Category Archives: politics

Layers of corruption

In April 2013, Frédéric Pierucci was arrested in New York and taken in chains to a  prison. Thus began a long ordeal that taxed his survival capacities and also provided deep insights into corruption.


Frédéric Pierucci

Pierucci was an executive for the French multinational company Alstom. Part of its operations were in the energy business, including manufacturing boilers for large power plants. Alstom sought contracts in countries around the world and, like many Western multinationals, used bribes to obtain them. As anti-corruption efforts stepped up, Alstom set up internal systems to control bribery.  Instead of paying bribes directly, Alstom hired “consultants” who organised the bribery. Everyone knew what was happening but the corruption was more covert.

In Alstom’s hierarchy, Pierucci was several levels down from the CEO. He had no idea that the US Department of Justice (DOJ) had ordered his arrest, so when he was taken into custody, he was caught unawares. Eventually he learned that his arrest was related to an Alstom contract bid in Indonesia years earlier.

He couldn’t figure out why he, of all people, was arrested. The contract in Indonesia was long ago, and he wasn’t the senior figure involved. Gradually he pieced together what was going on.

The DOJ relied on the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA). This law allowed the arrest of anyone anywhere in the world if they were involved in corruption with the slightest connection with the US, for example using US currency or Internet servers based in the US. Even if the individual was not a US citizen, did not work for a US company, and the alleged corruption was in another country, the FCPA could be applied.

This use of the FCPA is called extraterritorial, meaning it applies outside the US. It is a prime example of what might be called imperial overreach. The US government asserts that its laws apply throughout the world, not just in the US. But on the other hand, the US government notoriously refuses to be bound by non-US laws that affect its own citizens. For example, the US government refuses to accept the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court. The double standard involved — the US government applies its laws to citizens of other countries but rejects their laws applying to US citizens — reflects US economic and military power.

It might seem that the FCPA, despite its imperial reach, is being used for a good cause: stamping out corporate corruption worldwide. In this picture, the US government is applying its high anti-corruption standards as widely as possible.

Pierucci, caught in a nightmare in the US criminal justice system, gradually learned otherwise. He was being held in a maximum security prison though he had not been convicted of any crime, and he was not a violent offender. Naturally, he applied for bail, thinking this would be routine. He discovered the DOJ didn’t want to release him no matter what. Why couldn’t Alstom post bail? The DOJ wouldn’t allow it. He had to post an exorbitant amount personally. Then there was an additional requirement: a US citizen had to be willing to mortgage their house as part of the bail requirement. This was difficult to arrange, because Pierucci had been living in Singapore. His wife, taking care of their four children, was not allowed to interact with Alstom because of the DOJ’s case against it. She had few contacts in the US, but eventually a friend offered to put her house up as security for bail. Even this wasn’t enough.

Pierucci realised he was being held as an economic hostage. The DOJ had no intention of releasing him while its case against Alstom proceeded. Pierucci’s plight was a message to top Alstom executives that they might also be imprisoned.

Alstom’s top executive, Patrick Kron, was fully implicated in its corrupt practices. Unlike other companies targeted by the DOJ, Alstom had refused to cooperate, admit guilt, pay a huge fine and allow a DOJ agent to work in the company to monitor compliance, of course paid by the company. The DOJ was playing harder because of Alstom’s resistance.

Patrick Kron

Pierucci discovered a pattern: numerous European companies had paid huge fines to the US government following DOJ anti-corruption investigations. The DOJ had a large workforce for this purpose, and it was reaping large rewards. There was something else. The DOJ apparently had access to electronic monitoring of European communications, as later revealed by Edward Snowden. It was using information gained through surveillance, justified as countering terrorism, for economic warfare.

There was yet something else besides. The DOJ’s operations enabled US companies to take over their competitors. This is what happened to Alstom. Its primary US competitor was General Electric (GE), a massive multinational. Alstom’s CEO, Patrick Kron, commenced secret dealings with GE that eventually led to the sale of Alstom’s power division, its largest, to GE. The price was huge but the benefits to France were minimal. Furthermore, GE did not fulfil any of its promises, for example to create new jobs in France.

The sale of a crucial part of France’s energy sector, in particular its nuclear power production, was a blow to its economic independence. For such a sale, various government approvals were required. Pierucci tells how the US government used the corruption proceedings as a lever to achieve the sale. The tale is complicated, but essentially the US government used various types of power to serve the interests of GE.

The official name of the game was anti-corruption, but behind the scenes was a deeper level of corruption: US surveillance capacities, diplomatic power and economic power, tied to the anti-corruption gambit, were corruptly deployed to serve US corporate interests.

Pierucci was a pawn in this game. To induce Kron to proceed with the sale, Pierucci had to be on the hook. It was apparent that the DOJ did not want to sentence Pierucci until the sale was settled. Pierucci was finally allowed out on bail and returned to France, but had to come back to the US for sentencing. Finally, he was — four years after pleading guilty. The DOJ forced Pierucci to plead guilty to being the central figure in Alstom’s bribery. He was the fall guy. He served another year in a US prison.


Wyatt Detention Facility, a maximum-security prison where Pierucci spent some of his time behind bars

Through these travails, Pierucci had to rely on his US lawyers, who kept promising things that didn’t pan out. The DOJ presents itself as the paragon of justice — what else? — but its treatment of Pierucci was anything but. Yet Pierucci could not afford to challenge decisions made because, if he had, he would have been treated much worse.

Here is another injustice: the US legal system. Pierucci was threatened with decades in prison. If he said he was innocent and went to trial, he risked a long stretch in prison. So wisely he pled guilty. He was not alone in being pressured to lie. The entire US legal system is based on plea bargaining. People are charged with crimes and warned that if they contest the charges, they will face a long prison sentence. Hence most of them plead guilty.

In his time in several US prisons, Pierucci saw the country’s penal system up close. As other observers have noted, it is horrendous. Prisoners are humiliated, treated harshly, subject to abysmal conditions and given little encouragement for rehabilitation. In some prisons, prisoners are forced to work for a few cents per hour: they are slave labour.

Pierucci, throughout his time in prison, wrote about his experiences and his study of the interactions between Alstom, the DOJ and GE, and sent his writing to a French journalist, Matthieu Aron, who is the second author of their book, completed just five weeks after Pierucci was finally freed. It is engaging and alarming, covering Pierucci’s personal experiences and what he found out about corruption.


Matthieu Aron

The title of the book, The American Trap, can be interpreted in several ways. It refers most obviously to US economic warfare using the legal system, warfare in which the rhetoric of anti-corruption is used for a higher level of corruption. The title might also be taken to refer to the US legal and prison system. In the name of justice, this massive system beats down its victims in the most appalling ways.

Superman famously fought for “truth, justice and the American way.” Unfortunately, this was an illusion. Instead, behind the scenes are “lies, injustice and the American trap.”

Frédéric Pierucci with Matthieu Aron, The American Trap: My battle to expose America’s secret economic war against the rest of the world, translated by Deniz Gulan (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2019)

Some choice quotes

Re the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), “They have transformed a law that could have weakened their own industry into a formidable instrument of underground economic warfare and intervention.” (p. 115)

Re corrupt operations by the US company KBR, a subsidiary of Halliburton: “So in a case [mainly concerning a US company] unearthed by a French judge, a French company was ordered to pay $338 million to the US government rather than to the French government itself. This is known as shooting yourself in the foot.” (p. 118)

Re a US judge saying Pierucci should apologise for Third World corruption, despite the US government’s support for Suharto’s corrupt regime in Indonesia: “This judge fully embodies American hypocrisy in all its grandeur.” (p. 265)

Re the DOJ’s onslaught against European companies, netting billions of dollars in fines: “This racketeering, because that is what it all boils down to, is unparalleled in its scope.” (p. 305)

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Thanks to Tonya Agostini, Anneleis Humphries, Cynthia Kardell and Jody Watts for useful comments on drafts.

Understanding global conflict

To get a handle on what’s happening in the world, read books like Paul Rogers’ Losing Control.

 

How can you make sense of world affairs? There are so many countries, politicians and power plays. If you follow the news, you hear about developments concerning tariffs, wars, elections and bombings. But how does it all fit together? The news tells mostly about events, with seldom anything much deeper to help put the events into context.

I’ve found that I learn far more by reading a book by a well-informed author, one that provides a framework for understanding. To aid my comprehension, whenever I read a book I take notes on it, including bibliographic details, a summary of the contents and specific points (with page and paragraph numbers) that are relevant to my interests. Sometimes the notes are just half a page; sometimes they are many pages long.

Going through my files recently, I came across my notes about a book by Paul Rogers titled Losing Control: Global Security in the Twenty-first Century. Published in 2000, I read the book two years later, and wrote in my notes that Rogers was remarkably prescient: his analysis seemed to have anticipated world events. In particular, between publication in 2000 and when I read the book, there were the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001.

Looking at my notes in 2020, I was again impressed with Rogers’ assessments. Losing Control was a useful guide to understanding world affairs. I decided to read the book again, in the process discovering that there had been a second edition in 2002 and a third in 2010. Conveniently, these new editions were the original book with supplementary chapters.

Nuclear war-fighting

Losing Control starts off with a detailed analysis of nuclear politics during the Cold War. This may now seem irrelevant given that the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 as did concern about nuclear war. Actually, though, it is a useful reminder that, for several decades, that the world was worryingly close to devastation. Furthermore, Rogers goes on to point out that, contrary to the impression you might get from the news, the threat of nuclear war has not disappeared. Governments have been “modernising” their arsenals, namely making them more effective.

Rogers says that the major nuclear weapons states — US, Russia, UK, China, France, Israel, India and Pakistan — have no intention of ever relinquishing their arsenals. Instead, hypocritically, political leaders roar with indignation should some other state seek to acquire nuclear weapons. Just think of the attention given to the possibility of Iraqi, North Korean and Iranian weapons.

During the Cold War, the standard theory concerning nuclear weapons was that they served as a deterrent against attack: US and Soviet nuclear forces, by being poised to destroy each other’s population centres, discouraged initiating an attack. This was called mutually assured destruction. However, unbeknownst to most members of the public, both sides had strategic plans and targeting policies that were based on war-fighting: they hoped to be able to destroy their opponent’s communication and weapons systems in a first strike, thus winning a nuclear war.

            Back in the 1980s, I studied the effects of nuclear war and read about plans for nuclear war-fighting. The information was available but not widely known, with the result that most people did not appreciate how dangerous the so-called strategic balance was in those years. Rogers, in recounting these matters, provides a corrective to mistaken ideas about past and present nuclear threats.

Three drivers

Rogers argued that international conflict over the next two or three decades would be driven by three factors. The first is economic inequality, which is exacerbated by neoliberal economic policies. Inequality is a source of tension: some of the have-nots may want to challenge the dominant order violently; others may seek to migrate to more prosperous regions, triggering tensions over immigration.

            The second factor is environmental constraints. The massive expansion of human activity puts strain on land, water and the air. Resources, especially oil, become bones of contention. The wars in the Persian Gulf are partly resource-related. Rogers was initially writing in 2000, after the first Gulf war in 1991 but before the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Today the most obvious environmental constraint is climate change. Already in 2000 Rogers identified this as a crucial factor in international conflict. Affluent industrialised countries have generated the most greenhouse gases, yet they want to keep consuming despite the looming dangers. It is at this point that environmental constraints interact with economic inequality.

            The third factor is the commitment by dominant powers to address these issues by attempting to maintain the status quo, if necessary by force. Instead of addressing inequality and environmental constraints, Western governments have tried to subdue challengers, especially those that use force themselves. The context is that groups with relatively little resources and technological expertise have the capacity to wreak havoc in rich developed societies. Putting this another way, industrial societies have developed in ways that make them vulnerable to attack.

Security paradigms

Rogers describes two security paradigms, namely assumptions and ways of thinking that guide action. The first paradigm, which he dubs “old,” is based on attempting to maintain control. This is called “liddism”: the dominant powers attempt to keep a lid on the discontent stimulated by continuing economic inequality and escalating environmental impacts. Rogers’ second paradigm is quite different. Instead of trying to maintain the status quo and keep a lid on discontent, this alternative “new” paradigm involves addressing the roots of conflict: inequality, environmental impacts and military deployments to maintain them.

Rogers gave considerable attention to the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center. A truck filled with explosives was driven into an underground parking station and detonated. However, the plotters had not positioned the location quite right to achieve their goal of bringing down the tower. If they had succeeded, 30,000 people might have been killed. Concerning this possibility, Rogers rhetorically asked “… would it have resulted in any rethinking of security? Probably not. A more likely result would have been a massive and violent military reaction against any groups anywhere in the Middle East that were thought to have had even the slightest connection with the attack.” (p. 118)


Damage from the 1993 World Trade Center bombing

            How’s that for a prediction made in the year 2000? We now know that this is the security trajectory followed after 9/11. There was a declaration of a “war on terror” with no possibility of peace envisioned, the invasion of Afghanistan, the invasion of Iraq, a continuation of neoliberalism and economic inequality and a slow and tepid response to climate change. In contrast, the new-paradigm response to 9/11 would have been to treat the attacks as a criminal matter. It didn’t happen.

The 1993 attack highlighted the interaction of the three factors that Rogers identified. Resource factors, namely the location of cheap and abundant oil in the Gulf region, led to US military involvement in the Gulf, including troops stationed in Saudi Arabia. The quest for control over energy supplies aggravated the perception of inequality, with Western affluent countries seeking control. The attack did not lead to any change in ways of thinking about security.

Learning from Rogers

There is a lot to learn from Losing Control. It contains all sorts of information about international security, from nuclear arsenals to political grievances to neoliberalism. The information is presented in a coherent way, enabling an appreciation of trends and impacts.


Paul Rogers

            More important than the information is the framework that Rogers developed to understand the driving forces underlying the security environment: economic inequality, environmental constraints (especially Gulf oil politics and climate change) and the old security paradigm of trying to maintain control. Grasping these three factors and their interactions provides a remarkably powerful way of understanding geopolitical developments.

Reading and digesting Losing Control offers a way of making sense of the crush of current affairs. You could spend years watching or reading current affairs in the news and still have less idea of what it all means than by spending a few hours reading this book. Alternatively, if you prefer shorter treatments, Rogers writes a regular column for openDemocracy.

This speaks to a more general issue. By acquiring an understanding of patterns and driving forces, it’s possible to make sense of the world far more efficiently and accurately than by taking in one event after another. If you can find the right book or article, one that cuts to the core, you can know far more with far less time and effort.

To find works like Losing Control isn’t easy. If you want to acquire powerful conceptual tools for making sense of the world, the initial challenge is to find lucid, insightful expositions. This can take a bit of effort. Then it’s a matter of spending some time reading history, politics, psychology or whatever fascinates you and of keeping doing this despite the temptations to read the latest headlines and social media commentary.

Postscript

How’s this for a prediction made in 2010, in the third edition of Losing Control, before the emergence of Islamic State?

 “Even if US troops are largely in barracks, they can still be readily represented by al-Qaida propagandists and others as ‘ghost’ occupiers of a major Islamic state. Given the decades-long timescale of the al-Qaida movement’s aims, and the potentially decades-long significance of Persian Gulf oil, the value of Iraq to the al-Qaida movement may be far from over.” (p. 168)

There may be a fourth edition in 2021. Stay tuned.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Western civilisation: what about it?


Sappho, Ancient Greek poet

“Western civilisation” can be a contentious topic, in part because people interpret it in different ways. Many achievements have been attributed to “the West,” but it has many negatives too. It is not obvious how to assign responsibility for the positives and negatives. Often left out of debates about Western civilisation are alternatives and strategies to achieve them.

In some circles, if you refer to Western civilisation, people might think you are being pretentious, or wonder what you’re talking about. For some, though, the two-word phrase “Western civilisation” can pack an emotional punch.

Western civilisation can bring to mind famous figures such as Socrates, Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci — maybe even some women too — and high-minded concepts such as democracy and human rights. Increasing affluence fits in somewhere. Western civilisation is also associated with a sordid history of slavery, exploitation, imperialism, colonialism and warfare.

My aim here is to outline some of the issues involved.[1] I write this not as an expert in any particular relevant area, but rather as a generalist seeking to understand the issues. Whatever “Western civilisation” refers to, it is a vast topic, and no one can be an expert in every aspect. One of the areas I’ve studied in some depth is controversies, especially scientific controversies like those over nuclear power, pesticides and fluoridation. Some insights from controversy studies are relevant to debates over Western civilisation.

After outlining problems in the expression “Western civilisation,” I give an overview of positives and negatives associated with it. This provides a background for difficult questions concerning responsibility and implications.

Western? Civilisation?

In political and cultural discussions, “the Western world” has various meanings. It is often used to refer to Europe and to other parts of the world colonised by Europeans. This is just a convention and has little connection with the directions east and west, which in any case are relative. Europe is in the western part of the large land mass called Eurasia, so “Western” might make sense in this context. But after colonisation, some parts of the world elsewhere are counted as part of the “West,” including the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. These are called settler colonies, where the immigrants from Europe eventually outnumbered the native inhabitants. However, South and Central American countries are also settler colonies but are less often listed as part of the West. So there is a bit of arbitrariness in defining the West.

The word “civilisation” has different meanings, and sometimes multiple meanings, in different contexts. For historians, civilisation refers to a complex society with established institutions such as governments, laws, commerce and rules of behaviour. A civilisation of this sort has a certain size, cohesion and organisation. The Roman empire is called a civilisation; hunter-gatherer societies are not.[2]

“Civilisation” also refers to being civilised, as opposed to being savage.[3] Being civilised suggests being rational and controlled rather than emotional and chaotic. It also suggests civility: politeness rather than crudity. A civilised person dresses properly, speaks appropriately and knows what rules to obey.

Because the word civilisation has multiple meanings and connotations, which vary from person to person, from context to context and from one time to another, some discussions about it mix emotional and logical matters. Contrary to its positive connotations, a civilisation, in the scholarly meaning, is not necessarily a good thing: it might be a dictatorial exploitative empire. In the everyday meaning of being civilised, it sounds better than being uncivilised. Empires that have caused unspeakable suffering sound better when they are called civilisations. Some mass murderers are, in everyday interactions, polite, rational and well-dressed: being civilised in this sense is no guarantee of moral worth.


Civilised?

Positives

Many of the features of human society that today are widely lauded were first developed in the West or were developed most fully in the West. These might be called the achievements or contributions of Western civilisation.

The ancient Greeks developed a form of collective decision-making in which citizens deliberated in open forums, reaching agreements that then became policy or practice.[4] This is commonly called democracy. In ancient Greece, women, slaves and aliens were excluded from this process, but the basic idea was elaborated there.

Many centuries later, several revolutions (including those in France and the US) overthrew autocracies and introduced a form of government in which citizens voted for representatives who would make decisions for the entire community. This was quite unlike democracy’s roots in ancient Greece, but today it is also commonly called democracy, sometimes with an adjective: liberal democracy or representative democracy. Voting initially was restricted to white male landowners and gradually extended to other sectors of the population.

Commonly associated with representative government are civil liberties: freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom from arbitrary search, arrest and detention, freedom from cruel treatment. These freedoms, or rights, resulted from popular struggles against tyranny, and are commonly seen as a special virtue of the West, a model for the rest of the world. Struggles over these sorts of freedoms continue today, for example in campaigns against discrimination, surveillance, slavery and torture.

Another contribution from the West is art and, more generally, cultural creations, including architecture, sculpture, painting, music, dance and writing. While artistic traditions are found in societies across the world, some of these, for example ballet and classical music, have been developed in the West to elaborate forms that require enormous expertise at the highest levels, accompanied by long established training techniques for acquiring this expertise.[5]

In the West, manners have evolved in particular ways. On formal occasions, and in much of everyday behaviour, people are mostly polite in speech, conventional in dress, proper in their manner of eating, and modest in their excretions.[6]

The industrial revolution had its home in the West. The development and use of machinery, motorised transport, electricity and many other technological systems have made possible incredible productivity and greatly increased living standards. This has involved inventions and their practical implementation, namely innovation. The West has contributed many inventions and excelled in the process of innovation.

Modern systems of ownership, commercial exchange and employment, commonly called capitalism, developed most rapidly and intensively in the West and were then exported to the rest of the world.

Questioning the positives

The positives of Western civilisation can be questioned in two ways: are they really Western contributions, and are they really all that good?

Representative government is commonly described as “democracy,” but some commentators argue that it is a thin form of democracy, more akin to elected tyranny. It has little resemblance to democracy’s Athenian roots. The ancient Greeks used random selection for many official positions, with a fairly quick turnover, to ensure that those selected did not acquire undue power. This was in addition to the assembly in which every citizen could attend and vote. Arguably, the ancient Greeks had a more developed form of “direct democracy,” direct in the sense of not relying on elections and representatives.[7]


The kleroterion, used for randomly selecting officials in ancient Athens

However, if direct democracy is seen as the epitome of citizen participation, then note should be made of numerous examples from societies around the world, many of them long predating agriculture. Many nomadic and hunter-gatherer groups have been egalitarian, with no formal leaders.[8] They used forms of consensus decision-making that are now prized in many of today’s social movements. There are examples of societies with non-authoritarian forms of decision-making in Africa, Asia and the Americas.

The Iroquois Confederacy in North America had a well-developed decision-making process that predated white American settlers by hundreds of years and, via Benjamin Franklin, helped inspire US democratic principles and methods.[9] A full accounting of the contributions of non-Western societies to models of governance remains to be carried out.[10]

Modern-day civil liberties are needed to counter the repressive powers of the state. However, in egalitarian societies without states, civil liberties are implicit: members can speak and assemble without hindrance. From this perspective, “civilisation” involves citizens of a potentially repressive state congratulating themselves for managing to have a little bit of freedom.

The industrial revolution is commonly attributed to the special conditions in Europe, especially Britain. This can be questioned. It can be argued that Western industrial achievements were built on assimilating superior ideas, technologies and institutions from the East.[11]

As for the West’s cultural achievements, they need to be understood in the context of those elsewhere. Think of the pyramids in Egypt, the work of the Aztecs, the Taj Mahal. Think of highly developed artistic traditions in India, China and elsewhere.

Negatives

Western societies have been responsible for a great deal of killing, exploitation and oppression. Colonialism involved the conquest over native peoples in the Americas, Asia, Africa and Australasia. Europeans took possession over lands and expelled the people who lived there. In the course of European settlement, large numbers of indigenous people were killed or died of introduced diseases. The death toll was huge.[12]

In imperialism, which might be called non-settler colonialism, the European conquerors imposed their rule in damaging ways. They set up systems of control, including militaries, government bureaucracies and courts, that displaced traditional methods of social coordination and conflict resolution. They set up administrative boundaries that took little account of previously existing relationships between peoples. In South America, the administrative divisions established by Spanish and Portuguese conquerors became the basis for subsequent independent states.[13] In Rwanda, the Belgian conquerors implemented a formal racial distinction between Tutsis and Hutus, installing Tutsis in dominant positions, laying the basis for future enmity.[14]

Imperialism had a devastating impact on economic and social development. British rule over India impoverished the country, leading to a drastic decline in India’s wealth, while benefiting British industry.[15] Much of what was later called “underdevelopment” can be attributed to European exploitation of colonies.[16]

Another side to imperialism was slavery. Tens of millions of Africans were captured and transported to the Americas. Many died in the process, including millions in Africa itself.[17]

Imperialism and settler colonialism were responsible for the destruction of cultures around the world. The combination of conquest, killing, disease, exploitation, dispossession, divide-and-rule tactics and imposition of Western models undermined traditional societies. Some damaging practices were imported, including alcohol, acquisitiveness and violence. When Chinese leaders made attempts to stop opium addiction, British imperialists fought wars to maintain the opium trade. Colonial powers justified their activities as being part of a “civilising mission.”

It should be noted that many traditional cultures had their bad sides too, for example ruthless oppressors and harmful practices, including slavery and female genital mutilation. In some respects, Western domination brought improvements for populations, though whether these same improvements could have been achieved without oppression is another matter.

Colonialism was made possible not by cultural superiority but by superior military power, including weapons, combined with a willingness to kill. Europeans were able to subjugate much of the world’s population by force, not by persuasion or example.

In the past couple of centuries, the West has been a prime contributor to the militarisation of the world. Nuclear weapons were first developed in the West, and hold the potential for unparalleled destruction, a threat that still looms over the world. The only government to voluntarily renounce a nuclear weapons capacity is South Africa.

The problems with capitalism have been expounded at length. They include economic inequality, unsatisfying work, unemployment, consumerism, corporate corruption, encouragement of selfishness, and the production and promotion of harmful products such as cigarettes. Capitalist systems require or encourage people to move for economic survival or advancement, thereby breaking down traditional communities and fostering mental problems.

Industrialism, developed largely in the West, has had many benefits, but it also has downsides. It has generated enormous environmental impacts, including chemical contamination, species extinction and ocean pollution. Global warming is the starkest manifestation of uncontrolled industrialism.

Responsibility

What is responsible for the special features of Western civilisation, both positive and negative? One explanation is genetics. Western civilisation is commonly identified with white populations. Do white people have genes that make them more likely to create great works of art, or to be inventors, entrepreneurs or genocidal killers?

The problem with genetic explanations is that gene distributions in populations are too diverse to provide much guidance concerning what people do, especially what they do collectively. There is no evidence that Mozart or Hitler were genetically much different from their peers. There is too much variation between the achievements of brothers and sisters to attribute very much to genetics. Likewise, the rise and fall of civilisations is far too rapid for genetics to explain very much.


Stalin: genetically different?

More promising is to point to the way societies are organised. Social evolution is far more rapid than genetic evolution. Are the social structures developed in the West responsible for its beneficial and disastrous impacts?

The modern state is commonly said to have developed in Europe in the past few hundred years, in conjunction with the rise of modern military systems. To provide income for its bureaucratic apparatus, the state taxed the public, and to enforce its taxation powers, it expanded its military and police powers.[18] A significant step in this process was the French Revolution, which led to the development of mass armies, which proved superior to mercenary forces. The state system was adopted in other parts of the world, in part via colonialism and in part by example.

The state system can claim to have overcome some of the exploitation and oppression in the previous feudal system. It has also enabled massive investments in infrastructure, including in military systems, creating the possibility of ever more destructive wars as well as extensive surveillance. The French revolution also led to the introduction of the world’s first secret police, now institutionalised in most large states.[19]

If the West was the primary contributor to the contemporary state system, this is not necessarily good or bad. It has some positives but quite a few negatives.

A role for chance?

Perhaps what Western civilisation has done, positive and negative, shows nothing special about Western civilisation itself, but is simply a reflection of the capacities and tendencies of humans. Had things been a bit different, the same patterns might have occurred elsewhere in the world. In other words, the triumphs and tragedies of Western civilisation should be treated as human triumphs and tragedies, rather than reflecting anything special about people or institutions in the West.

On the positive side, it is apparent that people from any part of the world can attain the highest levels of achievement, whether in sport, science, heroism or service to the common good. The implication is that, in different circumstances, everything accomplished by lauded figures in the West could have been done by non-Westerners. Of course, there are many examples where this is the case anyway. Major steps in human social evolution — speech, fire, tools, agriculture — are either not attributed to a particular group, or not to the West. These developments are usually said to reflect human capacities. So why not say the same about what is attributed to a “civilisation”?

The same assessment can be made of the negatives of Western civilisation, including colonialism, militarism and industrialism. They might be said to reflect human capacities. Genocides have occurred in many parts of the world, and nearly every major government has set up military forces. Throughout the world, most people have eagerly joined industrial society, at least at the level of being consumers.

When something is seen as good, responsibility for it can be assigned in various ways. Leonardo da Vinci is seen as a genius. Does this reflect on him being a man or a person with opportunities? Is being white important? How should responsibility be assigned to the emergence of Hitler or Stalin?

Research on what is called “expert performance” shows that great achievements are the result of an enormous amount of a particular type of practice, and suggests that innate talent plays little role.[20] The human brain has enormous capacities, so the key is developing them in desirable ways. On the other hand, humans have a capacity for enormous cruelty and violence, and for tolerating it.[21]

Alternatives

For those critical of state systems, militarism and capitalism — or indeed anything seen as less than ideal — it is useful to point to alternatives.

One alternative is collective provision, in which communities cooperate to provide goods and services for all. This is a cooperative model, in contrast with the competitive individualistic model typical of capitalist markets.[22] In collective provision, “the commons” plays a key role: it is a facility available to all, like public libraries and parks. Online examples of commons are free software and Wikipedia, which are created by volunteers and available to all without payment or advertisements. Applied to decision-making, deliberative democracy is an alternative close to the cooperative approach.

The rise of capitalism involved the enclosure of lands that were traditionally used as commons. “Enclosure” here means takeover by private or government owners, and exclusion of traditional users. Contemporary proponents of the commons hark back to earlier times, before the enclosure process began.


Free software is a type of commons.

What is significant here is that commons historically, as highly cooperative spaces, developed in many places around the world. They are not a feature of a particular civilisation.

Another alternative is strategic nonviolent action, also called civil resistance.[23] Nonviolent action involves rallies, marches, strikes, boycotts, sit-ins and various other methods of social and political action. Nonviolent action is non-standard: it is defined as being different from conventional political action such as voting and electoral campaigning.

Social movements — anti-slavery, feminist, peace and environmental movements, among others — have relied heavily on nonviolent action. Studies show that nonviolent movements against repressive regimes are more likely to be effective than armed resistance.[24] Compared to the use of violence, nonviolent movements have many advantages: they enable greater participation, reduce casualties and, when successful, lead to greater freedom in the long term.

People have been using nonviolent action for centuries. However, the use of nonviolent action as a strategic approach to social change can be attributed to Mohandas Gandhi and the campaigns he led in South Africa and India.[25] Strategic nonviolent action has subsequently been taken up across the world.


Gandhi

So what?

Why should it make any difference whether Western civilisation is judged for its benefits or its harms? Why should people care about something so amorphous as “Western civilisation”?

Most people who live and work in Western countries make little significant contribution to something as massive as a civilisation. They might be likened to observers, analogous to spectators at a sporting match. Logically, there is no particular virtue in being a fan of a winning team. Similarly, there should be no particular glory in touting the achievements of the “civilisation” in which one lives. In practice, though, it seems as if some protagonists in the debate over Western civilisation do indeed identify with it.


Spectators watching gladiators

This is a psychological process called honour by association. It is apparent in all sorts of situations, for example when you tell others about the achievements of your family members or about meeting a famous person. There can be honour by association via the suburb in which you live, your occupation, your possessions, even the food you eat.

The point about honour by association is that, logically, it is not deserved. When, as a spectator, you bask in the glory of a winning team, you’ve done nothing particular noteworthy, aside perhaps from being part of a cheering crowd. The same can apply to being associated with the greatest accomplishments in the history of Western civilisation. If you are part of a long tradition of artistic, intellectual or entrepreneurial achievement, it sounds nice but says nothing about what you’ve done yourself. It is only honour by association.

The same applies to guilt by association, which might also be called dishonour by association. If your ancestors were racists or genocidal killers, why should that reflect on you?[26]

Another way to think about this is to note that no one chooses their own parents. Growing up as part of the culture in which one was born shows no special enterprise and should warrant no particular praise. Emigrants often show more initiative. For various reasons, they are not content with their place of birth and seek out more desirable locations to spend their lives and rear their children.

Why study Western civilisation?

Why study anything? Learning, in a systematic and rigorous fashion, has impacts independent of the subject studied. On the positive side, students learn how to think. In the humanities, they learn to think critically and to communicate in writing and speech. On the negative side, or ambiguously, they learn how to play the academic game, to be willing to subordinate their interests to an imposed syllabus, and to be obedient. Formal education has been criticised as preparation for being a reliable and obedient employee.[27]

More specifically, is there any advantage in studying Western civilisation rather than some other speciality? Proponents say students, and citizens, need to know more about the ideas and achievements that underpin the society in which they live. This is plausible. Critics say it is important to learn not only about the high points of Western civilisation but also about its dark sides. Many of the critics do precisely this, teaching about the history and cultural inheritance of colonialism and capitalism. Their concern about focusing on the greatest contributions from the West is that the negative sides receive inadequate attention.

There is another possible focus of learning: alternatives, in particular alternatives to current institutions and practices that would go further in achieving the highest ideals of Western and other cultures. For example, democracy, in the form of representative government, is studied extensively, but there is little attention to participatory alternatives such as workers’ control.[28] Formal learning in classrooms is studied extensively, but there is comparatively little attention to deprofessionalised learning.[29] Examples could be given in many fields: what exists is often taken as inevitable and desirable, while what does not exist is assumed to be utopian.

The next step after studying alternatives is studying strategies to move towards them. This is rare in higher education, though it is vitally important in social movements.[30]

Why study Western civilisation? One answer is to say, sure, let’s do it, but let’s also study desirable improvements or alternatives to Western civilisation, and how to bring them about.

Controversies over Western civilisation

Some controversies seem to persist indefinitely, regardless of arguments and evidence. The debate over fluoridation of public water supplies has continued, with most of the same claims, since the 1950s. There are several reasons why resolution of debates over Western civilisation is difficult.[31]

One factor is confirmation bias: people preferentially seek out information that supports their existing views, and they find reasons to dismiss or ignore contrary information.[32]

A second factor is the burden of proof. Typically, partisans on each side in a controversy assign responsibility to the other side for proving its case.

A third factor is paradigms, which are coherent sets of assumptions, beliefs and methods. The paradigms underpinning history and sociology are quite different from those used in everyday life.

A fourth factor is group dynamics. In polarised controversies, partisans mainly interact with those with whom they agree, except in hostile forums such as public debates.

A fifth factor is interests, which refer to the stakes that partisans and others have in the issues. Interests include jobs, profits, reputation and self-esteem. Interests, especially when they are substantial or “vested,” can influence individuals’ beliefs and actions.

The sixth and final factor is that controversies are not just about facts: they are also about values, for example about ethics and decision-making. This is true of scientific controversies and even more so of other sorts of controversies.

The upshot is that in a polarised controversy, partisans remain set in their positions, not budging on the basis of the arguments and evidence presented by opponents. It is rare for a leading figure to change their views. It is fairly uncommon for a partisan to try to spell out the strongest arguments for the contrary position. Instead, partisans typically highlight their own strongest points and attack the opponent’s weakest points.

My observation is that all these factors play a role in debates over Western civilisation. It is safe to predict that disagreements are unlikely to be resolved any time soon.

Acknowledgements

Over the years, many authors and colleagues have contributed to my understanding of issues relevant to this article.

Thanks to all those who provided comments on drafts: Paula Arvela, Anu Bissoonauth-Bedford, Sharon Callaghan, Lyn Carson, Martin Davies, Don Eldridge, Susan Engel, Anders Ericsson, Theo Farrell, Zhuqin Feng, Kathy Flynn, Xiaoping Gao, John Hobson, Dan Hutto, Bruce Johansen, Dirk Moses, Rosie Riddick, Nick Riemer, Denise Russell, Jody Watts, Robert Williams, Qinqing Xu and Hsiu-Ying Yang. None of these individuals necessarily agrees with anything in the article, especially considering that many commented only on particular passages.

Further comments are welcome, including suggestions for improving the text.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Footnotes

[1] My motivation for addressing this topic is the introduction of a degree in Western civilisation at the University of Wollongong and the opposition to it. I commented on this in “What’s the story with Ramsay?”, 7 March 2019, https://comments.bmartin.cc/2019/03/07/whats-the-story-with-ramsay/

[2] Thomas C. Patterson, Inventing Western Civilization (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1997), says the concept of civilisation, from the time it was first formulated in the 1760s and 1770s, has always referred to societies having a state and hierarchies based on class, sex and ethnicity. Often there is an accompanying assumption that these hierarchies are natural.

[3] On the idea of the savage as an enduring and damaging stereotype that serves as the antithesis of Western civilisation, see Robert A. Williams, Jr., Savage Anxieties: The Invention of Western Civilization (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).

[4] Mogens Herman Hansen, The Athenian Democracy in the Age of Demosthenes: Structure, Principles and Ideology (Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell, 1991); Bernard Manin, The Principles of Representative Government (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).

[5] Western classical music is not inherently superior to, say, Indian, Chinese, Japanese or Indonesian music. However, musical notation and public performance led in Western Europe to distinctive methods for training elite performers.

[6] Norbert Elias, The Civilizing Process: The History of Manners, volume 1 (New York: Urizen Books, 1978; originally published in 1939).

[7] David Van Reybrouck, Against Elections: The Case for Democracy (London: Bodley Head, 2016).

[8] Harold Barclay, People without Government (London: Kahn & Averill, 1982).

[9] For an account of academic and popular resistance to the idea that the Iroquois Confederacy influenced the US system of democracy, see Bruce E. Johansen with chapters by Donald A. Grinde, Jr. and Barbara A. Mann, Debating Democracy: Native American Legacy of Freedom (Santa Fe, NM: Clear Light Publishers, 1998).

[10] See Benjamin Isakhan and Stephen Stockwell, eds., The Edinburgh Companion to the History of Democracy (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012) for treatments of pre-Classical democracy, and much else.

[11] John M. Hobson, The Eastern Origins of Western Civilisation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

[12] John H. Bodley, Victims of Progress (Menlo Park, CA: Cummings, 1975).

[13] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 1991, revised edition).

[14] Mahmood Mamdani, When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism, Nativism, and the Genocide in Rwanda (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001).

[15] Shashi Tharoor, Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India (London: Penguin, 2017).

[16] Walter Rodney, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (Washington, DC: Howard University Press, 1974).

[17] For a detailed account of the horrors of colonialism in the Congo, and of the struggles to set the narrative about what was happening, see Adam Hochschild, King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998).

[18] Bruce D. Porter, War and the Rise of the State: The Military Foundations of Modern Politics (New York: Free Press, 1994); Charles Tilly, Coercion, Capital, and European States, AD 990–1992 (Cambridge MA: Blackwell, 1992).

[19] Thomas Plate and Andrea Darvi, Secret Police: The Inside Story of a Network of Terror (London: Sphere, 1983).

[20] Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise (London: Bodley Head, 2016).

[21] Steven James Bartlett, The Pathology of Man: A Study of Human Evil (Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas, 2005).

[22] Nathan Schneider, Everything for Everyone: The Radical Tradition that Is Shaping the Next Economy (New York: Nation Books, 2018).

[23] Gene Sharp, The Politics of Nonviolent Action (Boston: Porter Sargent, 1973).

[24] Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict (Columbia UP, New York, 2011).

[25] M. K. Gandhi, An Autobiography or the Story of My Experiments with Truth (Ahmedabad: Navajivan, 1940, second edition).

[26] This is different from institutional responsibility. When politicians give apologies for crimes committed by governments, they do so as representatives of their governments, not as personal perpetrators.

[27] Jeff Schmidt, Disciplined Minds: A Critical Look at Salaried Professionals and the Soul-battering System that Shapes their Lives (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000).

[28] Immanuel Ness and Dario Azzellini, eds., Ours to Master and to Own: Workers’ Control from the Commune to the Present (Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books, 2011).

[29] Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society (London: Calder and Boyars, 1971).

[30] For example, Chris Crass, Towards Collective Liberation: Anti-racist Organizing, Feminist Praxis, and Movement Building Strategy (Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2013)

[31] This section draws on ideas outlined in my article “Why do some scientific controversies persist despite the evidence?” The Conversation, 4 August 2014, http://theconversation.com/why-do-some-controversies-persist-despite-the-evidence-28954. For my other writings in the area, see “Publications on scientific and technological controversies,” https://www.bmartin.cc/pubs/controversy.html.

[32] Raymond S. Nickerson, “Confirmation bias: a ubiquitous phenomenon in many guises,” Review of General Psychology, 2(2), 1998, pp. 175–220.

Wollongong: horror behind the scenes

Some of Wollongong’s most prominent figures were involved in sexually abusing boys. Residents might never have known about it except for media stories.


A scenic view of Wollongong

I’ve lived in Wollongong since 1986, yet there are lots of things I don’t know about the city. Some of the things I do know about, or think I know, are mainly due to news reports. One of them is paedophilia in high places.

News reports in the 1990s revealed that a previous mayor — the elected head of the local government — had run a paedophile ring, and another previous mayor was a suspected paedophile. These revelations were so striking that I saved some of the newspaper reports about them. Recently I read them again. They paint a grim picture, and provide a lesson in how a city’s public face can conceal horrible activities.

Here I summarise some of the media revelations, focusing on three individuals: Tony Bevan, Michael Evans and Frank Arkell. Links are given to articles published at the time, which give more details.

Bevan

On 9 March 1995, the front page of the Illawarra Mercury — Wollongong’s only daily newspaper — had a huge headline: “Former mayor ran child sex ring.”


Tony Bevan

Tony Bevan had been mayor and a pillar of the community. He died in 1991, leaving behind numerous tape recordings he had made of conversations with politicians, businessmen and other paedophiles. These tapes were obtained by the Mercury. The newspaper published transcripts of some of the recordings. The story summed up the findings in this way

Bevan ran a paedophile “school” where Illawarra and Sydney boys were seduced and manipulated. They were then used to sexually service Bevan and his friends.

Bevan and his paedophile associates in Sydney controlled a youth refuge where boys were kept before being sent to work as prostitutes in Kings Cross [a Sydney red-light district].

Bevan was involved in bringing young Filipino boys to Australia to work as prostitutes.

Bevan pimped for influential Illawarra, Australian and foreign paedophiles — offering boys who provided sexual favours.

An international paedophile network exists that allows those “in the club” to access boys worldwide.

The Bevan Tapes also identify 15 Australian paedophiles associated with Bevan as well as a number of corrupt officials in the Philippines.

Evans

On 22 July 1995, the Sydney Morning Herald — the most prestigious daily newspaper in Sydney — ran a story titled “Brotherly love.” It told about the Christian Brothers, a Catholic religious order, which runs schools throughout Australia. In particular, the story told about some members of the Christian Brothers who had been accused of paedophilia. The lead character in the story was Michael Evans, who in 1982 became head of Edmund Rice College, a Catholic boys high school in Wollongong.

During his years in Wollongong, Evans became its most prominent Catholic figure. Then in 1993, a story in the Illawarra Mercury about an alleged indecent assault ended his career ambitions. Evans left town. In 1994, he was served with an arrest warrant over an indecent assault on a teenage student. The next day he committed suicide.

From 1995 to 1997, there was a royal commission into the New South Wales Police Service, often called the Wood royal commission. It was not one of those inquiries that quietly reinforces the status quo. Unusually, it was a crusading commission, using its extraordinary powers to shine a spotlight on police corruption. The public hearings received saturation news coverage.

Among other things, the commission looked into policing and paedophilia. As reported in a front-page story in the Illawarra Mercury on 17 April 1996, a priest testifying at the commission criticised Wollongong’s Catholic Bishop William Murray and a high-ranking police officer for not acting against Evans. It was reported that even before being appointed head of Edmund Rice College, allegations of sexual abuse had been made against Evans. The church hierarchy did not act on them. The police had also been notified, but Sergeant David Ainsworth decided not to take action.


Michael Evans

Media coverage stimulated the police to reopen the case. A 20 April 1996 story in the Sydney Morning Herald summed up what happened after allegations about Evans were made to the bishop.

… Brother Evans’s career, far from being stymied, flourished in the years that followed. He had a popular Sunday night radio program …, wrote a column for the Illawarra Mercury, opened the youth refuge Eddy’s Place in 1988 and basked in the image of a man dedicated to caring for Wollongong’s youth.

The Illawarra Mercury played a major role in exposing prominent figures who were paedophiles. The editor-in-chief at the time, Peter Cullen, took the lead in both exposing and condemning sexual abuse in the church. A Wollongong priest, Father Peter Comensoli, was sentenced to 18 months in prison for sexually molesting teenage boys. In a column castigating the church for leaving open the possibility of Comensoli returning to the priesthood, Cullen concluded by writing

To this day, none of Comensoli’s victims, their parents or family have received any communication from the Catholic Church expressing sorrow or regret at what happened.

Not a line, not a phone call. They are still waiting.


Peter Cullen in front of Mercury headlines

Another Mercury story reported on testimony before the royal commission by Bev Lawson, chief superintendent, who commented critically about Wollongong police not following up in their investigation of child sexual abuse allegations. Sergeant David Ainsworth had left messages with the bishop asking for an interview. The bishop didn’t respond, and Ainsworth decided not to pursue the matter.

It seems that, in Wollongong, leading figures in the Catholic Church and in the police were reluctant to investigate allegations of sexual abuse. The media, and media coverage of royal commission hearings, were what pushed matters along.

Arkell

Frank Arkell was mayor of Wollongong from 1974 to 1991. He was widely known for his promotion of “Wonderful Wollongong,” taking every opportunity to advocate for the city, which went through difficult times economically, especially in the early 1980s.

After losing office in 1991, things went downhill for Arkell. In 1994, he was accused in state parliament of sex offences. During the police royal commission, he was called to give evidence but pleaded illness. The commission, with other matters at hand, decided not to pursue him further. But subsequently police mounted a case against him.

Then on 28 June 1998 there was a spectacular headline in the Sun-Herald, a major Sydney Sunday newspaper: “Child sex MP slain.” Arkell had been murdered in his home, beaten to death. His Rotary badge was stuck in an eye and tiepins were stuck in his cheeks.


Frank Arkell

Arkell’s murder opened the floodgates for reporting and commentary. Arkell was dead and couldn’t sue for defamation, so gloves were off. The lllawarra Mercury ran eight pages of special coverage, with the main story by editor-in-chief Peter Cullen. Cullen wrote:

Some of our community leaders are saying Arkell put Wollongong on the map.

I agree. He did. But for all the wrong reasons — for his double life, the sinister side which resulted in his being charged with sex offences against teenage boys, now grown men with their lives torn apart.

Arkell’s life is over. For some of his victims, their lives finished years ago.

Arkell was relentless in blaming The Mercury for his fall from grace. At every opportunity he condemned the newspaper, pleaded with people not to buy it, and said he would not stop until we answered for our sins.

He had sued for defamation.

We were not fazed by that and intended to defend our wicket with every resource at our disposal.

However, let’s get a few facts straight. It was the Wood Royal Commission and its investigators who caused most of Arkell’s heartache.

They produced three alleged victims, all strangers to The Mercury. They went before the commission under code names and made damning allegations against Arkell.

Yet, when Arkell had the chance to enter the witness box and refute the allegations, he ducked it.

Instead, he produced a statement and his solicitors presented a sick certificate to the commission as a reason why Arkell could not attend.

The following day The Mercury interviewed Arkell, and he told us he felt fine.

In other stories after Arkell’s murder, the question was raised whether the media, once the restraint of being sued for defamation was removed, had been too harsh on Arkell. Another story asked why people in Wollongong did not seem appalled at Arkell’s murder.

In August, a lengthy story, “City of secrets,” appeared in the Good Weekend, the magazine of the weekend edition of the Sydney Morning Herald. The author, Richard Guilliatt, linked Wollongong’s working-class masculinity and Catholic morality with the seamy activities that had been revealed by the royal commission.

It now transpires that Wollongong was run for 20 years by two mayors who preyed sexually on their teenage constituents, and that a raft of well-to-do figures — the headmaster of the local Catholic boys’ college, a local councillor with five children, a rotund industrialist who drove around town in a Rolls-Royce, a Catholic priest, a local restaurant manager, a shark-patrol pilot — molested dozens of boys for years with apparent impunity.

Guilliatt pointed out that homophobia was very strong in Wollongong, especially compared to Sydney. Bevan and Arkell would never have been elected had they been openly gay. In 1984, Arkell actually voted against legalising homosexuality. Ironically, said Guilliatt, Arkell would have had a stronger defence against the allegations against him if he had acknowledged being gay: he could have said he was mistaken about the boys’ ages.

Guilliatt questioned some of the allegations about Arkell, who might have been found not guilty in court. The “vigilante” who murdered him pre-empted the verdict.

I have no way of judging the allegations myself, though one of my colleagues told me that one night he witnessed Arkell leaving the Council building at midnight, with a young boy on each hand.


The Council building in Wollongong

Lessons

One lesson from these stories is that public figures may not be what they seem. Even in private they can lead double lives. According to news reports, some of Bevan’s friends had no idea anything untoward was happening, and a longtime friend of Arkell’s thought he was heterosexual.

One reason Bevan, Evans and Arkell were able to maintain their public façades for so long was that the church hierarchy and the police did little to act on complaints about abuses. For those who had been abused, or who knew them and heard their stories, it seemed no one in authority was willing to act.

The role of the media was crucial. To my knowledge, no academics have investigated the Wollongong story. For a blow-by-blow account of the murder of Arkell, and two related murders, see John Suter Linton, Bound by Blood: The True Story Behind the Wollongong Murders (Allen & Unwin, 2004).


In 2012, former Edmund Rice College Brother John Vincent was sentenced to at least six years in prison for sexual offences in the 1980s.

Apparently, in the media the allegations were known for a long time, but nothing could be reported because of the risk of being sued for defamation. The result is a tainted legacy: after Bevan, Evans and Arkell died, their reputations were trashed. Some might say deservedly so, but they were no longer around to contest claims made about them.

In Wollongong, media revelations occurred because the editor-in-chief of the Illawarra Mercury, Peter Cullen, personally campaigned against paedophilia. In the Sydney media, those opposed to homophobia were caught in a bind. Paedophilia in high places was a big story, but it could harm the struggle for gay rights.

There was also another factor, highlighted in Gulliatt’s story about Arkell. He had done more than anyone else to promote Wollongong, especially when its fortunes were at an ebb. To raise allegations about his personal life could also harm Wollongong’s reputation, in a process of guilt by association. Some people may have preferred that the paedophilia story be quietly forgotten.

If you know about criminal or unethical action by people in high places, what should you do? This is especially difficult if your own status has been tarnished. It is seldom easy to admit being duped or abused. Many of those victimised by paedophiles felt ashamed, and their lives had gone downhill. Who will believe you? Who should you trust to take action?

In the Wollongong paedophilia chronicles, the answer was not the police and not the church hierarchy. The most effective avenue for redress was the media, even though the resulting publicity did not offer the protections of a court trial. But surely trial by media was preferable to the vigilante justice that claimed Arkell’s life.

Postscript

Things may be better in Wollongong. There haven’t been as many stories about high-level paedophiles. Edmund Rice College is under new leadership. Homophobia is less vicious. Perhaps Arkell’s sales pitch of “wonderful Wollongong” is more credible these days. But who knows for sure?

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Sources (in chronological order)

Brett Martin, “Former mayor ran child sex ring,” Illawarra Mercury, 9 March 1995, pp. 1, 6–8.

Richard Guilliatt, “Brotherly love,” Sydney Morning Herald, 22 July 1995, Spectrum pp. 1A, 4A.

Paul McInerney, “Priest damns bishop, senior police officer,Illawarra Mercury, 17 April 1996, pp. 1–2.

Richard Guilliatt, “Sins of the Brothers,” Sydney Morning Herald, 20 April 1996, p. 25.

Peter Cullen, “Catholic Church should defrock this molester,” Illawarra Mercury, 20 April 1996, p. 7.

Paul McInerney, “How the police blew it,” Illawarra Mercury, 23 April 1996, pp. 1, 4–5.

Liz Hannan and Anna Patty, “Child sex MP slain,” Sun-Herald, 28 June 1998, pp. 1, 6–7.

Peter Cullen, “Vigilante on the loose,Illawarra Mercury, 29 June 1998, pp. 1–8.

Kate McClymont, “The demise of a double life,” Sydney Morning Herald, 29 June 1998, p. 15.

Pilita Clark, “The media and the murder,” Sydney Morning Herald, 4 July 1998, p. 33.

Stefanie Balogh, “Killer wins kudos in a city as hard as steel,” The Weekend Australian, 4–5 July 1998, p. 12.

Richard Guilliatt, “City of secrets,” Sydney Morning Herald, 22 August 1998, Good Weekend  pp. 22–28.

(Some of the these citations include related stories by other authors.)

Some informative more recent treatments

Peter Newell, “Long struggle to expose evil abuse of children in the Illawarra,” Illawarra Mercury, 17 November 2012.

Angela Thompson, “Edmund Rice College was ‘a dumping ground’ for child sex predators: Stephen Jones MP,Illawarra Mercury, 16 June 2016.

Nick McLaren, “Frank Arkell: how a vicious murder unmasked a city’s darkest secrets,” ABC Illawarra News, 26 June 2018.

 

Truth versus bullshit

Who is responsible for fake news? And what can be done about it?

• Trump offering free one-way tickets to Africa & Mexico for those who wanna leave America.
• Police find 19 white female bodies in freezers with “Black Lives Matter” carved into skin.
• Donald Trump protester speaks out: “I was paid $3,500 to protest Trump’s rally”.

During the 2016 US election campaign, teenagers in the town of Veles in Macedonia found a way to make some money by posting material on big social media sites. Facebook gets its income from advertisements, and gives tiny payments to suppliers of content. The teenagers could make money if their material attracted lots of readers, so they made up outrageous stories that they thought would find an audience.

Some fake stories, from the teenagers or others, do find an audience, like the ones listed above about Trump and Black Lives Matter, which were among the top 15 fake news stories in 2016.

Veles, Macedonia

Some made-up stories seem so plausible that readers share them with their friends. As the shares and retweets multiply, a story begins trending. It might even be reported in the mainstream media.

So who is responsible? The Macedonian teenagers, for sure. But they wouldn’t bother except for the economic model provided by social media. The advertisers on social media usually don’t care; they benefit when a story generates lots of clicks. The mass media are hurting financially and so do much less fact-checking, so bogus stories sometimes are run. Then there are the readers – that’s us – who think a story is worth sharing and don’t take the trouble to check whether it’s genuine.

Post-truth

James Ball is an experienced journalist who cares about the news and is alarmed by its corruption. In his book Post-Truth he tells about the problem, those implicated in it, and what can be done about it.

The problem is far deeper than the spread of made-up stories. News can be distorted, one-sided and in other ways misleading. The label “fake news,” when used to refer to manufactured fantasies, is inadequate to capture the full extent of the problem.

Ball provides an informative and often eye-opening tour of the issues, giving numerous examples to illustrate his analysis and recommendations. Ball’s preferred term is “bullshit.” This refers to claims that are neither right nor wrong but rather indifferent to the truth. When bullshit fills the air, audiences may despair of figuring out what’s really going on and start distrusting every source of news, including the more established ones. The subtitle of Post-Truth is How Bullshit Conquered the World.

Ball starts with the seemingly obligatory stories of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, canvassing the use of bullshit in these campaigns. He then examines six groups involved in spreading bullshit. Politicians are important players, many of whom want to manipulate audiences and use public relations, spin and other techniques. Then there are “old media” – newspapers, television, radio – that play a big role in propagating dubious stories. As the old media are squeezed financially, they have less capacity to check sources and are more likely to run fake stories.

Ball continues through new media, fake media (such as created by the Macedonian teenagers) and social media. Each of these helps spread bullshit. As in the case of old media, economic imperatives are involved. Online, at least where advertising reigns supreme, getting clicks is currency, so it becomes attractive to run or allow stories with little checking.

The final of the six chapters on who is spreading bullshit is titled “… and you.” Audiences contribute to the problem. Ball cites the experience of a news operation created to provide quality news, with a more positive slant. It drew on research showing that people wanted more of this sort of news. The news operation soon folded. What people say they want (high quality news) is not necessarily what they actually end up buying or reading.

Is this what audiences really want to read?

Audiences are attracted by scandals, gore, celebrity gossip and stories that reinforce their pre-existing views. The various forms of media, to survive financially, pander to these audience preferences. In this sort of environment, Ball says, bullshit thrives. Audiences are thus part of the problem.

A study of Twitter found that half the people who retweet a news story never bother even to read it. The implication is that people are reacting so quickly that they are driven by emotion rather than careful reflection. This is fertile ground for bullshit. It’s only possible to dream up some claim that appeals to readers’ gut reactions, namely something they’d like to believe is true, and then it starts spreading wildly with little or no scrutiny.

What to do

After explaining the problem, telling who is spreading bullshit and why, Ball turns to solutions. One of them is fact-checking. Some large media organisations, such as the New York Times, employ fact-checkers, and there are now a number of independent bodies undertaking this role.

Fact-checking is valuable, but Ball says it’s not a full solution. One shortcoming is that fake news runs far ahead of fact-checkers. Most news consumers read the politician’s lie or the fake story and never get around to seeing what fact-checkers say about it.

There’s also a deeper matter: manufactured news items are only part of the problem. The majority of suspect claims are some combination of right and wrong. They may be biased, selective or misleading, and not easily amenable to fact-checking.

What else? Ball provides advice for politicians, media and news consumers. For example, one piece of advice for politicians is not to explain why the opponent’s claim is wrong, because this just highlights the claim. Explaining why alarms about terrorism are misleading only makes terrorism more salient. It’s better to reframe the issue, namely to provide a different narrative.

One of Ball’s recommendations for media is to be careful about headlines, making sure they capture the key ideas in stories. Because many readers share stories based solely on headlines, some traditional headline-writing techniques need to be rethought.

Finally, Ball has recommendations for readers and voters. One of them is to put effort into thinking about stories and not just reacting to them emotionally. Another is to question the narratives that you believe as much or more as the ones you don’t believe. He also suggests learning basic statistics so you can assess claims made in the media.

James Ball

Collective action

All of Ball’s suggestions are worthwhile. If taken up, they would do a lot to change the media environment. But what would encourage people to follow his suggestions? Ball’s own analysis of the problem shows that politicians and the media are captives of large-scale processes, especially economic imperatives and audience emotional responses.

For decades, scholars and critics have been examining media cultures, especially the news, showing all sorts of systemic problems. Journalists and editors treat events as newsworthy when they conform to what are called “news values.” For example, prominent people involved in conflicts are more newsworthy than ordinary people behaving amicably. Hence, Trump’s campaign for a wall receives saturation coverage while amicable relations between people living near the border between Mexico and the US seldom warrant front-page media stories.

Ball doesn’t address the systemic biases in mass media coverage that pre-dated the rise in what he calls bullshit. His analysis is illuminating but needs to be supplemented.

The rise in use of the term “post-truth”

Is there any hope? A few readers of Post-Truth will take up Ball’s suggestions, but for major change, collective action is necessary. The lesson from history is that social movements are needed to bring about change from below. An individual can seek to reduce personal greenhouse gas emissions, but to tackle global warming, mass action is needed.

What sort of collective action can make a difference regarding the news? There are signs in what is already happening in circles where accurate information is vital.  

When filter bubbles are needed

The mass media have a strong preference for reporting events involving violence: “if it bleeds, it leads.” This is frustrating for proponents of nonviolent action, especially when there is little media coverage of a large peaceful protest or the reports are about a minor scuffle rather than the issues at stake.

The methods of nonviolent action include strikes, boycotts, sit-ins, occupations and rallies. Research shows that nonviolent campaigns are more effective in overthrowing repressive regimes than armed struggle. Nonviolent action is the preferred approach of most social movements, including the labour, feminist, environmental and peace movements. Yet despite its effectiveness and widespread use, nonviolent action is marginalised in mass and social media coverage.

Mass prayer: not newsworthy

There’s an obvious reason for this. Nonviolent activists have no wealthy and powerful backers. In contrast, hundreds of billions of dollars annually are spent on militaries, with the full backing of governments and associated corporations. It is not surprising that media coverage follows power and money. Furthermore, the news values used by journalists to judge newsworthiness lead to a neglect of nonviolent alternatives.

In this context, nonviolent campaigns need to create their own news ecosystem, circulating information through sympathetic newsletters and websites. Getting rid of fake news and bullshit is fine for the dominant military approach but would do little to make audiences more aware of nonviolent options.

Voting is governments’ preferred method of citizen involvement in politics. Besides voting, there are numerous methods that enable citizens to participate in the decisions affecting their lives, such as initiatives and referendums. A method I find appealing is citizens juries, in which randomly selected citizens hear evidence and arguments about a contentious community issue, deliberate about it and make a recommendation.

Citizens panel, Riga

However, alternatives to representative government have hardly any profile in the media. There is massive coverage of politicians, including their campaigning, policies, foibles and infighting, but almost none about participatory alternatives to the system in which elections and politicians are dominant. This means that campaigners for such alternatives need dedicated sources of information to find out about research and action, and to maintain their commitment.

Many social movements that are today considered progressive have struggled in the face of hostile media environments. Ball’s concerns about the rise of bullshit and the problems in gaining access to information are warranted. But for those seeking to challenge perspectives based on massive money, power and ideology, it has never been easy.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Trusting people and machines

Trust is fundamental to human activities. How is it changing?

Would you trust Sophia, a robot that is a citizen of Saudi Arabia?

On a day-to-day basis, people put a lot of trust in others. As I walk down a suburban street, I trust that a driver will follow the curve of the road rather than drive straight into me. The driver trusts the engineers who designed the car that it will not explode, at least not on purpose. Buying an aspirin is premised on trusting the chemists and manufacturers that produced the drug.

            When trust is betrayed, it is a major issue. When, last year in Australia, a few needles were discovered in strawberries and other fruit, it was national news. People normally assume that fruit purchased from a shop has not been tampered with.

            Paedophilia in the churches was covered up for decades. When it was finally exposed, it destroyed a lot of trust in church leadership and the church as an institution.

            Scientific knowledge is based on observation, experiment and theorising, but also relies heavily on trust between scientists, who need to rely on each other to report their findings truthfully. This helps explain the enormous condemnation of scientific fraud, when scientists manipulate or fake their results.

            In certain areas, public trust has plummeted in recent decades: trust in public institutions including government, corporations and the mass media. Opinion polls show large declines. In Australia, trust in financial institutions had been dropping due to scandals, and that was before the royal commission revealed widespread corruption. When people can’t trust their financial advisers, what should they do?

Public trust in Greek institutions has plummeted.

            In order to ensure fairness and good practice, governments set up watchdog bodies such as ombudsmen, environmental protection authorities, anti-corruption commissions and auditor-generals. One of the casualties of the banking royal commission has been the credibility of financial watchdogs such as the Australian Securities & Investment Commission (ASIC). Rather than sniffing out bad practice, they were complacent. Whistleblowers reported problems, but ASIC ignored them. The message is that members of the public cannot rely on watchdog bodies to do their job.

Who can you trust?

Rachel Botsman has written an insightful and engaging book titled Who Can You Trust? She argues that in human history there have been three types of trust.

            First was local trust, based on personal experience in small communities. If someone you know helps, or fails to help, in an hour of need, you can anticipate the same thing in the future. Local trust is still relevant today, in families and friendships. People learn who and when to trust through direct experience.

            Next came institutional trust, in churches, militaries, governments, and professions such as medicine and engineering. People trusted those with greater authority to do the right thing. In the 1950s, high percentages of people in countries such as the US said they had a great deal of trust in their political leaders. However, institutional trust has taken a battering in recent decades.

“So why is trust in so many elite institutions collapsing at the same time? There are three key, somewhat overlapping, reasons: inequality of accountability (certain people are being punished for wrongdoing while others get a leave pass); twilight of elites and authority (the digital age is flattening hierarchies and eroding faith in experts and the rich and powerful); and segregated echo chambers (living in our cultural ghettoes and being deaf to other voices).” (p. 42)

            Botsman writes about the rise of a third type of trust: distributed trust. People trust in systems that involve collective inputs, often anonymous.

Distributed trust

Suppose you want to see a recently released film. If you rely on local trust, you ask your friends what they thought of it. If you rely on institutional trust, you see what the producers say about their own film: read the advertisements. Or you can rely on distributed trust. For example, you can look up the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) and see what different film critics have said about the film, see what audience members have said about the film and see the average rating audiences have given the film.

            If you take into account audience ratings from IMDb, you are trusting in two things. First, you’re assuming that audience members have given honest ratings, and that the film’s promoters aren’t gaming the system. Second, you’re assuming that IMDb’s method of collecting and reporting ratings is honest. After all, IMDb might be getting payoffs from movie producers to alter audience ratings.

            Botsman says distributed trust seems to be reliant on technology but, ultimately, human judgement may be required. Of course, people design systems, so it’s necessary to trust the designers. However, after a while, when systems seem to be working, people forget about the designers and trust the technology.

            One of Botsman’s examples is the self-driving car. Developers have put a lot of effort into figuring out what will make passenger/drivers feel safe in such cars. This sounds challenging. It turns out that the main problem is not building trust, because after being in a self-driving car it seems quite safe. The problem is that drivers become too trusting. Botsman thinks her young children will never learn to drive because self-driving cars will become so common.

            Botsman has a fascinating chapters on the darknet, a part of the Internet frequented by buyers and sellers of illegal goods, among other nefarious activities. Suppose you want to buy some illegal drugs. You scroll through the various sellers and select your choice. How can you be sure you’ll receive the drugs you ordered (rather than adulterated goods) or that the seller won’t just run off with your money and not deliver the drugs? Botsman describes the trust-building mechanisms on the darknet. They include a rating service, rather like Amazon’s, and an escrow process: your payment is held by a third party until you’re satisfied with the goods. These darknet trust-enablers aren’t perfect, but they compare favourably with regular services. It turns out that trust is vital even when illegal goods are being bought and sold, and that reliable systems for building and maintaining trust are possible.

            In Sydney, a high-rise apartment building called the Opal Tower had to be evacuated after cracks were found in the construction. Experts debated when it was safe for residents to return to their units. Some commentators blamed the government’s system for checking compliance to building codes. Could trust in builders be improved by learning from the systems used on the darknet?

Blockchain

Botsman’s special interest is in the blockchain. You might have heard about the electronic currency called bitcoin. Used for purchases online, it can provide anonymity, yet embedded in the code is a complete record of every transaction. Furthermore, this record can be made public and inspected by anyone. It’s as if a bank published online every transaction, with amounts and dates, but without identifying who made them.

            Botsman says bitcoin is a sideshow. The real innovation is the blockchain, the record-keeping code that enables reliable transactions without a middleman, such as a bank, taking a cut. It sounds remarkable, but blockchain-based operations have pitfalls. Botsman describes some disasters. When a new currency system was set up, someone found a glitch in the code and drained $60 million from the currency fund, one third of the total. The programmers and founders of the system were called in to intervene, which they did, preventing the extraction of currency.

            Blockchain seems not quite ready to provide a totally reliable trust system, one not reliant on human intervention. But lots of people are working to achieve this goal, as Botsman revealingly describes.

Trust and political systems

For me, the value of Who Can You Trust? is in highlighting the role of trust in contemporary life, especially as trust in institutions declines drastically. It made me think in a different direction: political alternatives.

Rachel Botsman

            The political philosophy of anarchism is based on the idea of self-management: people collectively make the crucial decisions affecting their lives without systems of hierarchy, namely without governments, corporations or other systems of domination. The usual idea is that there are assemblies, for example of workers who decide how to organise their work and what to produce. Assemblies elect delegates for coordination by higher-level groups.

            This model of self-management relies on two types of trust. The assemblies have to be small enough for dialogue in a meeting and thus rely on local trust. The delegate structure parallels distributed trust, as long as the delegates remain bound by their assemblies and acquire no independent power

            Another model is demarchy, which also dispenses with governments and corporations. In a local community, decision-making is carried out by citizens panels, with maybe 12 to 24 members each, whose members are selected randomly from volunteers. There could be panels for transport, manufacturing, art, education and a host of other topics. In essence, all the issues addressed by governments today are divided according to topic and allocated to randomly selected groups of citizens.

            Because they are randomly selected, panel members have no mandate, so their terms are limited. For coordination, experienced panel members would be elected or randomly chosen for higher-level panels.

            Demarchy relies on local trust, especially on the panels, and on distributed trust, namely trust in the system itself. This distributed trust is similar to the trust we have today in the jury system for criminal justice, in which randomly selected citizens deliberate together and make judgements. People trust a randomly selected person, who has no personal stake in the outcome, more than they are likely to trust a lawyer or a politician.

            Botsman’s analysis of trust and technology raises a fascinating option: what would it mean to combine distributed trust based on technology with the local/distributed trust in political systems like anarchism and demarchy?

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Is US politics a lost cause?

Many people despaired at the election of Donald Trump. But would things have been all that different if Hillary Clinton had become president?


Hillary Clinton and Warren Buffett

Anyone who follows politics in Western countries knows that the US is different from other liberal democracies. It is commonly noted that the US is the only country where there has been no major socialist or communist party. Its politics is skewed to the right.

This wouldn’t make all that much difference if the US were a small country like Estonia or Ireland. After all, every country has its own political peculiarities. But the US is a looming presence on the world stage, with nearly half of all military expenditures, military bases in dozens of countries, a disproportionate influence on world economic arrangements (usually to serve US-based massive corporations), and more generally a society that is dysfunctional in many ways. Among the world’s affluent societies, the US has the highest imprisonment rate, an extraordinary murder rate, the highest infant mortality rate, the lowest life expectancy despite the world’s highest per capita medical expenditure, and a shockingly high level of economic inequality.

            Although such statistics would cause leaders in other countries to be ashamed, US politicians and many citizens continually proclaim that the US is a shining beacon to the rest of the world. But that is another story.

US politics are so skewed to the right that the policies of conservative parties in many other countries would be seen as extreme left in the US and called socialist, used as a term of abuse and dismissal.

Since the 1980s, with the rise of neoliberalism in much of the world, many governments have adopted policies that benefit large corporations, disadvantage workers and hurt people in need. This process has been just as savage in the US, but starting from a worse position.

Decades ago, I read a book titled The Best Congress Money Can Buy. The author, Philip Stern, documented the way the US Congress is driven by campaign contributions. It’s possible to predict the votes of most members of Congress: the more money received from a group with a vested interest, the more likely the Congressperson’s vote will serve that interest.

My colleague Sharon Beder has written extensively on what she calls “business-managed democracy,” which basically means the manipulation and control of the system of representative government to serve the interests of big business.

Within the US, the Republican and Democratic parties are often seen as embodying right-wing and left-wing politics. However, the Democrats are left-wing only by contrast. Transposed to countries such as Australia, they would be on the far right.

Listen, liberal

In case you had any illusions about the Democrats, you should read Thomas Frank’s highly engaging and hard-hitting new book Listen, liberal, or, what ever happened to the party of the people?

The subtitle refers to “the party of the people”. That has been the self-image of the Democrats since the 1930s, during the great depression, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal” introduced welfare measures and when trade unions were recognised. The federal government came to play a much larger role in managing the economy. Since then, the Democrats have had the reputation of being pro-labour.


Roosevelt signs the Social Security Act, 1935

            Frank says all that has changed. He argues that since the 1990s, including with the presidencies of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, the Democrats have forgotten the working class and tried to distance themselves from the New Deal.

Frank’s diagnosis is harsh. He analyses all the major initiatives under the Clinton and Obama administrations, finding that poor people have been sacrificed. One example is the “welfare reform” bill passed under Clinton’s administration that removed benefits from struggling families, plunging them into abject poverty. Another is the crime bill that vastly expanded the prison population, with penalties that unfairly targeted African Americans.

If you read only the speeches by Clinton, Obama and other Democrat luminaries, you would not have an inkling of the problem, because rhetorically they continue to express concern about the struggles of “ordinary Americans”. What Frank has done is expose the policy reality behind the public rhetoric.

The new orientation of the Democrats

The Democrats have a new idol: the professional class and “innovation”. Frank reviews writings on what various writers have called the “new class” or the “professional-managerial class”. The traditional working class is in decline and a new group is in the ascendant, composed of lawyers, scientists, engineers, financial managers and a host of others with specialist training who reap rewards from the use of their intellects.

In the Democrats, the rise of this group is most clearly manifested in the appointments in the Clinton and Obama administrations. A large number of those chosen had degrees from Ivy League universities such as Harvard and Yale, in many cases advanced degrees. Not only are degrees from elite institutions prized: there is a great emphasis on these individuals being smart. Intelligence is the new currency for advancement.

Frank diagnoses the Democrats’ orientation as a commitment to meritocracy, which refers to a system in which those who have the most merit receive the greatest rewards. Attending Harvard is assumed to establish a person as worthy. In this way of seeing the world, being rich is the just outcome of a system that rewards performance. Inequality is the inevitable result of an unequal distribution of merit.

            Frank gives an extended treatment of Hillary Clinton’s politics. (He wrote the book before she lost the 2016 election.) She had many fine words about empowerment of women. How was this to be done? Basically, they just needed to be treated according to their merits. This is the usual prescription of liberal feminism, with the main concern being about well-off women held back from obtaining the very highest positions. As Frank notes, this offers little for the large numbers of women in the worst jobs, or without jobs, for whom equal opportunity is a pious phrase given structural conditions that keep them in their place.

Another feature of the Democrats’ political orientation is an adoration of innovation. Frank describes Boston’s Route 128 area of high-technology start-ups and universities, a haven of support for the Democrats and a model for what Democrat leaders see as the future for the country. Yet just fifty miles away, in the decaying rust-belt small town of Fall River, the desperate workers and townspeople are forgotten. These are the losers in the great transition to an innovation-driven future, and they are forgotten by the Democrats.

            Frank tells of Hillary Clinton’s hope for women worldwide. It is that they become entrepreneurs, running their own innovative businesses, following the footsteps of the multibillion-dollar tech companies. Micro-lending is touted as the salvation for Third World people in poverty, especially women, but, as Frank bitterly notes, it entwines them in the market and often makes them worse off than before.

So why do Democrats turn their back on the traditional working class? One answer is that they have a new source of support: high-tech business, providing ample donations to the Democrats. But campaign contributions are not the only factor, according to Frank. As noted, high-tech companies are exemplars of the success of the smartest people who went to the best universities, and they represent the triumph of innovation, seen as an unalloyed good. Meanwhile, the Democrats took for granted the support of working people. Where could they turn? (The answer: Trump.)

But could it have been any different? Perhaps the Democrats in power are so constrained by various powerful constituencies that doing something different is almost impossible. Frank has no time for this face-saving explanation. He points to the early days of Obama’s presidency. The economy was in peril due to the greed and shady operations of the bankers. This was a golden opportunity to shake up the system, and there were cries from across the country for the bankers to pay the penalty for their corrupt behaviour. So what did Obama do? He bailed out the banks with government money, leaving ordinary workers to pay for the damage. No bankers went to prison or were even charged. Instead, they got to keep their bonuses. Obama served the rich at the expense of the poor.

What next?

Listen, Liberal is an eloquent, impassioned complaint about the failure of the Democratic Party to address the plight of working class people in the US. But what are the implications? Frank hopes to raise awareness about what is happening, and does not propose solutions. In a long afterword written in 2017, after Trump’s election victory, he explains why Trump was so successful: he spoke to the people’s concerns about jobs and income. Frank has no illusions about Trump, anticipating that he will serve only the rich and betray the interests of his supporters. What Frank sees in Trump is the outcome of a two-party system that has offered no alternative to corporate globalisation and every-increasing economic inequality.

In US politics, the focus on the presidency is excessive. It’s as if everyone is looking for salvation from a supreme leader. This is misguided, but it is difficult to turn away from the spectacle. However, vast numbers of citizens have given up on electoral politics, at least if voter turnout is any indication.

What Frank does not describe are the many signs of hope. In my visits to the US, I have always been impressed by the high level of local activism on all sorts of issues. US activists are just as committed, insightful and resourceful as those in many other countries. The difference is that they have little visibility in the mainstream media and little effect on the positions of the major political parties. In Australia, reading the mainstream media, few would realise that after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, in parts of the US there were protests against the war for weeks, months and even years afterwards.

Frank doesn’t address this sort of grassroots activism, perhaps because it so often bypasses the political parties. Frank does not even mention the Occupy movement that originated in the US, spread worldwide and put economic inequality on the political agenda. The Occupy movement steadfastly refused to make formal demands of the political system, instead seeking to exemplify a participatory alternative to representative government.

In the US, there are numerous economists questioning the neoliberal model. There are proponents and promoters of local currencies, an alternative to the usual centralised money system. There are climate change and other environmental activists building local energy systems. There are numerous initiatives based around cooperative work, of which Wikipedia and free software are the most well known. There are campaigners for alternative forms of governance.

Frank is rightly depressed by the capitulation of the Democrats, as well as the Republicans, to big business. But instead of yearning for the Democrats to return to the New Deal of the 1930s, perhaps it is time to question the value of party politics altogether.


Thomas Frank

“It is time to face the obvious: that the direction the Democrats have chosen to follow for the last few decades has been a failure for both the nation and for their own partisan health. ‘Failure’ is admittedly a harsh word, but what else are we to call it when the left party in a system chooses to confront an epic economic breakdown by talking hopefully about entrepreneurship and innovation? When the party of professionals repeatedly falls for bad, self-serving ideas like bank deregulation, the ‘creative class,’ and empowerment through bank loans? When the party of the common man basically allows aristocracy to return?” (pp. 255-256)

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

A tale of two steel towns


Steelworks in Gary, Indiana, USA


Steelworks in Wollongong, Australia

I was born in Gary, Indiana, the city hosting the biggest steel manufacturer in the US. Now I live in Wollongong, the home of Australia’s largest steelworks. So I’ve moved from one steel town to another. There are several similarities between these two cities, and some striking differences.

Aerial view of Gary, with Lake Michigan in the distance

Gary is located on the shores of Lake Michigan, a huge inland lake, while Wollongong is adjacent to the Pacific Ocean.


Wollongong is sandwiched between the ocean and the escarpment, seen in the distance

In the mid 1900s, they each had about the same population, 200,000. The steelworks attracted large numbers of immigrant workers, mainly from Europe. At their peak, each of these two steelworks employed more than 20,000 workers but, following downsizing in the 1980s and technological advances, this number in each city is now less than 5000. Gary is not far from Chicago, one of the largest cities in the US, and Wollongong is not far from Sydney, Australia’s largest city. On the down side, both Gary and Wollongong have suffered from political corruption, and each city has significant areas of social disadvantage.

So much for similarities. The differences are striking and revealing. I’ll first tell about Gary and then Wollongong.

Gary

I lived in Gary only for my first year of life and have no memories of the city, so I’ve relied on treatments by others, including the books Big Steel by Edward Greer and Lost Gary Indiana by Jerry Davich. My mother, who worked in the Gary steel mill during World War II, has told me various stories.

         Gary was created as a steel town in 1906, and was for years a shining example of enlightened civic enterprise. This was reflected in the architecture, with impressive buildings, including schools, churches, railway station, apartment blocks and theatres. However, this illustrious beginning eventually came to dust.


City Methodist Church, Gary, about 1955

            Many blacks came to Gary for jobs in the steelworks. However, they faced serious discrimination, and most were restricted to living in less affluent parts of town. The racial polarisation was highlighted when a young black candidate, Richard Hatcher, ran for mayor in the 1967. The opposition of the white-dominated political establishment was extreme. Hatcher sought nomination by the Democratic Party, which controlled Gary’s politics: whoever was the Democrat’s candidate was assured of winning the general election.

The Democrat party machine used every possible means to oppose Hatcher. I can’t resist quoting a few details about this extraordinary campaign.

“Attempts by Hatcher’s white supporters to distribute their campaign literature in white neighborhoods were met by so many individual acts of violence that it was necessary to suspend the effort. It even became necessary to provide armed guards to protect the homes of his most publicly prominent white supporters.” (Big Steel, p. 43)

After Hatcher won the nomination, the Democrat party machine then refused to support him at the election, instead openly supporting the Republican candidate and using various methods of voter fraud. Hatcher was a threat to the machine’s control.

“Moreover, the machine was able to see to it – and did – that on election day numerous voting machines in the black precincts were ‘out of order.’ Hatcher’s organization prepared for this eventuality by hiring on its own over a dozen voting machine mechanics from nearby Chicago to be on hand on election day to fix broken machines. … And Gary police officers, who stood in front of polling booths in black neighborhoods to prevent their opening, were driven away by armed gangsters from outside the city hired by unknown persons prepared for this machine tactic.” (p. 49)

Despite the resistance, Hatcher won the election and became the first black mayor in a major US city.


Richard Hatcher

            Racial tensions in Gary helped trigger “white flight”: white residents moved out of the city limits to independent towns that are part of greater Gary. The city of Gary lost a lot of its tax base. There was not enough money to maintain major facilities, and declining population meant less income and patronage. One by one, major buildings were abandoned, some of them razed and others left derelict, because there was not enough money to demolish them.


City Methodist Church, now derelict

            As the city amenities disappeared, Gary became victim to ever more crime, causing further decline. Businesses closed and visitors stayed away. In all the United States, Gary was matched only by Detroit as an example of urban decay.


Union railway station, Gary, once impressive, now abandoned


Abandoned row of Edison-concept homes, Gary

Wollongong

Wollongong started off as a small town on the east coast of Australia, south of Sydney. It has an excellent deep-water harbour at Port Kembla, chosen as the site of what became Australia’s largest steelworks. The city of Wollongong gradually grew, but with relatively little industrial diversification. Healthcare and education are now the largest employers. Being close to Sydney, there are ever more Wollongong residents who commute to work in Sydney.

Wollongong has had its share of social dysfunction and political corruption. Despite rising affluence, there are serious problems due to unemployment, poverty, crime, drug use and gambling. The local government was the scene of a major corruption scandal, publicised in 2008 in hearings by the Independent Commission Against Corruption (my analysis). One former lord mayor, after he died, was exposed in the media as having run a paedophile ring. Another stepped down from office after declaring bankruptcy, thereby avoiding paying millions of dollars in a court action. I have heard stories of bribes offered to allocate preferences in local elections. However, this pales into insignificance compared to the history of political corruption in Gary.


Frank Arkell, long-serving lord mayor of Wollongong, later murdered

            Many people say Wollongong is like an overgrown country town. It has few distinctive buildings. The most prominent is the Nan Tien Buddhist temple that opened in 1995.


Nan Tien Temple, Wollongong

            Despite its shortcomings, Wollongong seems a model of harmony, honesty and civic pride compared to Gary. In Wollongong, there are numerous nationalities but in comparison relatively little discrimination. The most serious racism, as in Australia more generally, is directed against Aborigines. Aside from this, Australia’s version of multiculturalism seems relatively successful.

Although Wollongong has never had many impressive buildings like Gary, it has not suffered anything like Gary’s urban decay. To the contrary: downtown Wollongong is gradually adding a few sites of note, and customers continue to patronise local businesses.


The Council Building, one of Wollongong’s few civic buildings of any size or notability

Explaining the differences

Of the two steel towns, why has Wollongong managed to survive so much better than Gary? This is a big question and I will not try to provide a comprehensive answer but instead just point to a few relevant factors.


Wollongong railway station: modest but still functioning

In Gary, urban decay was triggered by “white flight” so that now 90% of the city’s population is African American. In Australia, there is no equivalent to the US history of slavery and subsequent institutionalised racial discrimination.

Another factor is the way local government is organised. In the US, many cities are surrounded by independent towns, each with its own government and police force, and sometimes its own schools, libraries and other services. Right next to Gary are quite a few such independent towns. Their existence means that residents of the legal entity called Gary can leave and live in a nearby town, such as Merrillville.

The information about Gary says the population peaked at 180,000 and has since declined to 80,000. So I thought this meant Gary and Wollongong had had roughly the same population. But then I looked up the population of the Gary metropolitan area. It is over 700,000. Metropolitan Gary is over twice as populous as Wollongong.


Aerial view of Gary, showing the numerous neighbouring independent towns

            In Australia, city names and populations refer to the metropolitan area, not a specific administrative entity. Administrative arrangements make something like white flight less plausible in Australia. In Wollongong, and indeed in the entire state of New South Wales, there is a single government school system and a single police force. It’s possible to move to a more affluent part of Wollongong, but this has a limited effect on tax revenues.

The implication is that US urban decay, and the phenomenon of ghettoes, is facilitated by the administrative arrangements that allow formation of separate towns with their own income and local schools.

Trade unions may be another factor. Wollongong has long had a strong progressive labour movement. One of the pioneering initiatives of Australian trade unions was “green bans.” These involve unions refusing to undertake work that would be environmentally or culturally damaging. The decision by workers to undertake a ban requires being approached by a community group.

The South Coast Labour Council, representing unions in the region, has occasionally put bans on development projects that would damage buildings considered to have heritage value. Although successes have been limited, the readiness of community and labour activists to protest may have helped prevent a more rampant destruction of Wollongong heritage in the name of development. Labour militancy may also have played a role in maintaining living standards for workers.


Wollongong coal miners on picket line, 2015

This comparison of Gary and Wollongong is at most suggestive. Not all US industrial towns have gone downhill. Comparisons of other US and Australian towns might give a different picture. Even so, there is potentially much to learn from making comparisons, and towns in other countries might be brought into the mix. If it turns out that administrative arrangements greatly affect  the way regions evolve, this might give impetus to reform that actually makes a difference.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Thanks to Anu Bissoonauth-Bedford, Sharon Callaghan,  Xiaoping Gao and Yasmin Rittau for valuable comments.

Boldly promoting alternatives

There’s a need for utopian visions presented as practical possibilities. Rutger Bregman shows how.

Free money for the poor

What should be done about homelessness? One idea is to give money to homeless people, no strings attached. What do you expect they will do with it? Use it for drugs or gambling? A common assumption is that homeless people have character defects and cannot be trusted.

The experiment has been done, in Britain, and homeless people turned out to be far more responsible than anticipated. Most of them used their gift carefully. Months later, the majority had found accommodation and otherwise improved their circumstances.

Actually, there have been quite a few experiences and studies of giving money to the poor and disadvantaged. Not only does the money help them, it actually saves money for the government. Costs of welfare, policing and courts go down. It seems like a win-win solution: help the disadvantaged and save money by doing it.

This is one of the arguments presented by Rutger Bregman in his fascinating and inspirational book Utopia for Realists. Bregman is an articulate advocate for a universal basic income: money paid to every member of society unconditionally. The benefits are manifold: savings for the government, reduced crime, improved civic participation, and more effort devoted to things people care about.

Seldom have I encountered the case for radical alternatives presented so cogently. I’ve read lots of books about social analysis, social change and visions for the future. Utopia for Realists is one of the most stimulating I’ve read for a long time. It summarises relevant research and observations in a clear and engaging fashion, presents arguments in a succinct fashion, and is written with an engaging turn of phrase. For the latter we can also thank Elizabeth Manton, who translated the book from the Dutch.

Work

Bregman delves into the history of work. In the 1930s, some leading economists predicted that within decades the work week would be greatly reduced, perhaps to only 15 hours. Economic productivity is great enough to provide for everyone and more. However, this is not the way things turned out. Instead of having ever more leisure, many workers are just as harried as ever while toiling at jobs they find unsatisfying.

Many jobs today, including many of the most high-paid ones, are unnecessary for human wellbeing. Examples include advertising, financial trading and manufacturing copycat pharmaceuticals. A cable was laid across the US so that financial information could be sent a few milliseconds faster, enabling the owners to skim extra money off the markets. Cost: $250 million. Examples of this sort of waste could be multiplied.

A fundamental problem is the way that goods and services are distributed. The usual mechanism is jobs: having a job entitles a worker to wages that can be used to buy goods and services. But this mechanism is increasingly dysfunctional when the economic system is capable of producing enough for everyone. Instead, Bregman argues, it would be better to provide a universal basic income, cut working hours, get rid of pointless and harmful work, and enable people to do things that are worthwhile.

A universal basic income would not be welfare in the usual sense. Today, in most countries, there are large bureaucracies providing all sorts of rules and barriers that frustrate and humiliate many of those seeking unemployment and other benefits. A universal basic income would be an entitlement. Bregman’s book, published in Dutch in 2014, has contributed to a vigorous discussion about this option.

As well as covering current arguments and research, Bregman looks at the history of the basic income option. It nearly became policy in the US in the early 1970s, under President Richard Nixon, until some evidence was brought to Nixon’s attention. Bregman analyses the evidence used to scuttle the plan, showing how it misrepresented events that occurred over a century earlier. This is just one example of how the past has been interpreted to support current policies.

“The welfare state, which should foster people’s sense of security and pride, has degenerated into a system of suspicion and shame. It is a grotesque pact between right and left. ‘The political right is afraid people will stop working,’ laments Professor [Evelyn] Forget in Canada, ‘and the left doesn’t trust them to make their own choices’. A basic income system would be a better compromise. In terms of redistribution, it would meet the left’s demands for fairness; where the regime of interference and humiliation is concerned, it would give the right a more limited government than ever.” (p. 45)

Poverty

Bregman’s concerns extend well beyond Europe, and include poverty worldwide. He gives figures showing that world poverty levels are declining, but notes that there is still a long way to go. What about foreign aid? It’s a drop in the bucket, and not necessarily effective. There are studies showing that giving poor people money is more effective than supporting development projects. There is now a booming business in doing comparative studies of foreign aid interventions, seeing whether they are more or less effective than doing nothing. Giving textbooks to a remote school may do nothing for children’s education, but health interventions, such as deworming, can lead to children obtaining several more years of schooling.

However, even the most effective of these interventions is nothing compared to the most powerful way to address world poverty: open borders. Allowing unrestricted immigration worldwide is utopian indeed. Bregman quotes figures showing that this would dramatically improve economic welfare, far exceeding any foreign-aid approach.

Open borders is so far off the political spectrum as to be dismissed outright. Yet there is a fundamental contradiction in the agenda of economic globalisation: borders are open for flows of goods, services and money, but only slightly ajar for movement of labour.

Bregman addresses all the standard fears and reservations. For example, open borders would not hurt incomes in affluent societies. He notes that when movement between Mexico and the US was easy, 85% of Mexican immigrants to the US eventually returned to Mexico. In recent decades, with the tightening of the border, only 10% return. This is just one of many counter-intuitive findings on this issue.

Bregman is realistic enough to say that open borders will not happen overnight, nor should it. His argument is that this utopian option should be put on the political agenda for discussion. Even a slight increase in immigration levels would have large economic benefits.

How to bring it about

Bregman is a fan of the power of ideas. He uses the example of neoliberalism to show what can happen. After World War II, ideological adherents of markets were a small group, out of favour, but they took their ideas forward and within a matter of decades they became dominant. Bregman believes a similar process could occur with ideas like a universal basic income and open borders.

I agree that ideas are important, especially when they can be woven into a persuasive narrative. Ideas about equality and participation have been vital in overcoming discrimination and domination. Nevertheless, ideas are not enough: they need to be linked to social movements, and creating or fostering a social movement is not easy, especially when opponents are powerful.

My reservations about the power of ideas stem in part from my own experience in promoting a utopian alternative. Social defence is nonviolent community resistance to aggression as an alternative to military defence. It sounds implausible but actually there are many suggestive precedents. In the 1980s, there were activist groups  in several countries promoting social defence, including in the Netherlands, Sweden, France, Italy and Australia. However, after the end of the cold war and the collapse of the massive movement against nuclear weapons, social defence faded from consideration. Yet military systems are alive and well and causing just as many problems as ever, and an alternative is needed.

Social defence is a threat not just to military systems but to governments and to corporate capitalism. When ordinary citizens have the skills and training to resist aggression, they can use those skills and training to oppose oppressive bosses in the workplace and repressive government policies.

The same sorts of considerations apply to the utopian possibilities presented by Bregman, namely a universal basic income, a 15-hour week and open borders. They are rational and feasible. They would save money and improve economic productivity. But they are threatening to the current system, in which inequality not only privileges the wealthy and powerful but provides scapegoats for those lower in the hierarchy. This is similar to the way patriarchy operates: the collective domination of men over women facilitates the domination of a few men over the rest.


Rutger Bregman

Although utopian ideas are not enough on their own, they are incredibly important, and Bregman provides a fresh and inspiring example of how to make utopias seem realistic. His book is the best possible advertisement for practical utopian thinking and campaigning. With its clear, no-nonsense arguments, engaging presentation and array of evidence, it is a model for anyone wanting to contribute ideas for a achieving a better world.

“The richer we as a society become, the less effectively the labor market will be at distributing prosperity. If we want to hold onto the blessings of technology, ultimately there’s only one choice left, and that’s redistribution. Massive redistribution. Redistribution of money (basic income), of time (a shorter working week), of taxation (on capital instead of labor), and, of course, of robots.” (p. 199)

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Questioning a Trump-making system

The election of Donald Trump has triggered a huge level of opposition. But should the focus be on Trump or the system that enabled him to become president?

            In the US, there is a continual preoccupation with the presidency. News media regularly report on the president’s statements and activities and on speculation about the next election. When people oppose the president’s actions, they usually think of who else might be president. Trump’s election has accentuated angst over who holds the office.

What is remarkable is that there is so little consideration of alternatives to electing a president, an official national leader. Why should one person be granted so much power, indeed the most power of anyone in the world? The usual answer is that this is democracy. But it is a very limited, indeed distorted, conception of democracy.

            Winston Churchill famously referred to the view that democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others. The quote doesn’t specify the other forms of government, which might be taken to be fascism, state socialism and other dictatorial systems. Churchill didn’t mention participatory alternatives in which there would be no single individual with extraordinary powers.

            In many domains, there are tremendous efforts to innovate. Think of communications technology, in which radio, television, computers and smartphones have transformed the way people interact. Think of transportation, with trains, bicycles, cars, and aeroplanes. Think also of social relationships, with campaigns to overthrow slavery, provide safe working conditions and promote equality for women.

Why not consider innovation in political systems? There is a strange sort of complacency about politics. Like Churchill, most people assume that representative government is the best possible system. This is analogous to not bothering to look at alternatives to radio or to sexual discrimination.

Random selection

The word “democracy” means rule by the people, but it has been hijacked and applied to systems that are actually rule by elected officials. The pioneering democracy, ancient Athens, offers a different picture. There were meetings of the assembly, in which all citizens could participate. More importantly, for practical purposes the most significant mechanism for choosing public officials was random selection, using a device called the kleroterion.


kleroterion

            David van Reybrouck in his book Against Elections describes the role of random selection in politics beginning in ancient Greece and continuing in Italy and other parts of Europe. He notes that for centuries, selecting public officials randomly was considered democratic, whereas using elections was the aristocratic approach. Then, as pressures for popular participation increased, elections were rebadged as democracy, thus constraining the more authentic approach.


David van Reybrouck

            Critics of democracy in ancient Athens point to groups excluded from participation: women, slaves and aliens. True enough. But similarly, early voting systems excluded women, slaves and men without property. The point is that a system can evolve. However, nearly all the effort to innovate has been within one model, elections. Innovation in the use of random selection has been rare — at least until recent years.

There is one venue where randomly selected decision-makers have maintained a role: court juries. However, judges and governments have constrained the roles of juries and limited the expansion of jury-style decision-making.

In the past few decades, there has been an upsurge in experiments with policy juries: groups of people, randomly chosen to address a policy issue, who listen to evidence on all sides of the issue and then seek to reach an agreed recommendation. Studies show that policy juries, also called citizens’ juries, usually lead to sensible recommendations. Members take the process extremely seriously and most find it engrossing and empowering. The experience with policy juries shows they are a reliable means of harnessing people’s concerns for the collective good.

            Expansion of the role of policy juries is one possible alternative to representative government. Yet governments, the ones now holding all the power to make policy, are usually resistant to introducing, or even testing, this alternative. And policy juries are only one example. There are other participatory options, such as workers’ control and Gandhian-style village democracy, that could be tested.

Learning from mistakes

Testing and learning from experience are the keys to improvement. Scientific research is one of the most dynamic systems in the world today. It relies on experiments and open publication of results, allowing scrutiny and testing of claims. This is a competitive system in which ideas are championed but all can be challenged. Although there are many shortcomings in this system, for example the influence of vested interests on research priorities, the system of scientific investigation is a model for dynamic improvement.

Testing and learning from experience are also central to the production of consumer goods. Again, there are many shortcomings in the system, for example the manipulation of needs through advertising, but competition has enabled dynamism. There are also dynamic non-capitalist production systems, for example the system for production of free software and the free encyclopaedia Wikipedia. Like science and consumer goods, they build on testing and learning from experience.

In contrast, political systems usually run as monopolies. Electing leaders is a great improvement on dictatorship, but it can hardly be claimed to be the best possible system when there is no testing of alternatives. It would be straightforward to set up a variety of political-system alternatives in local communities, letting them run long enough to see how they operate, and to study them to learn their strengths and weaknesses. This would be expensive, at least in the short term, but not compared to the potential benefits.

            So why aren’t political alternatives being tested? The obvious answer is that current power-holders don’t want things to change. They want to keep their power. Examining alternatives is a threat.

The lesson from the study of systems capable of dynamic improvement is that testing of alternatives and learning from both success and failure are crucial. Complaining about current politicians and their political decisions will remain important, but also needed is more effort to explore and test alternatives.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au