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The latest front in the War On Piracy: Britain is setting up a national intellectual property crime unit to hunt down illegal downloaders wherever they may hide. The most interesting thing about this news is that the unit, which will operate across the length and breadth of Britain, will be part of the City of London Police; that's right: a national specialist unit that's part of the local constabulary of one square mile of a city.
The reason for this, presumably, has to do with the unique governance of the City of London, a system inherited from the feudal era and adapted seamlessly to the neoliberal age. Being the corporate centre of Britain's finance industry, the City's office bearers are elected by the corporations who have offices in the square mile; each corporation's share of votes is proportional to its global employee count. As such, it is the ideal post-democratic governing model for the New World Order, reflecting the realities of neoliberalism far more efficiently than the alternative of “democracy plus lobbyists plus corporations-are-people plus unlimited campaign expenditure” (as seen in the US) does.
The City of London taking responsibility for enforcing corporate monopolies on cultural exchange (“intellectual property”) across the land could be merely an early step in its ascension to being a branch of Britain's government, and one which wields real power. Perhaps in a few decades' time, we will see the parliaments of Westminster and Holyrood (by then, packed with a motley crew of wild-eyed socialists, foamy-mouthed right-wing populists and Pirate Party types) reduced to student union-style talking shops with no real power, with executive decisions devolved to the City of London's eminently level-headed corporate appointees?
For a purely decorative monarch-in-waiting, Prince Charles is somewhat of an interventionist. Perhaps its his strong opinions (be it about the efficacy of homoeopathy, the terminal decline of architecture after about the 18th century, or about hidebound traditionalism in all areas generally being a Good Thing), but he has never been content with the role of figurehead, passively waving at well-wishers and mouthing the words of the government of the day. Now, it has emerged that he has exercised a secret veto over various pieces of legislation in Britain, doing so under a 14th-century law that allows the Duke of Cornwall a say over any legislation that affects the Duchy's property, in a broad sense of the word.
The details of the laws have been kept secret, as has whether any changes were made to the laws to help them pass muster with the Prince of Wales; however, the subjects of the laws over which his advice was sought apparently include everything from gambling to road safety. This isn't the first time Charles has seen fit to give British society the benefit of his enlightened guidance, whether it wants it or not: a few years ago, he famously had a modernist architect sacked from a London project, and replaced by a neo-traditionalist of Charles' own stripe, using his friendship with the Qatari royals funding the project to go over the heads of those actually in Britain involved in the project.
Charles' interventions have been controversial on both sides of the fence; the Grauniad doesn't like the reactionary populist emphasis on leaden-handed traditionalism in Charles' views, comparing it to the Daily Mail, while the Torygraph is not entirely comfortable with his dippy-hippy tendencies:
The Prince does not seem to have actually exercised his right of veto, although The Guardian's attempts to access papers have largely failed. But the discovery that he can block legislation is alarming given his established willingness to interfere in political matters. It is all too easy to imagine him vetoing a bill loosening the planning laws, or widening the use of GM crops.
That's not to say he's wrong on every issue, although I'm happy to say he's wrong on a few. The point is that he is making the Royal family seem less like a stately and dignified ceremonial presence, and more like a cross between a fogey-hippy crossover activist group and a vast whole-foods retail company. Without the goodwill that the Queen generates, a Charles-headed monarchy will be subject to both mistrust and ridicule.The Conservative-led government has ruled out changing this law, in the Burkean Conservative spirit of not fixing things which can be passed off as not entirely broken, and/or the spirit of The Old Ways Are The Best. And so, another asterisk and paragraph of small print gets added to the assertion that Britain is a modern democracy.
Which is not to say that Britain's monarchy is remaining firmly in the undemocratic past; last week, the Commonwealth approved constitutional changes to end gender discrimination on the rules of royal succession, a change which could affect literally dozens of women. You go, girls!
The latest idea to emerge from the US's Tea Party movement: the president of a group calling itself the Tea Party Nation has called for voting rights to be restricted to property owners:
PHILLIPS: The Founding Fathers originally said, they put certain restrictions on who gets the right to vote. It wasn’t you were just a citizen and you got to vote. Some of the restrictions, you know, you obviously would not think about today. But one of those was you had to be a property owner. And that makes a lot of sense, because if you’re a property owner you actually have a vested stake in the community. If you’re not a property owner, you know, I’m sorry but property owners have a little bit more of a vested interest in the community than non-property owners.Of course, a lot of home owners don't actually own their homes as such; the banks own the majority share of them. Taken literally, this would either restrict voting to the minority who own property outright or give the banks a legitimate block vote, along with property-holding corporations. (Given that, in the US, corporations are legally considered to be individuals, to the point where restricting corporate political donations was considered an infringement of their Constitutionally-guaranteed right of free speech, corporations dominating a property-based voting system is not implausible.) Those who don't own property would, in effect, become second-class citizens, a sort of peasantry, and America, one of the first nations to never have had aristocratic titles, would be well on the path towards reinventing feudalism with American characteristics.
(See also: Libertarian Monarchism, or why absolute monarchy looks like a better way to maintain property rights and thus freedom, if you squint, tilt your head at a certain angle and smoke a lot of crack.)
The latest development in Libertarian thought: Libertarian Monarchism, or the belief that democracy was a step towards the decline of civilisation, and that an absolute monarchy would be a far superior system of government from a libertarian (i.e., "hands off my property") point of view. Yep, it's as crazy as it sounds:
To understand how democracy destroys civilization, we must first understand how civilization comes about. Civilization is the outcome of saving and investment, in other words: capital accumulation.
As a result of taxation, the rate of return on investment is diminished. Saving to invest becomes less lucrative, so people consume more and save less than they otherwise would have. People become more present-minded and the process of civilization is impeded. The amount of taxation determines how significant this effect will be. CastleIf the government is privately owned (i.e., a monarchy), then this effect will be limited. Since the government is his personal property, a monarch has an interest in both the present tax revenues and the long-term capital value of his kingdom. His incentive is to tax moderately, so as not to diminish the future productivity of his subjects, and hence his future tax revenues.
Since the kingdom is the private property of the king, he has a strong incentive to uphold the integrity of private property law (the validity of his ownership of the kingdom depends upon it). The king also has an incentive to uphold economically beneficial law—private property law—to increase value of his kingdom. Democratic rulers have no private ownership stake in the government and thus have no incentive to uphold the integrity of private property law. Nor do they have an incentive to maintain economically beneficial law. On the contrary, they can benefit by creating artificial laws—legislation—that serve to undermine private property law for their own benefit.
The Independent has an article on the dark side of Dubai. The economic boom apparently owes itself to the unique and dynamic qualities of Dubai's autocratic legal environment, which short-circuits a lot of the inefficiencies of a more liberal society. For example, if you can lure workers over with promises of wealth, then take their passports, force them to work in inhumane conditions and not bother with paying them, you can achieve miracles of efficiency:
As soon as he arrived at Dubai airport, his passport was taken from him by his construction company. He has not seen it since. He was told brusquely that from now on he would be working 14-hour days in the desert heat – where western tourists are advised not to stay outside for even five minutes in summer, when it hits 55 degrees – for 500 dirhams a month (£90), less than a quarter of the wage he was promised. If you don't like it, the company told him, go home. "But how can I go home? You have my passport, and I have no money for the ticket," he said. "Well, then you'd better get to work," they replied.
Sahinal could well die out here. A British man who used to work on construction projects told me: "There's a huge number of suicides in the camps and on the construction sites, but they're not reported. They're described as 'accidents'." Even then, their families aren't free: they simply inherit the debts. A Human Rights Watch study found there is a "cover-up of the true extent" of deaths from heat exhaustion, overwork and suicide, but the Indian consulate registered 971 deaths of their nationals in 2005 alone. After this figure was leaked, the consulates were told to stop counting.That's the construction workers building the marvels of architecture. The maids hired by the ruling classes of Emiratis and expatriates don't have any more rights, and don't have it much better:
The only hostel for women in Dubai – a filthy private villa on the brink of being repossessed – is filled with escaped maids. Mela Matari, a 25-year-old Ethiopian woman with a drooping smile, tells me what happened to her – and thousands like her. She was promised a paradise in the sands by an agency, so she left her four year-old daughter at home and headed here to earn money for a better future. "But they paid me half what they promised. I was put with an Australian family – four children – and Madam made me work from 6am to 1am every day, with no day off. I was exhausted and pleaded for a break, but they just shouted: 'You came here to work, not sleep!' Then one day I just couldn't go on, and Madam beat me. She beat me with her fists and kicked me. My ear still hurts. They wouldn't give me my wages: they said they'd pay me at the end of the two years. What could I do? I didn't know anybody here. I was terrified."The sense of terriblisma is heightened by some choice quotes from some particularly charming-sounding expatriates (mostly found in a tacky British bar):
"If you have an accident here it's a nightmare. There was a British woman we knew who ran over an Indian guy, and she was locked up for four days! If you have a tiny bit of alcohol on your breath they're all over you. These Indians throw themselves in front of cars, because then their family has to be given blood money – you know, compensation. But the police just blame us. That poor woman."
As she says this, I remember a stray sentence I heard back at Double Decker. I asked a British woman called Hermione Frayling what the best thing about Dubai was. "Oh, the servant class!" she trilled. "You do nothing. They'll do anything!"The expatriates, however, are not citizens and have no rights there; life's good for them, but only while they have money to spend and don't rock the boat:
She continued to complain – and started to receive anonymous phone calls. "Stop embarassing Dubai, or your visa will be cancelled and you're out," they said. She says: "The expats are terrified to talk about anything. One critical comment in the newspapers and they deport you. So what am I supposed to do? Now the water is worse than ever. People are getting really sick. Eye infections, ear infections, stomach infections, rashes. Look at it!" There is faeces floating on the beach, in the shadow of one of Dubai's most famous hotels.It gets worse, though: the article starts with the account of a woman who moved there with her husband when he got a senior management job. All was well until he was diagnosed with a brain tumour and resigned to leave; his payoff wasn't enough to cancel their debts, their passports were confiscated, and he was thrown in a debtors' prison.
Of course, it can't last forever; some say the Great Recession could wipe Dubai out:
If a recession turns into depression, Dr Raouf believes Dubai could run out of water. "At the moment, we have financial reserves that cover bringing so much water to the middle of the desert. But if we had lower revenues – if, say, the world shifts to a source of energy other than oil..." he shakes his head. "We will have a very big problem. Water is the main source of life. It would be a catastrophe. Dubai only has enough water to last us a week. There's almost no storage. We don't know what will happen if our supplies falter. It would be hard to survive."This article concurs that Dubai is in a world of trouble, citing the fact that those who have passports and their wits about them are fleeing, abandoning their cars at the airport with the keys still in the ignition before anyone can detain them.
Until yesterday, the tiny island of Sark in the English Channel was the last feudal state in the Western world, operating under a regime of rule by a council of hereditary landowners, as it has been since the Elizabethan age. Of course, under the European Convention of Human Rights, this was just Not On, and so, after some prodding from the reclusive owners of a nearby island, the British government pressured the island's council to vote to abolish feudalism and bring in democracy:
Its 600 or so residents are governed by the Chief Pleas, a mostly hereditary body consisting of the heads of 40 farm-owning families and 12 elected deputies of the people.
Sark's new-look legislature will consist of 14 elected landowners and 14 elected residents, with everyone who lives on the island eligible to stand for election after the Chief Pleas voted 25-15 to approve the bill embracing the reforms. Elections - which must be symbolically approved by the Queen - will take place in December.Of course, not all the locals are happy with their island's democratic revolution:
"It is an enormous leap - a bigger leap than we had wanted. The island was hoping to reform through evolution, not revolution," Jennifer Cochrane told the Press Association. "Feudalism is a great system and has worked very well."
She said Sark's feudalism was misunderstood, pointing out that the Chief Pleas were not oppressive or dictatorial "lords of the manor ... but part of the working community".One of the concerns raised is that, now that Sark is a democracy, outsiders with no understanding of the island's sense of community could, for the cost of buying farms, end up taking power and transforming the island's culture irrevocably.
It looks like Romania's bid to join the EU may be derailed by old ways still holding sway over remote rural regions; ways such as throwbacks to feudalism, Communism, the selling of children, and the ritual exhumation and staking of corpses to ward off undead:
Haunted by "strigoi" - the undead - villagers on the slopes of the Carpathian mountains exhume a corpse from the graveyard and drive a stake through its heart to banish the evil spirit. They burn the remains of the heart, mix the ashes with water from the local well and drink it, to complete the macabre ritual.
The regions of Transylvania and Wallachia were "haunted by ancestral ghosts, evil spirits, and vampires"; medieval beliefs that were "at odds with sophisticated EU rules on measuring fruit and the size of bananas".
Europe's preoccupations and debates, the paper said, were "totally out of tune with Romanian realities, where local barons make the law, enjoy privileges and export children to get favours from important people" in a "medieval fashion".
Judging by accounts from many sources, Romania sounds like a pretty bizarre place.
The Dalai Lama: cuddly, celebrity-endorsed embodiment of Peace'n'Love and self-help and feeling good about yourself and universal acceptance, or bigoted reactionary snake-oil peddler, whose mediæval views are modulated by a hypocritical pandering to gullible, moneyed westerners?
In reality, Tibetan Buddhism is not a values-free system oriented around smiles and a warm heart. It is a religion with tough ethical underpinnings that sometimes get lost in translation. For example, the Dalai Lama explicitly condemns homosexuality, as well as all oral and anal sex. His stand is close to that of Pope John Paul II, something his Western followers find embarrassing and prefer to ignore. His American publisher even asked him to remove the injunctions against homosexuality from his book, "Ethics for the New Millennium," for fear they would offend American readers, and the Dalai Lama acquiesced.
I remember a public talk he gave at his headquarters in Dharamsala in northern India in 1990, after conflict between Tibetans and Indians there. He spoke in Tibetan, and his delivery was stern and admonitory, like a forbidding, old-fashioned father reprimanding his children. The crowd listened respectfully, and went away chastened.
All this reminds me of claims about various parties in the Middle East (on both sides) saying one thing in English for the benefit of gullible western liberals and another, considerably more warlike, thing in their people's own language. The moral of the story: the dumb Yanqui (and that includes Americans, Britons, Australians, Canadians and such) are mugs to be played as such.
But yes, back to the subject at hand. I once got a book "by" the Dalai Lama as a present from a new-age relative. Little surprise that it consisted of the most vapidly insipid pabulum, a lowest-common-denominator collection of self-help aphorisms with the Dalai Lama brand slapped on it. It's highly unlikely that its wisdom came from any tradition older then 1960s California. The Dalai Lama appears to have become the leading brand of guilt-assuagement for affluent Westerners whose TV doesn't quite drown out the awareness that they're living high off the hog amidst massive injustice and thus need to be reassured that they're good people and their positive thoughts cancel out any contribution their lifestyle makes to global suffering. Either that or he's just an incredibly successful conman. Or both.
And here's an article on rampant brutality in feudal Tibet; not quite the happy valley of bliss Richard Gere would have you believe. Mind you, it seems a bit pro-Chinese in places. And here's Hitchens' opinion on the Dalai Lama. (via MeFi)
I recently picked up a book titled Jennifer Government, by a local author named Max Barry, after seeing it mentioned on bOING bOING. It's ostensibly a satire of globalisation, in which the world has become corporate-America-as-seen-from-Australia (complete with everyone speaking with Californian accents), everything is privatised, and the government's only remaining role is to prevent crime (for those who can pay the bills, anyway). Which sounds like an interesting premise; pity that the book didn't make the most of it.
The book is let down by a lack of psychological realism. Had the author populated the universe with plausibly rendered people, rather than cartoonish stereotypes, these premises could have been a very good springboard for an exploration of the human condition in the age of corporate hegemony, of extrapolating globalisation to its dystopian conclusion and exploring the myriad consequences of the way things are going. However, Jennifer Government has all the psychological realism of a Looney Tunes cartoon. Characters have next to no inner life, and are guided by the most one-dimensional motivations (greed, for example, or parental responsibility; all these things one can assign a short name to and employ by the book).
IMHO, a better treatment of the same idea is K.W. Jeter's Noir. Curiously enough, while Jeter's premises (the dead being reanimated to work off their debts) are more outlandish than Barry's (people's surnames being changed to their corporate employers' names), Noir requires less suspension of disbelief, because the scenarios and events therein have plausible psychological motivations, as opposed to happening by fiat of the author.
Not that Jennifer Government isn't entertaining, in a throwaway sort of way, just that it takes an interesting idea and squanders it, using it as little more than a McGuffin and/or a comedic prop. An amusing thriller it may be, though it falls short of being the sort of speculative fiction I expected.
In the US, some corporations are taking out life-insurance policies on low-level employees, that pay the employer in the event of death. Though rest assured that no link has been found between the policies, known in the business as "dead peasant" policies, and increased employee mortality, poorer working conditions or other increases in the probability of a payoff. (via Plastic)
David Brin on the five memes that shaped the planet on a deeper level: feudalism, machismo, paranoia, "the East" and neophilia (which Brin terms the Dogma of Otherness). (via the Horn)
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