Treasury Bounce 2010


One of the tragedies of the failed New Labour experiment is that it was always based on a repudiation of all historical precedent. Alistair Darling seems to be feeling the pinch of this somewhat. He has attacked the Tories for fiddling the figures to make it appear that government borrowing over the next period will be higher than it actually is, and to pretend that the rate of growth will be lower, all in aid of their plan to slash away at jobs and public services.

I recently came across a very instructive lesson from history, from the notoriously dark decade of the 1970's, a decade we are repeatedly warned against returning to. As Andy Beckett makes clear in 'When the lights went out: What really happened in the 1970s', whenever the seventies are evoked we are shown a certain very partial picture, painted in stark and ominous Thatcherite tones, of what happened. We all know that in 1976 the prospects for the economy were so bad that Britain had to go 'cap in hand' to the IMF. But Beckett uncovers a darker and more complex picture of what went on.

Callaghan did indeed enter very lengthy negotiations with the IMF, which had recently shifted from its original remit to adopt what we now know to be a harsh neoliberal line. In return for the loan it demanded huge cuts in public services. The Prime Minister himself, along with his increasingly rightwing Chancellor Dennis Healey had already been implementing a series of cuts to public spending in response to a series of runs on the pound and was not entirely averse to more. But he did manage to bargain the IMF, which initially demanded cuts of 4.5 billion, down to less than half that amount. He had quite a job getting it through cabinet, with Tony Benn in particular resolutely opposed. But the figures seemed to speak for themselves: with a loan due to be paid back to a number of countries by the end of December, the Bank of England would be left with only two billion in the kitty, and in the event of further speculative attacks on the currency, the country would be bankrupt.

The cuts were carried out and the prospect of bankruptcy narrowly avoided; so far, so familiar. However, the story has a sting in its tail. When the Public Sector Borrowing Requirement was announced six months later, it was as if the crisis had never happened. In direct contradiction with what the Treasury had predicted would be the case, the PSBR was not 10 billion, as had been thought, but 5.6. The emergency IMF loan, and the cuts upon which it had been conditional, had been unnecessary.

How had Sir Humphrey and the gang got it so very wrong? The answer is, they hadn't. Here we learn of a 'hallowed Whitehall tactic known affectionately to all insiders' as the 'Treasury Bounce', as a Whitehall insider is kind enough to explain:

'You can't manage the economy tightly over a long period. You only get a chance once every decade to get the economy under control. What you need is a crisis that frightens ministers into accepting [your ideas]. ... It's what we call the Treasury Bounce.'

Here we find a very resonant echo of what Naomi Klein would write about in 'The Shock Doctrine': a crisis designed and manufactured in order to push through changes in public policy which would otherwise be politically unacceptable.

Callaghan's Government paved the way for Thatcher's attacks on public services and jobs. In much the same way, in 2009-10 New Labour were already talking of the urgent need for massive cuts, once again serving up a steaming platter of public sector spending reduction for the Tories to feast upon, allowing them to carry out "a fundamental reassessment" of the way government works. The kinds of cuts that are being planned for a huge range of government services are of the kind that never heal. If only Alistair Darling was able to read we might not have found ourselves in this dismal situation.

In which I start blogging again

'My perfectionist instinct should inhibit me from thinking; it should inhibit me from even beginning. But I get distracted and start doing something'. Bernardo Soares, The Book of Disquiet


Eleven years ago I moved from Ireland to Portugal. From time to time people ask me why I chose Portugal of all places.

I'm always a bit flummoxed when I'm asked this. Recently however I worked out the answer. The reason why I went to live in Portugal is that I wanted to go and live in Spain.

I suffer from a certain indecisiveness. Bearing this in mind makes it much easier to decipher my own actions.

Often I do things because I don't want to, and often I don't do things because I want to do them.

Sometimes the things I wanted to do resemble the things I end up doing.

Sometimes I end up liking the thing I do, but this is always conditioned by the feeling that there are things which I would rather have done, although I often still don't know what these things are or were.

Very often I do something because it is the exact opposite of what I actually wanted to do, even when I know very clearly what that thing is. This could be something as simple as not asking for someone's phone number when I know that I want to do so.

After I left Portugal I wanted to go to Brazil or Spain, or maybe Japan. So I went to live in China.

Adam Phillips poses the question, what would you do if you were cured. This is inevitably a very complicated question.

Sometimes I feel that if I could only look people in the eye when I'm talking to them about things that actually matter, this would be a measure of success.

Acting changes things, radically transforms one's situation. Hesitating, failing to act, indeciding, to coin a word, does not.

Hesitating is a clear sign that I'm censoring myself.

However when I notice that I'm hesitating it's too late to act. Sometimes I half-act, I act without fully committing myself to the action. This is not the same as acting. I can't quite decide whether or not to wait and hold the door open for someone, so I hold the door half-open, and get in their way.

The objective is to act decisively, to overcome the abyss between deciding and acting in one fatal leap. To launch myself over the chasm, and in so doing to make that space of indecision retroactively disappear, not to bridge a gap but to close the breach.

To say something, to declare something to be true is an act. To write is an act.

I enjoy writing. I only bring myself to write rarely. Most of the time I spend suspended in midair somewhere between these two points. I'm scared that I won't reach the other side, that I'll plunge into the shameful depths below. In the words of Bernardo Soares again, I plumb myself and drop the plumb; I spend my life wondering if I'm deep or not. I'm terribly scared of exposing my depths of shame and of opening myself up to a toxic mix of indifference and ridicule. My natural style is to demolish what I'm saying in the act of saying it. I almost certainly do this when I speak. It might be something I have to address and to change. It might not.

There is a time and a place for not censoring myself when I speak.

One of the things I most admire about Fernando Pessoa is encapsulated in the quote at the beginning of the article? essay? reflection? I'll come back to this.

All of the people I most admire are prolific in some way. They trust in what happens when they start to speak and to write.

Many people's lives are made up of hesitations, pauses.

Others' lives are made up of one long statement that encompasses many many other statements, some of which interrogate or explain earlier statements, and some of which contradict one another.

Then there is the question of dialogue; if one never speaks, never actually arrives at the point of articulating what appears at that moment to have the status of a truth, then one can never enter into a dialogue. This is self-evident.

Perhaps I have nothing whatsoever of depth or originality to offer, or, more likely, very little. Maybe my insights and reflections merely replicate those of others, but at a much less informed and thought-out level.

There is however a very strong argument for trying to articulate some sort of truth, and it comes from Paulo Freire:

'Hopelessness and despair are both the consequence and the cause of inertia and immobilism'.

Here is another favourite quote, this time from Franz Kafka:

'You can hold yourself back from the sufferings of the world; you are free to do so, and it accords with your nature. But perhaps this very holding back is the one suffering you could have avoided.'

I love that dizzying rush of ideas, when I think I'm onto something. My instinct these days is go online and to track down someone who's already thought of the same thing, so as to evade my own responsibility to articulate whatever it is that's occurred to me. This can be a frustrating experience, and it is always self-defeating in the fullest sense.

I used to link a great deal. Blogging taught me how very easy it is in the space of a few short minutes to sound like and expert on things you know very little about. Bombard people with links and their resistance to the sometimes suspect logic of your argument soon breaks down. I know that when I speak I have the bad habit of using too many names.

There's a particular word I came across a few years ago, a name for a kind of essay that starts off on one topic and ends up via a series of diversions talking about something entirely different. It may be called a vagrant essay, or something like that. It was a popular form in the eighteenth century I believe. Anyway. That's the kind of thing that I kind of sort of quite like to write. Enough of censoring myself. More soon.

Dear Middlesex University



Dear ****

I am aware that i have already signed the contract to teach in the summer school in June and July but I am sorry to have to inform you that owing to the treatment of the staff and students in the Philosophy Department I would not be able to work for Middlesex University with a clear conscience and am therefore withdrawing from the position.

I apologise for any personal inconvenience.

Best regards

R. Willmsen

Mandeville & Wenlock



Hey Mandeville!

Hey Wenlock!

So how's things?

Ah, you know...I'm really not sure this being an Olympic mascot thing was such a good idea

Whyever not! We've been all over the media! you can't buy that sort of publicity!

Yeah, but what kind of publicity?

What do you mean?

Well, someone on twitter said that we looked like 'tortured tellitubbies' and that i had a morrisons sign on my head. it's...hurtful

What's twitter?

It's a social networking site where people post messages of less than 140 characters. On the internet.

Hmm. And tellitubbies?

Children's tv characters

And Morrison's?

Like tesco's but smaller, and formerly only in the north

Doesn't sound so bad to me! Better than costcutters! I don't see what your problem is. At least we got to meet Sebastian Coe at that launch thing! Wasn't that fun?! What was it you called him again?

I said he was a 'tory twat'

yeah, he found that hilarious didn't he.

certainly did, and he loved it when i said i hoped he'd soon go the same way as his fascist fuhrer saramanch

Hmm yes i suppose things did get a bit overexcited. i do think it wasn't very polite of you to ask daley thompson if his piss was still sponsored by lucozade. and punching zola budd in the face was a little bit out of order, especially after she appeared to stop breathing. And it was very cruel of you to point out that david beckham's new tattoo means 'my wife's a vapid slag' in hindi...never mind, look at this letter! next tuesday we get to meet the prime minister!

really?(looks) (sounds disappointed) the *deputy* prime minister

what's the difference?

Aah...I can't really tell to be honest. Shame we didn't get to meet Gordon Brown really, I feel we might have had more in common, what with him only having one eye and everything. It's just...I don't know...i just expected more from life. I mean, listen to this: 'Their job is to make the 2012 games child friendly, and to sell more toys than could ever fit at the foot, let alone the peak, of Mount Olympus itself.'

What's mount olympus?

It's a mountain in ancient greece

Where is it now then

(exasperated) What?

Did they move it?

(realises) ohh...yeah. it's in sweden now. i just...can't help feeling that there's something more i, we, should be doing. I don't even particularly like children. and I fucking hate sport, to be absolutely honest

you're starting to worry me slightly

Look, I had an idea. Nobody likes us...

Nooo...

It's true. Someone called anethmalves in minas gerais said she thought we were in 'tremendo mau gosto'. and she's got 40 followers! we're fucked.

what does that mean?

it means we're in really bad trouble

no the trimindi gau mosto bit

I don't know, but i don't think it's good. but listen, i think i can see a way out. Nobody seems to like us, they're outraged that we're getting such an easy ride from the media but they're stuck with us for the next few years. and there are two of us...

what are you suggesting?

i think we should wait a couple of years until the time is ripe, gather our forces, then instigate a wave of street terror, burn down parliament, take advantage of the confusion to make a grab for power, close down all democratic institutions and declare an end to the sketch!

*brilliant* idea!

Evening Standard Cocaine Shock Horror!



The invitation for this year's Evening Standard Christmas Party

It can be exclusively revealed by this correspondent that at least 85% of the staff of the London newspaper the 'Evening Standard' are regular users of the killer drug Cocaine.

From the junior staff to the upper reaches of management, use of the deadly narcotic is said to be widespread particularly among the editorial staff, with many prominent journalists 'high as a kite' during substantial periods of the working day. Traces of white powder, believed to be cocaine, have been discovered in the staff toilets as well as in the former smoking room, now openly referred to as the 'Gak Chamber'. A routine inspection found substantial amounts of cocaine on 'very nearly' 100% of notes passed in the staff canteen - many of the staff are now obliged to pay in cash, owing to the fact that their credit cards have become damaged beyond use by constant hammering out of lines on every available surface throughout working hours. A source also revealed that keyboards are continually having to be replaced owing to the build-up of cocaine residue between the keys. On some days the fog of white dust in the air of the newsroom is reportedly so hazy it 'looks like Beijing on a particularly misty morning', making it difficult for journalists to actually see their screens and file their stories.

The influence of the evil drug is also to be observed in the often unorthodox behaviour of the paper's journalists. One of the showbiz staff, sent on a high-profile assignment to interview Janet Jackson, returned with a tape which editors regarded as unusable, given that it consisted of the said journalist talking incessantly about himself and his car for over an hour, pausing only to ask Ms. Jackson if she 'fancied a toot'. The use of cocaine is also said to have strongly influenced the paper's coverage of the current Rugby World Cup.

Investigations into the source of all this 'charlie', as the highly dangerous drug is known amongst dealers and addicts, tend to point the finger in the direction of one individual: Paul Cheston - author, coincidentally, of the daring, acclaimed, hard-hitting, ground-breaking, Pulitzer Prize-nominated exposé of the suspected Brazilian terrorist Jean-Charles de Menezes's own alleged drug use. Mr Cheston is said to 'knock out so much of the stuff so he sometimes forgets to pick up his paycheck at the end of the month'. From his ideally-placed Docklands apartment he is reported to oversee the delivery of three barges a month shipped directly from Colombia, an amount which is still believed to be barely enough to satisfy the cocaine mania of the E.S. newsroom.

At the time of writing the editor of the Evening Standard, a man who has been widely praised for his couragousness and integrity for giving front-page prominence to the Jean-Charles de Menezes cocaine story, was unavailable for comment. He was said to be in a meeting with a 'very important secret source', and could not be disturbed. The identity of this source remains a mystery, but it is rumoured to be a somewhat infamous underworld figure, widely believed to have been killed by police in a gun battle in Medellin in 1993, although for substantially different reasons than those that led to the death of Mr. Menezes.

The First Emperors of New China


The current exhibition at the British Museum, The First Emperor, is a tribute to the man who ordered the building of that huge monument to himself, the tomb of the Terracotta Warriors. The focus of the exhibition is a small selection of artefacts from the tomb, including a number of statues of the warriors themselves. It is a blockbuster exhibition which attempts to match the scale and ambition of its subject.

A short film which precedes the main part of the exhibition shows how Emperor Qin managed to conquer and unite what is now the territory of China. At the end of the film we see the map rapidly turning crimson and the word ‘Qin’ appearing on the map. ‘Qin’, we learn, gave origin to the western word China to denote what was called in Chinese the Middle Kingdom – or the centre of the world.

The exhibition was partly criticised in the Guardian for offering an uncritical and revisionist account of the achievements of a man who history has generally remembered as a brutal tyrant who ‘massacred prisoners, burned books and slaughtered scholars’. The words ‘cruel’ and ‘brutal’ are absent from the exhibition. The key message of the exhibition, signalled clearly in that introductory film, is one that the Emperor himself would have been happy with: He was on a celestially-inspired mission to unite ‘All-under-Heaven’ and so to bring China into existence. The existence of China is, therefore, no historical accident: It was written in the stars.

However, historians have on the whole ceased to regard all human history of the great achievements of supreme individuals equipped with armies and visions of a future world reshaped according to their ambitions. Also, it would, or at least should, be very hard in 2007 for any serious thinking person to sustain the belief that nations and states have a historical mission to exist, that they are the result of destiny and not of chance.

We learn very little in the exhibition about the lives of those who actually built the tomb. There are some references to convicts being used, to the huge numbers of slaves whose lives were sacrificed to its construction. But the overall message is that this was the work of a visionary, an emperor creating a coherent and sovreign empire which has survived intact up to the present day.

One key theme or, I would argue, purpose of the exhibition is that of continuity. Qin established the systems of weights and currency and was also largely responsible for establishment of the writing system, as well as beginning the building of the Great Wall. This grants legitimacy to the subsequent rulers of China: a series of dynasties have maintained China’s unity and preserved and guarded its treasures. The rulers of this empire have now generously allowed those who cannot visit the Middle Kingdom to enjoy at first hand a glimpse of its profoundly rich and mysterious cultural legacy.

The way in which China chooses at different times to regard its previous rulers is very instructive. This is particularly true of representations on TV (1). According to the Asia Times:

‘It has been a tradition in China, both under the communists and long before, to criticize Chinese leaders indirectly but deftly by comparing them to misguided, wicked or weak emperors, ignoring the welfare of the people, or by comparing them to the wise and benevolent rulers of the past. Chinese readers - and today's television viewers - are savvy enough to read between the propagandists' lines and understand 2,000-year-old contrived allusions to current politics.’

The Chinese people, then, understand the significance of the different dynasties. Some of them represent more insular styles of rule, some more outgoing, some more brutal and legalistic, some wiser and more benign. Visitors to this exhibition are left to make their own connections between the great rulers of the past of the great rulers of the present.

The current Chinese emperors, then, are laying claim to a heritage which goes back way before 1949, when Chairman Mao told the Chinese people to stand up. Mao was a great admirer of Emperor Qin, by the way, allegedly claiming . It is claiming a inheritance which goes back 2,000 years, and which is ultimately divinely derived. What we are being shown in this exhibition are some of the more treasured family heirlooms.

So what is the problem? Every nation and state in the world seeks to demonstrate that its existence is the inevitable product of all earlier stages of history, and to this end adapts, adopts, invents and constructs myths, legends, historical figures and movements, not to mention pre-existing monuments, in order to prove its rightful legacy. ‘China’ is no more or less artificial an entity than any other nation.

China as a country, if not a nation, has, in broad terms, been around for a very long time. But my question is: How much legitimacy are we prepared to concede the Chinese Government? It consists of an unelected oligarchy of bureaucrats who govern by means of repression and corruption. The subjects of the Chinese Communist Party regime enjoy little in the way of human and democratic rights. It is the world's largest dictatorship, and its claims to legitimate authority are contested, or at least questioned by a large proportion of the world's population, including in China itself.

Would the British Museum, and by extension the British state, be prepared to host a similar exhibition on behalf of the Government of Burma? Or North Korea? (2)

In the exhibition bookshop you can buy a seemingly fairly random selection of things related to China. One thing that may be useful to anyone vaguely interested in Chinese history is a book giving a broad outline and a timeline of Chinese history for children. The book makes a brief reference to the Cultural Revolution, a period when a previous generation of Communist Party leaders ransacked their own country and tried as hard as they could to destroy the country's cultural legacy: it was reportedly only through the direct intervention of Zhou Enlai that such crucial sites as the Forbidden City, the Potala Palace in Lhasa and even the site of Terracotta Warriors were saved. It would be strange, to say the least, if a brief guide to Russian or German history made such scant reference to the Stalin and Hitler eras. There is no mention of the single most prominent recent event in Chinese history in the eyes of the world, the events of June 4 1989, when the previous generation of leaders again murdered thousands in a desperate attempt to hold on to the reins of power, an event which the current leadership refuses to acknowledge on any level.

The culmination of the book's timeline and, presumably the mental timeline of the exhibition's visitors, is, inevitably, summer 2008, when the Chinese capital will host the Olympic Games. This is a key moment for the Chinese Government, a coming-out ball which will confirm beyond any doubt that China is, despite its continuing refusal to grant basic democratic and human rights to its population, a nation whose sovreignty and authority is beyond question (3). It will be a coronation ceremony for the emperors of New China.

This seems to be an apt term for what has previously been known as the People's Republic; given that the only two pillars of CCP ideology for the last number of years has been nationalism and 'we can make you rich!'; a name change, beloved of despots in desperate need of a fresh new image, seems well overdue. The PR in China could stay, of course, but with a different meaning, and given the success of our own beloved former leader in rebranding his party with the facile addition of the word 'New', it seems entirely appropriate for the CCP's attempt to remake itself for internal and international consumption. 'Xin Zhonghuo', anyone?! (4)

The message of the Olympics is, to borrow a phrase: China's Coming Home. And just as the slaves dedicated themselves selflessly to building the stunning monument to vanity that is the tomb of Emperor Qin, the Chinese people are wholeheartedly and voluntarily putting themselves hard to work. A recent Guardian special collected some very revealing comments regarding the importance that a lot of people give to the Olympics, and the effect a successful games will have on 'national pride': '"I don't have any religious or political convictions. So you can say that the Olympics is my main belief," says primary school teacher Zhou Chenguang. According to the taxi driver Xia Shishan: 'We will finish top of the medal table. And when we win, I will be so excited my blood will boil.'' In Beijing projects are being completed at a furious pace and on a meglomaniac scale in the attempt to turn the host city into a place suitable for international visitors such as sports people, journalists and tourists, even if in the process making it into a city which will be pretty much unaffordable to the people who acually live there (4).

The current exhibition at the British Museum is a PR coup for the Chinese Government, and simultaneously an advert for the much greater showcase event next summer. It can to some extent be regarded as propaganda, rather than history.

Of course, a great deal can happen between now and June 2008, and a great deal could happen during the games themselves. What will happen if the very tight control that the authorities are trying to exercise over the event doesn't work? What if there are protests? What are the Falun Gong capable of? And how will the world react?


1 - The Qin dynasty was very positively portrayed in the 2005 film hero, regarded by some viewers as an outright piece of CCP propaganda. See also http://film.guardian.co.uk/News_Story/Critic_Review/Observer_Film_of_the_week/0,,1312773,00.html.

2 - Unfortunately I didn't see the Ancient Persia exhibition two years ago, so have little idea of how that may have related to the question of Modern Iran, beyond what I managed to glean from various websites. There is obviously a significant contrast between the Forgotten Empire, which no clear connection with the present, and the First Emperor, which implies continuity. According to the New York Times, the exhibition 'give ancient Persia its proper place -- between Assyria and Babylon on the one hand and Greece and Rome on the other -- in the chronology of early civilizations. In that sense, ''Forgotten Empire'' is also highly topical...John Curtis, the show's curator and keeper of the museum's ancient Near East department, added in a statement: ''It may also be important at this time of difficult East-West relations to remind people in the West of the remarkable cultural legacy of a country like Iran.'' '. Personally I find such aims perfectly laudable, but whatever the stated aims of the exhibition under discussion here they are not nearly as commendable. Plus, Iran is actually, strictly speaking, a democratic country...

3 - This contrasts with the status of little Taiwan, officially known as the Repuplic of China, which will once again compete under the name of Chinese Taipei, owing to the demands of the Chinese in Beijing. See also http://www.guardian.co.uk/china/story/0,,2174496,00.html.

4 - I'd love to read an analysis of how Beijing's rebranding of China as a dynamic forward-thinking business-friendly place matches Blair's project to ditch the Labour Party's ideological and historical baggage in the mid-nineties. I remember reading some time ago that one of the many foreign politicians to lecture the Chinese leadership in the 1990s was Peter Mandelson.

5 - Obviously East London is now starting to go through the same process. See http://www.redpepper.org.uk/article555.html.