Opposing Brexit: the demarcation that matters

“In making these arguments we redraw the borders, from political demarcations of territory, to political demarcations between those who benefit from capitalism and have an interest in it being maintained, and the vast majority of us who do not”

– Chris Gilligan, Open Letter on Spiked‘s ‘Leave the EU’ campaign, March 2016.

 

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The following ‘open letter’, which Spiked declined to publish, is republished with permission of Marxist-Humanist Initiative. I’m not all that interested in the question of whether Spiked should or should not publish the letter – Spiked campaigns for Brexit – but I like the points made by the writer, Chris Gilligan, in disagreement with Spiked.

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Popular sovereignty requires vigorous debate – Chris Gilligan
I wrote this open letter as a contribution to the vigorous debate that Brendan O’Neill and Spiked claim that they want to promote. I think that O’Neill’s refusal to publish the open letter suggests that Spiked’s commitment to free speech and rigorous debate is bigger on rhetoric than it is on substance. Read O’Neill’s editorial, then read my criticism (below) and decide for yourself.

Open Letter on Spiked‘s ‘Leave the EU’ campaign

by Chris Gilligan

Dear Spiked,
I see that you are campaigning for the United Kingdom (UK) to leave the European Union (EU). According to an editorial by Brendan O’Neill Spiked are urging a Brexit on the grounds, (‘which trumps all of those reasons to stay, and trumps them hard’), that the EU thwarts ‘popular sovereignty, the crucial right of a people to consent to the political system they are governed by’. O’Neill tells us that we should vote to leave if we ‘think people should determine their political destinies’, if we ‘are optimistic about the future’, if we ‘prefer the adventure of uncertainty over the dull predictability of expert-delivered diktats’, and if we ‘prefer politics to be lively and unpredictable rather than paper-pushing and aloof’. All of this sounds great. But, and this is a BIG but, how is a vote to leave going to achieve any of these things? The reality is that a Brexit is not going to reinvigorate democracy in the UK.

The EU referendum has not come about because of any popular agitation. There is no popular demand for a Brexit, and no popular desire to remain in the EU. The EU referendum has come about because of machinations within the Conservative Party, fuelled in part by the rise of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). This elite concern regarding the EU is not because of the anti-democratic nature of the EU or its disdain of ordinary people, the political elite in the UK (from all the main parties) share this disdain and have for years been busying themselves with eroding democracy in the UK. The EU is not the problem, it is symptomatic of a deeper problem, which O’Neill acknowledges when he says that ‘The EU both expresses and expands the 21st-century crisis of democracy’. Taking sides in the referendum implies that the EU is the problem, rather than a symptom.

If we take the example of migration, arguably the one issue on which there has been some popular engagement with the referendum debate, we can see that the UK has done much more than the EU to stifle debate on this issue. Spiked Deputy Editor, Tom Slater, partially acknowledges this when he says that ‘immigration policy is the sharpest expression of the anti-democratic sentiment of European elites. This is particularly keen in the UK, where New Labour’s relaxing of the borders in the 2000s reflected not only an open contempt for popular sovereignty, but a barely veiled disgust for the blob-like demos itself’. The UK, not the EU, has been at the forefront of an anti-democratic approach to immigration. The New Labour government did display open contempt for popular sovereignty. Blair, Mandelson and the other career politicians of New Labour consolidated the anti-democratic internal operation of the Labour Party and treated the electorate as passive fodder who only needed to be mobilised at election time. They continued the trajectory, begun under Margaret Thatcher, of moving ever increasing areas of public life outside of the realm of public accountability.

Slater is too one-sided when he says that New Labour relaxed the borders in the 2000s. What they did was relax immigration controls for specific kinds of immigration, principally labour migration, while they toughened them for asylum-seekers and others who were deemed ‘illegal’ or unproductive. They introduced immigration controls that operate on the basis of encouraging those who would bring an immediate monetary benefit to the UK and deterring those who were deemed to be a potential burden to the public purse. New Labour initiated the policy of ‘managed migration’, (which continued under the Con-Dem coalition and now under the current Conservative government), in an attempt to treat immigration in a technocratic manner. It was designed to depoliticise the issue of immigration, not to make it into a political issue. The Conservatives have continued this ‘managed migration’ approach, but argue that in the context of austerity the UK does not have the capacity to absorb as many labour migrants as previously.

Slater is correct when he says that ‘if we want to open the borders, we need to win the argument first’. Where, however, is the radical, progressive argument in favour of open borders? Slater doesn’t provide us with an argument. During the ‘migrant crisis’ of 2015 and 2016 members of the public signed online petitions, sent money,visited the camps in Calais, joined protests, and even offered shelter in their own homes. These are actions that involve more than simply putting an X on a ballot paper. What has Spiked had to say about these examples of popular sovereignty in action? They have been disparaged as exercises ‘in charity and public empathy, rather than a political issue about freedom of movement and human autonomy’. Protestors have been told that if they ‘want to help refugees’ they should ‘stop sobbing’. These arguments from Spiked read like barely veiled disgust for the demos, not like arguments for open borders.

Spiked is for open borders, but …. As Brendan O’Neill put it in September 2015: ‘spiked is about as open borders as you can get. But in Europe right now, there is a bigger problem than border control, and that is the cynical weakening of national borders, and of the popular sovereignty within those national borders’. This is an evasion of the difficult arguments. It is easier to rail against the bureaucrats in Brussels than make the case for open borders. It is easier to be cynical about the limitations of popular expressions of human empathy, than to engage with this empathy to make the case for a human-centred world. Spiked never engages with the difficult arguments on migration. What do we say to people who feel the harsh grind of austerity measures when they say that we can’t take in refugees because there is not enough to go around? We need to challenge this culture of limits, not by arguing for capitalist growth, but by pointing out that it is not immigrants who are responsible for austerity. We need to challenge the idea that there is not enough to go around and instead ask why the vast wealth that capitalism generates does not trickle down to the vast majority of society? In making these arguments we redraw the borders, from political demarcations of territory, to political demarcations between those who benefit from capitalism and have an interest in it being maintained, and the vast majority of us who do not.

Instead of recommending a vote to leave, it would be better to focus on the substantive issue and use the opportunity to argue for open borders, regardless of whether we are in or out of the EU. A more radical and progressive approach to the referendum would be to engage with the desire of the mass of people for a better world and repose the issue. Calling for the UK to ‘Leave’ only lends legitimacy to the elites’ pretence that the EU is the substantive issue.

Why ‘Earth Hour’ is silly

We should not be demonising electricity — we should be celebrating it.

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With thanks to Spiked for permission to republish this article by John Slater.

On 19 March every year, millions of people in developed countries spend 60 minutes of their lives reeling in collective guilt over the evil of fossil fuels. But when people turn off the lights for Earth Hour, they only hold a candle to their own ignorance.

Earth Hour is exactly the type of feel-good event today’s environmentalists seem to relish. It provides a ready-made opportunity for people to flaunt their social conscience by denouncing industrialisation, electricity, fossil fuels and the other ‘excesses’ that make 21st-century life worth living.

But what these candle-waving, middle-class do-gooders forget are the 1.3 billion people who will spend all of 19 March in the dark – not out of some desire to be close to nature, but because that’s how they spend every other day of the year.

How long without electricity would today’s Earth Hour enthusiasts last before their warm inner glow turned to despair?

Perhaps if people were forced seriously to contemplate life off the grid, they’d come to accept the empirical fact that nothing has done more to advance the plight of humanity than cheap, reliable electricity.

The problem with Earth Hour isn’t that burning candles actually emits more carbon than using a lightbulb, nor that large numbers of households simultaneously going dark disrupts the power grid and actually increases emissions.

No, the problem with Earth Hour is that it makes a villain out of electricity provision, the very thing that’s allowed humanity to rise out of abject poverty and reach the standard of living we enjoy today. So, since you probably won’t hear it anywhere else, here are just a few of the tremendous benefits of cheap, reliable electricity:

It feeds the world
Worldwide poverty is at its lowest rate in human history.

his is in large part because of the modern methods of mass food production that depend on cheap electricity. Industrial farming practices, including irrigation, mass food storage and transport, would all be impossible if environmentalists had their way. In the Middle Ages over 90 per cent of Europe’s workforce worked on farms; today, less than five per cent does. This has freed millions of people from backbreaking labour to develop their own skills and talents, which in turn have enriched our lives.

And once this mass-produced food reaches our homes, it is electricity that allows us to cook it quickly and safely, without exposing ourselves to health risks from chronic smoke inhalation. Two million people in developing countries still die each year from noxious fumes caused by traditional indoor heating and cooking practices. This gives some insight into what cheap electricity has meant for human welfare.

It saves lives
Electricity has made possible the advances and wide availability of modern medicine, from vaccines to antibiotics and surgery.

According to the World Health Organisation, the measles vaccine alone has saved over 17million lives worldwide since 2000. This wouldn’t have happened had there not been cheap, electrically powered refrigeration for the storage and transportation of the vaccine.

It creates prosperity
As Bjorn Lomborg, author of The Skeptical Environmentalist, points out, the electricity available to people in wealthy countries is roughly the equivalent of having 56 servants working for you in pre-industrial times. It’s easy to forget this if you have the luxury of boiling a cup of tea and sitting down to watch a digitally recorded episode of MasterChef once your annual 60 minutes of environmental self-flagellation is up. But for the people of, say, Liberia or South Sudan or Sierra Leone, every hour is Earth Hour. Life is short and illness often deadly. People spend most of their waking hours fighting a neverending struggle for basic necessities like food and shelter.

There is no doubt that our prosperity has come at a cost to the natural world. But if we care about making the world a better place, the last thing we should be doing is turning off the lights. If what we want is a genuine accommodation with Mother Nature, we should be concentrating humanity’s collective energies on finding cleaner and cheaper ways of sustaining modern life, not harking back to some pre-industrial fantasy.

Contrary to the delusions of eco-pessimists, cheap electricity is exactly the kind of innovation we need more of. London’s air quality today is the best it’s been since coal became a common fuel for lime burners in the early Middle Ages. Why? Because thanks to electricity, factories are no longer run on coal power. Nor do households have to burn it to cook and stay warm.

The idea that human progress actually helps the environment flies in the face of everything today’s environmental zealots hold dear. In their eyes, humanity must repent for daring to industrialise. That means putting an end to the wealth and material excess that characterise our daily lives.

If people are actually interested in saving the planet, they’d be better off lighting their houses with electricity, not mourning human progress in the dark.

John Slater is a Young Voices Advocate, and an Australian writer based in Washington DC. Follow him on twitter, @JohnSlater93.

Magna Carta: Reignite the spirit of rebellion!

Freedom is never given to us – it must be won.

As long as the human spirit retains its aspiration for liberty, Magna Carta will serve as a symbol of the neverending struggle for freedom.

No sooner did the rebellious barons force King John to grant them Magna Carta in June 1215 than it was annulled, just 10 weeks later, by Pope Innocent III. Although it was reissued by John’s son Henry in 1216, its status remained insecure, until a definitive version was conceded in 1225. What the experience of the 13th century demonstrated is that hard-won rights and freedoms can never be taken for granted.

Magna Carta was by no means the last word on freedom. It was a medieval document that provided safeguards against the arbitrary rule of the king. It implicitly upheld ideals that would gradually crystallise into a tradition that respected the rule of law. Some historians have questioned the iconic status of Magna Carta, on the grounds that it was a ‘Baron’s Charter’ and did little to protect ordinary people from injustice. However, what was important about this document was not simply what it said, but how it was seen by successive generations.

Magna Carta provided the foundation for a political culture that celebrated freedom against the exercise of arbitrary authority. English customary law drew on the precedent of the rebellion against King John to question and, in the end, unsettle the claim to Divine Right Kingship. Magna Carta was idealised and turned into a foundational myth by the radical wing of the parliamentary opposition to the Stuart dynasty. One of my heroes John Lilburne (1615-57), a true champion of liberty and one of the leading voices in the Levellers, linked the ideals of Magna Carta to the foundation of a new nation. Lilburne went to prison to defend the right not to incriminate oneself. He argued that self-incrimination violated Magna Carta.

Over the centuries, Magna Carta has become a historic document to which a bewildering variety of parties have attached their democratic and freedom-oriented ambitions. Although it has served as a foundation for English identity, its idealisation has transcended the borders of any single nation. Its universal appeal speaks to the universal attempt to overcome the obstacles to freedom.

The necessity of almost every generation since 1215 to appeal to the precedent set by Magna Carta points to the always precarious status of freedom. Freedom depends on a political culture that takes the principles of an open and democratic ethos seriously. History shows that freedoms that really mean something are won through the action of public-spirited people rather than being gifted by a benevolent ruler or state. In the current era, this lesson is often overlooked, as campaigners and movements look to the state to ‘empower’ them.

This misconceived project of finding freedom through the state rather than fromthe state is encouraged by an ideology that mistrusts people. Eight hundred years after the sealing of Magna Carta, we are confronted with the uncomfortable fact that in many Western societies, individual freedoms are no longer highly valued. The casual manner in which freedom of conscience and freedom of expression are often disregarded means that the rule of others – whether formal or informal — can too often be implemented with little resistance.

The spirit of rebellion which animated lovers of liberty from the 13th century onwards need to be reignited, so that the new generations assuming responsibility for the future understand that freedom is not just another word.

Frank Furedi is a sociologist and commentator. His latest book, First World War: Still No End in Sight, is published by Bloomsbury. (Order this book from Amazon (UK).)

10 KICKASS THINGS HUMANITY DID IN 2014

C21st Left

Even in this era of low expectations, intellectual daring finds a way.

Article by Brendan O’Neill reprinted with permission of Spiked. With thanks.

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It’s all the rage to be down about humanity. Public figures are forever lecturing us about our ‘eco-footprint’ and how our industrial arrogance turned what was an innocent ball of biodiversity spinning through space into a smoggy, nearly dead planet. Campaigners constantly tell us that if ebola doesn’t kill us, then AIDS probably will, or maybe it will be climate change, or perhaps it will be all that junk grub and booze and fags we stupidly consume. If a Martian visited Earth (more on Martians in a minute) and turned on the TV or opened a newspaper, he or she or it could be forgiven for thinking that human beings are little more than destroyers — of both the planet and themselves — who never do anything nice or brilliant.

But we do. Still. Even in this era of low expectations. Even when every cultural signal says, ‘Don’t explore’, ‘Don’t expand’, ‘Don’t go forth and multiply’. Even in the twenty-first century’s sludge of misanthropic thinking, the green shoots of intellectual daring find a way, and peek through. So here are 10 kickass things done by humanity in 2014.

10) We emailed a spanner into space

Yes, you read that right: human beings emailed a spanner into space. It seems like only yesterday — well, 20 years ago — that we were marvelling at the fact that we could send letters, and then photos, from our computers, across continents, in the blink of an eye, without having to wait for airplanes to deliver them. Now, NASA has emailed an actual object. How? Well, the International Space Station has a 3D printer; one of the ISS guys told NASA he needed a new socket wrench, and instead of making him wait months for it to be delivered from Earth, NASA emailed him instructions to put into the 3D printer and, lo, the exact spanner he needed came out. You know what this means? We finally have something very like teleportation, the dream of Star Trek and countless other sci-fi fantasies. The possibilities are endless. There is already talk of, at some future point, putting 3D printers on the moon that will dig into the moon’s crust and use its raw materials to print out the beginnings of human habitats. Would save us having to do the hard graft.

9) We made sperm

Yes, I know, the male section of humankind is always making sperm — but this year we made it without the benefit of sex, or our right hands, in a laboratory. Researchers at Cambridge University converted adult skin tissue into the precursors of sperm, and eggs, and are now exploring whether these precursor cells can become actual sperm and eggs. It’s like a winding back of time, a teasing out of the long-gone, most embryonic conditions of our cells, of ourselves. This research could have two potential impacts, one amazing, one almost unbelievable. The amazing one is that even the infertile might be able to breed children of an exact genetic match, their own children, through the creation of sperm and eggs from their skin cells. The almost unbelievable one is that this could represent the beginnings of mankind assuming mastery over evolution itself, no longer having to heed nature’s diktats about when the animal body may and may not multiply. Some will darkly shout ‘Brave New World!’ — I say so long as it’s all about choice, autonomy and giving people what they want, bring it on.

8) We found loads of new fossil fuels

You know all that talk of peak oil, peak gas, peak this, peak that? Turns out it was nonsense. Such nonsense that this year the oil price fell dramatically, for many varied reasons, but one of which is that there’s more oil than we thought. Some are going so far as to call ours an ‘age of abundance’. As the Financial Times said in November, ‘Ideas about peak oil seem to have been decisively refuted’. There is now thought to be 3.3 trillion barrels of oil and 22,900 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. And 1,040 billion tonnes of coal. Which is a lot. Three per cent more coal than we thought we had in 2011, in fact. Because that’s the thing: new fossil fuels are being discovered all the time. It’s no accident that all that peak bollocks was refuted this year: it’s a result, in large part, of the ‘shale revolution’, of what the FT calls ‘advances in the techniques of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing’ — that is, of human endeavour. We might live in what feels like post-Enlightenment times, but we’re still doing that Enlightenment thing of ‘wresting nature’s secrets from her grasp’ (Francis Bacon). Up next: a uranium revolution?

7) We made more ‘ninja particles’

Yes, ‘ninja particles’ are as cool as they sound. As part of the explosion of research into nanomedicine — the implanting of infinitesimal machines or microbes into the body to attack disease — researchers have developed synthetic molecules that mimic our immune systems. It’s hoped these manmade molecules will one day, soon, be sent into the human body to attach themselves to certain microbes and cause those microbes to rupture — ‘as if they’d been hit by an explosive shuriken (ninja star)’, as one report in September gloriously said. These manmade ninjas could prove brilliantly deadly against antibiotic-resistant bugs and in bodies whose immune systems are rejecting newly transplanted organs. What was a Hollywood fantasy in the Eighties — Dennis Quaid being shrunk and sent into a human body in Inner Space — is now becoming a kind-of reality.

6) We found a former lake on Mars

From inner space to outer space, where in 2014 we discovered that a massive crater on Mars used to be a lake. Plucky, roving Curiosity, the wonderfully named, car-sized robot that NASA sent on a 350,000,000-mile journey to Mars in 2011, has been poking around and collecting data for boffins to analyse. And its examination of the sediment build-up in a 96-mile crater suggests this crater once held water, billions of years ago. Which means it could very well have generated life, too, even if just microbial life — Martian microbial life. Right now, as you chill in the holiday season, Curiosity is roaming the red planet, exploring a whole new mysterious world on humankind’s behalf. Next step: actual humans going where so far only a little robot has boldly gone, surely.

5) We made a lame man walk

‘And the lame shall walk’, said Christ in Matthew 11:5, boasting of his miraculous powers. We actually had to wait near-on 2,000 years for a man to make a lame man walk, and it wasn’t a Messiah who did it — it was cell-manipulating researchers. In 2010, a 40-year-old Pole was paralysed after being stabbed in the back. This year, thanks to scientists in London and surgeons in Poland, he can move his legs again and walk with the aid of a frame. The scientists took cells from his nasal cavity, which are among the most self-renewing cells in the human body, and nurtured and nourished them outside of his body before transplanting them into his spinal cord, injecting an invisible-to-the-naked-eye gaggle of cells into his spine 100 times over six months. And then — he moved his legs. It’s early days, but just imagine the possibilities if lifeless parts of the human body could be resurrected with injections.

4) We meddled with crops to make them more nutritious

To the fury of well-off, eco Westerners who never have to worry about where their next meal is coming from, mankind has been genetically modifying crops for years. This year we harvested crops genetically modified for nutritional value. Through splicing genes and patching organic data together in whole new ways — yes, yes, through ‘playing God’ — British scientists boosted a crop of camelina with Omega-3. The possibilities of these man-meddled nutrient-rich crops are endless, potentially delivering much-needed vitamins and sustenance to even the poorest of the world. One of the scientists described the research centre at which this work is done, in Hertfordshire, England, as ‘looking like Guantanamo’, all high fences, CCTV and Alsatians — a reminder that here in the West there are still many misanthropes ready and willing to destroy the fruits of mankind’s nature-defying labour.

3) We continued to wage war on poverty

When it was revealed in December that 92million Chinese people still live in poverty, Western media outlets had a field day. They overlooked the fact that, over the past 30 years, 753million Chinese have been lifted out of extreme poverty. Around the world, poverty is still a massive problem, but grinding poverty is in decline. In India, 126million have been lifted out of extreme poverty; in Indonesia, 66million. In 1990, 23.6 per cent of people in the developing world were undernourished; today, 11.8 per cent are — too many, but less. Two hundred years ago, the prototype modern miserabilist Thomas Malthus, hero to many greens, said there wasn’t enough stuff to sustain the people of Earth. There were 980million people on Earth back then. In the past 30 years more than 980million people have been lifted out of extreme poverty. Malthusians: getting shit wrong since 1798.

2) We continued to wage war on disease

Disease, nature’s violent whim, is in retreat from man’s deployment of science and technology. In December, the Lancet revealed that the global years lost as a result of killer diseases — from cancer to malaria to HIV — has been in steady and stunning decline since 1990. The list of once deadly diseases now cured by mankind, in the West at least, continues to grow: alongside tetanus, rabies, polio, yellow fever, measles and smallpox — causer of plagues of old — we may soon be able to add AIDS: manmade drugs now largely prevent HIV from becoming AIDS, meaning that this year deaths from AIDS were at their lowest since the peak of 10 years ago.

1) We landed a spacecraft on a comet

Six weeks after it happened, this still boggles the mind. A spacecraft called Rosetta, launched into the vast void 10 years ago, landed on a comet that is only 2.5 miles wide and is travelling at 24,600 miles per hour 300million miles away from Earth. As researchers at the European Space Agency that launched Rosetta said, this is like a fly landing on a speeding bullet. Why did we do this? Well, why not? And also because exploring the comet’s make-up will boost our understanding of our solar system. The comet’s composition reflects the pre-solar system stuff from which our Sun and planets were formed. Basically, we’re going back in time, exploring with machines the original raw materials of our corner of the universe. And yet, what was the big media talking point about Rosetta? That scientist guy’s shirt, which some silly media feminists found offensive: a brutal reminder of the medievalism and miserabilism that lurk in our midst even as we do spectacular things.

All this stuff — the emailing of spanners, the deployment of miniature ‘ninjas’, the robotic exploration of space — has been achieved in an era hostile to risk-taking and suspicious of mankind, in which we’re encouraged to worship at the altar of precaution and be always safe rather than sorry. So just imagine what we might achieve if we stripped way this straitjacket of anti-human thought and truly unleashed the human instinct to explore and to know. That’s what spiked will continue to devote itself to in 2015 — battling against the backward idea that humanity is a destructive force, and reviving the view of humans as controllers of the Earth, defiers of nature, and potential masters of the universe.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Republished from 29th December Spiked with thanks.