Sunday, 23 September 2007

What If? Art 4: A History Book That Never Existed

Seeing how few postings I have made this month I do wonder if finally I am running out of steam. However, I guess I am not too angry about things at the moment. There seems to be some progress on moving house and the landlord and the bank have backed off for the moment. I did have some half-completed what if? book covers that I have sat down today and finished. These three can be grouped together as each of them envisages a different outcome for colonial empires. I will take them in historical order.

'The Sino-Portuguese War For South-East Africa 1509-1513' by David Birmingham (1998)

This one was stimulated by thoughts about what the possible continuation of Chinese explorations which began in 1421 as outlined in Gavin Menzies's book '1421 - The Year China Discovered the World' (2004) which outlines the huge fleets captained by eunuch admirals which went exploring around Asia and probably as far as Africa and maybe even America. However, a shift in imperial policy brought such explorations to an end in the early 16th century. In the late 15th century the Portuguese began sailing around the coast of Africa and on to India and China. They established 'factories', i.e. trading posts along the East coast of Africa - Zanzibar in 1503, Sofala in 1505 and Mozambique in 1507 and contined to develop these and others inland throughout the 16th century as well as expanding in China at Macao, in India at Goa and in Indonesia in Timor. This book envisages a battle between the Portuguese and Chinese over the area which was to become Mozambique where the Chinese had established bases 60-70 years earlier. Such a conflict would have shaken both Western and Chinese perceptions of the world. Assuming China had adopted an outward rather than inward looking then they might have mobilised their forces at a time when they were stronger than any western power. Such contact may have turned the Chinese view inwards and led to an abandonment of colonial expansion. As for the Portuguese given their apparent hunger for colonies on three continents, I doubt they would have been discouraged but the approach to China may have been more hostile and led to greater penetration of that country three hundred years before the Treaty Ports. I selected David Birmingham to write this book because he is a leading historian on Portugal and its relationship with Africa.

'A History of French West Australia 1806-2006' (2007)

'This book was written around the time of the bicentenary celebrations in French West Australia. It was established formally in 1806 as part of Napoleon's plans to block the British Empire across the world which led him to become involved in Egypt, India, North America and the Caribbean. French interest in western Australia pre-dated the French Revolution. Having won sufficient mastery of the sea following the indecisive Battle of Trafalgar and with British ships kept to home waters to defend against the anticipated French invasion, Napoleon was able to put into force his plan, landing troops at what is now Cognac in South-West France Australe. With diversionary raids against British shipping around the South-East of Australia, French forces were able to secure a bridgehead and in 1806, Napoleon formally claimed up to the 133rd East parallel. This was as far West as the British had claimed in 1788. Following the defeat of Napoleon in 1815 the British permitted the new French regime as a boost to its prestige that they were keen to foster, to retain the colony which seemed to be of no great value being predominantly desert. Of course as with all borders between states, the economies of Adelaide in the South and Leclerc in the North were boosted by cross-border trade. French West Australia is noted for its wines, the first from outside Europe to rise to prominence in the mid-19th century.'

The French certainly had long had an interest in western Australia and it was really only British dominance of the seas which prevented Napoleon putting his colonial plans which also involved and invasion of India with aid from the Russians, into effect. A different outcome at the Battle of Trafalgar could have changed this, especially if it led to Nelson's death and yet no overwhelming victory. I picked Cognac as the name for what we call Perth, Australia as Perth, Scotland has it as a twin town. George Louis Leclerc was a French naturalist who I have substituted the name for Darwin. It took the British a long time to claim all of Australia, going from East to West; as late as 1825 they had only reached the 129th East parallel (the border of modern day Western Australia) and only set up Western Australia in 1829, partly to forestall French intervention in the region. Where there is a border between states you tend to get more economic development and with two colonising countries bringing people to the two halves of Australia I envisage its population would have been higher by now.

'Economic Development in Mittelafrika 1917-1957' by Walter Otto Henderson (1978)

This book envisages that Germany won the First World War probably in 1915-16 and was able to put into place the grand plans that German nationalists were developing as the war progressed. They planned to have an economic bloc called Mitteleuropa in Europe and to restructure the central African colonies into Mittelafrika. They believed that unless Germany could achieve this it would lose out to the superpowers of the time, seen as the USA, Russia and the British Empire. The core of Mittelafrika would be the Belgian Congo. If victorious the Germans would have split Belgium into vassal states and taken over its colonies. By also relieving Portugal which fought on the side of the Allies of Angola on the West coast Germany could connect its colony of South-West Africa (now Namibia) to the Congo which bordered German East Africa (now Tanzania) anyway and the German Cameroons. However, Portugal was also expected to give up Mozambique which bordered German East Africa to the South. The French would have lost Gabon to the South of the Cameroons and French Equiatorial Africa to its East. The British would have lost Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) and Nyasaland (now Malawi) but retained Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and Bechuanaland (now Botswana). Morocco had interested the Germans before the First World War and the British had resisted German attempts to control it in 1905 and 1911; the French had taken it as a colonial territory in 1912, so it is very likely that this would have been rectified in favour of the Germans in 1916. German Togoland between the British Gold Coast and Nigeria has expanded by taking the French strip to the East.

The Union of South Africa had only been created in 1910 after British victory over the Boer Republics eight years before. It is likely that the Kaiser Wihelm II who had been an outspoken supporter of the Boers would have forced the British to restore them, so you can see them as brown, i.e. non-colonial states bordering the German lands in the South. These would have been Transvaal, Orange Free State, New Republic, Stellaland and Goschen, though I imagine they would have formed some kind of confederation or even a federation. The other losses for the British would come in the North. In 1882 Britain had taken over running of Egypt and in 1889 had set up the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium of Sudan. At the outbreak of war in 1914 Egypt was made a British protectorate. Effectively these lands however, were supposed to belong to the steadily weakening Ottoman Empire, an ally of Germany's. So with Germany victorious these would be restored. Germany had been economically penetrating the Ottoman Empire before the war so would have had control of these areas including the vital Suez Canal link under control by proxy. I have assumed that with the war going against the Allies, Italy has remained neutral and kept its colonies.

Assuming a German victory in 1916, there is unlikely to have been any Second World War but this would not have exempted the German Empire from experiencing the pressures of nationalism that the British, French, Portuguese, Belgian, Dutch and Spanish empires were to do so in 1920s-1970s. By losing its colonies in our world in 1919, Germany was let off these challenges. In 1956, the first British African colony the Gold Coast (now Ghana) gained independence. Morocco and Tunisia had already left the French empire in the late 1940s. So it is likely that the German Mittelafrika despite all the German efforts to create an economic bloc, would have begun to fragment. How the Germans would have responded is a point of debate. Even the British and French who tried staged independence faced severe conflicts for example in Kenya in the 1950s and in Algeria in the 1960s. The Portuguese were still fighting bitter colonial wars in the mid-1970s. The German reputation for suppressing uprisings in its colonies was brutal. Suppression of unrest in German South-West Africa in 1907-11 led to the death of half of the indigenous population with thousands being forced into the desert to die. It is likely then that Mittelafrika would have seen decades of bloody conflicts and an Africa even more ravaged than it is in our world.

Walter Otto Henderson wrote 'Studies in German Colonial History' in 1962 and 'Genesis of the Common Market' in 1985, so seems a suitable author for this more detailed book.

Wednesday, 19 September 2007

Carbon Indulgences

I can claim no credit for the idea put forward in this posting. It was a pespective highlighted to me by a man who knows a great deal about politics and economics in the UK and the world and it seemed to be so true that I had to mention it here, in the hope that I can help spread the idea a little further. As you will see, it also fits in with some of the discussion I have been having on this site around the Crusades. What this man did was liken paying for carbon offsetting with papal indulgences of the Middle Ages.

First the background of these two elements. Carbon offsetting has been in the newspapers and television reports a great deal and involves people and companies analysing how much carbon dioxide (and note it is the gas carbon dioxide it just gets reduced to this in popular usage and people do not actually mean carbon which is usually a solid element at room temperature and is most obvious in things like coal, but is also the basis of diamonds and is a component of life on Earth, which is why chemistry featuring carbon is called 'organic chemistry') they produce and then paying a company like Carbon Neutral Company or Climate Care to carry out activities which globally reduce carbon dioxide emissions and so hopefully reduce global warming. It is reckoned that every individual would have to spend £75 (€107; US$149 - the pound has dropped against both currencies this week) per year to reverse the amount of carbon dioxide they produce through using electrical items, travelling by car, aeroplane, ship and so on.

The second element are Papal Indulgences. These were introduced in the 11th century by the Catholic Church at the time that the Crusading movement was becoming established. Before the introduction of indulgences the way to get to Heaven was to be baptised, confess your sins, believe in God and Jesus Christ in line with the doctrines of the Church and live a life in which you carried out good works. The concept of Purgatory gained ground between the 4th-6th centuries. It was a kind of intermediary place where people went who were not so evil that they would be sent straight to Hell, but not so good that they went straight to Heaven, i.e. the bulk of the population. Their soul might spend thousands of years after their death being purified of the sins they had committed on Earth before eventually they got into Heaven. Now, if they got their descendants or hired someone like a chuch or monastery to say prayers for them after their death then it shortened the time they had to spend in Purgatory. Increasingly from the 11th century onwards, however, you could also buy an indulgence from a church representative (such as the Pardoner in Geoffrey Chaucer's 'Canterbury Tales') which eliminated a certain amount of sin from your life, say five years' worth, so that when you came to Purgatory you would not have to spend so long there. Very expensive indulgences could wipe away all the sin in your life as could going on a Crusade (well by the time of the late Crusades by which time it was getting harder to raise volunteers and the rewards had to be greater, a kind of 'indulgence inflation' happened).

Indulgences brought in a good deal of money for the Catholic Church, but were attacked by reformers, not only because people like the pardoners became rich off the back of this business but on theological grounds as well. Given that Jesus said that it was very hard for a rich man to get into Heaven, how had it now become the case that the wealthy could pay to have all their sins expunged when a poor person had to put up with going through Purgatory? Things came to a head in 1517 when Pope Leo X had a large marketing campaign of indulgences to raise funds to rebuild St. Peter's Basilica. Protest against this was one of the key elements of the attacks by the monk Martin Luther on corruption in the Catholic Church and indulgences were the focus of the 28th of his 95 Theses. Luther thought that only God could grant redemption, not anyone on Earth, even the Pope and certainly not for financail return. Luther's actions were the start of the so-called Reformation which led to the formation of the Protestant Churches in the following decades.

One of the concerns about indulgences were that effectively as long as you had the cash you could be as sinful as you liked and then pay for those sins to be wiped clean. It did not matter to you that your actions in being sinful, for example murdering someone or committing adultery or being a glutton, actually hurt other people. This is the parallel my friend was making to carbon offsetting. The people who are most likely to pay to have their 'carbon footprint' offset are actually those people, like celebrities with their big cars and private aeroplanes, who are contributing the most the amount of carbon dioxide being pumped into the air. So they buy some offsetting and do not actually have to worry about their behaviour and feel they have a clear conscience. Of course it is the whole world who has to put up with the consequences of their actions and they do not repay those who they indirectly harm, such as people on islands losing their water table and their land because of rising sea levels.

Maybe we will see a 'carbon' Martin Luther nailing his protests to the door of some carbon offsetting company and arguing instead that we all need to reform our behaviour rather than some of us feeling we can opt out of any modification of how we behave simply because we can pay someone else to take the burden.

Saturday, 15 September 2007

Disappointment is the Sincerest Form of Flattery

When I was a child I was always heartened when adults would say to me 'I am very disappointed in you; I expected you to do better'. I always thought that was much greater praise than them saying that you had done excellently. When you are praised, especially as a child, you are uncertain whether it comes from genuine motives or whether the adult is trying to get you to feel good or even to make themselves look good. When they said they were disappointed it was more of a personal emotion and it indicated they thought highly of you in a way that could never be disproved; 'the sweetest tune is an unheard melody'. The adult might have expected you to come first in a race, in reality you probably would have come third or eighth but if you stomped out in a tantrum, it could never be proven that you would have not come first and the adult by saying they were disappointed in you would always hold on to that 'if only he had run, then he would have come first'.

Things obviously change when you get older. People rarely have high expectations for fellow adults. In the UK in fact most adults seem to have very low expectations of others and if people do something good or worthwhile they are irritated or somehow expect some cheating or that it was done with some ulterior motive. The sense of disappointment is not there. Rather it comes from oneself. I have quoted that saying 'after his child, the person a man first disappoints is himself'. Many of us fall into that trap, that, if only I had worked harder or gone for that job or talked to that man/woman or pushed my ideas more firmly, I would have been a success. By being disappointed in yourself you similarly flatter yourself. Of course only a very small percentage of people are ever going to be successful and if you had worked harder it is unlikely that you would have progressed and better and that woman/man is likely to have ignored you or been insulted that you were interested in them. Yet, by never trying those things we keep ourselves safe. If you test out every possibility you will soon be suicidal as you will discover quickly that this society lets very few people succeed. This is one thing I admire about British society compared to the USA. US society is still addicted to the sense that everything is possible of you try hard enough. In the UK we know that is a lie and to some extent most us avoid the bitterness which hits so many Americans so hard as they get older or are made redundant. If you expect to achieve nothing, everything you get is a real bonus, but if you expect the world, to be denied even a small element of that is frustrating.

What provoked this was coming across a woman I had attended school with many decades ago. She has two books out and is online being interviewed about what she has written. She even has a wikipedia entry about how she lives by a lake with her partner and two children. In the past you could always reassure yourself that even if you were doing badly the bulk of your classmates were probably faring no better. These days though with social spaces like MySpace, Facebook, Friends Reunited, etc., etc., you cannot continue with that fantasy, their success is thrust back in your face. I avoid these sorts of things but it is sometimes inescapable as when I was walking down a street in London and the face of someone I had gone to school with (and I went to ordinary comprehensive schools not Eton or Charterhouse) was plastered five metres high on the side of a double-decker bus publicising something they were presenting. The think about seeing people you know in such a context is that you might think, well I never had millionaire parents or went to Oxford University like so many successful people, but when it is someone from the same background as yourself, you may begin thinking, well why could I have not done so well?

I think much of this stuff comes from ageing. I am now middle-aged and probably will have a mid-life crisis where I think I should be buying a Harley Davidson motorbike and driving around the world on it. I have written four novels in my life, half written two more (lethargy has plagued me now for almost eight years and put an end to any chance I had at success - and there it is: I think I actually had a chance if only I have been able to muster enough energy, whereas, in fact, my novels would have simply been consigned to the recycling bin with the thousands agents and publishers receive each year). So here is to disappointment, disappointment of a particular kind that of not reaching the standards that you or others probably unrealistically set, yet in that non-attainment being left with crumbs which keep us from suicide - not 'what if?' but 'if only'. 'If only' can keep you sane and help you get through the times that make most people wonder why they bother keeping up the effort of remaining alive.

Tuesday, 11 September 2007

1977 Anarchy in the UK; 2007 Bankruptcy in the UK

Today's news broadcasts are highlighting statistics from the Citizens' Advice Bureau that they are now getting 6,600 enquiries every day in the UK about problems with debt. Personal bankruptcy has reached an all time high. Whilst we have not returned to the thousands of repossessions of houses as experienced between 1990-3, the number is rising steadily. The house we are renting will be repossessed from the landlord when we leave, for non-payment of the mortgage. This time round this is not meaning cheaper houses coming on to the markets, instead banks sit on the reposessions until they reach a certain level and then sell them so that they do not reduce the ever rising price of houses. Back in the early 1990s at least those who could not afford a house had some chance getting a repossessed one at reduced rate and even that channel has now gone.

So what is to blame for such vast debt in the UK? Are we all simply spendthrift? Well, about a quarter of the problems stem from credit and store cards. The UK, seemingly in sharp contrast to its European neighbours, does seem to have got obsessed with constantly buying. Electrical goods, furniture and DVDs/music seem to be in high demand with people upgrading and upgrading. In France, almost all shops are closed on a Sunday, in Germany many still close at lunchtime on most Saturdays and do not reopen until Monday. In the UK shops are filled every Sunday with people shopping as a hobby. They are not out walking or playing football or sitting reading or even slumped in front of the television, they are walking around looking for things to buy. In Europe the UK is consumer society at its most extreme. Credit is easy to come by, you can get a string of credit cards and advertisements for loans fill the television, newspapers, the radio constantly.

In the UK you are defined by what you own. If you do not own a house you are treated as a second class citizen by letting agents and other people. There is immense pressure, going back to the 1980s on becoming an owner of property and then to start 'buying-to-let' as if it is right that everyone should strive to be a landlord. Of course both these trends keep pushing up house prices which have now not fallen in 15 years; the news media gets jumpy when there is a slow down in the increase, not a fall, as if the constant inflation of house prices is vital for the UK economy. This obsession with owning property and your status in society being defined by it is another unhealthy situation in the UK that adds to debt. It goes into things like cars. You can travel from the UK to France in 35 minutes these days and you see a sharp contrast. British roads are dominated by very large 4x4 cars (SUVs) in France there are very few. In Britain if you do not drive one you are made to feel you are letting down your children and on the road you are hassled by the people who own these vehicles as some kind of annoyance. They are expensive and terribly uneconomical to run and yet not owning one seems to mean you yield up any claim on respect whether actually in it or not.

All business people want to maximise profit, but in the UK it is greed, greed, greed, hence rents being pushed higher and higher. Utility bills make up a third of the sources of problems with debt. I have already commented on how water, sewage, gas, electricity and phone companies keep pressing prices up. Not only that but they lock you in to fixed contracts now (as do landlords) which means you cannot get out of them, are often paying for services in advance and you lose money each time you move house. A small rise in any utility price hits people hard especially when combined with the other rises they face. As I have often commented, I earn 50% higher than the national average salary for the UK, however, in my house we now cannot afford to flush the toilet because the water bills are so high. If any of us urinates we do not flush it as each flush uses 2 gallons (9 litres) and like most people we now have a water meter and we are charged once for that water by the water company and then 95% of the price again by the sewage company (in our town the water and sewage companies are separate, until this year the sewage company charged 108% of the water bill price). If we as a well-off household with two incomes cannot afford to flush our toilet, heaven help anyone poorer.

So consumption is a key problem whether it is voluntarily on luxuries or almost compulsory on rent/mortgage and utilities. (I have not even mentioned again very high train fares which contribute to some people's costs). The situation is exarcebated by the fixed contracts and payment in advance that so many companies insist on. However, all of this is compounded by government policy. The UK government only has one tool with which to manipulate the economy - changing the bank base rate. From this all interest rates are set. The government handed this control over to the independent Bank of England in 1997. No-one in the past forty years has ever bothered trying to alter terms of credit, for example, the minimum you have to pay back each month or to vary tax on items, nor really put effective pressure on utility companies to moderate prices and certainly not on landlords to keep raising rent. The government has not contested the attitude promoted in the Thatcher years (1979-91) that it is your civic obligation to own property and consume as much as you can. The government needs to start sending out very difficult signals about what is important and worthwhile in our society. You may say that is not the role of government but it is them who complains about crime and social problems and has to pick up the pieces. No-one in UK government or in its think-tanks or the civil service has any ideas of how to alter the UK economy and society in a more sustainable direction.

All of these factors mean that consequently the UK economy is constantly overheated with so many baseline costs for the bulk of the population rising all the time. This means that there is always a heavy inflationary pressure no matter what anyone does. Any minor fall in sales is seen as a recession and steps are taken to keep us consuming. The constant inflationary pressure means, as this year, the Bank of England (whose only concern is inflation, nothing about social issues) increases interest rates; in 2007 this has happened five times. This tool cannot reduce that inflationary pressure, only dent it a little, and in fact the heavy rain of this Summer has done a better job at doing that than the Bank of England. Interest rises means everyone pays more and it all comes at once, your rent, your utility bills, your food, all tends to go up together. No wonder so many people are sliding into bankruptcy. All statistics hide human misery and it is those at the bottom who suffer most. Why do people wonder why the drugs trade and armed crime are so high when we are pushing so many families and individuals into a situation where crime is the only way to survive and seems fine as you have no vested interest in a society which defines you simply by your possessions. I was shocked to see a map of the UK showing the highest concentrations of the so-called 'Exclusive Wealthy' apparently these are 'People with so much wealth that they can exclude themselves from the norms of society'. No-one should be permitted to be able to exclude themselves in that way.

Other countries in Europe have problems but they have not created a society that is rushing to burn itself out, that is so obsessed with possessions that no economic approach can succeed without also addressing people's outlook. The UK as a sick society is beginning to outstrip even the USA. The number of murders committed in the UK by children under the age of 10 exceeds even Iraq which is basically a warzone still. 2,840 crimes were committed by children under the age of 10 in 2006 (which is the age of criminal responsibility in the UK these days compared to 16 years old in Anglo-Saxon times) of these half were arson or criminal damage, 66 were sexual crimes committed by the child not to them.

We need to move to a society which values other things beside possessions. I was all for Sunday opening for shops but now I think they just fuel unhealthy consumption. Of course in the age of the internet you can shop all day and all night every day of the year. We need to encourage more hobbies than shopping which is the sole leisure activity of the bulk of the UK population. We need a government which does not adhere to the 'greed is good' rhetoric or at least actually condemns it rather than accepting it passively. We need to restrict utility and transport bill rises to tolerable levels and try to stop the constant pressure on rent and mortgage prices. The government needs some different economic tools and to not be afraid to get in there and interfere with the granting of so much credit. As many countries have demonstrated, you do not need a command economy to get the economy and so society (which is so driven by economic pressures) to move in a healthier direction. If we do not do this the UK will be the first to enter the Cyberpunk dystopia for real with people either beggars on the streets or behind fortified walls being driven from place to place in blacked out, armoured vehicles, with an attitude of 'must have' everything and status only defined by your latest purpose not any actual human attributes. However, I envisage as always the British public will simply keep consuming and fighting to consume freely so digging itself deeper into debt and segregating so much of society into the 'have nots' (always a majority), the 'haves' (who struggle to keep up with the next category) and the 'have-the-latests'.