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The Great October Revolution

China Miéville, a novelist I much admire, has published a history of the ‘October Revolution’ to mark its hundredth anniversary (which is actually on 7 November, since the Russians were still using the Julian calendar in 1917). It had an unusual effect on me. It made me question whether I was right about the utter futility of that revolution.

We all know it ended horribly: first civil war and famine, then three decades of lies, oppression and mass murder – Stalin, the Great Purge, the gulag – followed after Stalin’s death by the ‘era of stagnation’, a dying fall of three and a half decades of petty tyranny and economic failure. I got to know the Soviet Union well as a journalist in the last decade of its existence, and I don’t miss it a bit.

Miéville doesn’t have any illusions about how early and how badly the revolution went wrong; what he questions is the inevitability of all that. In an article in The Guardian last May, he quoted the lifelong revolutionary Victor Serge, born in Belgium to an exiled Russian revolutionary couple, who traveled to Russia to serve the Bolshevik revolution and was later persecuted and jailed by the Stalinists.

“It is often said that ‘the germ of Stalinism was in Bolshevism from its beginning’,” Serge wrote in 1937. “Well, I have no objection. Only, Bolshevism also contained many other germs, a mass of other germs, and those who lived through the enthusiasm of the first years of the first victorious socialist revolution ought not to forget it.

“To judge the living man by the death germs which the autopsy reveals in the corpse – and which he may have carried in him since his birth – is that very sensible?” Serge was insisting that it could have come out differently and better, and Miéville is agreeing with him.

Well, I dunno. I can remember sitting in the old Akademicheskaya Hotel in Moscow in the mid-1980s, flicking paper-clips at the cockroaches and writing an angry piece about how much better off the Russians would be if the Bolsheviks had not seized power in late 1917.

After all, Russia had a rapidly developing economy at the start of the 20th century, about on a par with Italy’s. If the ‘bourgeois’ democratic revolution of early 1917 had survived and normal capitalist development had resumed in Russia after the First World War ended, Russians might be as free and as prosperous as Italians today.

Instead, Russian GDP per capita is only $10,000 a year, even a quarter-century after the Communists finally quit. Italian GDP per capita is $30,000. Italy is also a democracy, whereas Russia is run by an oligarchy of gangster capitalists. And to achieve this splendid success, at least ten million Russians died at the hands of their own fellow-citizens.

Even Vladimir Putin, the oligarch-in-chief, was moved to ask two weeks ago: “Was it not possible to follow an evolutionary path rather than go through a revolution? Could we not have evolved by way of gradual and consistent forward movement rather than at the cost of destroying our statehood and ruthlessly fracturing millions of human lives?”

You can imagine an alternate history in which the “February Revolution” survived and the Bolshevik coup never happened, but that’s not what Miéville is asking. He wants to know if the real, radical revolution could have had a different, better outcome, and he has made me think all that through again.

Let’s put all this in context. For several hundred thousand years all human beings lived in circumstances of absolute equality. All our ancestors were hunter-gatherers who lived in small bands, rarely more than a hundred people, and made all their decisions by consensus: there were literally no leaders, and powerful social customs blocked any take-over bids by ambitious men.

Then we invented agriculture, developed into the mass civilisations – and every one of them turned into a brutal hierarchy of power and privilege. It probably had to be like that, because these were complex societies where somebody had to make the decisions and enforce them. A million people cannot make those decisions by consensus, especially if they are almost all illiterate.

And finally, about two-and-a-half centuries ago, it became theoretically possible for mass societies to make their decisions democratically: they were literate, they had the printing press, and so they could all talk to one another. We immediately began to reclaim our old heritage of equality through revolutions, beginning in the United States and then France – and the Bolshevik revolution does belong to that sequence.

It was extreme, of course, but that’s because it aimed at full equality, not the halfway houses of democracies with ‘equal opportunity’ but huge practical differences of income and privilege that most of us live in today. This was not some petty economic argument between the followers of Hayek and Keynes. It was about the big issue: equality.

And most of us have concluded, partly on the evidence of the Russian revolution, that modern mass societies have to settle for what you might call managed inequality. The social, political and human cost of trying to make old-style absolute equality work is just too high. But you can see why Miéville rages against that fact.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 8, 9 and 10. (“Instead…again”)

Italy: “I Say No”

“Today saying No is the most beautiful and glorious form of politics….Whoever doesn’t understand that can go screw themselves.” It could have been Donald Trump before the US election two weeks ago, or Boris Johnson during the Brext campaign in Britain last June, but it was actually Beppe Grillo, founder and leader of Italy’s populist Five Star Movement.

Grillo unhesitatingly compares his movement to “Trumpismo” in the United States, and the Five Star Movement (M5S) is currently running neck-and-neck with Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s Democratic Party in the opinion polls. Moreover, if Renzi loses the referendum on changing the Italian constitution that takes place this Sunday, there may be an election in Italy quite soon.

Matteo Renzi wanted to replace the elected Senate with a smaller appointed body and make other changes to streamline the process of passing laws in Italy. He got his proposal through both houses of parliament last April – but with such a slim majority that the results had to be confirmed by a referendum. At the time Renzi was confident that he would win it easily.

But that was before the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom and the irresistible rise of Donald Trump in the United States put wind in the sails of the Five Star Movement. Now the M5S’s “Io Dico No” (I Say No) campaign is drawing huge crowds as it tours Italian cities, and the final opinion polls before the vote on 4 December gave the “No” a five-point lead in the referendum.

As the polls began to turn against his constitutional reforms, Renzi warned that he would resign if the vote went against them. But all that did was to turn it into a referendum on his own popularity, which is turning out to be considerably less than he imagined. And if M5S comes to power, it is pledged to hold another referendum – this time on pulling Italy out of the euro “single currency”.

At the moment a large majority of Italians still want to keep the euro, but that could change. Italian cities don’t look as devastated as the US Rust Belt, but the same processes that brought Donald Trump to the presidency have been at work in Italy. Average family income is still less that it was before the 2008 crash, and unemployment among the young is close to 40 percent.

An estimated quarter of Italian industry has closed down in the past decade, and the country is staggering under the burden of a public debt that amounts to 132 percent of GDP. If uncertainty about the euro crashes Italy’s economy (the third-largest economy in the Eurozone), then all 19 countries that use the euro, some 340 million people, are in deep trouble.

And the Italian economy could go belly up, because Italian banks are now as vulnerable as American banks were before 2008. They are stuffed with “non-performing loans” that have not been written off, but stay on the banks’ books at around 45-50 percent of their original value. But they are really only worth about 20 percent of the original price.

If Italian banks marked these loans down to their true market value, it would wipe out their capital and they would all go bankrupt overnight. It is an accident waiting to happen – and a “No” victory in the referendum could be that accident, because it might open the Five Star Movement’s road to power.

In theory, it’s a long road from a “No” in Sunday’s constitutional referendum to an M5S government and a referendum on the euro. If Renzi resigns, and if no other combination of parties in parliament can form a government (probably not), there would be an election. But then M5S would have to win a majority, which is a long way from its current 30 percent support.

In practice, it might be quite a short road. A lot of Italians are so angry that they just want to punish “the elites”. If both M5S and the right-wing Lega Nord (which also wants to quit the euro) did well in the election, they might be able to form a coalition government, and then the fat would be in the fire.

Technically, only the single currency would be at risk, but in the current febrile atmosphere in Western politics, with support for populist parties surging everywhere, things can change very rapidly.

It is no longer inconceivable that the National Front, which wants to leave not just the euro but the European Union, could win the French presidential election in April. With Britain on its way out, a French government that wants to follow suit, and an Italian government that
at least wants to leave the euro, the entire 60-year-old project of European unity could crumble by the end of next year.

That’s a lot of ifs, and the likelihood of such a calamity is still very small. But we do live in interesting times.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“And the…power”)

Europe’s Refugee Crisis: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Refugees from the wars of the Middle East are pouring into the European Union at an unprecedented rate. So are economic migrants from Africa and non-EU countries in the Balkans (Serbia, Bosnia, Albania, etc.), and some of them claim to be refugees too. They are coming at the rate of about 3,000 a day, mostly through Turkey into Greece or across the Mediterranean to Italy, and the EU doesn’t know what to do about it.

It’s not really that big a refugee crisis: one million people at most this year, or one-fifth of one percent of the European Union’s 500 million people. Little Lebanon (population 4.5 million) has already taken in a million refugees, as has Jordan (pop. 6.5 million). But while a few of the EU’s 28 countries are behaving well, many more have descended into a gibbering panic about being “overrun”.

It really is a case of the Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and the best of the Good is Germany. Chancellor Angela Merkel put it bluntly: “If Europe fails on the question of refugees…it will not be the Europe we imagined.” She has put her money where her mouth is: two weeks ago she predicted that Germany would accept asylum claims from 800,000 refugees this year.

She also said that Germany is suspending the “Dublin regulation”, an internal EU rule that says refugees must seek asylum in the first EU country they reach. This is manifestly unfair to Greece and Italy, so Berlin will now allow all Syrian refugees to apply for asylum in Germany regardless of where they entered the EU. Moreover, it will regard Syrian citizenship as adequate evidence that people are genuine refugees.

France, Italy and the Netherlands have also been fairly generous about granting refugees asylum, and quiet, gallant Sweden is accepting more refugees per capita than anybody else in the EU. But the good news stops here. Most other EU countries are refusing to take a fair share of the refugees, or even any at all.

Let us define the Bad as those governments that really know they should be doing more, but are shirking their responsibility for domestic political reasons. The most prominent are the United Kingdom and Spain, which played a key role in sabotaging an EU meeting last June that was trying to agree on a formula for sharing the refugee burden fairly among EU members.

Prime Minister David Cameron’s problem is that overall immigration into Britain is high (330,000 last year), which has infuriated the right-wing media. In fact, more than half the newcomers were citizens of other EU countries (who have the right to cross borders in search of jobs), and only 25,000 were refugees – but such fine distinctions have little place in the public debate. And in Spain, there’s an election coming up.

Then there are the Ugly: the countries that simply don’t want to take in refugees because they are different from the local people. Like Slovakia, which said that it might take a few hundred refugees, but only Christians, or Hungary and the Czech Republic, which are both talking about deploying armed forces on their borders to keep refugees out.

All these countries lived under Soviet rule for two generations, which was almost like living in a cave. They have almost no experience of immigration, and it’s commonplace to hear people make racist or anti-Semitic remarks without the slightest sense of shame. In a way, they are still living in the 1950s. It’s not an excuse, but it is an explanation.

So how, in these circumstances, is the European Union to agree on a common policy for sharing the burden of caring for the refugees? “We must push through uniform European asylum policies,” Angela Merkel says, but the EU operates on a consensus basis, and there is little chance that that will be accepted. In practice, therefore, the burden will continue to be borne by the willing.

In an attempt to lessen the burden, the German chancellor has proposed a list of “safe” countries (like the Balkan ones, which account for 40 percent of asylum claims in Germany), where it may be presumed that most claimants are really economic migrants. Arrivals from “unsafe” countries like Syria, Libya and Afganistan, where real wars are underway, would be treated as genuine refugees. But even then, each case must be investigated individually.

“Germany is a strong country and the motto must be: ‘we’ve managed so much, we can manage this’,” Merkel said, and no doubt she can get through this year without changing course. But there is every reason to believe that there will be another million people risking everything to make it across the EU’s borders next year, and probably for many years thereafter. It may even get worse.

In the long run it is almost certain to get worse, even if the current wars in the Middle East all miraculously end. Coming up behind the current crisis is the inexorable advance of climate change, which will hit the Middle East and Africa very hard indeed. Nobody has the slightest idea how many refugees that will generate, but it is likely to be many times the current flow.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 11. (“She…refugees”; and “In an…individually”)

Half a Titanic

The first thing to do, if you want to cut the number of refugees from Africa and the Middle East dying while trying to cross the Mediterranean, is to drop leaflets all along the Libyan coast teaching them about ship stability. Don’t all rush to one side when you spot a ship that might save you, the pamphlets will say, because your boat will capsize and you will drown.

That’s what happened last weekend off the Libyan coast, where a boat filled with at least 700 refugees overturned when the people aboard spotted a Portuguese freighter and tried to attract its attention. (One survivor says there were 950 people aboard, including those locked below decks. ) At least 650 people died – half a Titanic’s worth of casualties – although the boat in question was only 20 metres (70 ft.) long. Only 28 people were saved.

Exactly the same thing happened with another boat crammed with refugees the previous week, and another 400 people drowned. Counting another 300+ people who drowned in another disaster in February, the death toll right now, before the peak summer season for refugee crossings, is around 1,500. That’s a full Titanic. It’s not getting quite as many headlines, though.

So the second thing to do is to lock the European Union’s foreign ministers into a room and refuse to let them have caviar and champagne until they agree to do something about the silent massacre in the Mediterranean. Something quite effective was being done until late last year, but they deliberately stopped it.

Until late last year the Italian navy (praise be upon it) was running an operation called Mare Nostrum that went all the way to the edge of Libya’s territorial waters to pluck refugees from the sea. The operation cost 9.5 million euros a month ($10.3 million), but it rescued 100,000 people from leaking boats or the open sea. More than half of the 170,000 refugees who landed in Italy had cause to thank the Italian navy, and only one in a hundred died.

The number of refugees arriving in Italy each month is around the same this year, maybe a little higher – but ten times as many people are dying on the way. That is because the European Union’s governments, rather than sharing the cost of the Mare Nostrum project, asked Italy to shut it down and substituted their own “Triton” operation.

Except that “Triton” is in no way an adequate substitute. It only gets a third of funding Mare Nostrum had, and it is only supposed to operate in Italy’s coastal waters, not farther out where most of the refugee boats capsize or founder. Even this year, with the Italian navy theoretically excused from duty, it has saved twice as many people as the pathetic “Triton” operation. Which, by the way, was INTENDED to be pathetic.

The argument the European governments made was that if you didn’t give the refugees the hope that they would be saved by the Italian navy, fewer of them would come. Right, so if you’re fleeing the civil war in Syria or the ghastly dictatorship in Eritrea, and you learn that the danger of dying on a Mediterranean crossing has gone up from one percent to ten percent, you’re going to decide to stay in war-torn Libya instead?

Were the European governments lying to themselves, or just to everybody else? The latter, almost certainly. They were under pressure at home to stop the flow of migrants, they didn’t want to share the burden of saving them with the admirable Italians, but they couldn’t just say “Let them drown.” So they came up with that preposterous argument about deterring the migrants by making the crossing more dangerous, and shut Mare Nostrum down.

“In many countries in Europe at the moment,” said Laurens Jolles, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) representative in Italy, “the (political) dialogue and the rhetoric is quite extreme and very irresponsible….It’s a fear of foreigners…, but it is being exploited for populist or political reasons, especially in election periods.”

Too true. Take, for example, Katie Hopkins, columnist for The Sun, a down-market right-wing British red-top (tabloid newspaper) owned by the estimable Rupert Murdoch. Last Friday, in an article headlined “Rescue boats? I’d use gunships to stop migrants”, she wrote: “NO, I don’t care. Show me pictures of coffins, show me bodies floating in water, play violins and show me skinny people looking sad. I still don’t care.”

“Make no mistake, these migrants are like cockroaches. They might look a bit “Bob Geldof’s Ethiopia circa 1984”, but they are built to survive a nuclear bomb. They are survivors….It’s time to get Australian. Bring on the gunships, force migrants back to their shores and burn the boats.”

Saying that sort of thing is how she earns her living, but it also expresses the true sentiments of a politically significant minority not only in Britain but in most countries throughout the European Union. When the UNHCR appealed to the EU to resettle 130,000 Syrian refugees, Germany said it would take 30,000, Sweden (with a tenth of Germany’s population) took 2,700 –and the other 26 EU states only took 5,438 between them.

So the drownings will continue.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3, 9 and 12. (“Exactly…though”; “Were…down”; and “Make…boats”)