Bem Bulletin #3 – January 2015: Malawi Floods, Boko Haram & SYRIZA


This month: we reflected on society’s erratic internationalism in the wake of the outcry over the Charlie Hedbo massacre; we tried to excuse our abysmal taste in bad action films with dubious politics; and we presented a nice bit of pragmatic radicalism from the mouth of Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias.

… And on the musical front: delightfully odd bedfellows, schmaltz-pop guitar wizard Les Paul with Mary Ford, and West Country weirdo PJ Harvey.

In this month’s Bem Bulletin:

1. 2015

2. Malawi Flood

3. Boko Haram Massacre, Nigeria


cropped-monochrome-dale-e1411594381512.jpg1. 2015. Once more into the breach, readers, for a fourth year of post-Marxist ascetic atheist-Buddhist radical eco-socialism with guitars and pictures of Dale Winton – hopefully the one that, now we’ve reached the far-flung 2015 that Marty McFly visited in Back To The Future II, society finally realises flying cars are never going to arrive and gets on with being ecologically sustainable.

For 2015, we’re making mild changes to the format. The Bemolution has always prized clear, succinct writing that manages to express complex things in a way that people without PhDs can understand. On the political Left, you don’t find much of it. Generations of radical intellectuals have been content to sit and spool out writings that only the tiniest fraction of humanity will ever be able to make head nor tail of. From self-labelled ‘left-wingers’, allegedly all about liberation and human emancipation, it’s completely inexcusable.

This year, we’re going to try and do more leftist trend-bucking. In pursuit of that goal, from here on in we’re going to split the longer, more involved posts into two sections – The Gist, that’ll sit at the beginning and sum up the key points we’re making as clearly and briefly as possible, thereby freeing us to go to town on the Full Ramble, in which we’ll elaborate on said key points as extensively as we like.

The content

For 2015, we have three ‘series’ of articles lined up – one we’re calling Modern Socialism, one we’re calling Radical Atheism & Assorted Pseudo-Philosophy, and, sensitively and non-judgementally as ever, one we’re calling Economics for Non-Sociopaths.

It’s difficult to separate ideas that, in your head at least, are all part of the same thing. Over the past twelve months or so, we’ve come to realise that the strange, garbled ideological position we sit on here and spout from isn’t just political. Socialism is just the obvious practical application of our underlying values system. Heap it all together, and you’re left with an odd sort of philosophy – which we suppose we’re stuck calling Bem.

The Modern Socialism series will chew over the kind of left-wing politics we think radicals need to adopt both for the planet’s sake and their own – a mixture of non-dogmatic, accessible radical socialism mixed with the anti-growthist green politics needed to make civilisation ecologically viable.

The Radical Atheism series will look at the ethics and the values that fuel our commitment to that kind of politics – poking at a godless life philosophy that borrows liberally from Buddhism and anthropology, and sees preventing or at least alleviating human suffering as the most important thing in the world.

And Economics for Non-Sociopaths will look at, surprisingly enough, economics, through the lens of one and two – attempting to use plain, conversational language to explain basic economic concepts, economic events and news stories, and laying out a modern socialist way of dealing with them.

With less than 100 soul-sapping days of campaigning left before May’s General Election, it’s basically impossible we won’t spend a lot of time talking about that between now and then too. And as you’ll see below, after an extended absence, we’re wheeling out the Bemolutionary humanitarian spotlight again to give the kind of human catastrophes the West obliviously self-obsesses through some much-needed attention.

malawi floods2. Malawi Floods. Crisis is brewing in impoverished Malawi, eighth poorest nation on Earth, after unexpectedly fierce storms battered large parts of the country. Torrential rains and gale-force winds have wiped away roads and bridges, wrecked homes and drowned crops and livestock. In a predominantly agricultural country full of subsistence farmers where 74% live on less than a pound a day, the effects could be catastrophic.

Early estimates suggest that 176 people have been killed, and around 200,000 people have been forced out of their homes, mostly in the hardest-hit south. The rain has turned rural mud roads to impassable sludge, which, combined with widespread damage to other vital infrastructure, is severely hampering any recovery effort.

The international response has been exasperatingly slow. The World Food Programme plans to airlift in enough high-energy food to meet the immediate needs of 77,000, but scores of displaced Malawis are struggling to survive without other essentials, including clothing, shelter, blankets, cooking equipment and mosquito nets. More critically, without access to clean drinking water, they’re also highly susceptible to deadly water-borne diseases like cholera.

Malawi’s government has estimated that reconstruction will cost $81m. Politics is making that target harder to meet. Since 2013, international donors have held back 40% of the aid intended for Malawi in response to allegations that politicians and government officials pocketed $30m of public money.

You can donate to the World Food Programme’s efforts in Malawi here, or support one of the many other NGOs keeping flood victims alive.

boko haram3. Boko Haram Massacre, Nigeria. Moving north-west, in a month where Europe was ablaze with indignation at the murder of 12 unarmed civilians in Paris, the massacre of hundreds, possibly thousands of innocents in northern Nigeria passed almost entirely without comment in the mainstream media.

On January the 3rd, the towns of Baga and Doron Baga were assaulted by Islamic extremist group Boko Haram. Before and after satellite images of the area showed the chilling extent of the devastation.

Over three thousand homes and businesses were destroyed. Death estimates vary – the Nigerian government claims that 150 were killed, while some NGOs and media outlets claim the total topped 2,000. Given the heavy criticism it’s received for its handling of the Boko Haram insurgency, the Nigerian government has a clear motive for playing down the extent of the violence – especially with Amnesty International asserting that the military ignored repeated warnings that an attack on the area was imminent and refused calls for reinforcements from commanders on the ground.

Boko Haram – literally “Western Education Is Forbidden” – is a radical Islamist group that emerged from profoundly impoverished northern Nigeria in the early 2000s. Violently opposed to Western education and what it sees as the imposition of Western values, particularly concerning women, the group murdered more than 5,000 civilians between 2009 and 2014. By the end of last year, 1.5m people were have thought to have fled the affected area.

Despite this, the group only grabbed Western attention in April of last year when it kidnapped 276 Nigerian schoolgirls. With a beleaguered Nigerian government continuing to insist it doesn’t need outside assistance to deal with the militant Islamist threat, more incidents like this are horribly likely.


4. SYRIZA. If we had any, or believed in anything as ostentatious as celebration, the flags would be flying at Castle Bemalot this week. In Greece, SYRIZA, a rag-tag anti-austerity coalition of leftist groups, has won the general election, and come just two seats short of an overall parliamentary majority.

It’s heartening, expected-but-still-can’t-quite-believe-it, generally splendiferous news. For a millisecond or two, it’s nice to just sit and savour something that isn’t eye-wateringly neoliberal and dominated by managerial sociopaths actually winning for a change.

In 2010, the Greek government found itself heavily in debt. For Europe, and the financial sector more broadly, this posed two very big problems. One, if Greece went bust, the banks that leant them the money wouldn’t get it back – and 70% of the country’s $400bn debt was held by French and German finance houses. Two, if Greece went bust, it might bring the Eurozone (the 19 EU member states who use the Euro) down with it.

The European Union, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund – later nick-named ‘the troika’, Russian for ‘set of three’ – gave Greece an 110bn Euro bailout loan, then a further 130bn Euros three years later. As per the IMF’s misery-raining standard practice, in return they insisted Greece implement the most extreme version of austerity ever attempted. To push the measures through, an unelected ‘unity government’ of neoliberal economists was installed.

In the years since, with suicide and child mortality rates spiking, Greek GDP has plummeted 20%, real wages by 30% and industrial output by 35%, unemployment has risen to over 25% of the working population and a third of Greeks are living perilously near or under the poverty line. Thousands have left the country, public assets have been flogged off at scandalously low prices, and devastated public services have been left without basic equipment and the funds to pay heating bills. The Greek population and Greek society has essentially been sacrificed in the interests of the financial sector.

And now, in response, that population has elected SYRIZA. From our perspective, of course, this is an overwhelmingly good thing. But now it’s time for the cautious, sober analysis bit. And, unfortunately, to be brutally honest, five years (if we’re lucky) of SYRIZA is unlikely to change much.

Already, a fair few breathless memes have started appearing on left-wing social media accounts – a few times we’ve seen one featuring a picture of jubilant SYRIZA supporters, emblazoned with ‘the first anti-capitalist government in European history’ (which is straightforwardly wrong. It might have gone on to be thoroughly undemocratic during its forty-odd years in power, brutally authoritarian at worst, but the Czechoslovak Communist Party won an election fair and square in 1946).

But forty years into the neoliberal era, in our view at least, anti-capitalist governments don’t exist. They can’t exist, in the short term. The modern, conventional state, neoliberal-capitalist liberal democracy, is essentially a centre-right phenomenon. The whole structure of modern government is geared around maintaining the kinds of economies that serve the interests of finance and big business first and foremost. And even if some maverick political party is unexpectedly swept to power with the intention of changing that, you can be sure that the international enforcers of the neoliberal consensus – the World Bank, the IMF, the United States, the European Union, etc. – will do everything in their power to stop them.

Of course, it’s completely possible to have a left-wing government – if we didn’t think that, this blog wouldn’t exist. It’s urgently, urgently needed. But that means breaking that neoliberal consensus, which will take years, possibly decades, of sustained, concerted effort and dedication from groups in multiple countries – and more than just winning a few elections. Popular protest, organised dissent, passive resistance – enough people to make an impact forcing governments to drastically change priorities, and radically reform and democratise themselves. Basically, then, a sort of revolution.

In a few years of coalition government, partnered with a conservative nationalist breakaway from the country’s main centre-right party – essentially the Greek UKIP – overseeing a society that’s been shredded by austerity, SYRIZA isn’t going to be able do much that’s ‘anti-capitalist’ at all.

But we’ll still support it all the way. It can certainly help alleviate the suffering the troika have inflicted on the Greek population. And what it might be able to do, if we’re lucky, is be part of the beginning of the general anti-capitalist (or at least anti-neoliberal) heave civilisation so desperately needs.

And that’s it. And now, for the people dying of starvation at the rate of one every three seconds, and of malaria at the rate of one a minute, and the people sleeping under newspapers in alleyways, and having human beings they’re quite fond of blown to bits before their eyes, and everyone else suffering needlessly in a world that can’t be bothered to do anything about it, please be upstanding for the Bemolutionary anthem, on permanent loan from the late Johnny Cash.