Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Brexit: and nettle beer from Cornish Stingers >>> >>> >>> >>> 'a society too complex for its people risks everything'

This week, Radio 4's 9am slot has been looking at 'The New World', with Monday's session considering the Post-Truth world we have now entered:

Nothing but the Truth

Are we really living in a post-truth world? It has been an extraordinary year for the concept of veracity. Brexit. Trump.

Experts have taken a beating, facts have apparently taken second place to emotion and feeling.

And what about truth? It seems like fewer and fewer people, whether voters or politicians, care what's true anymore.

Step forward the Oxford English Dictionary's word of 2016: "post-truth". Is this just shorthand to help liberals make sense of a world they don't like? Or does it mark something more meaningful? Are we really no longer interested in truth or is our toxic political climate clouding our ability to agree on what the facts are?

In a series of special programmes as 2017 begins, Radio 4 examines inflection points in the world around us. In the first programme, Jo Fidgen explores how our brains process facts when they become polluted by politics.

Regional Personality Differences in Great Britain
PLOS - read the original research

Where does my personality fit in?

Read David Shukman’s article on the BBC News Website

BBC Radio 4 - The New World, Nothing but the Truth
Futures Forum: Brexit: and post truth politics: no extra money for the NHS

And today John Harris looks at the new politics:

Us Versus Them

Political movements which proclaim themselves as anti-elitist challengers to the mainstream establishment have been achieving success, from Brexit campaigners to Donald Trump and various European parties. 

John Harris explores the reasons behind this international phenomenon, examines the motivating forces for the anxiety and anger of voters, and considers the response of the political establishment in this new era.

Last week, John Harris wrote a piece looking at the same issues:

The lesson of Trump and Brexit: a society too complex for its people risks everything

The populists have grasped that communities are struggling to cope with upheaval and intricacy – and have exploited the backlash

‘The simpler past seems more attractive than today’s complex reality, and so people vote [thanks to] inchoate frustrations.’ Photograph: Carlo Allegri/Reuters


Thursday 29 December 2016 

By way of a gloomy seasonal party game, try this. Take the proverbial back of a cereal box, divide it into six rectangles, and on each one, write a supposed cause of the political turbulence now gripping the west: “the financial crash of 2008”, “inequality”, “racism and xenophobia”, “Tony Blair, basically”, and all the rest. Then get out the gin, maybe put on a Radiohead album, and enjoy hours of doom-laden conversational fun.

Were I daft enough to play the game myself, on one rectangle, I think I’d write an explanation so far barely mentioned in the acres of coverage of 2016’s chaos, but one right at the heart of it all: “Ever-increasing complexity, and the diminishing returns it now creates.” It’s not the snappiest conversation starter, I know. But if you’re looking for a grand catch-all theory that ties together Donald Trump, Brexit, and the general sense of a world spinning into chaos, it might not be a bad place to begin.

Complexity, after all, is a 21st-century leitmotif, captured in those news-channel screens on which scrolling tickers and stockmarket data combine to create the impression of a world so elaborate it is beyond anyone’s control. The average browse on Twitter creates exactly the same impression; so does a scroll through a Facebook news feed, now rendered even more confusing by the fact that a great deal of its content may well not be authentic “news” at all.

Perhaps more crucially, individual lives are surely more scrambled and complicated than they have ever been. For a lot of us, in fact, modernity is a mess: not just of multiple user accounts, passwords, contracts for smartphones and Wi-Fi, and the generalised insanity of consumerism, but working lives that now have to undergo endless peaks, troughs and reinventions. The latter applies even to those who think of themselves as relatively successful, let alone people at the blunt end.

From the US tax code to the structures of the European Union (an organisation so complex that leaving it is starting to look all but impossible), all this complication is also reflected in the workings of states and governments. Moreover, though they were sold to us as a means of simplifying the tangled messes weaved by bureaucracies, the endless marketisation and contracting-out that now define policies across the planet have only made things worse.

Consider what the American thinker David Graeber calls his “iron law of liberalism”: “Any market reform, any government initiative intended to reduce red tape and promote market forces will have the ultimate effect of increasing the total number of … regulations, the total amount of paperwork, and the total number of bureaucrats the government employs.”

There perhaps was a time when the idea that increasing complexity would benefit most people just about held true: the 1990s maybe spring to mind. But now? As we all know, wages are continuing to stagnate. Across the UK, Europe and the US, there are increasing worries about sluggish-to-flatlining productivity and disappointing economic growth. Automation is already disrupting millions of working lives. Therein, of course, lies huge opportunities for the insurgents now defining the political zeitgeist. Their basic approach is: a withering look at the labyrinthine realties of trade, technology, population movement, international agreements and the rest, followed by the simplest of answers: “Take back control”, “Make America great again”.

‘Declining returns make complexity a less attractive problem-solving strategy.’ Photograph: Andrew Kelly/Reuters

All this began to sit in my thoughts as I was putting together a radio documentary about the new populism, and reading a book by the US anthropologist and historian Joseph Tainter, which brims with implied parallels between far-flung periods of history and more recent events. It may be some token of our turbulent times that it’s titled The Collapse of Complex Societies: I was alerted to it after reading a brilliant post-Brexit piece authored by French writer Paul Arbair, and I have been dipping into it ever since.

The book was published in 1988, just before the fall of communism was about to offer another case study in what it describes. One key pattern, it argues, applies to whole chunks of history: the way that increasingly complicated systems initially deliver big economic benefits, only for diminishing returns to set in, as systems of power and control become overstretched. Ever-increasing burdens are not matched by material rewards, and popular resentment kicks in.

Tainter’s text covers the demise of ancient Rome and collapse of Mayan civilization in the 9th century, the Minoans and Hittites, and the Chinese Zhou dynasty. He talks about common features of these societies’ fall: “revolts and provincial breakaways”, the end of long-distance trade, resource depletion, declining economic growth, and a point many societies have eventually crashed into: when they are “able to do little more than maintain the status quo”. Currencies become debased; “bridges and roads are not kept up”. Precipitous changes in climate often underlie what happens.

At certain points in history, Tainter says, “declining returns make complexity a less attractive problem-solving strategy”. Under such conditions, the option to “sever the ties that link localised groups to a regional entity” could gain traction. If you understand “regional” in a global rather than national sense, that’s surely a pretty good summary of Brexit, and the resentments now festering all across Europe.

I got in touch with Tainter, and though he cautioned me against generalised comparisons, he agreed that complexity held the key to a lot of current developments. “The simpler past seems more attractive than today’s complex reality, and so people vote [thanks to] inchoate frustrations,” he told me. “They choose simplicity and locality over complexity; identity over internationalism. Politicians promote themselves by giving voice to this. Hence, in addition to Brexit, we have calls for Scottish independence, Catalan independence, and so forth.” If complexity and globalisation gave recognisable benefits, he said, the phenomenon would not be so widespread. Quite so, but this is the exact way in which modernity is failing.

Visions of imminent social collapse might be taking all this a bit too far. Or maybe not, for as Tainter writes: “Civilisations are fragile, impermanent things.” Are modern societies vulnerable? It’s a common belief, he says, that our technological capacity, energy resources and our knowledge of economics and history mean our civilisation should be able to survive “whatever crises ancient and simpler societies found insurmountable”.

But as a corrective, he then quotes the revered German classicist Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff’s sobering take on the lessons of the Roman empire. Gin and Radiohead at the ready, then: “Civilisation can die, because it has already died once.”

John Harris presents The New World: Us versus Them, on BBC Radio 4, 9am, Wednesday 4 January

The lesson of Trump and Brexit: a society too complex for its people risks everything | John Harris | Opinion | The Guardian

Or, as the anthropologist David Graeber would have it:
Capitalism’s secret love affair with bureaucracy - Financial Times
Futures Forum: The language of bureaucracy >>> >>> David Graeber and "The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy"

And as another anthropologist would have it:

The simpler past seems more attractive than today’s complex reality, and so people vote thanks to inchoate frustrations. They choose simplicity and locality over complexity; identity over internationalism. Politicians promote themselves by giving voice to this.

Brexit weekly briefing: UK residency fears rise as EU divorce nears | Politics | The Guardian
Futures Forum: Brexit: and looking backwards//looking forwards in the SouthWest

To finish with comment on an extensive repost to Andrew Marr 
- with reference to a West Country brew:

Fisking Andrew Marr’s delusional view of Brexit

24.12.2016 Jon Worth

MellonAlbion says: 03.01.2017 at 13:20

Thanks for this excellent analysis. Most of the reasons people voted out because they erroneously ascribed to the EU issues where in reality Westminster was responsible. My favourite example is “nettle beer”:

Allegedly, EU tax regulations and alcoholic beverage definitions have ruined a lovely little brewery, Cornish Stingers, that produced a local speciality called nettle beer, and the owner now hopes that leaving the EU gives him the opportunity to relaunch.

Brexit brewing boost as nettle beer brewery 'destroyed' by EU tax laws plans relaunch after our escape from bloc
Family brewery facing axe as EU says: Your nettle beer's not a beer | Daily Mail Online

Obviously the European Commisions “letter to the editor” after the original story has not reached the brewery owner. There the commissioner explains that while the drink is indeed no beer according to EU regulations, “The issue here is the UK authorities have decided not to grant a reduced VAT rate to this nettle beer in the same way as they do for cider.”
Letter to Daily Mail on nettle beer - European Commission

So HM Revenue and Customs could have decided to classify the beverage as a speciality wine with very reduced VAT, instead of regarding it as a kind of alco-pop drink.

Actually, the EU loves those regional specialities; the Cornish Stingers might have profited from the EU schemes of geographical indications and traditional specialties.
Geographical indications and traditional specialities in the European Union - Wikipedia

But HM Revenue and Customs proves destructively incompetent, the brewery owner trusts their explanations instead of doing his own research, and the media who publish this story not only don’t research either but do not even publish the EU commioner’s clarification or inform the brewery owner.

The whole Brexit fiasco with its “Take back control” is one huge nettle beer story. It is a story of the British people conned into legitimizing a transformation of their country that they would never have allowed if asked frankly and becoming truthfully informed.

There was an extremely short period of campaigning, and it was totally during A-level and BTEC-exam time – no wonder many young people abstained from voting because they felt they were not sufficiently informed to make a choice on so important an issue.

Moreover, both Remain and Leave exchanged inner-Tory arguments; the short timeframe did not allow others to make themselves heard. This resulted in Leave and Remain actually agreeing in much of their EU-criticism – it had been David Cameron and Theresa May promising to lower immigration to 10s of Thousands, for example.

While there may not be a plan now as regards Brexit, there certainly is an agenda. There are very rich people who for whatever reason want the UK transformed, and they now have a four year blanc cheque to do this in whatever way they like – after all, the UK does not want to ruin its hand in negotiations by publishing and discussing its aims, do they.

What do those people want? I do not know. One of the leads goes here:

Who would entrust to those kinds of people the lovely United Kingdom – so much as to empower them to define “what Brexit means”? When the people wake up and find out how they have been conned, it will be too late.

Fisking Andrew Marr’s delusional view of Brexit – Jon Worth Euroblog

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