The tortured rhetoric of escalation.

Ninety-nine years ago a war began in Europe which did more to define the borders of the Middle East than any other event in history. That war was World War 1, and in a round about way it defined the borders of roughly 8 countries out of a conservative estimate of 16 in the wider region. In defining these borders, it must surely rank as one of histories greatest follies that no inhabitants of any of these countries were involved and that such arrangements were  ultimately made with only the view points of one Englishman and a Frenchman take into account. Imagine China and Japan dictating the borders of European countries ? Are we to assume they would create borders with the other countries’ interests at heart or we would fall down on the side of the most probable response and assume that if one country was asked to define another countries borders that it would do so only in its own interest. History teaches us many things and perhaps an overarching theme to what we can learn by studying the past is that benignity in politics is as good as non-existent. I highlight this particular viewpoint of mine to make clear from the outset for the reader my views on the disastrous effect the purely self-interested policies of the French and British empires had on the middle east and further, continue to have as we can see in the rapidly escalating crisis in Syria. In defining borders in the Middle East, the gentlemen Sykes and Picot had two ingredients with which they worked, land and people. Land is easy from the point of view of a someone tasked with making a nation, it does not protest to the arbitrary lines scribbled across it by the cartographer and without the intervention of people those lines might well last an eternity in quiet peace. Humans are a little different, they do protest the arbitrary lines that cut them off from friends and family and surround them with different ethnic groups and religions and often the results of humans doing so is an incredibly bloody affair. Anyway back the matter in hand, when Sykes and Picot made their borders they operated on a policy of divide and rule with regards the people by empowering minority ethnic groups to hold disproportionate amounts of power at the expense of the majority. when discussing the middle east many often bemoan the fact that seemingly the region is cursed with what seems an inherent taste of violent conflict with both internal and external enemies and depending on the commentator themselves, they will offer any number of potential reasons for this supposed quality. What these arguments about the violent nature of the middle east miss out is that for comparison we always think of our own countries in the west which as a result of events in the past are generally ethnically and culturally homogeneous whereas the middle east in a word is far more heterogeneous in all ways. this heterogeneity is a direct result of the Sykes-Picot agreement and World War 1 and we are seemingly seeing its side effects emerge more and more on a daily basis in Syria, but the the trouble does not end there as the destabilizing effect of the conflict seems to be escalating previously small civil conflict in almost all neighbouring countries, primarily Iraq, Lebanon and Turkey so that we are on the verge of watching another region burned over as a result of the follies of the west. I will now discuss a briefly the emerging situation in each of these countries and highlight the points of concern.

Turkey:

Turkey flag

While I have included Turkey here in my analysis, it is true that of the three countries I mentioned Turkey as it stands has remained relatively free from conflict but none the less there are worrying signs present in the political landscape and further Turkey has many of the ingredients necessary for a civil conflict of it its own. The first point of concern I believe that we should pay attention to is the way in which turkey has involved itself in the Syrian conflict. Turkey has from a very early point in the conflict declared its support for the rebel factions in Syria and has allowed the setting up of a Syrian government in exile amongst its own borders, all of this on top of Turkey having been the primary safe haven for refugees fleeing the conflict. This of course is the official state of affairs but if the rumours many have heard on the grapevine are to be believed then attacks by rebels against the Syrian government forces have been launched from Turkish soil. Further to this another rumour circulating is that after stray mortar shells landed in Turkey that the armed forces used this a pretext for launching raids across the border aimed at their perennial enemies, the Kurds. From all of this evidence we can see that Turkey has become embroiled in the Syrian civil war much like the Gulf Arab states, although unlike the countries of the Gulf, turkey shares a border with Syria that could quite easily facilitate the spread of conflict from one country to the other.  In recent weeks we perhaps had a inkling of this process of the conflict spreading beginning when 2 suicide bombs were detonated in a town on the Turkish border with Syria that killed 43 people. The official story, which I believe should be taken with a pinch of salt bearing in mind the number of stories that haver turned out to be false such as the Syrian governments supposed use of chemical weapons, was that the bombings were carried out by groups linked with the Syrian intelligence service. I feel the Syrian rebels a more likely culprit as they stand to gain much more from the conflict escalating in terms of other governments committing military forces to the conflict or failing this at least an increase in the amount of financial and/or technical support that they will receive from the coalition of countries allied against the Syrian regime. Either way, whoever you believe to be responsible for the bombing the fact remains that the conflict appears to be being waged by neighbouring proxies which does not bode well for peace in Turkey itself. While part of the problems then of turkey stem from the conflict in neighbouring Syria, there are aspects of the Turkish political landscape that may well lend themselves to the fomentation of civil conflict independent of anything going on in neighbouring Syria and it is my concern that a combination of Turkish problems alongside the overspill from the syrian civil war may see the country burn. The main troubling ingredient present in the Turkish landscape is the sizeable Kurdish population whose relations with Ankara have never been particularly jovial as a result of the long history of persecution of the Kurds by the Turkish government and in recent weeks a peace deal of sorts has been signed between the two parties. All it would take is for this deal to break down, which history has shown us in the form of previous truce agreements is likely, and combined with the severely militarised climate of south eastern turkey I would not like to hazard a guess as to what the consequences might be other than to guess that whatever they are they will not be pretty. Ultimately of all the countries I discuss in this article, Turkey is the least likely to suffer but this is very much dependent on how long the conflict rages on for in Syria. If the Syrian civil war ends relatively soon then it is easy enough to see Turkey avoiding any crisis but if the war continues indefinitely then Turkeys level of involvement will only increase commensurate with the age of the conflict.

Lebanon:

Lebannon flag

Of three countries I discuss in this post none are more closely interconnected with Syria than Lebanon is. The history of the relationship between the two countries has seen the countries at each others throats on more than one occasion and it has also seen them being the closet of allies. Lebanon has all of the essential ingredients to precipitate the spreading of the conflict into another country. Firstly there is a large bastion of support for Bashar present in Lebanon in the form of Hezbollah who are a formidable fighting force and are in all likelihood loathed by the Islamist rebels in Syria as it is a Shia Muslim group. Hezbollah’s presence in Lebanon could easily escalate any emerging crisis especially if they are targeted by rebel groups laying low in Lebanon itself which is a significant possibility being as suicide bombings have been conducted in Lebanon since the start of the conflict in Syria with many citing rebel groups as the party responsible. Another factor that makes Lebanon a likely candidate for an overspill of the conflict emerging is the polarisation along sectarian lines of much of Lebanese society. For fifteen years the world saw Lebanon torn apart by brutal sectarian conflict which again like much of the conflict in the middle east was a result of the borders arbitrarily drawn in the carve up of the middle east after world war 1 which placed minority’s in all of the positions of power in many countries. The Lebanese civil war was a particularly bloody affair as it moved away from any meaningful conflict with clear aims towards a conflict of retaliation and reprisal massacres and were the Syrian civil war to spread across its neighbours border then there is no reason to believe that the same would not be true again. Much like Turkey however, the ultimate deciding factor is how much longer the conflict in Syria continues for but unlike Turkey the likelihood that the Syrian civil war  will escalate to the point where its neighbour becomes involved is significantly greater. Another element present in the case of Lebanon is that it has become something of a hub for gulf money making its way into the hands of Syrian rebels and naturally this presents us with the likelihood that alongside this money coming into the country that a far more destabilising import is also entering Lebanese territory in the form of gulf Salafists and other fundamentalists which does not bode well for stability in a country that has never had a particularly strong track record for peace.

Iraq:

Iraq flag

Iraq is very much the odd one here as it is recent history is unfortunately full of conflict so it perhaps seems a bit confusing for me to include it in a list of possible countries that the Syrian civil war may spread to but something serious is in motion in Iraq which seems to very clearly linked to the conflict in Syria. The case of Iraq would always be a problematic one for suggesting it as a place where an Arab Spring type revolution or conflict might take place as its history in the lead up to the region wide event was so fundamentally different with the invasion in 2003 and then many years of sectarian conflict and near enough outright civil war. All of the above being true alongside the Arab Spring that we heard about in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia was an identical movement of protest against the current corrupt regime in Iraq which I can only assume was neglected from the media because they didn’t accept stories coming from Iraq that didn’t involve people being murdered aimlessly by suicide bombers. While a peaceful protest movement aimed to some degree at the liberalisation of the Iraqi political sphere was a great positive for the political landscape there, from very early on the movement become somewhat bogged down in Sectarian divisions with much of the protesting being carried out by the Sunni minority who felt (legitimately) that they had been marginalised by the Shia-Kurdish alliance in government. The main area in which these protests took part was also the predominantly Sunni areas west of Baghdad (Sunni Triangle for those who feel the need to use US army terms at all times) and so what I feel that we can observe in the case of Iraq is a genuine movement for political reform like in all of the other Arab Spring protests which was subverted by sectarian causes much the same as in Syria. Of course that being said one thing that Syria had in its favour before the start of its respective uprising was that it had enjoyed peace within its own borders since the Hama uprising in 1982 whereas Iraq has pretty much literally been torn apart by the sectarian divisions created after the ousting of Saddam Hussein in 2003. Iraq like the other two countries I have already discussed has been closely connected with Syria in a number of ways since the beginning of the crisis in 2011 such as hosting a large number of refugees who in a bizarre twist of fate decided that they were indeed safer in Iraq were they had fled from in 2003 than they were in Syria in 2011. Another way in which the countries were closely interlinked was that it was reported that amongst the more hard line Islamist elements fighting in Syria were many of the same who had terrorized large swathes of the Iraqi population previously.  Alongside the training that Iraq had provided them with into how to effectively terrorize civilian populations it is also probable that it provided them with a lot of military equipment and perhaps most importantly of all it provided them with a safe haven in the form of the Syrian-Iraqi Desert, a rather inhospitable area which due to the climate is policed A) ineffectively or B) not at all (you choose). This border region will be one of the key factors that could drag Iraq into civil conflict as it has been used once before as a base of resupply for insurgency movements desperate to avoid being traced and it is likely that if its not already being used by Rebels in Syria then it will be soon enough. A further reason I believe that Iraq is standing atop a dangerous precipice at this moment in time with it looking increasingly likely to follow Syria’s example is that much like in the case of Syria in 2011,  prolonged peaceful protests have unfortunately not resulted in any massive changes to the system in Iraq and so violence will come to look more and more like the only solution to the problem. There has been a spike in the last month or so in the number of suicide bombings throughout the country and according to an article published in The Indepedent written by their Iraq specialist Patrick Cockburn some Iraqis believe their civil war has already started. whether that is true or not, the likely scenario is that the porous border between the  current sectarian hell-hole that is Syria and the  recovering sectarian hell-hole that is Iraq will only lead to more blood being spilt. Iraq is probably level with Lebanon in terms of the likelihood that it will become a theatre of the Syrian civil conflict but because of its past experiences you have been warned that what you can expect will be a hell of a lot uglier than the worst of Syria’s fight so far.

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A market for culture supplanted by a dictatorship of the dumb

It  might not be too much of a stretch of the truth to say that my generation may be the last where a common, perhaps even universal, experience shared by many, in the west at least, is a persons very first purchase of a physical media product such as an album, book or film.

This man having been my very first choice of CD, I wont pretend that im greatly saddened by the prospect of first album purchases dying out

This man’s debut album having been my own very first choice of CD, I wont pretend that I’m greatly saddened by the prospect of “first album” purchases dying out

That being true, the emphasis on the word physical in the previous sentence is key as instead of the market for such goods simply evaporating as many media conglomerates would have us believe it has simply involved into a digital marketplace. Regular readers of this blog will already have seen in a previous post my positive feelings about the potential of new technologies to democratise existing institutions and I believe that the migration of media from a physical format to a more digitised existence again holds tremendous potential. Tremendous potential that is, if it can only be harnessed for positive ends rather than being left  to simply replicate the pre-existing physical market in a digital environment. In this post I will discuss briefly the reasons I feel the traditional market model is less desirable and then offer a blue sky analysis of why a shift to the digital would be preferable for all creative industries. In doing this however I will inevitably confront my somewhat wishful beliefs with the realities that exist in one of the most thriving digital exchange formats, peer to peer file-sharing websites which on paper hold so much promise yet in reality are little more than the bastard children of old media and new technology.

When I reflect on the traditional market model of media sales, specifically the sale of media products in a dedicated shopping environment the thought does cause me to reminisce with a great deal of fondness that perhaps does mask some of the inherent flaws of such a model. I remember quite vividly the sense of  youthful glee that would envelop me on a a Friday afternoon as I left school for home stopping briefly at the video rental shop to pick up something to watch over the weekend and if I didn’t stop here then it would be the local library later on that same evening. As I progressed in age and starting receiving money instead of noisy toys at Christmas and birthdays (I’m sure much to my parent’s delight) my media consumption shifted somewhat away from renting and borrowing and towards purchasing products for my own collection. It was probably at this juncture that I first became aware of one of the central drawbacks in the traditional model of media consumption, Price.

Now I know naysayers will offer arguments, such as “but the artist/author/director should be compensated for their hard work  which you so enjoyed” or that “but buying CDs/ DVDs/ books is an investment”, to defend the industry but I stand by my initial opinion that the pricing of traditional media is prohibitive. Yes the creator of any work deserves to be rewarded for their work but it is a little presumptuous to assume that the sales of physical copies of their work from retail outlets is a successful artists sole source of money when you consider the numerous other streams of revenue that are potentially available to them. A further problem with the above argument is that it doesn’t really make a mention of the industry which also takes a cut if not in some cases the lions share of my money when I hand it over to the cashiers in my local record shop. I’m fully in support of artists receiving their cut of the loot but it is a lot more difficult to accept paying the industry itself for my media purchases.

Especially when you can elect to mentally replace all record company executives with this particular buffoon in your mind.

Especially when you can elect to mentally replace all record company executives with this particular choice buffoon.

Similarly there is an element of logic in the argument that purchasing media for ones own private consumption is an investment which therefore justifies the price  but I fear those offering this as a counter argument are over playing the strength of their hand. Whether the supposed investment in media is a matter of investing in a persons education or investing in cultural capital or investing in a strictly financial sense it still does not justify the drastically inflated costs that traditional media outlets historically charged for their goods. Making an investment of any sort justifies a price yes, this is something I believe none of us can deny, just not the prices that were and still are in many cases charged by the big players in the media industry. Taking the investment idea and running with it little longer, one way in which I might have maintained some of the value of my investment in the media against the massive decreases in pricing across the board for their products on the whole is by diversifying my portfolio which leads me on to my other main qualm with the industry. When I was younger it is true that like many young people I wanted to fit it in with other idiots just like me and as one could expect my media purchases at the time are a clear example of this behaviour in action. The number of CD’s I bought in this period of my childhood that demonstrate my crushing desire to be recognised as cool is quite staggering and is probably replicated exactly give or take one odd choice in the CD collections of many other people who happen to be the same age as me. As I started to become a little more comfortable with my own identity I felt more comfortable in moving away from buying only the most popular bands CDs and last summers biggest blockbusters on video or DVD and consequently I started to look around for things a little less mainstream and it is this juncture in my life that the sheer lack of choice available in the large majority of shops dawned on me.

Again there are justifications for this lack of choice that do explain in principle why the choice was so poor in so many of the shops I frequented but they hardly mollify the disappointed and disillusioned who dreamed of buying Tom Waits’ entire back catalogue or a film that happened to be Uzbek in origin rather than from the studios of Hollywood. A lack of physical space and a record of what sells the most effectively combined to shut out those who visited mainstream outlets for media in the hope and unlike the pricing issue I mention above there isn’t a great deal of room for manoeuvre on this issue.  Physical space, even in the best of shops will always be limited and it is extremely hard to get hold of some more obscure products from wholesalers let lone justify filling the limited space with them rather than with products that proven best sellers. And so based on this we can arguably see that a lack of choice or to temper this slightly, limited choice is an inherent flaw of the traditional media outlets format. However, despair not as there is an alternative in the form of the internet to these traditional outlets that we would do well to utilise.

In offering the internet as an alternative medium for the exchange of media products I do not refer to the simple digitisation of shops that sell physical media products as well, I refer specifically to mediums of exchange that are arguably only possibly as a result of the internet, primarily peer-to-peer exchange networks. I won’t pretend to understand in any great detail how bit torrent protocols work and so will simply redirect anyone interested to this website for a significantly better summary than I could ever offer. While my knowledge of how the technology itself works is rather lacking my hopes for what may be achieved by the use of this particular technology are almost exponential in nature.

I’ll start off my analysis of why peer-to-peer services are in my opinion preferable with the most unsubtle approach possible, a direct appeal to the wallets of the common man and woman. By utilising such technologies, someone could save endless amounts of money on the purchases of media products that they might have made in physical old fashioned retailers. Naysayers will no doubt say “but then the artists would receive nothing in return for their hard work” when actually research seems to show that there is a positive correlation between people downloading content for free using peer-to-peer sites and then based on their enjoyment of that very same content they then go out and buy physical copies. So what we have in this technology is not quite the free for all that the media industry would like us to believe exists and also not quite a library or rental service which would drive further interest in ones products but a large grey area with the potential to go either way. I suppose the overall thrust of my argument is that if the industry decides to engage with the real world rather than trying to subpoena threats to its monopoly into non-existence that it could easily utilise the existing framework of peer-to-peer sites to create new streams of revenue. I would on reflection happily accept a reasonably priced service that allowed me unlimited downloads of media content that I could access for a limited time operating on the assumption that in the case of the content I downloaded and accessed for a week which I really enjoyed I would most likely buy it fully at a later date. Perhaps the key here is that the industry as a whole tends to view peer-to-peer services like they view their store fronts as the culmination of the purchasing process, when what is needed is for them to view peer-to-peer technologies as the cheapest marketing method possible. Forget spending hundreds of thousands of pounds filling my browser with adverts I ignore, or putting up adverts at bus-shelters which only ever get vandalised – let the content speak for itself in a voice louder than you ever could. In saying all of this I accept that some aspects of the industry would suffer as a result of the utilisation of such methods but all that would in essence be needed is for those parts of the industry to, in the true spirit of capitalism, adapt to changes in the market to survive or falter out – no great loss if my opinion on the matter were to be asked.

As well as the way in which they could revolutionise the pricing of media, peer-to-peer technologies could thoroughly improve on the other inherent failing of the current method of selling media, lack of choice. As I said above I completely understand that due to limitations most physical shopping environments where media happens to be sold will never be able to stock a full selection of products that represents any communities diverse interests when it comes to films, music or books. So surely on the matter of choice the internet is the solution that has always been sought with a seemingly endless amount of storage potential while being comparatively inexpensive to maintain compared to any physical shop larger than a storage closet. By ending the lack of choice that confines the inventories of physical shops, peer-to-peer technologies would in principle also do away with one of the cultural/philosophical side effects of the current way in which media is purchased. The side effect I allude to is that the culture on offer in shops is more often than not a rather ethnically homogeneous culture which stifles those who wish to truly broaden their horizons. In the age of the internet through the use of peer-to-peer technologies is should be as easy to listen to the funk of Fela Kuti of Nigeria as it is to listen to Britney Spears VERY MASCULINE MUSIC.

I'm compensating....

I’m compensating….

All of the above being true this is not to deny that as they stand, peer-to-peer websites are an ugly beast (much like two gentlemen pictured somewhere in this article – leaving that call very much up to the readers own prejudices). Yes they do drive business for physical retail outlets and yes they aren’t anywhere near as detrimental to sales as the industry would have us believe but they have their flaws, by the bucket load. First off, they seem to replicate exactly the old methods of media distribution’s inclination towards only making massively popular items readily available therefore destroying the inherent benefit in principle that the internet should be able to stock anything a man could desire. Further compounding the issue is the way in which peer-to-peer technologies work in that items that are popular will download far faster as more people will be available to seed the files, meaning that even if well meaning people upload the rare files you are looking for, it could take you literally all of fucking eternity to download them if the interest in those files, alongside your own interest, is not very high.

And then suppose you do find what your looking for after many hours of trawling through the internet, then your problems really have only just begun. Seriously, take a look at the top 100 lists on most peer-to-peer websites, specifically ebooks and “movies”, and prepare to see the ugly face of the abyss staring back. How could so many people need advice in the bedroom, it might not be satisfying  for you but you are mostly doing it right for heavens sake – the human race has increased by a billion just in my very short lifetime. And if its not sexual help you seek it seems to be pathetic self help books aimed at teaching you to be confident or how to make friends. Really, if you find what your looking for on peer-to-peer websites there is a high chance your some sort of deviant whose abusing this incredible technology that is the internet, capable of holding in effect all recorded knowledge, to gets your rocks off.

a prime example of both the content and the users of much of the internet.

a prime example of both the  seedy content and the seedy users of much of the internet.

I’d like to one day look back on the way I just summarised the internet and its users and think I was wrong but I don’t think that will happen any time soon. Much the same as I highly doubt the record labels will listen to my logic that they should surrender their monopolies but the least a man can do is try.

Rolling back the state

In the immediate aftermath of Margaret Thatchers death, the deputy prime-minister of the current UK government Nick Clegg urged in a speech to the Welsh branch of his party that there would be “no lurch to the right by this government, not while I’m at the cabinet table” . Now I wont ponder too long on the likelihood of this man keeping his word, But

But I will insert this picture of Judas Iscariot giving Jesus a peck on the cheek and allow readers to draw their own conclusions...

I will insert this picture of Judas Iscariot giving Jesus a peck on the cheek and allow readers to draw their own conclusions…

Despite the assurances of the supposed voice of reason in the UK’s current coalition government , the weeks leading on from the death of the doyenne of neoliberal politics did as it happens see a marked shift away from the centre if not directly towards the right. I will accept that the motions away from the centre field of politics were set in motion the very moment the current government took power and were not directly precipitated by her death. This however does not detract from the fact that in the wake of her death, policies even Margaret Thatcher would not have dreamed of enacting are further rolling back the state hear in Britain with no end in sight. In this post I will discuss the neo-liberal (shit/perfect – delete as appropriate) storm battering the British state as it began in 2010 and draw particular attention to its intensification in recent weeks while reflecting on the damage that

The first drastic movement that the coalition government made was to move away from the somewhat egalitarian practices of old and severely increase the amount that students would pay to be able to attend universities here in the UK. When I say severely I’m really not hammering the hyperbole button in this case, for a student starting next year compared to one who started their university education before these changes the difference in price in some cases will be a threefold increase. The justifications offered for this change by the ministers responsible cited the need to bring greater investment to British universities and that the prices previously decided by governments had been set far too low, I don’t personally agree with these justifications but I can see the logic of them  if I did agree. Whatever the justifications offered, some charges were levelled against the government in question that we should really assess as counter balances to these arguments for the increases in tuition fees. A critical argument against these changes that seems to have stood up to scrutiny in their immediate wake is that while these changes intend to increase the revenue available to university they are likely to backfire by driving students from poorer social backgrounds away from going to university through fear of accumulating a debt on average twice the size of a starting salary here in the UK. What this would ultimately mean is that while there’s more money coming in per head, there are less heads to count in the first place. How many students from poorer backgrounds will neglect to enter university education or even apply in coming years is of course an unknown fact, but I feel relatively comfortable in guessing that it will steadily decline until the number of upwardly mobile lower class students resembles something much more like the good old days where the toffs ruled the roost.

Two of the most powerful politicians in Britain dressed as extras from Sunday night Television drama for the lonely, decrepit and the old (if indeed there is any difference).

Two of the most powerful politicians in Britain dressed as extras from a Sunday night Television drama for the lonely, decrepit and the old (if indeed there is any difference between the three).

The next battle the dysfunctional couple of British politics lined up after they chose to ignore a somewhat widespread if short lived protest that emerged as a result of their returning university education to a system in some ways probably more  recognisable to the Victorians than to the undergraduates of tomorrow was with the NHS. This proved to be a much harder battle for neo-liberals as however dysfunctional things get within the health system here in the UK, I genuinely believe that there is an enduring love of the NHS that spreads throughout the country. Indeed when reflecting on this it is at times difficult to see what anyone could dislike about the national health service, I mean its free which is already beating much of the competition over the world to start with. It’s also staffed by some of the best examples of professionals that I’m sure a person is ever likely to meet in the UK.

For reckless and unprofessional workers might I suggest the City of London as an alternative to any regional hospital.

For reckless and unprofessional workers might I suggest the City of London as an alternative to any regional hospital.

Most critically of all, it is both free and staffed to an incredibly high standard while under enormous political and financial pressures from whichever party is in power here in the UK. In defending the NHS I am more than willing to accept that it does have its problems but when considering the obstacles that have been thrown in its way by politics it does a tremendous job. I lied above when I said it was difficult to see why anyone would dislike it as there’s a glaring issue that highlights why both the major political parties here in the UK are keen to attack the NHS, it doesn’t charge for its services. Nothing kills the neo-liberal metaphorical erection like the thought of a business achieving some measure of good for the wider public for free. Whereas Macbeth was haunted by his murder victims at night I imagine the nightmares of David Cameron consist of giant flashing neon signs that advertise “FREE HEALTHCARE, FREE EDUCATION, FREE LOVE“.

Either way I digress, the current government has been attempting to push various half-baked reforms through the NHS since the moment it was elected and ironically after the assurances of Nick Clegg of “no shift to the right” in the wake of Margaret Thatchers death it seems that the very first and perhaps most critical  of the measures has passed through the House of Lords. The reform that I refer to is  section 75 which opens up parts of the NHS to private tender and in the process forever changes the NHS and I’m not for one moment inclined to believe for the better. The thing with privately owned businesses is that they are operated on the basis of profit not benevolence, this means that to help increase profits rather than simply balance the books year on year privately owned businesses will cut initial costs wherever possible. Now I’m willing to accept this as a practice in say a restaurant when fast food outlets offer plastic cutlery rather than metal but when it comes to hospital treatment I’m significantly less appreciative of scrimping. Whether undergoing a lumpectomy or simply having a blood test, when attending a hospital I want to know that literally no expense has been spared and that the process will be the most efficient and comfortable that it possibly could be. This is obviously unlikely to be the case when I know that privately owned conglomerates have had a hand in deciding what equipment and facilities will be at hand not doctors. Another reason that this change in policy is particularly repugnant is that many of the members of both houses of parliament who voted on this bill have financial interests in private medical companies which might stand to gain a great deal from this new practice of putting services out to tender. We really need to question what type of democracy we live in when politicians are able to vote on changes in the law when it can be directly proved that such changes will line their pockets with taxpayers money.

The next significant proposed change to the law that has cropped up since Maggie’s death is the reform to legal aid. Legal aid in this context means many things but perhaps the most important aspect of these reforms  is the reduction of the right to be represented by a solicitor of your choice. Instead the system will now revert to a group of law firms that will cover every case in a certain area and then its simply luck of the draw how competent the solicitor you receive is. This seems to have gotten through the writing process of legislature without someone attempting to iron out even some of the simplest kinks in the reform – I’ll use a case study to demonstrate my point in hand. I live in South Wales, an area of Wales that contains two thirds of all of Wales’ population or to put it more concretely roughly 2 million people live in the wider area. That is a lot of people in anyone’s book so surely any well written legislature would take this into  account and assign an equally large number of law firms to provide representation for all of the potential clients. Well funnily enough the legislature written didn’t take this into account with around 9 firms assigned for this whole area and only 21 for the entirety of Wales (population 3 million). That works out as a grand total of 1 law firm for every 142,857 citizens – hardly sounds practical on paper and given the great distances between many of Wales’ biggest populated areas I don’t foresee this being any more practical in reality either. When discussing these reforms with friends many dismissed them, offering an argument that went something like this “I’m unlikely to ever be arrested …. therefore these reforms don’t affect me” which sounds like a tempting argument to concede until you consider that on a day to day basis in other countries with the most responsible and effective police forces quite frequently people who are not guilty are arrested on suspicion of committing crimes. And that’s in countries with very efficient and some might say honest police forces whereas here in the UK we have a police force that is very big on legal overreach as demonstrated in a recent  case of police arresting  a person under anti-terror laws for filming a police officer. Now do you feel so confident on letting a complete stranger of questionably ability defend you when you could be hauled in front of a court for something so arbitrary as happening to catch a police officer on camera ?

I openly accept that none of these changes were directly precipitated by the death of Margaret Thatcher but this does not detract from the fact that current government in the UK, driven seemingly entirely by ideology is working towards the goal of a neo-liberal Britain that the Iron Lady would have only dreamed about. In the process of driving back the state as it has traditionally been conceived of here in the UK, this government is making a country none of us will recognise in years to come, motivated by their belief in a mandate they do not hold and planning to use methods that have failed in the past and will in all probability fail again in the future. If not likely to succeed in the aims of making the UK a better and healthier society then we really must what is it all for other than sate their own perverse ideologies of what is fair.

Rationalism over nationalism

The illustrious Dr Johnson once uttered the words “patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel”. While it is true that the context of the whole conversation was never recorded so the meaning of Dr Johnson’s quote is uncertain, we can take him at his word which is what I fully intend to do in this weeks update. I intend in the coming paragraphs to show why I have struggled in the past to buy into nationalism and further, to argue that we might all be better served if we gave up on nationalism in favour of the far more sound ideal of rationalism.

I’m not sure at what point in my life I realised I was deeply troubled with the idea of buying into a nation and giving said concept my unwavering support. I admit to having attended international sporting events or to watching them on TV in the past and feeling a shiver of the spine as a result of hearing my countries national anthem sung although reflecting on this I fear the spine tingling may have been more the result of hearing in excess of 60,000 people singing the same song which is an inherently powerful experience. The clue here was probably that the anthem is sung in a language I cannot speak or understand rendering the idea that I felt some connection with the lyrics nonsensical, and on further reflection I also imagine the subconscious effect of feeling the need to conform to the crowd behaviours has a tremendous impact. Besides sporting events I don’t ever really recall feeling much towards my nation, I never enjoyed dressing up like a twat to celebrate my countries patron saints day, for anyone who thinks im exaggerating on that front, see below ….

The point at which lampshades gained sentience.

The point at which lampshades gained sentience.

I also never remember feeling any great love for the history of my nation, everywhere else on earth seemed more interesting and less mundane frankly. All of the above being true, I do not remember at which point I decided I felt contempt for the farcical notion of national pride as opposed to the general uncertainty about the idea of a nation and feeling love for it that marked my childhood. I think perhaps the crux of this issue of mine revolves around my becoming aware of politics and realising that a lot of the people I lived around were firstly, just short of mollusc in the brain department and more importantly not a bunch of people that I planned to cling to in times of crisis or otherwise. It probably won’t come as any great surprise that the way in which I came to realise that I did not identify myself with the same notion of nationality as my peers was through hearing their constant boasting about the characteristics of their proud nation while concomitantly denigrating every other nationality on earth as lesser than their own. Considering the amount of times I heard someone accuse the entire Polish nation of being job thieves and petty criminals or heard another moron slander the entire “muslim” nation as terrorists I’m constantly in a state of shock that I ever left my ears attached to my head. Evidently the more time waxing about the greatness of ones own nation the less time spent realising that history is very rarely as compartmentalised as the most ardent nationalists would have us believe.

I think my main bone of contention with the whole idea of nationalism is that I understand how arbitrary the notion of a nation is and I cannot bring myself to identify with other people purely because of arbitrarily drawn lines on a map. I share the same chemical make-up and basic DNA structure with every other human being on this earth right now so I cannot comprehend why I should feel a greater deal of affinity with people spread throughout my country than I do with the rest of humanity. If nationalism was more focussed on conceivable and smaller spaces then perhaps yes I could bring myself to feel that I do hold more in common with my locality than I do in difference with them. Of course this is not the case with nations often constituting gigantic areas of space with hundreds of thousands of people, if not millions, living within them and still the myth is continually perpetuated that it is normal to feel affinity with someone who lives hundreds of miles away but within the same border yet unnatural to feel that self same affinity with some one who lives ten miles away on the other side of a line haphazardly drawn on maps at some point in the last 300 years. In summary my central problem with the idea of a nation is that is based on nothing but baseless presumption.

All of the above having been said it is not for me to attempt to force my lack of affinity for national compatriots on other people. On the other hand, the beliefs I do intend to force on other people is that if they feel the need to define themselves according to the lines drawn on a map around them then they need to start facing up to the ugly realities of what people living in amongst those squiggly lines have done in the past as well as championing the good things that originating from their nation. Just to demonstrate that there are two sides to everything, including the legacy of any particular nation I’m going to play a little game now. I’m going to pick some countries whose history I understand fairly well  and offer one aspect of that countries history as championed by nationalists from that country and counter balance this with some of the more negative parts of that countries legacy:

Mexico

Positive – The birth control pill.

Negative – The complete state of lawlessness that now  grips large parts of mexico as a result of the drugs trafficking to the USA which takes place there.

USA

Positive – Arguably the worlds first and most thriving representative democracy.

Negative – The invention and use of the Atom bomb on civilian populations to cause the capitulation of Imperial Japan.

China

Positive – Compasses.

Negative – Rampant over-population which is drastically increasing strain on the worlds environments.

Germany

Positive – Sellotape aiding countless housewives and office monkeys in their day to day dealings

Negative – The Nazi party which went on from a bit of internal repression to starting the worst war in History

UK

Positive – Association football, the worlds greatest sport

Negative – the Bengal famine, The Irish Famine, The Ethnic cleansing of Nova Scotia, The creation of the majority of the Middle-East’s client kingdoms borders and hold on power and last but not not least ….

Gove most Sad

Michael Gove

I’m not saying that the UK is worse than any other country I mentioned, I simply feel the need to draw attention to more of the negatives associated with my country as it is myths about how amazing Great Britain is that I have to listen to on a daily basis. We can see here from my little exercise above that for every positive aspect of a countries there is an equal and opposite negative aspect to the legacy that if you feel national pride by rights you have to accept. Ultimately I cant force my views onto people much as I might try but I can suggest after this brief discussion on the topic of nationalism that we would all be served better by adopting a far more rational approach to how we view history and arbitrary borders than seems to be the norm now.

The enemy of my enemy…

Last week, a most unsurprising development in the Syrian civil war was announced in the news which then was presumably followed by much agonised chin scratching in western political circles who’s narrative regarding the ongoing conflict in Syria prior to said announcement had been relatively simple considering the convoluted nature of the crisis. The announcement that I make reference to is that of the Al-Nusra Front declaring themselves for Al-Qaeda which was surely news to no-one yet hit with devastating force none the less as people perhaps began to wake up and see that again foreign policy is all to often dictated by the proverb that I have used as the title for this post and that once again in Syria we are in bed with a group we barely understand. In years to come I genuinely fear that this saying will only gain in poignancy as we reflect on the legacy of the Arab Spring which despite holding such dreamy promises in its early days seems to have mutated into something bearing a greater resemblance to a nightmare. While many forces have been at work throughout the ongoing Arab Spring, this mutation of the idealistic revolution into something resembling more on a daily basis the revolutions of France and Russia is in all likelihood due in no small part to the part that has been played by Western actors who have armed factions with whom they shared all too convenient hatreds. In this post I intend to discuss notable times where the sentiments of this proverb have been applied and will demonstrate that each time it has been used that the results are always as spectacularly disastrous for innocent lives and show further that the Arab Spring is seemingly no different.

Perhaps the most notable case in relatively recent history of the use of this maxim to broker alliances between nations that were ultimately hostile to each other in the name of overriding interests would be the Second World War. Two alliances of convenience were formed during the six years in which this conflict raged, both involving the USSR as a regional power. First off the bat, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany signed a mutual non-aggression pact known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact after the foreign ministers responsible for signing it. This pact on the part of Nazi Germany guaranteed that the Soviet Union would stay uninvolved in any emerging European war leaving Germany able to focus its energies on subjugation of Poland and other Western European nations. This is a prime example of an alliance of convenience as the Nazi party ultimately clawed hold of power in Germany through stoking the fires of suspicion against Communists working to subvert the Reichstag and democracy yet in a moment of need came to an agreement with a supposedly newly found friend. It is also a prime example this type of alliance as it ultimately collapsed once the supply of mutual enemies between the once antagonistic nations came to an end with Great Britain seemingly at the point of collapse and the USA yet to enter the war. In one of history’s most disastrous back-stabbings, Hitler then suddenly re-remembered that he despised communism and that his rant in book form Mein Kampf called for the annexation of much Soviet territory to satisfy the Nazi hunger for land.

Molotov signs the Nazi–Soviet non-aggression pact. Behind him are Ribbentrop and Stalin.

Molotov signs the Nazi–Soviet non-aggression pact. Behind him are Ribbentrop and Stalin.

Another reason that the Second World War is a prime example of this proverb in action is that in the aftermath of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, another alliance of convenience was formed this time between Great Britain (and later the USA) and the Soviet Union who if anything despised each other more than the Nazis and the Soviets had done. After all, the political movement which Stalin was a figurehead of at the time had in the minds of the British at least deserted them in their hour of need during the First World War and also the central ideology of the Soviet Union was deeply antagonistic to the ways of life of the British Empire and the United States. The feelings of dislike were very much mutual with Stalin reportedly saying that Churchill was “the worst of the capitalists” but ultimately the common interest of beating back Nazism prevailed momentarily at least. Of course, the ultimate legacy of this alliance was that while it did put an end to the threat of Nazism it evolved into a cold-war between the two diametrically opposed ideologies with almost fifty years of tension that could have at any moment ended the human race ensuing. Besides the irony of an alliance between enemies breaking down into a conflict which greatly outlasted the original war it sought to end, history will look back on this and likely say the strangest thing of all was the Britain and the USA in an effort to stop one tyrant bedded another far worse one in Stalin who is often blamed for upwards of 50 million deaths throughout his reign.

Stalin, FDR and Churchill at the Tehran conference - Papa Joe, king of the political wheeler-dealers and (probably) world mass murderers.

Stalin, FDR and Churchill at the Tehran conference – Papa Joe, king of the political wheeler-dealers and (probably) world mass murderers.

As has already been alluded to in the above section on the series of alliances of convenience that were struck in World War 2 the Nazi party, inflammatory rhetoric put to one side, wasn’t afraid to make alliances with nations that it despised in order to get ahead of more direct threats. Another example of the Nazi’s propensity for such types of alliances is the friendship that developed between Nazi agents and Haj Amin al-Husseini, the grand mufti of Jerusalem and one of the most divisive Palestinians to ever enter the political stage. Again, this relationship on the surface makes little sense as according to the racial hierarchy that much of the Nazi empire was classified by, the Palestinian Arabs who al-Husseini represented, were not many steps higher than the Jews and consequently would likely have experienced the same treatment had the Nazis every really made headways in the Middle East. The decision  by al-Husseini to ally with the most vocally anti-Semitic power in the world was seemingly based around a mutual dislike for the British who ruled much of the Middle East at the time through League of Nation Mandates and also around the concern of Jewish immigration into Palestine as European Jews escaped the persecutions of the Nazis. And we can assume that all the Nazis saw in an alliance with the Arabs was simply a convenient ally who could support in the fight against the more militarily powerful British. Whatever the reasons for the alliance, time passed and eventually it broke down and back fired on the Palestinians. By allying himself with Hitler, al-Husseini arguably seriously discredited the Palestinian cause for a long time by making his antipathy to the foundation of a Jewish state appear to be related to anti-Semitism rather than simply being a result of his support of Arab nationalism. In appearing to be close to Hitler, whatever the ultimate reality of their relationship, al-Husseini gave the most ardent Zionists a conveniently unapologetic figurehead of supposed Arab anti-Semitism who to this day is used to justify the position of strength Israel feels the need to maintain.

Not the type of image you want surfacing later in life when fronting advocacy campaigns of any sort.

Not the type of image you want surfacing later in life when fronting advocacy campaigns of any sort.

The next case of a country following the mantra “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” is perhaps one of the most famous instances of this idea in practice, the USA’s collusion and financial backing of Pakistani and Arab forces in Afghanistan after the Soviet Union’s invasion of 1979. Much has been done throughout the Cold War, the USA backed paramilitary forces that often were unlikely to reclaim power from the communist forces in whichever country but militarily were adept enough to be a serious thorn in the side of the supposed “international communist conspiracy”. The financial and logistical support which the foreign Mujahideen received enabled them to hold off the military juggernaut of the Soviet Union for over 9 years until Gorbachev decided that Soviet forces would withdraw in 1989 and arguably this defeat was critical in ensuring the eventual downfall of the one time superpower. If the record ended there then this alliance might have be the most successful alliance of convenience in the history of man but unfortunately for all parties involved the story does not end there. Slowly but surely after the Soviet armed forces withdrew, the Mujahideen warlords who, during the 9 years for which the conflict had raged, had amassed massive political and military power in Afghanistan dragged the country into a vicious civil war which ended tens of thousands of lives and destroyed more of the country than the Soviet Union ever managed. This period of Chaos did eventually end when the Taliban, a politico-religious force which sought to the end the period of instability  managed to gain control of the country. This in itself might have been enough proof that alliances of convenience are often very dangerous agreements but again history added some more spice to the dish when the Taliban allowed Al-Qaeda, architects of global terrorism, to take refuge in their Islamic fundamentalist state.

The direct result of Cold War politics

The direct result of Cold War politics.

Now that I have considered some historical examples of the use of the proverb “the enemy of my enemy …” I will now discuss the Arab Spring and show how true to form, alliances that were formed with groups purely on the basis of a common shared enemy seem to be doomed to failure. Either these alliances have already broken down in a remarkably short time scale, in the cases of Libya and Syria or seem consistently on the verge of breaking down as is the case in Egypt and to a questionable degree also Tunisia. For a movement that sprung from boundless optimism with the lofty intentions of killing off the corrupt old guard regimes throughout the Middle East and North Africa we have come a long way to the point at which we are at now with the only thing that seems to have changed being the dictator who happens to sit on the throne. I’ll now briefly look at each case in hand:

  • Tunisia – The first country to overthrow its leader and the birthplace of the Arab Spring. When Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire little did he know where his actions would end. The Arab Spring in Tunisia resulted in a massive democratisation of Tunisia with Ben Ali, head of state for 24 years overthrown, the dissolution of the political police and elections to a constituent assembly later that year. The newly democratised country of Tunisia is perhaps the most safe of all the countries who managed to overthrow their governments being as relatively speaking it was the most peaceful upheaval and did not rely on paramilitary groups or major violence to end the regime unlike the other three countries in question. However this is not to say that that the Tunisian “Jasmine revolution” isn’t endangered by foolish alliances of convenience like in neighbouring Libya. The calls to revolt which sounded in later 2010 appealed to a broad social consensus ranging from liberal human rights based groups through to hard-line Salafist groups and ultimately the success of the revolution was based on the involvement of every group that participated. In the time that has passed since Ben Ali was overthrown concern has been voiced that hard-line religious elements have begun to co-opt the democratic process for their own ends. In the case of Tunisia then the alliance that was formed between a variety of groups has yet to result in any major backlash as the result of hastily formed alliances and so there is still hope that Tunisia will buck the trend of one time allies either usurping the democratic process or forces supported by the west turning out to be a bigger threat than the government overthrown.
  • Egypt – The second country to successfully overthrow its government during the Arab Spring and a significantly more important regional player. Much the same as in the case of Tunisia the overthrow was ultimately achieved through the power of the Egyptian people themselves and not through the force of Western arms. Similar to the case of Tunisia, the threat to the Egyptian revolution is not one posed by alliances with external powers but created instead by alliances between liberally minded groups and radical elements such as the Muslim Brotherhood who were a critical component of the Egyptian revolution. Since the Election of Mohamed Morsi to the presidency and with the Islamist Bloc forming the second largest group in the Egyptian house of representatives, many Egyptians feel disillusioned and believe that their alliance with such elements was not worth it as increasingly Morsi rolls back the democratisation that took place in the absence of Mubarak and brings Egypt more in line with the Gulf Arab states.
  • Libya – The third country to overthrow its government and head of state, but the first to utilise Western military aid and financial support in doing so. Unlike in Tunisia and Egypt where protests were widespread and the majority of society seemed to support the overthrowing of the regime in Libya the protests were very much localised and relied on specific groups within society to achieve its aims. When Qadaffi’s armed forced seemed on the verge of crushing this regional rebellion. NATO intervened and through the use of air support helped the rebels slowly capture more and more of Libya until it fell to them. The alliance in question here is more at risk and this probably due to the fact that instead of being an alliance between different elements of society as a whole who had all suffered equally, it was an alliance between internal rebels and external powers with the only shared interest being the overthrow of a somewhat unpopular leader. From the beginning of the the Libyan revolution right through to today we have been aware of highly dangerous elements active in Libya and the end result is that while Qadaffi is no longer in power Libya does not seem much safer than when Rebels and the Libyan army were fighting throughout the country. The alliance struck between the West and forces in Libya is a perfect example of an alliance based on the proverb and like many such alliances has already broken down with Westerners and other traditional victims of fundamentalist Islamic groups being murdered and chased out of the country and this is still the early days with the new government seemingly unable to control the militias that fought in the uprising.
  • Syria – This last country is a slight aberration when compared to the rest I have discussed as unlike the others the revolutionary movement has not overthrown its government and is seemingly unlikely to do so. However as in Libya, Western politicians who have never been fond of the al-Assad family and its close ties to Russia, Iran and Hezbollah have decided to aid the rebel movement, helping them in this are the Gulf Arab states who are wary of a Shia dominated Arab nation with close ties to Iran. As a result of these regional rivalries what started as a genuine revolution for reform and perhaps even the overthrow of the government has increasingly mutated into a sectarian civil war with militias financed by external powers aiming to establish again a nation far closer in style to Saudi Arabia than the enlightened democracies of Scandinavia for example. While support for the rebels in Syria has repeatedly been vocalised and Bashar al-Assad demonised, the actual military support that we saw given to Libyan rebels is yet to materialise and we can hope that this remains the case or in all probability what will happen is that we will see one dictatorial regime overthrown and a far greater threat replace it in the form of allies we have armed whose stated aim is the establishing of a worldwide fundamentalist Salafist state. Whether the support will dry up by itself as a result of the Al-Nusra fronts declaration of support for Al – Qaeda remains to be unseen but I would not hold out too much hope as I’m sure the people in charge knew the elements that were present in Libya before Qaddafi fell.

Of course one difference in this region is that the identity of who is friend and foe is generally speaking continually and rapidly changing and the Arab Spring only seems to have exacerbated this tendency. Perhaps in years to come, unlike the instances of such alliances I offered earlier in this post which have been critically assessed, politicians will escape the blame for  some of the foolish decisions that have already been made and in all likelihood will continue to be made by using this as an excuse and failing to learn the lessons of making alliances based purely on mutual enemies. It is not too much to hope that international politics moves away from rash alliances of convenience and towards building relationships based on much broader and more substantial criteria. An ideology based on hatred – of anything, what so ever, is a curse on all our houses.

Houses of history and the irresistible march of progress

Much has already been speculatively said about the revolution that will begin when 3D printing migrates from being a niche hobby to a mainstream practice. The commentaries discussing it often focus on the industrial and legal ramifications of this innovation being as it has every potential to sound the death knell of traditional industry, doing away with mass production and ushering in a host of political changes. It is undeniable that however wide the scope of uptake of 3D printing is that it will have massive repercussions that will echo throughout history much like the printing press before it. Although it is arguable that an unhealthy amount of the discussion of the potential of this technology has focussed on its predicted impacts on consumerism to the detriment of the other likely ramifications. In this post I will attempt in my own way to remedy this by discussing a potential usage of the technology that I feel could one day dramatically alter the way we engage with our culture and history as a species for good.

To begin with I will attempt to offer the briefest and least jargon heavy explanation of the fundamental principles of 3D printing possible. The reason I aim to do so is as much for my own benefit as the readers, the tendencies of  the tech and science communities to assume that the general public get the same thrill from technical terms as they do is one of its biggest PR failings and will only serve to hamper the growth of this revolution in coming years. Perhaps the best summary of 3D printing I found while researching this post was written by Spencer Thompson at The Guardian in an article discussing the need for regulators of all forms to be wary of measures that could strangle off this industry in its birth if not careful, the article in its entirety can be found here. When discussing the technology Thompson had this to say in summary:

“what is 3D printing exactly, and why should we be so excited about it? It allows people to download designs from the internet and turn them into physical objects, building them up layer by layer. Enthusiasts are already making dollsguitars and – more sinisterly – perhaps even guns, and the technology is advancing all the time. Recent advances mean you can now 3D print in metal and bio-materials, prompting some aerospace and medical firms to make specialised parts with them. This list of uses will only keep growing.”

This summary perfectly highlights both the promise and the threat that is inherent in this technology although again the focus tends towards industrial ramifications at the expense of other possible ramifications. Before I begin my own discussion of the possible effect 3D printing may have on the consumption and recording of human history and culture I will say a little more about the technical process that it entails so as to make clear for the reader how this industry differs from traditional industrial processes and why it is that 3D printing is so revolutionary.

Taking the basic description of 3D printing from Wikipedia as my start point, the difference the entry offers between traditional industry is that the traditional model is reliant “on the removal of material by methods such as cutting or drilling (subtractive processes)” . The 3D printing industrial method however “is achieved using an additive process, where successive layers of material are laid down in different shapes” according to digital template.  It is this very critical difference between additive processes and subtractive processes that is reason that it is such a revolutionary idea. Traditional industry  with its subtractive process is by definition wasteful as it takes a certain amount of any given substance and from this crafts a product discarding what is left over. Even in cases where the discarded material can be used for other means it can only be used a certain amount of times in a highly specific number of ways. The technical aspect of 3D printing that makes it so as revolutionary as Gutenberg’s printing press is that it is an additive process meaning that it only ever uses the necessary amount of material to make things which in a world increasingly aware of its own limited resources is truly ground-breaking.

That this process will come to thoroughly alter the world in which we live is not a contention that I am willing or plan to argue with, as to do so would be utterly futile. Make no mistake about it – this technology will have political ramifications equal in nature to the printing press which similarly challenged the monopolies that certain aspects of European society enjoyed before its introduction. The effects on traditional industry and specifically the power and wealth of the owners of big industry are likely to be drastic, and unlike the printing press which challenged only small albeit powerful aspects of society, 3D printing will affect the whole world in a way that few existing technologies have or ever will.

That is as long as they aren’t simply used just to make bongs for video game fans.

To grasp the scale of how revolutionising the effect of the technology might be in years to come lets conduct a little experiment. Look around the room you sit in while you read this post and count the number of truly unique items in it, the likelihood is that almost everything in that room was mass-produced and that the unique items number so few that they can be counted purely with fingers. As a process for all its positives in terms of personal economy mass production is a process which clearly favours the rich and powerful in society who can afford to build consumer goods on an assembly line at the expense of artisans in every field in every community who may now finally see a chance to produce unique goods which aid them to pay taxes and directly benefit localised economies more than corporations ever could.

This post not sponsored by Nike.

This post not sponsored by Nike.

This being true however does not change the fact that too much of the dialogue on 3D printing focusses too heavily on the industrial and economical implications of its widespread adoption. The aim of this post is to argue that one use I recently thought of for 3D printing could have equally tremendous implications for educational and cultural reasons. The title gave a small clue as to the brain wave which overwhelmed me recently much as moments of seemingly divine inspiration are wont to do.

Museums, they’re one of my favourite places to visit whenever I have the opportunity.  I’ve been fortunate enough to travel in my years on earth and central to every trip that has had a inalterable impact on me as a person was a visit to a museum which in some distinct way changed my view of the world that I held before entering the building. From Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, a late Roman church turned mosque turned museum which is arguably the world’s most beautiful ugly building to London’s Natural History Museum which in no small part caused my obsession with dinosaurs that devoured whole days of my childhood at a time – museums have had a irretractable impact on me as a person. How positive this impact has been on my personality of course is open to interpretation, however one concrete notion that I take from the influence museums have had on me as person, that I feel is inherently positive, is that I have a great love of and appreciation for history and why it is worth studying.

All of my above feelings on the topic of museums being true, I do at the same time recognize some issues with museums that trouble me greatly. These conflicting emotions lead me to see a way in which 3D printing could potentially be utilised to serve cultural and educational purposes and solve the flaws of museums as we conceive of them. I’ll begin this section of today’s update by firmly establishing what I feel the main flaws of museums are before moving onto a discussion of how 3D printing could be used to alleviate these issues.

The first issue that I have with museums is that for all their appeal I feel that they still retain a somewhat elitist air about themselves as institution that stems from their history often as the pet projects of rich philanthropists. That the appeal of museums is one that offers more to the upper and middle segments of economic and class groupings ultimately works for museums as an institution with such patrons able to pay or donate towards the upkeep of such facilities.  But let us not forget that in reality business is more often than not a reciprocal relationship rather than unidirectional and so even if museums “work” as a business when viewed from their own perspective this is not reason enough to protect the status quo. If the stated aim of a museum is to inform and educate society then what value is an institution that exclusively informs patrons who in all reality have the finances to be able to educate themselves independently while neglecting the class of people who due to economic circumstance would otherwise be unable to do so. Even in cases such as like here in the UK were entry to the largest and most popular museums is free there are still barriers to entry that hamper people in lower classes from accessing museums. One of the major barriers to entry is the location of many popular museums with world class collections which are often in national capitals meaning that travel and perhaps accommodation are requirements to visit them, again only serving to price out those who might gain the most from a visit to such sites. One way in which museums in the past have attempted to meet this challenge head on is by having travelling collections often arranged around a theme which move from museum to museum in order to allow more people the chance to see their artefacts although despite perhaps the best of intentions such travelling collections rarely make it to regional museums and instead simply rotate around world capitals.

The other problem I have with museums, specifically here in Britain, is their hoarding of artefacts which once perhaps were in danger of damage or destruction to lack of care or civil strife in their country of origin but no longer are. The main culprit which springs to mind in typing that last sentence is the British Museum which contains numerous artefacts that arguably can safely be returned to other countries museums and whose hoarding is so in spite of any notion of decency actually has been detrimental to international relations between Britain and various other countries. Examples of artefacts which are housed in the British museum that have been requested for repatriation include the Elgin Marbles (Greece), Rosetta Stone (Egypt), Benin Bronzes (Nigeria) and statues from the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus (Turkey). The supposedly enlightened thinking of saving such artefacts from destruction may have once been true but they ring false in the modern day and age.

Greece wants these back even though only one has got a head ...

Greece wants these back even though only one has got a head …

Now that I’ve established what I feel the flaws of museums are I will now offer what I see as one possible and fairly simple alternative to their current behaviour that would incorporate 3D printing and remedy these issues – printing duplicates of existing artefacts. By scanning the dimensions of existing artefacts into data form and then printing these and perhaps painting them to make them completely identical to the original artefacts museums could solve their two biggest flaws by allowing museums and perhaps even schools and universities too all over the world to own copies of the most important cultural and historical items from human history which in turn helps by freeing up the original artefacts up for repatriation to the national museums of the countries they originate from. By utilising 3D printing to catalogue and recreate historical artefacts museums would truly democratise the experience by allowing far greater swathes of humanity access to its history, fulfilling to a much greater degree their aim to educate people in the illustrious history of mankind. Some may argue that because the duplicates are exactly that – duplicates – that they would hold no appeal, my counter argument is that when you view items in a museum the history of the item itself is actually a very secondary quality. The more important quality the item possesses by far is that it is a representation of mankind’s evolution as a species and ultimately copying the item retains the items value as a representation of mankind’s progress being as the original item is only ever a representation of such an idea and therefore is a perfectly worthwhile act in my mind.

Even if you are vehemently antagonistic to my ideas as I have worded them above then please consider another scenario which I feel couldn’t fail to win you over. 2000 years from now the earth is literally ending as a result of mankind’s utter disregard for its environment although humanity is safe as we have finally mastered interplanetary travel. In this situation in an attempt to preserve the most important elements of human history are we really to load rockets with the contents of the world museums knowing how much fuel it takes to lift just 1KG into orbit or might we benefit from carrying simply the scanned data of the worlds museums on a hard-drive  and then printing them upon arrival.

Hardly classifiable as carry-on luggage is it ?

Hardly classifiable as carry-on luggage is it ?

However we feel about the idea of duplicating historical artefacts we can surely see at this juncture that we have at hand in this precise moment in history a technology which will aid in the fight to preserve and protect human history as museums have strived to do in more recent years and I fear we would be foolish to dismiss it out of hand without seriously considering the rewards to reaped from its utilisation.

The hydra reborn

I will wager that is not often that bloggers of any stripe who focus on contemporary issues feel the need or desire to resort to using ancient Greek mythology to make points about the topics they discuss. But today I will attempt that very behaviour using the analogy of the Lernaean Hyrda to argue that as things stand Europe stands on a cross roads at which it would do well to heed the lessons of history. While I’m sure any who have read to this point, digesting what some may feel is my most tortured introduction to a post yet, will already know the story  I will begin by briefly summarising the story of Heracles and the Hydra.

An ancient depiction of Heracles fighting the Hydra of Greek myth.

An ancient depiction of Heracles fighting the Hydra of Greek myth.

According to an epic poem of Greek mythology, Heracles in an act of atonement for the murder of his sons was instructed by an oracle that he should serve the king Eurystheus for twelve years and perform any task which the king set him. If he was successful in this task then he would finally be rewarded with immortality, allowing him his place alongside the Greek gods of Mount Olympus. During his tenure serving the King Eurystheus Heracles was given in all twelve tasks to perform, the second of which was to slay the Lernaean Hydra. The Hydra as recorded in ancient myths was a many-headed serpentine beast whose defining trait was a form of regeneration where for every one of its heads that was cut off, it would grow two in place of the original. The beasts one weakness was that it only remained invulnerable as long as it retained one central head. To combat the Hydra, Heracles aided by his cousin Lolaus cauterized each neck stump as he beheaded the beast so as to prevent their regrowth and eventually used a sword given to him by the god Athena to decapitate the last and central head. Commentators in more modern times have studied this story and described the idea of the Hydra as a personification of the feeling of hopelessness being as the beast would seemingly endlessly recover from the most grave of wounds its suffered meaning that only a hero with steely determination could ever hope to vanquish such a monster. Further to this in assessing the story of Heracles fight with the Hydra for hidden meanings people have often suggested that the myth is a parable for dealing with a problem completely and not leaving loose ends that will later come back to haunt us.

Now that I have summarised this particular part of Heraclean myth in as much detail as any reader should have to tolerate considering they have likely come here for political discussion I will now progress with the task at hand. I intend, using the analogy of the Hydra, to suggest that the ideology of Fascism and other far-right political movements is very much alive in Europe at this point in time as a result of the established political orders inability to deal with central problems that give rise to such movements. This inability or even lack of desire to address the issues that give rise to such discontent is critical as we have already once witnessed the monstrous ideology of Nazism bring Europe to its knees and only a fool would dismiss out of hand the worrying parallels that can be drawn between the crises of Europe in the 193os and the those of Europe now.

It cannot be denied that at this juncture in time that the economies of many European countries face an acute crisis as things stand. The stability of the Eurozone has suffered massively as a result of the lack of confidence in several European countries to repay or refinance their debts without the help of outside parties. As a result of these sovereign debt crises, the countries whose economies have been so embattled, namely Portugal, Ireland, Greece, Spain and now Cyprus too have reached out to the European Union in their hours of need for financial help presumably to stop an otherwise inevitable mass exodus from the European Union. The help that was sought in bailing out these struggling economies was ultimately given although the nature of such help probably left much to be desired in these countries as in all cases the loans that were given depended on the ability and willingness of the country in question to completely restructure its economy to suit the tastes of the German dominated European Central Bank. The restructuring of economies to suit the requirements of the ECB included approaches such as swingeing austerity cuts and in the most recent case of Cyprus, savings levies and capital controls to prevent any runs on banks. Such methods to satisfy the requirements of the ECB are ultimately ill advised as they are based far more on the financial models of strong economies such as that of Germany which in all likelihood could survive these methods – whereas an already struggling economy of a financially speaking weak Southern European country such as Greece is unlikely to be able to cope with such methods which have even been criticised by economists such as Paul Krugman who have argued that the effect of such austerity will be to further prolong any recession.

Beware sovereign debt crises or face this ones steely gaze

Beware sovereign debt crises or face this one’s steely gaze.

The other issue thrown up by such vigorous restructuring of economies is that it has resulted in many cases in large scale unemployment which is where the real political problem that concerns me arguably begins. With such a massive increase in unemployment and the overall decrease of financial stability in these countries, large groups of disaffected disproportionately young people being as these often form the cohort of the unskilled workers, find themselves branching out in the hope of finding radical solutions to their problems. In the past the radical solution that the unemployed might have turned to could have equally been radical left wing, communist or socialist movements but times have changed and such movements have fallen out of favour all over the world. In the mean time, with increasing political liberalisation throughout much of Europe since the end of the Cold War and the large scale assimilation and adoption of neoliberalist political policy in many countries, the far more common form of contemporary popular opposition to governments has mutated into a more right leaning approach with tendencies for this to stretch all the way towards militant xenophobia and virulent anti-Islamic groups.

Such groups can and do emerge in times that are remarkable for their lack of crisis and I make no attempt to deny their emergence during such times. The relationship between such groups and times of political crisis is that during said crises these groups suddenly become much more appealing to the population as they preach radical solutions to problems which the already established political order have failed to resolve. For an example of such a case we need look no further than Germany prior to the Nazis. The country had a history of extreme right wing movements that pre-dated any major economic crisis and instead focussed its rhetoric instead on the threat of communism inspired by the recent Russian revolution. This extreme right movement known as the Freikorps and its paramilitary groups controlled swathes of Germany during the early Weimar republic and would go on to form an early vanguard of the Nazis. Despite the considerable power which such a movement maintained they were never particularly popular as the threat of communism was hardly the most credible threat that face post WW1 Germany. However given the great depression of the 1930s and the mass withdrawal  of American investment from Germany and the economic crisis that followed, the Nazi party, in part made of former Freikorp elements, managed to use this event as a catalyst and gain much more support from the German populace.

This is what right wing paramilitaries were getting up to in Germany BEFORE the Nazis

This is what right wing paramilitaries were getting up to in Germany BEFORE the Nazis.

Central amongst the issues that the Nazi party, as the most successful of extreme right wing movements in Germany, attempted to resolve was the unemployment crisis caused by the Great Depression. Before the crash a relatively healthy amount of unemployment was evident in Germany with the figure cited at or around 1.25 million people. By the end of 1930, so only roughly three months in to the Great Depression the rate of unemployment was 15.3% meaning that nearly 4 million people were out of work. Two years into the Depression, German unemployment over 30% of the German workforce was unemployed and it was famously in this same year that the Nazi party and also the extremist communist party both started to gain ground in national elections. Similarly in nearby Spain, the prime minister at the time Jose Primo de Rivera resigned in 1930, followed by the ousting of King Alfonso XIII in the following year. A fragile democracy was eventually established although it was compromised by economic problems and social discontent which culminated in the divisive election of 1936 and the subsequent Spanish Civil War which is famously were much of the Nazi air force and elements of the SS gained their first active combat training.

please don't ask me how it represents it, but this Picasso work memorialises the bombing of Guernica by the Luftwaffe.

please don’t ask me how it represents it, but this Picasso work memorialises the bombing of Guernica by the Luftwaffe.

The reason I have just highlighted the unemployment statistics of Germany and the role economic crises also played in the Spanish civil war is that right now in the wake of the current economic crisis currently battering the defences of Europe, mass unemployment is a common feature in almost all the cases of countries that have been bailed out by the ECB. For an article discussing this in greater detail click here , but for summary I will now quote the most important (read worrying) figures. The figures for both Spain and Germany in December or 2012 are over a record 26% of the workforce unemployed and the overall unemployment rate for the Eurozone countries was 12% which again is frighteningly high.

Much as was the case in pre-Nazi Germany, the existence of far right movements throughout Europe predates this economic crisis. For example the BNP, the EDL are both shining examples of movements here in the UK that existed regardless of any economic crisis and instead based their movements more around a broadly supported cultural opposition to the supposed “Islamification” of Europe. Similarly the Greek movement Golden Dawn also had existed for many years before the current crisis began and simply lingered in the peripheries since its inception until things started to look less than rosy for the Greek economy. Both of these movements exhibit the fact that despite the tortured legacy of extreme right wing movements in Europe that they still garner support to this day. Why movements so reminiscent of the Nazi party continue to gain any support what so ever has to be one of the greatest mysteries of contemporary politics.

Hardly strikes you as a the radical reinvention I think it  pretends it is.

Hardly strikes you as a the radical reinvention I think it pretends it is.

If pressed on the matter, I would suggest that the origin of support for such movements stems from their two pronged approach towards politics in firstly, offering radical solutions to the key issues of the day and secondly, blaming those issues on overly convenient scapegoats that are already the victims of fairly widespread political prejudice. To highlight what I mean, in the case of Nazism as the most infamous example of a successful right wing movement, the promises made revolved around ending the economic and subsequent employment crisis of the 1930s which in their view and the view of their supporters had in some part been caused by the dreaded World Jewry. It is perhaps central that for such groups to succeed that they meet both the criteria of offering radical but plausible solutions to contemporary issues and also offering convenient scapegoats for said issues to be blamed on. I highlight this as it is notable that the EDL in the UK only fulfil one of these criteria in having convenient bogeymen to blame the countries problems on and have relatively speaking floundered compared to Golden Dawn, the Greek neo-fascist movement which has gone from strength to strength in the wake of the crisis which they have offered solutions for whilst being able to blame the crisis on a corrupt and inefficient political class for the whole series of events.

Ultimately, whatever the origin of support for such movements that there is support at all is the main problem of Europe as things stand. The Hydra that is extreme right wing politics is one often preceded by economic crisis and despite the lessons of history we still haven’t dealt with the main head of this particular monster and so are damned to keep seeing its reappearance and fighting against it. To combat this Hydra effectively rather than weapons of combat what is needed is an evaluation of and perhaps movement away from the economic practices of extreme capitalism which when it fails  destroys the livelihoods of millions and drives recruits into the arms of extreme movements. Another weapon in the struggle against this Hydra which we need to utilise is the effective combating of stereotypes and scape-goating that is used to create causes for the economic crises that blight us. It is currently far to easy for extremist elements for example in Greece and Cyprus as seen here and here to blame or attack migrant workers and leftists for the crisis when the reality is that if there is a true enemy of the people in both these cases that the difference between the victim and victimiser is not race but class. The lesson of this post in its totality is that until we deal with the roots of the problem of extreme right wing politics that we currently face then we will in all likelihood see its constant recurrence  just as we are currently witnessing with all the horrors that this entails.