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. 


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’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.


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 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.