We only care when Westerners die


The more I write these things, the more I realise that I’ve only got about four basic articles in me. I just put out variations on the same core arguments again and again – consumer capitalism is destroying the environment, left-wingers have abandoned the global poor, the political establishment is impervious to radical change, and so on. This one is always the most controversial.

The Manchester Arena attack was sickening. Violence against civilians is always wrong. Hurt the innocent, and you’ve immediately lost the argument. Whatever your cause, you’ve irrevocably damaged it.

Killing children is on another level. It’s hard, if not impossible, to try and put the gravity of it into words, so I won’t try.

After Manchester, 22 people are dead, many of them teenagers. The youngest was eight. Hundreds of people will be dealing with the psychological scars for the rest of their lives – the friends and family of the dead, the injured, bystanders, first responders, and many others.

But around in the world, millions of people are in the same position, if not a much worse one. Continue reading “We only care when Westerners die”


2016 was terrible – but not for the reasons you think

For billions of human beings, Brexit, Trump and dead celebrities are the least of their worries

That viral Sgt Pepper’s 2016 picture that’s since had to be updated about twelve times

A year that started with the death of David Bowie and ended with Donald Trump as President Elect was never going to go down well. The ‘curse of 2016’ narrative surfaced early. Famous faces were kicking the bucket by the busload. Fascist-looking right-wing populism was on the rise. By now, as people look back on Trump, Brexit and a frankly surreal procession of celebrity deaths, talk of that ‘curse’ has hardened into a more blunt and straight to the point social media catchphrase — ‘fuck 2016’.

What it proves, more than anything, is our catastrophic insularity — our short-sightedness, our fixation with the trivial, and our profound detachment from suffering elsewhere in the world. Is it a shame some talented people have died? Yes. Is it terrible that far-right rhetoric is winning elections. Yes. Continue reading “2016 was terrible – but not for the reasons you think”

Observations on The People’s Strictly (featuring Michael Sheen)

people strictly

To briefly segue into the kind of crushing triviality we spend most of the time having a go at other people about indulging in, the telly was on when The People’s Strictly screened last night.

The show takes the BBC’s phenomenally popular Strictly Come Dancing format and radically does away with the celebrity contestants, replacing them with real people who’ve done nice, altruistic things. It’s part of this year’s Red Nose Day campaign, which seeks to raise money for anti-poverty charity Comic Relief.

To get the bunker-busting cynicism out of the way – charity shouldn’t have to exist. To some extent, celeb-festooned fundraising drives like these just act a sort of moral fig-leaf for tax-dodging multimillionaires, helping sticking-plaster problems that, in an egalitarian, millionaire-less society, wouldn’t exist at all. The old Clement Attlee quote springs to mind – “charity is a cold grey loveless thing. If a rich man wants to help the poor, he should pay his taxes gladly, not dole out money at a whim”.

You can parachute Darcey Bussell into sub-Saharan Africa to make her empathy face at impoverished mothers whose children have died as much as you like. Things like that happen thousands of times every day – and without a social turnaround more radical than anything any celebrity Bake Off entrant could stomach, they’ll keep happening again and again and again, even if they’re still doing Red Nose Days in the year 3000.

BUT. It’s still supremely nice to see a programme celebrating selfless, compassionate, ordinary people rather than sociopath businessmen, vain, borderline-rapist footballers, vacant living clotheshorses and overpaid Top 40 warblers – people who dedicate their lives to quietly helping others rather than making millions doing nothing useful. Basically, it’s very pleasing – and so rare these days – to see good things happening to good people, on TV, for everyone to see.

AND. As crotchety far-leftists go, at least, we’re pro-charity. In a very bad world where that celeb-spooking social overhaul is a very long way off, a lot of charities work tirelessly and heroically to help the most vulnerable people on the planet, keeping literally millions alive. We’ve got very little time for the idea that Red Cross aid workers supplying emergency food supplies to famine victims are propping up the status quo – as if leaving them be would somehow provoke a revolution. Starving people don’t do politics – they’re too busy dying.

Incidentally, having just attacked celebrity Bake Off contestants, this one was all over social media this week after giving a righteously angry speech. Welsh actor Michael Sheen was taking part in a St David’s Day event in Tredegar, held to celebrate the legacy of NHS founder Aneurin Bevan, and highlight Coalition attempts to sell off increasingly large chunks of the health service.

Yes, he’s an LA-based probably-millionaire actor who’ll now jet off back to Hollywood and live a cushy elite lifestyle, but how often do you see that level of passion nowadays?

Modern Socialism #1: The Craze Not Sweeping The Nation

modern socialist triangle
Not the Modern Socialist triangle, but nice and spinny nonetheless

THE GIST: As the name suggests, Modern Socialism is an attempt to modernise socialism. It’s not about ‘modernisation’ in the toxic, principles-shedding, status quo-pandering New Labour sense of the word. It’s about revamping the radical left into something far more open, accessible, flexible and ecologically-focused.

The Marxes and Engelses of the world thought they’d created a ‘scientific’ socialism, one based on processes and principles they’d divined from studying economics, sociology and history – and that therefore was much better than the wishy-washing moralising of the socialisms that had come before. But a lot of their ‘scientific’ analysis was wrong. A lot of their predictions didn’t come to pass. Meanwhile, it’s always going to be wrong that millionaires exist in a world where people starve.

Rather than some grand, sweeping theory of everything, Modern Socialism needs to be more humble – a values system and a set of priorities used to approach the problems the species faces. A lot of these (appropriately) red lines should be the same ones the Left has always had – egalitarianism, libertarianism, public ownership of crucial services and industries, etc. But there are also areas the conventional Left has tended to neglect, and, unfortunately, they happen to be staggeringly important.

Unforgivably often, left-wingers have ignored immense human suffering in the global South, caused by entirely preventable poverty, starvation and disease. They’ve also been distinctly rubbish about embracing eco-politics on a planet where another hundred or so years of the status quo will probably leave the environment irreparably damaged – and our prospects of survival along with it.

To be properly viable in the twenty-first century, we need a socialism that’s both radically humanitarian and ecological – that takes humanitarian suffering as seriously as it takes anything, and that aims at making genuinely sustainable, egalitarian societies free from dependence on economic growth. Continue reading “Modern Socialism #1: The Craze Not Sweeping The Nation”

Crisis in Burma

Burmese Rohingyas sat in the boat they used to flee persecution
Burmese Rohingyas sat in the boat they used to flee persecution

This month we land in Myanmar, more typically known by its pre-military dictatorship name ‘Burma’, where decades of government-stoked prejudice against a Muslim minority have flared into violence, then humanitarian crisis, as some observers chillingly predict genocide.

Junta-ruled since its army seized power fifty years ago, Myanmar stands out as one of south-east Asia’s most profoundly troubled countries. Awareness of Burma’s repressive military leadership is unusually high in the West, largely thanks to high-profile political prisoner turned opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Less publicised is its often abject poverty, widespread use of both child workers and child soldiers, popularity among human traffickers and, topically, institutionalised racism.

Last year, violent riots broke out in the country’s Arakan region. Buddhist and Muslim Burmese clashed after it was alleged that a group of the latter gang-raped one of the former. In retaliation, ten Muslims were murdered by incensed Buddhists. Thereafter violence quickly escalated and the Burmese army was sent in to keep the peace. It wasn’t long before soldiers were accused of leading rather than preventing attacks on Muslims. Continue reading “Crisis in Burma”

Grisly Arithmetic: humanitarian crisis in Mali

Some of the 50,000 Malian refugees who have fled to neighbouring Niger - almost ten times as many have fled elsewhere
Some of the 50,000 Malian refugees who have fled to neighbouring Niger – almost ten times as many have fled elsewhere

Crisis-riddled post-colonial Africa once looked to Mali as a heartening example that the continent could have peace and social stability. Now, as various ethnic and religiously driven factions fight for independence, the country looks set to tear itself apart.

Last year, sectarian violence in northern Mali forced 450,000 people out of their homes and left 1.2 million struggling to feed themselves as fighting disrupted food supplies in what was already one of the world’s most impoverished countries.

The crisis began with Mali’s Tuareg ethnic minority, cattle-herding Saharan nomads mostly living in country’s northern Azawad region. The Tuareg have spent decades chafing for independence and, last January, Tuareg militia groups took a bold stride towards realising that aspiration by rising up and expelling central government troops from their home province. Continue reading “Grisly Arithmetic: humanitarian crisis in Mali”

Looking Back on Somalia

Somalia-famine-007Between October 2010 and April 2012, Somalia was wracked by the world’s worst famine in 25 years. The humanitarian response on the ground was typically heroic, but international donations were sluggish. Last week, new figures released suggested thousands more were killed than originally thought.

Somalia – another arbitrary geographic unit where people fundamentally no different to anyone anywhere else on the planet have been left to endure decades of abject suffering.

Independence from the British Empire brought a brief but dysfunctional flash of Western-style Somali democracy in the 1960s, before an army coup replaced it with a dictatorial pro-Russian regime. The seventies saw stuttering attempts to meld Soviet-style economics with Islam, but after a war with more straightforwardly Marxist Ethiopia lost it the USSR’s backing, Somalia’s rulers became increasingly violent and repressive, largely binning ideology in favour of clinging on to power anyway they could. Continue reading “Looking Back on Somalia”