The Early Days of a Better Nation

Monday, January 31, 2005


'Nothing is more precious than independence and freedom.'

- Declaration of Independence, Democratic Republic of Vietnam.

Scottish nationalist Stuart Dickson explains his admirably broad range of links to Scottish political blogs:

I am not so interested in endless dialogue with the already converted, but I am fascinated by the thoughts and feelings of the unconverted. So let's start talking to each other, cos I really want to know why some people do not support self-government. It seems so obvious to me and SNP members that it is often hard to grasp why others are so hesitating. After all, independence is almost universally acknowledged to be a fine attribute in an individual, a housekeeping budget, a family or an enterprise; so why is it such a bad thing for a country to be independent?
Independence and self-government are fine things. We already live in an independent, self-governing country. It's called Britain. The real question is why some of us think Scottish independence would be a bad thing. Here are my thoughts and feelings on the subject: I think it would be a disaster, and I feel about it nothing but dread.


Any ambitious Scot with a real talent for politics uses or develops it in British, not Scottish, politics. This applies to the SNP as much as to the others: every one of their big hitters is or was a Westminster MP. A politically ambitious Scot without much political talent goes into local or Scottish politics. Which lot are likely to form the government of an independent Scotland? Holyrood gives us the answer.

Most of the parties at Holyrood are in favour of a nanny-state smoking ban, restrictions on sectarian parades (restrictions whose inevitable consequence, civil liberties aside, would be to exacerbate sectarianism), and making it a crime to carry a penknife. In a normal country any one of these would be met with outrage. Not in Scotland.

The problem lies deeper than the quality of politicians. Independence would only improve matters if more of the Scottish people were to indeed acknowledge independence to be a fine attribute in an individual, and fewer were to regard it with as much enthusiasm as a tick regards sheep-dip.

There used to be a Scottish nationalist T-shirt slogan: 'England is foreign to me.' For myself, I'd prefer to be a true commonwealth's man. I refuse any politics that would make me a foreigner in England. I love England, I believe in England, I believe in the principles of the English Revolution: a revolution that Scotland started, and that in the ruins of Dunkeld, Scotland saved; that became America; and that a wider world will yet complete.

I look forward to the United Republic.
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Sunday, January 30, 2005

The Earth Question

Is seems a little unlikely that answers to most of the burning questions of our time could be found in the works of a bearded Victorian philosopher who wrote a controversial book on economics, inspired and led radical, popular and working-class movements, met global fame, faced derision from orthodox economists, and is now almost forgotten. Surprising as it may seem, though, a small but growing number of libertarians (some in the Democratic Party), as well as less partisan reformers, have taken to applying and popularising the ideas of Henry George.

Well, I was surprised. I was even more surprised to find that they have an office and bookshop near Haymarket Station in Edinburgh. Georgists in Edinburgh! It gave me an inkling of how E. P. Thompson must have felt when he met a Muggletonian in Nottingham. So I rang them up, checked their opening hours (10 to 6, weekdays) and set off to find them. I'd read Protection or Free Trade and Progress and Poverty about twenty years ago, in editions printed fifty years earlier. I fully expected, as I walked along Haymarket Terrace, to alight upon a dusty, fly-specked shopfront window display of yellowing pamphlets brown at the edges and curled at the corners.

Not a bit of it! 58 Haymarket Terrace is a bright, airy bookshop. Two guys were busy in the back. They left me to browse in peace. If the bookshop looked new, their library along the corridor to the back looked old, wide-ranging and well-used. The shop's stock included the standard books by George himself, lots of more recent Georgist economic books, a whole lot of green-and-global-related stuff and a new series of slim books about particular issues, from a Georgist perspective, by people involved in the issues - hence the marvellous result of a London property developer and landlord advocating a tax on land value, and a Fife farmer advocating the end of farm subsidies. Also, a good deal of scholarly conference procedures and policy wonk stuff.

After I'd decided what I wanted to buy a young Danish guy called Lars sold me the pamphlet, gave me a back issue of Land and Liberty, and told me what they were all about. He quickly sussed that I was the author of The Sky Road, and I as quickly admitted that I'd stolen 'single tax and funny money' (as one character puts it) from the Georgists, as the principles of the society depicted therein. (Well, the single tax, anyway. The funny money I stole from the Proudhonists. The Georgists aren't currency cranks.)

The basic argument of Henry George (in common with many of the classical liberals) is that land is in principle common property, and should not be owned but be rented from the community. The practical proposal is that essentially all tax should be shifted onto land value - i.e. that all ground rent is taxed at 100%. (Same, in principle, with minerals and other natural resources.) A big political obstacle in Britain would be that so many of us (including me) are land speculators - we may say we've 'invested in bricks and mortar' but have in fact invested in the rising land/location value of our houses. Hence, I guess, the fiddly policy wonkery.

But it's the broader ramifications of the idea that I find intriguing. Global debt, environmental and ecological issues, transport policy, town planning, rural development, intellectual property, bio-patents, the price of fish ... the Georgists have a distinctive take on all of them, and one that has attracted growing interest from campaigners in these areas. Land and Liberty has something of the look and feel of New Internationalist, without the hand-wringing and guilt-tripping.

What it all reminded me of was the first time I wandered in to the Alternative Bookshop, run by the Libertarian Alliance back in the early eighties. Two idealistic chaps running a place stocked with classical economics texts, policy proposals picked over, unexpected connections and outreaches made, an unusual combination of radical principle and pragmatic practice ...

The Libertarian Alliance, of course, had some crazy ambitions, like privatising British Rail and bringing down the Soviet Union - as well as some more moderate ones, such as legalising cannabis and bringing down agricultural tariffs. I expected to see some of the latter attained in the foreseeable future.

But seriously - the issues raised and questions asked by the Georgists are central to the history and problems of the past decade and a half. The impoverishment of many, and the enrichment of a few, in the post-Soviet states are in large part due to the privatisation, not so much of capital, but of (what in the Georgist view should be) common wealth: gas, oil, timber and gold. What makes it all the more galling is that the burdens and the windfalls respectively have fallen on precisely those who did least to deserve them. On a broader scale, the scramble to monopolise land and mineral resources is arguably at the root of many recent wars, in which millions of helpless and innocent people have died - as in the Congo holocaust, about which hardly anybody gives a damn. The unresolved land question (and that other evil the Georgists have targetted, protectionism) is probably killing twenty million people a year. Even in the relatively comfortable West, free-market reforms have given us plenty of cool kit at the expense of chilling insecurity and growing inequality and indebtedness.

In a sense, we're back where we were a century ago. Freedom and progress on the one hand, justice and security on the other, seem poles apart with the gap ever widening. Those who offer us the one pole without the other - the neo-liberals and the communists - as well as those who essay a mish-mashed 'Third Way' or (on the political fringe) a downright sinister 'Third Position', arouse nothing but suspicion and indifference. That all of this could be set straight by revisiting and applying the classical liberal view of land and natural resources seems, as I said, a little unlikely on the face of it. But, you know, maybe worth looking into. Another century of booms, slumps, wars and revolutions would make a great subject for science fiction, but living through it is something we could live without.
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Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Satire and Beyond

The Curmudgeon tells it like it nearly is. One of the delights of his squibs is the gleeful elision of NewLab multi-culti PC-speak with management gobbledegook and Pentagonese. It's all right to blow Iraqis to shreds, just don't call them ragheads, it's disincentivating.(Via).

Mind you, in a world that can throw up such rancid gobbets of undigested barbarism as Israeli Neo-Nazis, reality gives satire a hard act to follow. (Via). The Neo-Nazis in question are a tiny minority of Russian immigrants to Israel, eligible for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return, but who nevertheless hate Jews, and Arabs, and other ex-Soviet immigrants of darker skin, and ... The niggling little detail that Hitler would have counted them as Jews can be got around by a deft swerve into Holocaust denial. The mind, she boggles.
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Monday, January 17, 2005

SF Questions

In conjunction with her blog on children's SF (see below), Farah Mendlesohn has set up a questionnaire on readers' early experiences of SF. This is a subject that's more talked and written about than empirically investigated, so if you have any information to contribute, give it a go!
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Sunday, January 16, 2005

New Kids on the Blog

And it's a big hello and welcome to The Inter-Galactic Playground, in which Farah Mendlesohn watches ice turn to slush and (she fears) her brain turn to mush reading children's SF: 'Why is it,' she asks, 'that any title configured " The X of the Y" is calculated to inspire gloom in the critic's heart?' In fact her brain is in no danger of turning into mush. She finds a lot of good (and bad) children's SF books to write about, sparks off conversations about children's reading, admires nature's needlework and experiences cognitive dissonance in New Brunswick.

Elsewhere, Ellis Sharp, writer of experimental fiction, gives the world The Sharp Side of his fluent tongue. Sharp's work has included a study of Charles Fort's authorship of Capital, an investigation into a receipt for thousands of roubles in payment for Lenin's trousers, and the connections between Che Guevara and the hunt for the Loch Ness Monster. He includes links to three of his stories, headed by Dead Iraqis, a work whose power the years since it was written have done nothing to diminish.

Mutualist militant and scourge of vulgar libertarianism Kevin Carson has started blogging, perhaps by way of light relief after completing his remarkable Studies in Mutualist Political Economy, a work which attempts to integrate the insights of two schools of thought not often thought compatible: the Marxian and the Austrian. It's a project that might seem like one of Sharp's imaginings - Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism by Ludwig von Mises, say - but it displays an admirable range of reading and the style invests the driest economic questions with a certain peculiar charm.
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Saturday, January 15, 2005

Alien Weather

The Oxford Bar in Edinburgh is a favourite haunt of Inspector Rebus, hero of Ian Rankin's crime novels. It remains unspoiled by its fictional fame, of which it boasts by a few framed newspaper pages on its walls. It's the sort of comfortable, crowded, old-fashioned smoky pub that the Scottish Executive is bent on saving us from. Conversation is loud. Last night as I stood at the bar getting drinks for myself and Mrs Early I could see but not hear the ten o'clock news, and the pictures said it all: the happy faces of the Huygens team, and the first images of the surface of Titan. Rocks or lumps of ice shaped by nitrogen winds and ethane streams, seen on television, in a pub. Now that feels like the 21st century.
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Wednesday, January 12, 2005

The Case of the Blogging Bookseller

Joe Gordon, a long-time employee of the Edinburgh branch of British book-selling chain Waterstone's, was sacked last week for making a few snarky comments on his blog about his experiences at work. I've known Joe for several years as a result of his enthusiastic and able work for the company: organising and presenting readings and signings by many SF/F authors, and making the SF/F section of the store as inviting and informed as any specialist SF bookshop. I'm outraged. So is Charlie Stross, who says all that has to be said about this.
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Tuesday, January 11, 2005


Several kind readers have hinted that the story below is some wild-eyed commie conspiracy theory. From my memories of the reviews at the time it came out, Saunders' book is no such thing, and the AE-CIA connection outlined by James Petras was referred to in these reviews. Of course, while I loathe and despise most modern art, it's not all explicable by the machinations of the CIA. I wish it were, because then the solution would be simple and obvious.
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Sunday, January 09, 2005

Enduring Art

Do you find modern art baffling and depressing? Have you ever wondered if it's all a ridiculous hoax? Don't worry. It's meant to be baffling and depressing, and it is a ridiculous hoax. According to American leftist James Petras's review of Who Paid the Piper: The CIA and the Cultural Cold War by Frances Stonor Saunders,
[the]CIA and its allies in the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) poured vast sums of money into promoting Abstract Expressionist (AE) painting and painters as an antidote to art with a social content. In promoting AE, the CIA fought off the right-wing in Congress. What the CIA saw in AE was an "anti-Communist ideology, the ideology of freedom, of free enterprise. Non-figurative and politically silent it was the very antithesis of socialist realism" (254). They viewed AE as the true expression of the national will. To bypass right-wing criticism, the CIA turned to the private sector (namely MOMA and its co-founder, Nelson Rockefeller, who referred to AE as "free enterprise painting.") Many directors at MOMA had longstanding links to the CIA and were more than willing to lend a hand in promoting AE as a weapon in the cultural Cold War. Heavily funded exhibits of AE were organized all over Europe; art critics were mobilized, and art magazines churned out articles full of lavish praise. The combined economic resources of MOMA and the CIA-run Fairfield Foundation ensured the collaboration of Europe's most prestigious galleries which, in turn, were able to influence aesthetics across Europe.
So the whole hegemony of boring decadent rubbish art that has been inflicted on us for fifty years, from Jackson bloody Pollock to Damien fucking Hirst, has all along been a CIA plot.

The Nazi attack on 'Degenerate Art' and some similarities between Nazi and Stalinist art have obscured some simple and obvious facts. The 'Degenerate Art' attacked by the Nazis was not the art foisted on us today. (What have the savage cartoons of Grosz in common with the pretentious trivia of BritArt?) One country's heroic statuary is much like another's heroic statuary. Vivid depictions of tanks and tractors, workers and soldiers look rather similar no matter who puts up the posters. (Anarchist and liberal-democratic war posters look just as totalitarian.) We're belaboured with the similarities, but I suspect a closer examination would bring out significant differences. Modern art is entirely compatible with political reaction. In Helsinki's Atenuem you can see the point made with mathematical precision. Nineteenth-century Finnish art was bold, romantic or realistic, and representational. After 1918 it's suddenly all dark interiors, frozen faces, snowbound churches, then in the late 20s or early 30s (at which point it's almost a relief) it becomes an unbroken, decades-long parade of derivative decadence. In the Barcelona football stadium Camp Nou, there's a gallery devoted to an artist who used to paint the team's posters. Throughout the Franco decades he flourished as a sort of inferior Dali, dribbling Madonnas and Martians, phantoms and nudes alike onto watery dreamscapes. A likewise debased surrealism - Rasputin with a halo - enjoyed a brief vogue under Gorbachev, and was hailed as a vibrant alternative to Socialist Realism.

Socialist Realist art now commands higher prices than that of the dissidents and the Western-imitative official art of perestroika. The market has taken an ironic revenge on its votaries.
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Saturday, January 01, 2005


South Queensferry is the home of the Loonie Dook, a New Year's Day charity event where people take a swim in the chill waters of the Firth of Forth. Today's rain is so heavy that you can have a loonie dook by taking a walk. If the thunder I'm hearing is anything to go by, you can get electrocuted while you're at it. Before midnight last night we went out to a nearby rise with a good view of the Firth, and watched while fireworks rose all around the horizon like tiny flowers, and lasers played on the low clouds like flying saucers from a frivolous alien civilization. Eventually the beams settled into a saltire shape, the proclaimed object of the exercise. By this time we'd gone inside, phoned near and far, and were well into the shortbread and single malt.

New Year's Day is like a month of Sundays. Everywhere's closed, it isn't Christmas, and you have a double Neurofen hangover. In other words, pure dead brilliant. Here's to next year.
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Happy New Year!

'We are cast upon the future without reluctance and even without regret, as finding there the substance of desire.'

- Barrows Dunham, Man Against Myth.
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