What if World War III broke out and no one noticed?

What if no one noticed for the same reason that for a long time no one noticed that industrialisation was causing the climate to change? What if World War III is a hyperobject?

We live at a time when empires are decaying, arising and reformulating themselves in new structures and alliances. Does knowing this help us at all? Are we like Europe in 1914, on the brink of a seemingly inevitable global conflagration? Or more like the great empires of the Bronze Age, which collapsed in darkness three millennia ago following their own tragic but elusive hyperobjective moment?

Perhaps AI might yet save us from ourselves, if only it too were not a hyperobject, or worse, the oscillating image of multiple potential hyperobjects, each one more alien and incomprehensible than the last.

So if we can’t rely on a digital messiah, we might be forced to resolve our current issues the old-fashioned way.

No, not war. The OTHER old-fashioned way.

I’ll be giving a talk on all this next month. More info shortly.

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.

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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.

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.

The Satanic Versions of Islam

I was angered but not shocked to hear of the attack on Salman Rushdie. I had been expecting it for decades, as indeed had many others. One of the people who was perhaps not expecting it was Rushdie himself, who seemed to leave behind his ‘Joseph Anton’ alter-ego when he came out of hiding over a decade ago.

I was in Turkey when Rushdie was attacked, surrounded by millions of rather secular Muslims, not one of which would have dreamed of harming Rushdie, no matter how devout their adherence to Islam.

It is in any case entirely reductive to attribute the intolerant attack on Rushdie to Islam itself, given the vast variegation of forms, sects, beliefs and levels of strictness in which Islam manifests across all continents and in almost all nations today. Not that this will prevent commentators from being reductive, of course.

My own relationship with Rushdie was brief, seminal and bittersweet. I was a 16 or 17 year old aspirant writer whose first ever written short story was published alongside Rushdie’s own first ever written short story by the legendary editor Giles Gordon in Heinemann’s Best Short Stories 1988.

The hard-to-find Heinemann hard copy. The paperback Minerva edition was given away by a popular women’s magazine and hence at one point could be found in every secondhand bookshop in Britain.

I met Rushdie around that time, and he signed my copy of the above collection and promised, should I ever complete a novel, to champion it to his agent and publisher, which was very kind. Of course, only a few months later he was in hiding from the kind of people who consider violence a legitimate form of dispute.

And here’s the proof of my cohabitation between the same covers as Rushdie, plus Kureishi, Nadine Gordimer, William Trevor and a whole constellation of writers.

So I have a kind of animus against the Ayatollah, whose inability to tolerate critique led to the fatwah, to Rushdie’s long sojourn in hiding, and also inadvertently to my stillborn fiction-writing career. In any case, to paraphrase Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta, besides, the prick is dead.

But alas his ideas, his rigid version of Islam, is not dead. It lives on like an unthinking virus in the minds of many, including the deluded man who stormed a stage at a literary festival to plunge a knife into Rushdie’s 75 year old neck.

I’m neither a Muslim nor a scholar of Islam, but for me it is hard to escape the conclusion that, like every other religion, Islam comes with a day side and a night side. It has transcendental qualities that elevate humanity, and satanic qualities that divide and bestialise us too.

Both of these faces may be encountered, almost too literally, in the two main characters in Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, incidentally. Furthermore, we can also see the Satanic version in the depiction of the Ayatollah himself, and in the desacralised prophet Mahound too, recipient of those infamous verses.

I should add that The Satanic Verses is easily Rushdie’s best book, one which presciently examined immigration and religious fundamentalism before they were the only things anyone spoke about. It is often overlooked partly because of the fatwah controversy, and partly because of the enormous popularity of its predecessor, Midnight’s Children. However, you should read it. Firstly because it’s very good indeed, but also because the violent people, the satanic versions of humanity, really don’t want you to.

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.

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The déjà vu election and its ramifications for France

In France, Emmanuel Macron has been re-elected. A nearly 15% swing was not in the end enough to bring Marine Le Pen to power.

In 2017, when the same two candidates faced off, the result was 66.1% to 33.9%. The preliminary results this time make it 58.5% to 41.5%. Macron’s vote is down around 2 million on last time and Le Pen’s up 2.5 million. This marks a slight swing towards Macron in the second round, as opinion polling had the two candidates on around 57.6% to 42.4% just after the first round.

Macron-Le Pen affilano le armi in vista del duello tv - Mondo - ANSA
The presidential election, same as the last one.

If we want to consider the trend here, in 2002, when her father Jean-Marie made it to the second round of voting, he received a mere 5.5 million votes, 17.8% of the turnout.

It’s the lowest turnout since 1969, indicating what some call voter apathy but is more probably a distaste for both candidates, especially among the nearly 8 million people who supported the far left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the first round.

Macron cannot serve three consecutive terms, and his party came into being in part to find a centrist candidate who could defeat Le Pen in 2017. The traditional parties of left and right were decimated at this election, with the Republican candidate coming behind even Zemmour, and the Socialist candidate barely scraping into the top ten.

The one-time heir apparent to Marine, her niece Marion Marechal, left politics in 2017 after a series of disputes with her aunt. Since then she has worked in education, but recently she offered her support to the even more far right candidate Eric Zemmour, who obtained 7% of the vote in the first round of the presidential election.

Macron’s victory tonight therefore belies a further ratcheting of the hypernationalist vote in France, and forebodes some degree of future uncertainty. The election in 2027 is already likely to be extremely interesting. The challenge for the traditional parties is almost existential at this point, but one presumes with their funds and electoral machines they will bounce back. The question is how far how quickly.

En Marche must now find and promote an heir to Macron in a similar timeframe. And the National Rally will have to decide whether two-time loser Marine Le Pen should be backed again, or whether her niece can be lured back into the fold.

Talking Turkey about Hyperinflation

The British currency, the pound sterling, takes its name from the fact that, when it first issued, it was redeemable for a pound of silver. That was somewhen in the late 8th century Anglo-Saxon period.

If we do the maths, based on today’s silver spot price, that means that the pound today is worth approximately 1/210th of what it was worth nearly 13 centuries ago.By contrast, the French managed to devalue their currency by more in just 18 months during the early 1790s, as did Germany in less than a year during the Weimar period.

The worst affected ever were the poor Hungarians in the immediate post-war period in 1945. They suffered that level of devaluation in under 6 days at peak. Armenia, Zimbabwe and Argentina have experienced similar horrors.

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Beautiful country, beautiful people, ugly economic policies.

Why do I mention this? Because it still happens today. Last semester, in Turkey, I saw my wages collapse by more than half in two months. My colleagues there are still living through this. They suffer daily price hikes in fuel and food costs, with static wages. The Turkish people, like the Armenians, Zimbabweans, Argentinians, or the Hungarians, Germans and French of former times, have done nothing wrong. But they were the ones to suffer.

Hyperinflation is caused by only one thing – shitty governments implementing shitty policies. It destroys savings, commerce, and most importantly, lives. We don’t always think too much about Turkey in the West, but we should. Here is a country suffering a preposterously stupid government and massive devaluation of their economy, yet still accommodates 3.6 MILLION refugees.

It was a salutory lesson for me in macro-economics, and in human decency, to spend last semester in Turkey. My heart remains with them in their plight, and I hope to see them in better times soon. It is a beautiful nation with a beautiful people who deserve better.

A caveat: I am not, never have been and never will be an economist. But it doesn’t take a Harvard MBA to understand money.

The War on Abstraction

War on terror can mean devastating Middle Eastern countries on fabricated evidence, or simply comforting a child having a nightmare.

War on drugs could mean burning poor farmers crops in Colombia and Afghanistan, incarcerating ravers, introducing CBT counselling for people stranded for decades on SSRIs, or murdering addicts in the Philippines.

War on crime can mean targetting gangland bosses with tax legislation, incarcerating youth for minor offences, or overpolicing black neighbourhoods in America and Catholic ones in Belfast.

What we REALLY need is a war on policians using abstractions.

The next time a politician says he intends to tackle homelessness, we should make him play soccer with some rough sleepers. Ninety minutes of getting kicked about the pitch might not change much, but it would at least be less corrosive than whatever he actually intended to do.


There was for a time (it is always only for a time) a funny meme which skewered the ubiquity of Harry Potter references among a certain cohort of society, sometimes identified generationally as millennials, other times identified by political affiliation, as liberals. (Neither of these identifications in truth map very well, incidentally.)

The meme responded to such referencing by demanding that the referencer “READ ANOTHER BOOK.” It’s funny, or at least it was way back when, not because it suggested that referencers had only read Harry Potter and nothing else. In terms of quotation and convoluted metaphors and linkages, both the Collected Shakespeare and the Bible have generated many single-book citers in their time.

No, it’s funny because, unlike Shakespeare or the Bible, the limited remit of a children’s book series about a schoolboy wizard has to undergo often significant semantic stretching to accommodate some of the parallels that were suggested. It’s never ideal to explain jokes, so let me illustrate:


Generally these parallels are political. And in fairness, the Potterverse is not without its own politicking, from the formal politics of the Ministry of Magic, the geopolitics of ‘Fantastic Beasts…’, and the fascist implications of Voldemort rule, to personal politics like Dumbledore’s closeted queerness or the construction of non-nuclear families. The books at times were very long. They’re not entirely without content, even political content.

But the parallels became so common, so ubiquitous on social media, and also to be honest, at times so risible, that even the esteemed Washington Post felt obliged to add its weight to the ‘read another book’ school of thought.

It was perhaps inevitable, given that the graduate student essay has now become almost as common a mode of expression for some of the Harry Potter generation as a half-thought out tweet, that eventually this mode of analysing world events through the prism of Harry Potter fandom would emerge.

It has not disappointed, I would argue. The one that led me down this particular line of pondering was entitled “Wizards First: The Muggle and Mudblood Crisis Reflecting the Rohingya Crisis”. I may not be alone in questioning the taste, if not the sincerity, of such an extended parallel. It comes from a sub-genre of Potter-political academic analysis of which the exemplary is surely “Voldemort Politics“.

But it’s not just misplaced political analogies. The Potterverse can be applied to almost anything else. From here to Potternity, in fact. Hence we also have such wide-ranging, free-wheeling extended comparatives as “Home Depot, Hogwarts & Excess Deaths at the CDC“, “Hogwarts House Rules & the Cathedral Choir of Mexico City”, “Can Muggles be Autistic?“, “Vipers, Muggles, and The Evolution of Jazz“, “Sequence Rule Compliance: Separating the Wizards from the Muggles“, “How Muggles fix broken arms?“, and my personal favourite, “Deauville Doomsday and Voldemort in Ireland“, which of course relates Voldemort to the Irish banking crisis of 2007.

And this is before you get to even the outer fringes of where Harry Potter references might actually be deemed attenuated but possibly okay, such as “Fibonacci in Hogwarts?“, or “Hogwarts torts“, or “Surveillance in Hogwarts: Dumbledore’s Balancing Act Between Managerialism and Anarchism“. (Which itself is the penumbra to the bullseye, literary criticism about the books themselves and their associated cultural artefacts and societal impact.)

In short, this is such a prevalent mode of cultural analysis, that I am somewhat surprised that Potter as Critical Lens does not yet have a name. In which spirit of helpfulness, I propose – Potternism.

Are we living in an Alternative History?

It’s a compelling idea. So many outlier events, both the scary Black Swan-type that N.N. Taleb writes about as well as the simply unlikely, seem to be regular occurences all of a sudden.

Whether it’s Donald Trump’s election as US President, the Brexit referendum, a global Coronavirus pandemic, or even just Leicester City somehow winning the English Premier League football title a few years ago, the world seems to have taken a turn into the unpredictable, the unstable, and the frankly bizarre.

And if we are in a uchronic timeline, is there any way back? We probably aren’t going to be able to reverse time, but perhaps we can leverage the idea of alt-history to understand and manipulate our own reality going forward.

This is something I suggest in my latest article for the always excellent Sci-Phi Journal.