who finished university in the 1990s and 2000s realised that many of them would never have the kind of full-time employment their fathers had enjoyed. Few of them would be as wealthy as their parents had been. A large number, forced to take part-time or short-term contract jobs rather than full-time “salaryman” work, would never have enough money to buy a house or start a family. The covenant at the heart of Japanese society – “work hard, trust the government, and you’ll live well” was being broken. The LDP, authors of that covenant, seemed either not to understand what was happening, or not to know how to fix it – or perhaps both.

When the DPJ won the election in 2009, they promised a huge variety of things – their manifesto, in fact, read like a bit of a fantastical wishlist, and that quality has been used as a stick to beat the party with ever since. Their main promise, though, was unspoken; “we’re not the LDP”. Indeed, the party itself was a Frankenstein’s monster of a thing, composed of refugees, waifs and strays from across the political spectrum – including many politicians who had served time within the LDP itself. Their commonality was not anything that they were, but something that they were not. They were not the LDP. They won a landslide victory.

Tomorrow, they’ll collapse. Many of their Diet members, elected in 2009, will be unceremoniously dumped from office. The party has already fragmented; former DPJ members can be found in many of the new parties contesting tomorrow’s elections. Most will lose their seats regardless. They weren’t the LDP in name, but they reflected many of the things people hate most about the LDP in every other way – the factionalism, the in-fighting, the sheer ineffectiveness. Fukushima uncovered collusion with the nuclear industry; a humiliating cabinet resignation earlier this year came about because of connections with the Yakuza, Japan’s organised crime groups. Both incidents had a strong whiff of the old LDP around them. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

What the DPJ did offer, at least, was one place where people tired of the LDP’s misrule could place their ballots. This time around, there’s no such place. Some of the DPJ’s 2009 coalition of voters will drift back to the LDP – but few, I suspect. The LDP’s support figure of 23% is actually about the same as their polling figure in 2009. Last time, it earned them humiliating defeat; this time, it’ll win them a landslide. Most DPJ voters will have drifted elsewhere, fragmenting the anti-LDP vote. Some will go to Nippon Ishin no Kai, creating a third force in Japanese politics that could be fascinating to watch in years to come – assuming the tectonic stresses between the egos of Hashimoto and Ishihara don’t pull it to shreds first. A handful will go to the Tomorrow Party, or off to other marginals like the Japan Communist Party. Many, I suspect, will just stay at home. They took a gamble on believing in the DPJ, and lost. Politics has ceased to speak to them, or for them. That’s a volatile situation, even in a comfortable, modern nation like Japan. It leaves a void to be filled – perhaps by extremists, perhaps by non-party campaign groups, perhaps even by faith-based political movements. None of those are comfortable thoughts for the LDP – a party returning to power, but by no means back in the good books of its electorate.


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anti-gay ads: not a freedom of speech issue

I normally find myself on the very liberal end of any discussion about freedom of speech – I don’t, for example, think that Liam Stacey should have been prosecuted for his appalling racist trolling about Fabrice Muamba on Twitter, which is not an entirely popular point of view. It’s therefore been interesting to find myself on the other side of the looking glass this week, holding views which are in opposition to a number of people whom I like and respect.

The basis of the discussion is an advertisement which was booked to run on a number of London Bus routes by a group called Anglican Mainstream – a deeply conservative, right-wing Christian organisation with links to the US religious right. The ads read “Not Gay! Ex-Gay, Post-Gay and Proud. Get Over It!” – a reference to the group’s claims that they can “cure” gay people and turn them straight, a kind of therapy sometimes (mockingly) called “pray the gay away”.

Now, this is obviously pretty offensive stuff. For a start, being gay isn’t an illness, so it doesn’t need a cure – any more than your race, your gender or the colour of your eyes needs a “cure”. Moreover, gay “cure” therapies have been discredited by professional medical bodies and shown to cause serious harm to people who attempt to go through with them. Young people from conservative Christian families are sometimes sent to special camps to “fix” their homosexuality, and the results aren’t happy, well-adjusted heterosexual people – they’re a lifetime of psychological trauma. Even promoting these false ideas about “cures” can seriously hurt vulnerable young people, by making it harder for their families to accept their sexuality.

So, there was an outcry on Twitter and other social media sites, and within hours, Transport for London had announced that it had been “made aware” of the campaign and would not be running it. Mayor Boris Johnson seemed to claim credit for the U-turn (he does have an election coming up next month, after all), but TfL’s own statement simply said that the ads had been booked by an external agency and nobody at TfL had seen them until the outcry brought them to their notice.

Victory, right? I tend to think so. Others, however, disagree. I’ve seen arguments – from perfectly rational, liberal people, who absolutely abhor the content of these ads – that this is a defeat for freedom of speech, that it’s politically motivated censorship and that it just makes the problem worse, since it suffocates debate over these issues.

I understand the arguments, I really do – and I also despise the knee-jerk social media reactions that say, “this offends me! Make it go away!” You don’t have a right not to be offended. That goes for if you’re a Muslim horrified by cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, a gay person disgusted by homophobic ranting, a US conservative who finds a blog post to be anti-American, or an atheist who doesn’t want to be served by someone wearing a headscarf or a crucifix. All of these people can be offended if they want, but they don’t have a right not to be offended – they don’t have a right to insist that the offending thing be banned. We live in a society of many cultures, religions, views and positions, and many of them will offend you. You have a right not to be damaged by things that are done to you (as in, for example, the case of the gay couple refused entry to a B&B they had booked), but you have no right not to be offended by what people say, what people wear, what they write or what they draw.

The thing is, I don’t think the issue of the “Ex-Gay” ads is a question of freedom of speech, and I don’t think it’s about a right not to be offended. I think there’s a difference between “freedom of speech” and “privilege of being broadcast”. It’s as simple as this – you’re free to say what you wish, to think what you wish, to express what you wish, but there’s no obligation on anyone else to broadcast that for you.

The best example of this is the idiot newspaper columnist who writes something absolutely abhorrent, and people get upset about it. They contact the newspaper to complain, or perhaps get clever and organised, and contact the newspaper’s advertisers to say they’ll boycott their product if they continue to support this horrible stuff with advertising money. “Censorship!” howls the idiot columnist. “You hate freedom of speech! How dare you!”

Except it’s not censorship, and it’s not an attack on freedom of speech. Nobody is saying “arrest this person and lock them up for saying such things; gag them and break their fingers, so that they can never say such things again” (well, some people probably are saying that, but they’re an unrepresentative minority whose knees jerk that bit harder than everyone else’s). What they’re actually saying is, “you bear responsibility for what you say, and we’re exercising OUR freedom of expression by reacting to it.” In short – you’re free to say what you like, but you don’t have an inalienable right to a handsomely-paid newspaper column in which to say it. You’re free to say what you like, but nobody is obliged to publish it for you.

Coming back to the Anglican Mainstream ads, then – they’re horrible, but if Anglican Mainstream want to put them on signboards in front of their buildings, or distribute leaflets about them, or put them on the Internet, they’re entitled to do so. That’s free expression. If they can find a publication that’ll print them, they’re entitled to do so. I don’t think anyone should be arrested over these ads. I don’t think they should be “banned” by some higher authority with the power to stop things from being said or written or printed in our country.

I do, however, think that the transport network of our capital city, used and seen by millions of Londoners each day, has every right to respond to an outcry from its customers and make a sensible decision about which ads to run. TfL has absolutely no obligation to run these ads. If it thinks they’re horrible, or will hurt or offend passengers (to whom TfL does have an obligation), it’s quite right to refuse them.

This doesn’t hurt freedom of speech. Anglican Mainstream can speak all they want, and no matter how much it offends me, I absolutely defend their right to do so. But TfL, a body which exists to serve Londoners, doesn’t have to help them to be heard. We all enjoy the right to speak, but the right to be heard or to be listened to is, quite rightly, something that’s a lot harder to earn.

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one year later: remembering 3/11

March 11th, 2011. 12 months ago today. I’m at home in my room in the east of Nagoya, a huge but mostly unremarkable city in central Japan. It’s on the direct line from Tokyo to Osaka, but closer to the latter – you can be in Kyoto in 25 minutes, if you take the bullet train.

I’ve been living here for about six months. It’s not an alien place any more; it’s starting to feel like home. The past few weeks have been especially good, because spring is in the air. The sakura blossoms won’t appear for a while yet, but the days are getting warmer – and best of all, university holidays have started, and a ten-week break stretches out ahead of us, pregnant with possibility. My Japanese has got good enough to spend days or nights hanging out with new friends without needing to resort to English – I’m far more proud of this than any classroom grade, and delighted that it’s happened in time for the long, lazy spring holidays.

On this particular day, it’s balmy enough that the sliding doors to my balcony are open, letting the spring air blow through the room. I’ve got Skype open and I’m chatting to a friend, a classmate from university in London, who’s living in Tokyo. I can’t recall what we’re discussing – I know that I was wandering around the room, clearing stuff up while we talked.

It’s around quarter to three in the afternoon when everything moves – and actually, I don’t notice it at first. It’s an odd sensation, like vertigo. Your brain isn’t built to process the idea that everything around you, all those solid walls, are shuddering. Instead, it feels like the head-rush you get when you stand up quickly after lying down for too long. My first thought is to wonder if I forgot to eat lunch, and am getting a bit dizzy as a result. Then my friend’s voice pops out of the speakers. “Whoa. Earthquake here.”

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