Tuesday, 27 July 2010


Artemisia annua (Qinghao)

Afghanistan is never very far from our news media these days, with the regular announcements of casualties, and the more occasional megaleak, or world conference. Occasionally we hear that opium production has reached record proportions, or that a wedding party has been blown to smithereens by us, or our allies. It is both depressing and frustrating, for we feel so powerless in the face of an apparently unremitting beastliness that amounts to madness.

My present train of thought started with opium; half a million acres of this pernicious weed, fuelling conflict in Afghanistan and sordid moral collapse in our own cities. The Taliban had all but eradicated poppy growing, but under our "protection" heroin production has soared year on year to 6000 tons of resin. Occasionally we hear of crops being destroyed, but our half-hearted efforts in that direction seem further designed to lose us friends and thus the battle for hearts and minds. Are we doing enough?  Are we tasking the army with too much? After all, "to a man with a hammer everything looks like a nail".

What about the allies BUYING the opium crop?  That way we could collar the lot  if we paid the right price. It would of course expand our "foreign aid" budget, but it would establish a positive link with the growers. What about encouraging farmers to grow other high value crops that are also suited to the sun-drenched soil. We would need expert advice here but what about lavender or roses for the perfume industry, or Artemisia annua which I understand produces a fabulously expensive anti-malarial drug called artemisinin?

We read about McChrystal, Petreaus, and more cryptically about "Britain's most senior general in Afghanistan"; we understand the accumulating military cost of British operations in Afghanistan to be some 10B£ (above our normal military budget). But who is in charge of our reconstruction team? What is our budget for education, culture, infrastructure, and our war against the opium poppy?  I am pointing this accusatory question firmly at the British media. Tell us what we have done that is creditable! Is there a conspiracy of secrecy? Of course, the media may justifiable point back at the bloodthirsty British public who are horrified and fascinated by blood, but woefully indifferent to the rest.

It is not as though there is no one working to help and encourage Afghani farmers. If you dig deeper into the subsoil of the world-wide-web you come across Mark Henning's efforts for Joint  Development Associates International, Inc which is working to improve agriculture in northern Afghanistan; and The Council on Foreign Relations, an American non-profit think tank of some venerability (founded 1921) which discusses many creative projects in the area. And there are other excellent papers, unparented but clearly funded by the US government such as one by S. Alan Walters on "Vegetable Production in Balkh Province of Afghanistan and RecommendationsÉ" There is a Swedish Committee for Afghanistan with programmes in education and health, and (until 2007) agriculture. But I have found nothing that links Britain with agriculture in Afghanistan. 


So, PLEASE, let us hear more about the positive and noble efforts of dedicated people, of British role models if there are any, so that we may be heartened, and stimulated to volunteer ourselves; so that we may lift up our heads again instead of squirming with embarassment at the whole Afghanistan fiasco.


Occidentis, MORPETH

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Jenny's Battle with The Institute of Ideas

In a long article in issue 32/13 of "The London Review of Books",
Jenny Turner describes a 2-day conference organised by the Institute of Ideas, which I am glad I missed. She gives a clear impression of much exhausting axe-grinding by a small and cliquey group of ageing Trotskyites. But she does not explain why she was there. Nor does she convince me that the event deserves 18 columns and 8000 words in the London Review of Books. There are one or two amusing turns, one or two good points, and the writing is better than that of many other contributors; but the article seems to me to be overblown, repetitive, and too long by a factor of 10. I cannot avoid the conclusion that Jenny Turner used to run with that bunch, but has outgrown them, was bored to fury, but tried to recoup her £80 entrance fee by writing it up for the LRB; while the Review mistakenly chose this for its lead
article, and asked her to double its length.


Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Raoul Moat

Raoul Moat

I detect a general sense of relief in Northumberland, this morning (Saturday 10th July), at the news that the fugitive gunman Raoul Moat died in the night having shot himself in the head after a six-hour standoff with a posse of armed police. Rothbury is only 15 miles from here, and my neighbour's parents live there. I also experienced a sense of relief; from tension, and uncertainty; even from a trace of apprehension, for, though Moat had broken into only uninhabited houses, and had refrained from shooting strangers who were not also policemen, there was the faint possibility that he might change.

Then I brought myself up with a jolt. It is grotesque to accept the death of that poor man as a benefit to my peace of mind. The police might legitimately experience relief, as they were all declared targets; and his badly wounded ex-girlfriend could certainly feel safer, even if she regrets the price that is paid. But I was ashamed at my selfish response.

Had I forgotten the intense anger that possesses a man when he thinks he is up against a hostile and unjust system? Balance and judgement are lost, risks are under-assessed, long-term benefits forgotten. The pounding adrenalin fuels only the hypertrophied ego, fighting for its very existence against the million-headed imaginary demon that is 'The State'. I have been there; I have felt that there could be circumstances when I could kill a policeman. I thank my stars that I was never in those circumstances.

It is salutary to consider the change in world-view from the chubby but cheerful 3-year-old Moat pictured in the press. No doubt then, as now, Moat was striving to gain the approval of those few people who really mattered to him. Don't we all? We read of a loved and well cared for man with a girl friend some 10 years ago. We see a picture of a proud father 7 years ago. Not really a 'bad man', but "quand on l'attaque il se defend". No real change from the 3-year-old boy, still hoping for the approval that matters. Perhaps he had too few dads and too many step-dads; too much 'satisfaction' from being 'hard'. Steroids have been mentioned, and a tendency to loose control after drinking. Finally the unsupportable blow of losing his girlfriend to another man.

The sad story is excellently summarized by 'The Independent'.

Occidentis, MORPETH, UK.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Labour versus capital

Labour versus capital

Strikes are back! It came as an unwelcome shock, like a ghost from the past, when British Airways cabin crews began their long running militant dispute at the beginning of this year (2010). The political scene throughout the sixties and seventies was dominated by confrontation between labour and management till Thatcherism in the mid-eighties put an end to strikes. There was of course legislation concerning strikes, ballots, pickets, etc.; but maybe there was also a changed mood in the country, an acceptance that strikes were either unnecessary, or counter-productive. However, we see once again militant labour confronting recalcitrant capital in an attempt to preserve wages and privileges, to the considerable detriment of all concerned, including the general public. 

When industrial battle-lines are drawn, the Conservative party naturally supports capital and Labour traditionally supports labour. It was the inability of the Liberals to take sides in the nineteen twenties and thirties that led to the decline of the Liberal party [1]. I hope the same will not happen again to the detriment of centre-party politics. Surely the intellectually correct position is to occupy the middle ground, to see the strengths of both positions, and to resolve the issue rationally.

Of course it is perfectly rational to establish the true value of labour by conflict in a 'free market', but there is conflict that is damaging and conflict that is non-damaging. We do not now practice 'trial by combat'; on the other hand we do determine the value of a manufacturing firm by the free operation of the stock market. The essence of resolving disputes must surely be to ensure that each side can see the true situation of the other side, and trust each other. If management says there is no money for wages, but increases share dividends and management bonuses, then labour is justified in protesting. Such management will ruin a company, and deserves to be sacked. If labour claim privileges that equivalent workers in parallel companies do not have, they must be shown the weakness of their position. A strike leader in such a position will bankrupt his union.

I am surprised that the German concept of Mitbestimmung (Co-determination) has not been taken up more widely. In 1974 it became a legal requirement in West Germany that every firm employing more that 500 workers have worker representation on the supervisory and management boards. A similar law was passed in Sweden in 1976. A white paper studying the idea was prepared for the Wilson government but shelved in the "winter of discontent" and forgotten in the subsequent Thatcher regime.There seems to be some objective evidence that co-determination does indeed lead to improved worker-management relations and productivity [2]; though it may simply be that sensible people produce sensible laws, rather than the other way about — sensible laws producing sensible people. 

There seems a clear rationale for determining approximately what relative strengths capital and labour should have on the board; simply examine the cost of each (per annum, or per unit of production). Suppose a factory producing goods can be rented for £10,000 per week, requiring a work force costing £5,000 per week and material of £2,000 per week to produce items worth £17,000 - £20,000 per week.  The relative value of labour versus capital is 5:10. Or take a power station  for which the capital costs M£9 per year, labour M£6 and fuel M£5 per year. The relative value of labour versus capital is here 6:9. In both these (rather typical) cases it would be ridiculous for labour to be left out of discussions concerning the running of the companies. Their stake is considerable, and their contribution should approach that of capital.

[1]  D. W. Runciman, London Review of Books, 25th May 2010

[2] See also: http://www.theglobalist.com/storyid.aspx?StoryId=8239