When do wars actually end?

World War One started in July 1914, but when did it end? Conventionally, people assume it ended in November 1918, with the surrender of Germany.

But people were still dying many years later. My own grandfather suffered for decades with lungs rotted out by mustard gas at the Somme, and didn’t die for many years, gasping and coughing nightly.

The most recent victims, astonishingly, were as recently as March 2014, almost exactly a century after the conflict started. How is that possible? They were construction workers, who accidentally triggered an unexploded bomb buried beneath where they were working.

During WW1, a ton of explosives was fired for every square metre of territory along the front.

As a result, the French Département du Déminage (Department of Mine Clearance) recovers about 900 tons of unexploded munitions every year. They call it the Iron Harvest.

Unexploded ordinance is left behind after all conflicts. Children are maimed and killed every year as a result of uncleared mines and bombs in Asia and Africa.

The wars we fight today will kill not only us but our grandchildren and great-grandchildren too. It’s time to make war history.

The Cosy Sectarianism of the Great Irish Writers

How cosy and quaint do the petty sectarian bigotries of 20th century Irish writing seem today.

I’m not referring to the civil war in the North of Ireland, usually euphemistically referred to in a diminished manner as the ‘Troubles’. I lived through most of that, and it was extremely unpleasant indeed.

Rather I mean the slightly earlier period of the early and mid-twentieth century, when Irish writing bestrode the world in the forms of giants like Joyce, Beckett, Yeats and Behan.

What’s interesting, considering just these four (though we could add many other lesser names), is the varying personal reactions to the sectarian divide in Ireland. For the Protestant-raised, middle-class and cosmopolitan Beckett and Yeats, minor distinctions in flavours of Christianity was an irrelevance at best.

Yeats in later life veered into mysticism, theosophy, magick and the occult. Beckett by contrast tended to dismiss Christianity if not all religion entirely, referring to it as “all balls”, though conceding that it amounted to more than merely “convenient mythology”. Raised in the era they were, both Yeats and Beckett imbibed plenty of Christian dogma in school and wider culture however, and both demonstrate in their writing an easy and deep familiarity with Christian writings and the Bible.

Beckett, probably not considering conversion to Catholicism

By contrast, the Catholic, lower middle-class/working class Joyce and Behan seemed unable entirely to shake off the tribal Catholicism of their backgrounds and education. I was reminded of this recently when I re-encountered Behan’s hilarious take on Anglicanism:

Don’t speak of the alien minister,

Nor of his church without meaning or faith,

For the foundation stone of his temple

Was the bollocks of Henry VIII.

Behan wearing a rosette proclaiming what is undoubtedly the greatest sporting chant ever.

Behan was a self-described “daylight atheist”. This is often presented online in the form of a quote: “I’m a communist by day and a Catholic by night”. However, I’ve not found a reliable source for this variant. Anyhow, Behan clearly had not managed to transcend the petty sectarian rivalries which beset Ireland, and in this he echoes Joyce, who in the highly autobiographical A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man describes his alter-ego protagonist Stephen Dedalus refusing to consider conversion to Protestantism:

– Then, said Cranly, you do not intend to become a Protestant?

– I said that I had lost the faith, Stephen answered, but not that I had lost self-respect. What kind of liberation would that be to forsake an absurdity which is logical and coherent and embrace one which is illogical and incoherent?

We might consider this passage as a depiction in mature adulthood of his prissy adolescence were it not that it is echoed elsewhere in his work, such as the short story ‘Grace’ in Dubliners.

Joyce in his lengthy European exile.

It’s worth remembering too that Joyce and Behan both escaped the confines of petty Ireland if anything more completely than Yeats ever did, the latter becoming a senator in the newly independent Ireland whereas Joyce relocated permanently to Europe, while Behan spent much of his time in London and America. (Beckett like his mentor Joyce went to Europe and never looked back.)

So then, what fuels this seemingly pointless animus? The grounds of objection from both Joyce and Behan relate to an apparent illogicality inherent to Protestantism. Notably in both instances, there is no defence of Catholicism offered, merely a snide (and in Behan’s case, very funny) dismissal of Ireland’s second-largest faith.

And unlike Yeats, neither sought to construct a religious faith of their own, though in Joyce’s case at least there was an astonishing attempt to replace the religious impetus with an aesthetic one, succinctly underpinned as Joyce said, by “silence, exile and cunning.”

I think Behan’s piece (a translation as it happens from 16th century Irish) gives the game away here. In many locations, the first line of his translation is misquoted as referring to “your Protestant minister”. But Behan like his source material makes clear that while Anglicanism is being referred to, the issue is less the protest against Catholicism underpinning it than its alienness, that is, the fact that it was the faith of the foreign (ie English) overlords who governed Ireland from the time of bebollocked Henry to their present day.

In other words, it was an atavistic political tribalism rather than a theological objection. We still have those tribalisms in Ireland today, primarily in the North where those overlords remain in position, likely against their will and desire, due to the complexities of establishing a permanent and lasting peace. In the 26 counties of the Irish Republic however, these passages stand out as glaring anachronisms now.

And even in the North, the late great “famous” Seamus Heaney (like Yeats and Beckett a Nobel laureate) is best described as sociologically post-Catholic rather than a devotee of the creed of his birth. This runs counter to the opinions offered by some of his most astute critics, Conor Cruise O’Brien and Edna Longley in particular of course, but is it unfair to point out that both critics came from Protestant backgrounds and hence saw the cultural references to Catholicism in Heaney’s work as more significant than it was simply because those references were alien to them in the same way that Protestantism was to Behan?

So, will you be converting to Protestantism, Seamus?

In other words, the sensitivities may be reversed here. Perhaps it is as readers that we detect these curious emphases. Perhaps we misconstrue the petty cultural rivalries of sectarianism in mid-20th century Ireland because religion played such a larger role in cultural life in those days, in ways that anyone under 50 is unlikely to recognise in Ireland today.

The great Irish writers never stop teaching us, and one of their lessons is that we must challenge ourselves as readers with regard to what we find striking in their writing. What we notice and what we do not says perhaps as much about us as it does about them. They hold a mirror to our souls, even if, like Behan, we are daylight atheists.

The Curious Tale of the Metaverse and the Multiverse

One of the issues with trying to surf the zeitgeist is precisely that – you remain on the surface with no depth of understanding of any individual issue. So high is the noise-to-signal ratio nowadays that it is almost overwhelming for many people to ascertain what information IS relevant and important to their lives, and what is not.

It can be hard to find the time to think deeply about quickly moving events, or to link them correctly to one another. In fact, such are the time and cognitive pressures that many people end up succumbing to conspiracy theories which offer neat and totalising explanations for the state of the world, provide suitably nefarious-seeming scapegoats and attempt to rally the public to action.

Of course, a lot of this action devolves quickly into “send me money”, but at that point some people are already sufficiently relieved to find a handy explanation for everything, happy not to have to think deeply, and grateful enough to contribute to the professional liars.

Unfortunately, there are no quick fixes or easy answers. Not for the world, and not for those of us who live in it. And there are many ways to become confused, or to pursue dead-end fictions, in the attempt to comprehend the fast-moving reality we find ourselves in. Conspiracy theories are just the odious tip of a large iceberg of false information and fake news. Beneath the surface are many other attempts to explain the world simply, or to simplify it, most of which are not as nefarious as conspiracies, but are in some regards equally constructed and equally untrue.

Two terms which crop up often these days, though maybe not often enough in this context, are the multiverse and the metaverse. The multiverse refers to the idea, widely accepted by theoretical physicists, that our universe is not the only one, and instead exists in relation to an infinitude of other universes, some highly similar, some wildly different from our own.

Many universes – but isn’t this one enough already?

By contrast the metaverse is an as yet hazy idea quickly obtaining momentum among tech circles which proposes itself as the future of the internet, and seeks to displace or replace many aspects of contemporary life with a virtual reality alternative.

Mark Zuckerberg’s vision of your future

So the multiverse is an expansive concept and the metaverse is a limiting one, but both seek to tackle the issue of explaining the complexity of the world by replacing it with something else. And they do so in different ways. While the metaverse is a collective effort by tech firms, Facebook (now renamed ‘Meta’) in particular, the multiverse is an idea poorly adopted from theoretical physics and science fiction novels which has grown, like conspiracy theories, in the corners of communication that the mainstream media do not reach primarily.

Already it seems that the brave new Metaversal world may not be about to materialise in quite the way its ‘imagineers’ were hoping. Only today, Facebook – sorry, Meta – announced swingeing job cuts across their company, which is undoubtedly informed by the one billion dollars PER MONTH they have been spending recently on developing Metaverse tech.

Over the past three decades, we have as individuals, societies and even as species, learned to adopt, adapt and accommodate the internet in our lives. But the prospect of a life spent primarily in virtual reality seems to be a bridge too far for many of us. We are not our avatars. We are not inputs into a global algorithm. We do not need to escape meatspace for metaspace.

But it seems some people do want to escape, though perhaps not into a corporate vision of virtual reality. After all, movies like The Matrix have warned the public to be wary of dreamscapes, especially when those dreams are programmed by others. Instead, they escape into their own dreams, where the complexity of reality can be argued away, in all its nuances and seeming contradictions, by the simple assertion that they have migrated between universes.

The growth of a subculture of people who appear to believe that they can traverse between universes is a particularly fantastikal form of failing to deal with how complex the world has become. It’s clearly not as nefarious as the various conspiracy theories circulating online, but of course any movement attracts shysters and wannabe leaders, in search of money or influence, and hence there are now people offering to teach others how to move between universes.

In one sense this is no less valid than teaching people how to chant mantras, say the rosary or engage in any other religious practice that is more metaphorical than metaphysical. But one of the catalysing aspects of online culture is the ability for people to find like-minded people. Hence conspiracy theorists can find communities where their toxic ideas are cultivated, while multiversers can source validation and endorsement from others who similarly seek to explain the anomalies of their memory or complexities of reality in the same way.

There are no doubt complex reasons to explain why so many people are subject to psychological phenomena like the Mandela Effect, but these explanations do not include watching YouTube videos on how to meditate your way into another universe while in the shower.

Both the multiverse and the metaverse offer simplistic and ultimately unsuitable resolutions to the ever-growing complexity of modern existence. Fundamentally, these escapist dreamscapes are coping mechanisms for dealing with this complexity.

The world is already too complex for any individual mind to comprehend, and probably too complex for even artificial intelligences to ever understand. But we can’t, or at least shouldn’t, escape it. Instead, we should try to understand it, and the best way to do that is to escape not from the world but from our online echo chambers.

If we can learn again to speak to one another, identify areas of agreement and try to find ways to foster collaboration despite disagreement, we stand a much better chance of improving our own collective futures.

At Sapienship, we believe everyone has a story to tell and all those add up to the story of us. We think everyone needs to be heard, and debated, and engaged with. It’s not easy, but it’s clearly the best way to resolve the major issues that face us, our planet and our reality.

We don’t need to hide in virtual realities or imagine alternative universes when the one we have is so rich with possibility and potential. Instead we need to come together to realise our hopes.

Have we been seduced by Dyst-hope-ia?

I am a scholar of dystopia – a dystopian if you will. I am an aficionado of dystopia, a connoisseur of the literary and artistic genre in its myriad of forms and nightmares.

I consider dystopian thinking to be an evolution, or sometimes an extrapolation, from the precautionary principle, which warns against change for the sake of change. Dystopia is a form of negative imagining, an attempt to envision and render in realistic terms a truly ‘negative place’, the etymological meaning of the term.

In this sense, I find dystopian thinking to be significantly more culturally useful than utopian thinking, which to a large extent has been reduced to a singular political ideology derived from a Marxist strain of post 1960s counterculture.

Whereas utopian thinking has devolved to activist academic attempts to plot routes towards one particular ‘positive place’ future, dystopian thinking has instead remained more broad and wide in its purview. After all, there are many nightmares.

If there is a structural flaw to both modes of art and thinking, it is that in practice they generally extrapolate forward to complete visions, the totalising utopia or dystopia. Rarely if ever do we see depicted the many incremental stages between the world as we know it and the heavenly or nightmare future world depicted.

Where utopian thinkers in particular have addressed the explicit or implicit developments towards utopia or dystopia, they have, to my mind, missed the point somewhat. The terms ‘critical utopia’ and ‘critical dystopia’ emerged some four decades or so ago to describe incomplete elements of depicted utopias and dystopias. Thus these key depictions of complexity, nuance and evolution in such literature and art (and philosophy) were reduced to anomalies which could either be countered (in the case of ‘critical utopias’) or fostered (in the case of ‘critical dystopias.’)

This was an innovative way of looking at things then, but it was always reductive, and ideologically driven, and at this point its limitations are becoming quite obvious. Actual examination of how society develops towards utopia or dystopia tends to be quite thin on the ground, despite examples existing all around us.

The exception if there is one is the regularly bruited risk of a return to 1930s-style fascist governance in current democratic societies. The election of leaders with an authoritarian populist rhetoric, be they Trump, Orban or Meloni, is now routinely accompanied by dire extrapolations (and often incomplete historical parallels) which overtly suggest that a slippery slope to neo-Nazi rule is already well underway.

But dystopia as I said takes a myriad of forms, and each form evolves and devolves in different forms and at different rates in different cultural and historical circumstances. As a dystopia thinker, I try to look for patterns, for trends, which suggest dystopian vectors of society, ways in which society is moving towards a less civilised state of being for most people.

In this way, many instances seem to pass under the radar. In fact, very often when they do occur, they are depicted as the opposite of what they are. They are reported as beacons of hope, anomalies which ‘critical utopias’ habitually accommodate in their positivist post-Enlightenment progress ratcheting ever forwards.

These instances are a little like ‘magic eye’ pictures, which were popular a generation back. Once you see it, you can’t unsee it, as they say. I refer to them as examples of dyst-hope-ia, as they are fundamentally dystopian developments, though usually incremental rather than totalising, swathed in a good-news suit of hope to make the bitter pill go down more easily.

In this way, a ratcheting towards a more dystopian society occurs in an almost Huxleyan sense, with the passive acceptance and approval of the population who actually are encouraged to associate such instances with hope rather that its opposite.

This is a little difficult to explain in abstract, so let me offer some concrete examples. Many years ago, I noticed a large building being erected in my district in Dublin. Over many months the grand edifice came together. I didn’t pass it often, so didn’t know what the building was intended to be, until one day in the local newspaper I read that it was due to open the following week. It was a new unemployment welfare office.

The local paper depicted this as a good thing. It was reported as a net good that the unemployed of the area now had a better, bigger dedicated office to deal with them efficiently. But beneath this patina of hope, one swiftly discerns that the expenditure of millions of euro in such a building is a commitment to societal unemployment in the area.

It is in fact an admission of failure – the failure to regenerate the area, or to provide employment for its inhabitants. At the time of its opening I wrote in my journalist’s notebook, “who approved this investment in indolence?” (I used a lot more alliteration in those days.)

Another example comes in today’s news from Britain, which in recent times can be relied upon as a stable and consistent source of examples of dyst-hope-ia. The emergence of a social charitable phenomenon called ‘warm banks’ (though the term is never used) is a classic example of dyst-hope-ia.

What is a ‘warm bank’? Based on the similar concept of food banks, a warm bank is a public charitable space where people who cannot afford to heat their homes may go to stay warm during opening hours. Bloomberg is one of many outlets who report approvingly of the concept here.

The welcoming warm bank, depicted as a jolly public community space – image courtesy of Getty Pictures.

Surely the hopeful depiction is legitimate? After all, the idea of the community rallying around to offer protection and support to the most vulnerable among them is a supremely positive and human thing. This is the hope in dyst-hope-ia, the positive cloak in which the nightmare clothes itself, the sheep’s clothing on the dystopian wolf.

Because, under this surface reaction is the initial action causing the need for such support – the vastly and rapidly escalating food and fuel costs which have left many vulnerable people in Britain with a choice between eating and heating.

And as with food banks before them, warm banks will function not only as a precarious safety net for the vulnerable, but also as a creeping normalisation of a more dystopian society, one in which it is normalised for people not to be able to afford food or heat their homes.

What dystopian thinking teaches me is not to dismiss this patina of hope cynically, nor to be seduced into thinking of the overall scenario as a positive development either. It allows me instead to see through the sheep’s clothing to the wolf beneath.

I suggest always lifting the surface of the good news story to check what might be smuggled into normality underneath. I admire the efforts of each and every person who contributes their time or money to keeping their community warm. But I refuse to allow that kind-heartedness to obscure the fact that the government is attempting to normalise the concept of citizens who cannot heat their own homes.

Are we Sleepwalking into Slavery?

Usually, hardcore technophiles get hurt in the pocket. I still recall people spending £800 on VHS video recorders (about £3,900 in today’s money) only for them to fall to a fraction of that soon afterwards. Likewise with early laptops and cellphones.

May be an image of 1 person and text
Cutting edge technology c. 1980.

What’s concerning about AI’s earliest adopters is both their blasé attitudes to its many flaws and weaknesses, and their insistence on foisting AI-driven “solutions” upon the rest of us.

Which brings us to the Synthetic Party. On paper no doubt it sounds great. Remove those problematic humans from decision-making. But politics takes place in the very real world of human society, not on paper or in bits and bytes.

This scenario – actually of an AI coming to power – was workshopped at the Athens Democracy Forum by a very interesting organisation called Apolitical. Our collective conclusion was very clear that AI isn’t ready to rule – and perhaps never will be.

Even if the advent of AI was at worst likely to punish enthusiasts financially, as with previous technology early adopters, I’d still have issues with it. AI needs to be fed with data to learn, and that data is your and my personal information, whether gathered legitimately with full consent or not.

However, AI could have ramifications far beyond our worst current nightmares. As always, we dream negatively in Orwellian terms, fearing technology will turn on us like Frankenstein’s monster or the Terminator, when history suggests that dystopia more often manifests in Huxleyan terms.

We are sleepwalking into this, and judging by these Danish early adopters, we will happily embrace our own slavery. It would be much preferable if the cost of AI was merely financial. But the ramifications are likely to be much more impactful.

Already in many democracies, a large proportion of the electorate simply don’t engage. And when they do, a growing proportion are voting for parties with extreme ideologies. On our current vector, we could easily end up volunteering for our own obsolescence.

What the Synthetic Party promise is true technocracy – rule by machines and algorithms rather than rule by unelected officials as we currently understand the term. As always, be careful what you wish for.

Nobel Pursuits

Already it’s October, when the leaves turn red and fall from the trees, the nights grow longer and the days colder, and the Nobel prizes are awarded.

The Nobel committee for lit does tend to go leftfield when possible. One is therefore required to read into their decisions, a little like ancient haruspices reading the entrails of chickens or 20th century Kremlinologists interpreting the gnomic actions of the politburo.

How then should we read the decision to anoint the sparse, harsh and uncompromising pseudo-autobiographical work of Annie Ernaux?

To me it seems like a commentary upon Michel Houellebecq and Karl Ove Knausgård. All three are known for writing their big books of me, but perhaps the men are better known than Mme Ernaux internationally. Equally, both Houellebecq and Knausgård have been heavily criticised, among other things, for their misogyny. Awarding Ernaux seems to me to be a reaction to their popularity and the fact that both have been tipped for this prize previously. Your mileage may vary.

(Full disclosure: I’ve never read Knausgård or Ernaux and have at best a passing familiarity with Houellebecq, who I found to be a very rude interviewee at the Dublin Impac Award in a previous millennium.)

Also elevated to laureate this year was Svante Pääbo, the man who proved that ancient hominid species such as Neanderthals did not entirely die out but in fact persist to this day within non-African human genomes. In fact, I likely owe some Neanderthal ancestor the gene which oversees my melanocortin-1 receptor proteins, which gave me my once russet beard.

What’s intriguing personally for me about this year’s Nobels for medicine and literature isn’t that I’d not previously heard of the literature recipient, nor that I had previously heard of the medicine recipient, but the fact that both these things occurred in the same year. I guess my interests have shifted over the decades away from solely literary pursuits, and towards scientific interests, especially in early hominids. This year’s prizes have brought that home to me, and congratulations to the winners.

I’ve long criticised the Nobel Prize for Peace, because the Norwegian parliament committee which awards it has a knack for often choosing inappropriate recipients. Hello Henry Kissinger, Aung San Suu Kyi, Barack Obama, UN “peace-keeping” forces, etc.

Nevertheless, I’d argue they got it right this year. The 2022 Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to human rights advocate Ales Bialiatski from Belarus, the Russian human rights organisation Memorial and the Ukrainian human rights organisation Center for Civil Liberties. Congratulations to them too.

POST-SCRIPT: The newest Nobel physics laureates have also been announced and their award is for proving that reality, as we understand it currently, is not real in the ways we think it is. Not awarded, though clearly the forefather of all of this research (which aimed to prove his hypotheses) is my compatriot John Stewart Bell, who alas died in 1990 while the experiments proving him correct were still in process.

John Stewart Bell

Congratulations to Alain Aspect, John F. Clauser and Anton Zeilinger for proving once again that the universe is not only stranger than we think, but most likely as Heisenberg noted, stranger than we can think.

What constitutes a threat to democracy?

Following yesterday’s Italian elections, it seems likely that a coalition of right-wing parties led by Giorgia Meloni is likely to assume power. Her opponents in both Italy and Brussels have described this prospect as a threat to democracy.

Indeed, the EU’s commission chief Ursula von der Leyen warned prior to the election that there would be consequences if Italy was to “veer away” from democratic principles, and cited the EU’s treatment of Hungary and Poland, who both faced funding cuts for offending Brussels, as examples.

But what constitutes a threat to democracy, and is Meloni such a threat? Firstly, it must be restated that she has come to power on the back of free and fair and transparent elections. Secondly, she is not the only such leader or party to do so in Europe in recent times. A similar coalition has recently assumed power in Sweden, featuring the Swedish Democrats party, who, like Meloni’s Brothers of Italy, are regularly accused by opponents of being far-right or proto-fascist. Thirdly, there are a number of obvious routes to threatening democracy and indeed Italy arguably has recently experienced one, largely without any complaint from those concerned about Signora Meloni. Let’s take these in turn.

Giorgia Meloni on Sunday.

It has been argued in the past that whereas far-left parties come to power in revolutions, far-right parties come to power in elections, only to eschew such niceties once power is secured. This is something of a red herring and is hardly a consistent rule of thumb, but of course much depends on how one defines the prefixes ‘far’ or ‘hard’ in this context.

It is of course true that Mussolini was elected in 1924, and Hitler in Germany in 1932/3. There are questions about the fairness of both elections in retrospect, but similar questions do not apply in the case of the Brothers of Italy and their coalition. Additionally, many right-wing dictators, from Franco, to Salazar, to Papadopoulos, came to power by means other than elections, primarily military.

Meloni’s party’s stratospheric rise, partly at the expense of her coalition partners, the Lega, is not unusual in the current European climate. Nationalist sentiment and a desire to limit immigration has fueled parties like hers to power in a number of elections in recent times, including in Hungary, Poland, and Sweden, and in France, Marine Le Pen made much ground in the recent presidential election. Despite their often sudden rise to influence, none of these parties was created overnight. They all have lengthy prehistories of not being elected, during which none of them threatened the democratic structures which bring governments to power in their countries. There is, in other words, no inherent threat to democracy arising from being elected.

Furthermore, in other nations, such as Scotland or Ireland (north and south), as well as previously in Catalunya, independence movements akin to nationalist parties but espousing left-wing politics in the main have outperformed expectations, to the extent that the leaders of an attempt to declare Catalunya independent were arrested, and Sinn Fein, the largest party on both sides of the Irish border, was kept from power (as previously were the Swedish Democrats) only by a large coalition of other parties with little in common other than the desire for power and to keep SF out.

So there appears to be a general swing towards self-autonomy and the Westphalian nation state, and away from the collective technocratism of the EU, manifesting across Europe currently. It is beyond the scope of this article to ascertain why, but undoubtedly immigration seems to be a factor (as it was in the Brexit referendum) and a general rejection of the EU’s top-down technocratic modes of enforcing convergence in the bloc.

Finally, there are a number of clear and present dangers to any democracy. History tells us that invasion by another nation, such as Ukraine is currently experiencing, completely undermines democracy, as does the assumption of power by the military during a coup, as often occurred in the past in nations such Greece, Argentina, Brazil or Turkey. There is no evidence or suggestion that Italy (or indeed Sweden) is being invaded nor that its military is assuming control by force.

It is no coincidence (the template here is the Crimea a few years back) that Vladimir Putin has sought to legitimise his gains over Ukrainian territory by holding referenda which would facilitate the merging of the occupied areas of Donetsk, Lukhansk and others into a Novorossiya, or New Russian territory, and part of the federation. Putin, as in his own elections, seeks that precious fig leaf of legitimacy for his actions.

And here is where we really face tough questions. If the people of Donetsk and Lukhansk vote to join the Russian Federation, as the people of Crimea did, where does that leave democracy? Clearly the territories would not even be discussing such a move were it not for the Russian military advance this year, and the presence of an occupying army, as well as the difficulties of running a vote in a conflict zone, clearly count against the results being taken seriously by the world.

No such army occupies Rome or Milan. And no one is questioning the credibility or the conduct of the elections in Italy, either. So in what sense can Meloni, her party, or her coalition, be considered a threat to democracy? Obviously if they attempted to retain power without the mandate of the people which they just received, that would be an anti-democratic move, but right now they are the mandated government chosen by the Italian people, just as Orban’s Fidesz party is in Hungary.

Another anti-democratic move would be to attempt to suspend the normal proceedings of parliament and rule by diktat. This is an accusation which has been leveled against Orban in Hungary on a number of occasions, and carries water. In each instance, Orban claimed that emergency circumstances, such as the migrant influx from Syria or the Covid pandemic, required the temporary assumption of such powers.

If we examine how they were used, and most specifically how long they sustained, it is hard to argue that Orban did not revert to ordinary parliamentary procedures relatively quickly. In other words, given the chance to copper-fasten his grip on power in an undemocratic manner, Orban did not pursue it on multiple occasions. Nevertheless, his assumption of such powers at all disconcerted the EU in particular.

However, such is the political flux in Italy, that coalitions often collapse in acrimony. This recently happened only a couple of years ago and led ultimately to an Italian solution for an Italian crisis – the appointment of a technocratic government under former European Central Bank head Mario Draghi, whose government has recently collapsed in turn. History therefore suggests that Meloni may not be long in power anyway. But equally, unlike her immediate predecessor as Prime Minister, she does hold a mandate from the people.

This is not to say that technocracy is also a threat to democracy. As Italy has immediately returned to democratic process, this is clearly not the case. But nor is technocracy the same as democracy, and the kind of accusations levelled by Von Der Leyen and others perhaps stems from an attachment to the EU’s own technocratic mode, in which the elected chamber of MEPs has only an advisory role to the actual executive, which has always been unelected by the people of Europe.

Meloni’s democratic credentials can only be tested now that she is in power. Will she seek to circumvent parliamentary procedures and rule by diktat? Unlikely. Will she seek to circumvent future electoral processes? Again, unlikely. Nevertheless, it is clear that her opponents will be watching like hawks for any sign of eroding Italy’s democratic values. She herself refutes the suggestion that her party are anything other than democratic, but that’s easier to do after winning an election than it is when a government is beleaguered and making unpopular choices.

If the EU, or indeed Meloni’s left-wing opposition, are truly concerned, then they will seek to do something they have failed to do in relation to Britain, Ireland, Sweden, Hungary, France and other places in recent times. They will examine what got the Brothers of Italy elected, and whether in failing to offer those policies to their people, they have facilitated this swing towards nationalist sentiment across the continent.

It seems to me that primarily this is concern about immigration in many instances. Whether legitimate or not, this concern appears to be a paramount issue for many European voters. It remains to be seen whether the forthcoming winter, and projected fuel shortages as a result of the Ukrainian crisis and Russia’s failure to deliver fuel, will ameliorate or exacerbate that tendency.

Speaking as a migrant myself, firstly to Britain and more recently to Italy, of course this sentiment is a matter of concern for me. But similarly, ignoring the will of the people as ‘populist’ seems also to be implicitly threatening the democratic process. Perhaps the EU would prefer to have technocratic rule in its constituent states, but there is no appetite for that among the electorate currently. In which case, they should invoke the soft power they are famed for perfecting, and aim to persuade the hearts and minds of voters that the bloc, which has delivered peace and prosperity to the continent for many decades, still has their interests at heart.

Surplus Enjoyment

It’s been busy and I’ve lacked opportunity to blog. Tant pis, as the French say. Right now I’m in Izmir. I was in four countries in four days last week. Like I say, busy.

There’s a lot to discuss and I intend to do so at my soonest convenience. In the meantime, here’s a particular highlight – me being quite rightfully ignored by Yuval Noah Harari and Slavoj Zizek.

It was a privilege to be present and listen to these two intellectual heavyweights discussing current affairs and their ideas about history. The debate will be made public later this month, I believe.

May be an image of 4 people, people standing and indoor

Bringing the Elites-In-Exile back home

I’ve spent a lot of time looking at conspiracy theories recently. I may have mentioned this before.

There is, sadly, no end of midwits out there inclined to believe in all manner of conspiracy theories. These aren’t truly stupid people. Rather, they are people who feel disenfranchised and seek a target to blame.

Probably the most prevalent conspiracy theory today revolves around the World Economic Forum, who do themselves few favours by being fronted by Klaus Schwab, who looks and sounds like a Bond villain. Optics in a visually-mediated world mean a lot, more than they probably should, after all.

Davos 2022: Klaus Schwab on Fixing the Global Trust Crisis | TIME

As a talking shop for elite futurists, the WEF are relatively easy to depict as psychotic Illuminati, so long as you don’t actually look too closely, and rely on carefully edited YouTube clips with jaundiced and misrepresentative commentary, rather than doing the long slog of actually reading their books and position papers and speeches.

The actual conspiracists are those disingenuous content editors who produce those shrill and alarming YouTube videos for profit. Which is not to say that some are not also true believers in what they produce. But they are self-aware enough to know that they have to carefully edit their material to produce the message they want. Their readers and listeners are not so aware.

For a conspiracy theory to be truly successful though, it must pass the midwit truth test, which is that it must speak to the sense of disenfranchisement of the audience, provide a scapegoat in the form of a conspiracy, and then propose resistance, in the form of an amorphous appeal to human liberty and autonomy.

Because what affects these conspiracist audiences is exactly that – a sense that their own lives are not theirs to command. In short, they lack the agency they feel they ought to have in their own lives.

We might additionally relate this to complexity scientist Peter Turchin’s idea of the overproduction of elites. Anyone who was told as a teen that their pathway to lifelong success was to become a graduate, but who then finds themselves a decade later paying off extensive loans even while working precariously in low-status service positions, inevitably feels cheated, and wants someone to blame.

So the audience for conspiracies is largely made up of what I term ‘elites-in-exile’, people who feel, for varying reasons such as educational achievement, societal expectation or self-importance, that they deserve much more access to power (and the concomitant trappings of wealth and status) than they actually possess.

Their constraints may be financial, or related to a sense of disengagement with the ongoing gallop or politics or technology in directions which they cannot relate to. And a successful conspiracy aims to hit all of these trigger buttons at once.

It also attempts to be all things to all midwits. Hence something like the WEF conspiracy manifests in an almost bewildering array of variants, mutating like a virus to accommodate pre-existing anxieties and concerns.

Therefore, the WEF conspiracy tells anti-Semites that the forum is secretly run by Jews, while simultaneously presenting it as Communist to those who oppose far-left politics. To those with a strong sense of ethnic affiliation, whether racist or simply nationalist, it becomes a globalist attempt at genocide and depopulation – the Great Replacement theory. To those concerned about the ongoing march of technology in directions which alarm them, it mutates into a cabal of ardent transhumanists. To anti-vaxxers, it aims to control or kill us all using experimental medical treatments, and so on.

In these ways, a successful conspiracy like that centred on the WEF can leverage pre-existing concerns by concentrating them on a target, amplifying them, and providing a simple one-stop solution to their audience’s concerns – resistance to and eradication of that target.

And because a successful conspiracy is constantly mutating in form to address different audiences, it becomes hugely contradictory, yet almost impossible to counter. Ultimately, the solution is an extremely difficult one to implement – addressing the agency gap for the elites-in-exile who have been abandoned to producing or consuming such conspiracies in an attempt to obtain access to the power over their lives they feel has been denied to them.

The problem with achieving this is manifold. Firstly, the democratic gap even in liberal democracies is such now that almost no one has such a sense of agency anymore. That would require a systemic reset of how we do politics at every level, to embed participatory (and much more direct) democratic modes into what is increasingly becoming a totalitarian or technocratic world.

Additionally, conspiracy theories reward the few with exactly what they are seeking – wealth from their monetised proselytising of conspiracy, status as opinion leaders within the audience, and the power to project their perspectives widely. That these perspectives are factually incorrect, erroneous, self-serving, carefully curated and deliberately misleading is less important to them in this regard.

The utter erosion of the public sphere in recent decades – a product of many malign societal developments including an overly combative adversarial politics and an overly punitive reaction to disagreements (such as cancel culture) – has left a space in which conspiracies may flourish without the disinfectant of scrutiny and debate.

There are, in short, no easy answers. But for our elites-in-exile, an easy answer is what they want in this complicated world. Even when it’s patent nonsense.