Month: July 2018

Are we entering the New Dark Ages?

Today, I compare the fall of Rome and the rise of what used to be called the Dark Ages, and what’s going on in Europe today, to see if there are parallels and if we can understand our modern age a little better by reference to this period of upheaval in our past.

First, I should outline where I see us, now. What the EU provides us, we take for granted, so much is it engrained in our modern world view. The great successes of the West in the last 70 years can be quickly listed. They are co-operation, peace and prosperity, achieved after great loss of life and crippling expense which led to enhanced cooperation through sharing resources and pooling national effort. The flowers of this cooperation are supranational organisations such as NATO, the UN and of course, the EU.

Recent revelations about interference in European and US elections and in the Brexit referendum are beginning to uncover the shadowy network of agitators and corrupt businessmen aided by Russia who see such institutions as their enemy. It is no coincidence that Trump has criticised each, alongside other voices of the far right, such as Farage, Banks, etc, who remain instinctively tribal in their world views.

How have so many in the West forgotten that these organisations, though far from perfect, have helped maintain peace? The answer in part is that the generation who fought in the last war has gone, and their children (many of my generation) conceitedly believe that war and division could not happen again. Ironically, they believe it because there has been peace thanks to the very structures they now criticise – those supranational cooperative bodies, such as the European Union. When you point this out, they don’t believe it.

As a result, over the last decade, we have seen the rise of the far right in the UK, interference in the Brexit vote, the election of Trump, the popularity of Orban in Hungary and agitators such as Geert Wilders and Beppo Grillo rise to prominence. There has even been a rise of the far right in Germany, one of the great defenders of pan-Europeanism. The danger is that such forces will fracture Western civilisation, turning it away from cooperation, and making it intolerant, inward-looking, xenophobic and protective of national interests over supranational ones. This desire for protection will make our country and those we are newly competing against rather than cooperating with, weaker. The winners will be big business and the mafiocracy in Russia.

With the death of those people who directly experienced the last great upheaval in Europe, the Second World War, history has been replaced by mythology. Instead of remembering that Britain relied on America, Russia and numerous European soldiers, agents and resistance fighters to prevail – all working together to ensure mutual survival – the post-War generation has grown up with the idea of British exceptionalism – a belief that somehow Britain doesn’t conform to and shouldn’t be constrained by international standards. In war, this little island wins against impossible odds (a false view, considering that Britain had the world’s largest Empire during this period), and it doesn’t have to follow the norms of peaceful international diplomacy. Much of this goes back to a pre-war view, when the Empire could “resolve” disputes with gunboats.

Whether this historical interpretation of Britain is realistic or not, in the modern world, the UK is not an exception. It is a country among countries of more or less equal standing.

Generation Brexit, however, is locked in the old paradigm of Empire. Many believe there was something benign about the British Empire. At the same time they accuse the EU of being an Empire, which they say is a bad thing in principle. None note any cognitive dissonance in these two views.

So we see the fracturing of the West, and the rise of new, localised power bases, some political, some business-related.

Is there a precedent in history?

Perhaps.

I have lately been drawn to study parallels in the Early Middle Ages after the collapse of Rome. This period used to be called the Dark Ages, and though it is now deeply unfashionable as a term, it is perhaps accurate to use it when we talk about parallels with the modern day.

I should add that I am not by any means defending the principle of Empire here, nor am I directly comparing the EU with the Roman Empire, except on the broadest terms, that there was a pan-European administration in place during its existence.

As the Roman Empire came under stress from marauders from the 3rd Cenury on, its finely honed administrative structures adjusted to the new reality. Central control was lost. Yet the administrators continued on. These administrators comprised a cadre of selected officials who held the Roman Empire together. The Comes Palatinus was one such type of civil servant, who looked for some form of political continuity.

In the course of the various waves of invasion by successive tribes who broke the communication lines to and power of Rome, the Comes devolved from a selected regional administrator answerable to Rome to become a type of self-governing landed gentry appointed by the local king.

Meanwhile, the federates and buccellari who worked on the land were drawn to their local Comes for security in the face of so much upheaval. The estate of the Comes became the localised centre of power. In order to enjoy the protection of the Comes, the workers ceded their rights in the name of security, working essentially as slaves tied to a local magnate. The federates were former soldiers in the Roman Imperial Army who had claimed land in retirement, and also offered military service to the Comes. Thus a new and specific power relationship arose in Europe which will be familiar to us today, since this was the start of the European aristocracy.

The French word for Comes is Comte, meaning Count. These newly-created counts now began to bequeath their estates to their children, and so the hereditary principle saw powerful aristocratic families ruling over a serfdom. All this came from the collapse of  centralised power.

For centuries the counts sat alongside the newly-arrived Gothic, Visigothic, Vandal, Frankish and other kings, who took on the original Comes to continue regional administration after they seized power. Even as late as the 11th Century, there were aristocrats in Europe who claimed descent from Roman Senators of the Sixth Century CE. Thanks to the hereditary principle, their families were ensconced in local centres of power across Europe, styling themselves as Princes, petty kings, Barons and other such titles, alongside their barbarian overlords.

In all of this grabbing of power during upheaval, the common man suffered. Feudalism was born – a strict suppression of the labouring classes and a creation of a rigid, insurmountable hierarchy designed to make the rich richer at the expense of the poor.

So, are there parallels to be drawn with what’s happening in the modern world?

Some, yes. If Europe falls into disarray, expect corporations to create new centres of influence and power. Just as the Comes class claimed areas of Europe that became their personal fiefdoms when central power was weakened, big business will pick off aspects of the State. Businesses are already interfering in democracy, hollowing it out to make it a plaything that they can direct. Expect petty local politicians no longer constrained by international treaties to create local laws to suit the needs of business rather than the people. In the UK, this will see the feeding of the NHS to big business, the privatising of other State assets, the lowering of standards of health and food-related legislation, and the reduction of workers’ rights, in the name of competitiveness.

At the same time, we are seeing the rise of the super-wealthy in politics, some of whom pretend to be on the side of the common man. Take, for example, Jacob Rees-Mogg, not a billionaire, but a multi-millionaire. He has no interest in the plight of the poor and dispossessed, but he does have an interest in being popular. His trademark appearance of a very polite comedy 1930s SS officer hides a truth we all can see. This man chimes with Generation Brexit’s desire to drag us back to a time we have nostalgised into a beautiful dream when “we” ruled the world.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Trump espouses the rights of the common man, because democracy is a numbers game and he calculates that the common man  is the most numerous. He has no interest in the poor, the weak or the dispossessed, but more in those who are aggressively jealous that their little patch of America will somehow be threatened by people less well off – which is largely a spurious fear.

In both cases, and in numerous other populist politicians, their appeal is that they protect the livelihoods and lives of “ordinary people”, a phrase that immediately creates an identifiable group to defend. Thus they gather their modern workers to their sides, who in their fear at the supposed upheaval around them (much of which has been created by the far right) can’t see that their own rights will be eroded and their lives materially impoverished by their leaders’ policies. Their future will be yet more enslavement to capitalist systems, with, for example, the lowering of food standards in the UK to a US level and the predation of US companies on the NHS. Neither of the men named above, Rees-Mogg and Trump (and there are plenty more) are representative of the interests of anyone other than the privileged, the wealthy and big business. Yet, the frightened people flock to them and their message. Each is indeed a new Comes.

Billionaires and their propagandists are also the new invaders and marauders of democracy. The representatives of big business, the super-wealthy, are the new aristocracy that will suborn the current administrative systems to their agenda. Big business has no interest in the common good or in rights, except insofar as they are lucrative. It instead seeks to create new power bases within countries, to hive off services formerly provided by governments and to reduce rights to enhance personal profit. This is why they seek to destroy supranational entities such as the EU, because larger cooperative entities are harder to control.

The great irony is that many critics of the EU talk about the supposed New World Order, when they are in fact enabling billionaires intent on wresting control from legitimate governments.

This is the world we can look forward to if we are not careful. We are in danger of entering a new Dark Age – one of Feudal Capitalism in which workers’ rights are stripped from them and business seeks to maximise profit at the expense of the most vulnerable, while central government is either suborned or powerless. It is in many ways analogous to the decline of structures across Europe in the 4th Century. This weakening and fracturing of the West is exactly what Russia wants, and this is why it has been helping to unleash the heightened passions of nationalism and xenophobia to sweep across Europe like waves of savage tribes, destabilising all in their paths.

That is the direction we are heading in, if Brexit and the rule of the far right are allowed to continue.

Can we do anything to stop it? Perhaps. To speak truth and resist wherever we can. That is a start. To do nothing is to resign ourselves to the New Dark Ages.

Disruption, Farage, Brexit – and the Winchester Gallop

Brexit has many historical precedents, all of them bloody, writes Matt Wingett.

When royal wannabe Harold Godwinson was blown off course and shipwrecked on the coast of Northern France, that disaster was bad for him, but very good for William the Bastard, who had already set his French Norman heart on the English throne. Because, what with furniture delivery services being in their infancy, and there being no customs union, how else could William get hold of the prized English throne, if not by invasion?

William needed a pretext. Being called the Bastard, he lived up to his name by tricking Harold into swearing loyalty to him. What’s worse, he did it while Harold unwittingly had his hands on a reliquary fully of bits of saints, so he definitely had to deliver. At least that’s how the Bayeux tapestry spins it. Which meant, when some years later Harold pronounced himself King Harold after the death of Edward the Confessor, William the Bastard had a reason to invade.

The point is, William the Bastard was devious, and knew how to use disruption for his advantage. 333 years of oppression by Norman and Plantagenet aristocracy would follow in England.

When the king formerly known as William the Bastard died in 1087, (a focus group having decided “The Conqueror” was a better brand), the tradition of The Winchester Gallop began. William Rufus made a dash from Rouen to the treasury at Winchester, determined to be declared King before anyone else took the gold – and succeeded in becoming William II.

Rufus was meant to be king. Imagine how much more important that gallop was for anyone who might face a counter-claim. Thus successive Bishops at Winchester shot eyes to the ceiling at the death of another monarch and waited for the clatter of cavalry in the courtyard. Because, with possession being nine tenths of the law, whoever held the country’s money held the crown. And who was a mere bishop to gainsay the intention of 20 titled thugs in armour waving swords, after all?

When William Rufus promptly died during a hunting “accident” at which his brother Richard just happened to be present in the New Forest (at a spot known as Rufus Stone, quelle coïncidence!) it was Richard’s turn to gallop northward and grab the gold and the power.

Other gallopers included the Empress Matilda, who had been left control of the country by dead daddy Henry I, but who was beaten to the gold by interloper King Stephen. This contretemps led to The Anarchy, which deadlocked the country in civil war for nearly two decades. Something that in the current state of Brexit play, with divisions all over the the UK, seems quite possible again.

A few hundred years later, London replaced Winchester as the centre of power, and so the Winchester Gallop was no more – but the seizing of opportunities caused by disruption remained.

Just so, when one June Wednesday in 1381, an army of 50,000 peasants parked themselves outside London waiting for the king to take up their cause against cruel landowners. As if the king wasn’t the biggest, cruellest landowner of all. (That’s how Royal propaganda works.)

King Richard II, a lad of 14 years, whose army had refused to fight the massive army of peasants, went out to treat with the peasant leader, proto-socialist Wat Tyler. Wat, not being well-versed in matters of courtly behaviour spoke to the king on equal terms, for which insult, one of Richard’s knights took a slice off him. With Wat unexpectedly dead on the ground and the peasant army just a few hundred yards away, Richard did the opposite to what most sane people would have done, and spurred his horse alone toward the peasant army, shouting to them “You shall have no captain but me.”

It worked. By the time the peasants had realised they’d been had, an army had at last been mustered from London to meet them. The ringleaders were arrested and in the usual way, many of the poorest and most idealistic died horribly in the aftermath.

This fake “man of the people” soon showed his hand. “You wretches, detestable on land and sea; you who seek equality with lords are unworthy to live. Give this message to your colleagues: rustics you were, rustics you are still. You will remain in bondage, not as before, but incomparably harsher. For as long as you live we will strive to suppress you, and your misery will be an example in the eyes of posterity. However, we will spare your lives if you remain faithful and loyal. Choose now which course you want to follow.”

So, what’s the lesson from these moments in history? For certain self-serving individuals, moments of disruption lead to opportunity. Caught up in all the noise, and either fooled by leaders to fight on their behalf, or tricked into believing them, it’s the common man who gets screwed, suffering from the ambition, egos and maniacal thirst for power of the ruthless who are quite happy to tip the country into a tail-spin for their own gain.

The rule is, when disruption occurs, psychos win.

Sound familiar? Because that’s exactly what’s going on with Brexit. The ringleaders of Brexit all personally having plenty of money, know they have nothing to lose, but thanks to the disruption that continues to swirl around Brexit, each has plenty to gain.

The language of disruption and conquest isn’t even hidden by Brexiters. Daniel Hannan, the modernday wild-eyed prophet of Brexit, proclaims Britain should be a “buccaneering” country. If ever there were a motif of redtoothed rapaciousness and theft, it is the buccaneer – a state-sponsored pirate. Mr Hannan would like to fit masts to the island of Britain, sail down to China, pound it from the shoreline and burn down the odd village or two like we did in the Opium Wars, another period of state-enabled jolly-rogering of other nations. Sure, it was post-buccaneer, but back then Britain could make up the rules without reference to anyone else, and did so at every opportunity.

Jacob Rees-Mogg is another disrupter in the same vein. The disruption he seeks is in the financial markets, and the money he will make comes from hedge funds. Disruption = massive market movements, and in the wake of all that turbulence, Moggy just needs to gallop on his field hunter to the nearest internet hotspot to check his burgeoning treasury. There are even some sycophants calling for him to be PM and willing to back it up with violence. Not quite as glitzy as the chainmail look of former thugs, but you get the gist.

This extract from Jacob Rees Mogg’s twitter feed shows how sections of the country are keen to enable his power grab.

For Boris Johnson, the prize was always coronation. The disruption and strife that he exacerbated within the Tories he also still hopes to “solve” by being crowned PM. Think the same of Gove and numerous other Brexiteer Tories, too numerous to name. Our pain is their gain.

“Bad Boy of Brexit” Arron Banks is now sounding increasingly desperate on twitter to distract attention from growing interest in his alleged Russian-funded shenanigans by attacking the latest White Paper to come out of Chequers. Little did he realise that the chutzpah displayed in calling himself the “Bad Boy of Brexit”, might soon be hubristically translated to alleged “Lawbreaker of Leave”.

Then, of course, there’s Nigel Farage, whom I imagine one day in his youth saw the letters “N.F.” sprayed on a wall next to a swastika and took that as an omen. What gains are there for him?

Of all of them, Nigel is the most obvious. After the rigged referendum result was announced, Trump was soon calling for Nige to be made ambassador to the US. Disruption. Trump lobs a twitter-bomb, scares the markets, then while everyone is in disarray, sends in the tanks.

Of course, Trump’s blitzkrieg tactic didn’t stand a chance at the time, but it was a jab, a softening-up blow that cracked the surface and allowed a seed to be planted. Soon, other calls for Farage to be knighted followed – as did his faux outrage at not being so honoured when he knew there was no chance.

This posturing has a purpose – to create a narrative of grievance that at some point Nige will want to use while orchestrating the latest outcry. That may come soon. The EU has already said it won’t divide the Four Pillars of freedom in the EU. Yet this is what May’s White Paper wants. Very soon, May could be facing all-out revolt again*, or a collapse in her shaky government.

And in all that disruption? Watch out. The Winchester Gallop is alive and well, and Mogg, Banks, Gove, Johnson, Farage et al are saddling up.


*Since writing this piece, David Davis has resigned. Watch this space.

Ah. There goes Boris, like a great sulking parody of a colonial Viceroy, but with hair instead of feathers.


Further update, August 2019. Well, Boris Johnson is now PM, him having made the Winchester Gallop before all other successors, and the jester king is now threatening to wreck the economy for his own aggrandisement. Once again, he will not loose out. But the peasants he so royally promises to destroy adore him. Funny old world, eh?

Turmoil in the Marketplace for Ideas

There is a story that on arriving at the scene just a few minutes after Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination, Lord Louis Mountbatten, last Viceroy of India was met by an increasingly angry mob. One voice suddenly rose over the crowd, saying: “A Muslim shot him…” The story goes that Mountbatten, seeing the danger of a massacre by enraged Hindus shouted loudly: “You fool, it was a Hindu!”

Whether this story about Mountbatten is true or not, and whether or not a Hindu or Muslim had been responsible, the wisdom in such a reply – to quell rage and prevent scapegoating of the minority Muslim population is obvious. In fact, the murderer actually was a Hindu. But even if you put this to one side, the instinct was still sound.

As a writer, for some time I have been imagining how best one might cause a civil war in an imagined country. Suppose there were an invader seeking to destabilise the regime, but wanting to do so discreetly. What would he do? The land I imagine is low tech, pre-industrial and ruled by an increasingly distrusted Prince who has perhaps made one or two poor decisions, but who is in fact a kindly and beneficent ruler. How might agents foment revolution, I asked myself?

In a thought experiment, I imagined a marketplace, where people convene from all parts of the country to trade, meet and enjoy a two week fair. The fair-goers would include members of the ruling classes, tradesmen and merchants with connections to trade routes and fleets. It would include guildsmen, jealous of their work and their skills, guarding against impostors. There might be harlots and mountebanks and cheapjacks and performers all mingling with the general population who have come there to buy, meet others, share news, gossip and talk.

It was there that I realised that the revolution would start. In the marketplace for ideas.

It might happen thus: at one end of the market, a gossip spreads news about a well-established merchant. He uses those ships to trade in people, and whenever his ships land at ports, children always go missing. Is this a coincidence? The gossip only asks the question, but it is a question that others with no knowledge of the gossip’s agenda repeat.

In another part of the market, a rumour starts that local guildsmen were heard hatching a plan to kill another merchant because he brings in goods from the shores of Cathay that are putting local tradesmen out of work. Elsewhere a rumour goes up about the Prince, that he is using the taxes from the fair to raise an army, and will be conscripting soon. Others say that this is not true, but that he is in fact using the money to line his own pockets, or that the Prince is in the pay of foreign powers.

More rumours abound. An army was seen in the East, and those of the Eastern faith are accused as spies for that army. After all, wasn’t it invaders from the East who killed a child in the woods last year, even though no-one can quite remember the name of that child? Butchers are accused of selling infected meat and bakers of adulterating their bread with alum.

Soon, the harmony of the marketplace is disturbed by the rumours. Butchers and bakers look defensively at their rivals, tradesmen pit themselves against tradesmen, all look suspiciously at foreigners and more so at the Prince on whose watch this is all happening.

Over the next few days, factions form. Those who have been accused complain and grumble. Others of the secret invader’s agents, pretending to be on the side of the aggrieved, amplify their complaints, turning them from a mild grievance into an angry counter-accusation. The newly aggrieved on the other side respond, and soon the agents have very little to do as the factions take their grievances to each other.

For those spreading the rumours, the truth of one claim or another is irrelevant. The purpose is to spread discontent wherever possible. For those in the marketplace of ideas who have no idea of the agenda, they naturally take sides according to their preferences and predilections, their biases and loyalties, and soon, hardened factions have formed within the marketplace, where formally there was only interest in trade.

Neighbours look at neighbours on the stalls distrustingly, and guard their goods against theft. Accidental overturnings of carts, genuine accidents or planned, are immediately met with outrage and anger as proof of the ill intentions of one or other faction. The mood of the marketplace has changed so that reasonable discourse and the sorting out of problems is no longer possible. Everybody is aggrieved. Everybody is simmering and angry. The rumours become truths in the minds of those who now seek to interpret the actions of their neighbours from within the grossly distorted paradigms they have internalised.

Now the rumour goes out that groups from the East are carrying concealed weapons. They are challenged on the streets by butchers, with meat cleavers.. Though they are not carrying weapons, they soon begin to. The butchers are joined by the blacksmiths and the knife sharpeners. But these two factions already distrust each other, and arguments start between them, at the agents’ instigation.

Soon, everyone feels unsafe, and no-one trusts anything anyone says, except their own small factions. Civil society is breaking down. The Prince posts guards to ensure safety on the streets, and soon more whisperings are complaining that the Prince is both taxing and oppressing them. The guards themselves become the subject for distrust – and one night after a drunken brawl a guard is killed.

Rumours blame the people of the East, the butchers, the merchants, the traders, the guildsmen in turn. Each accuses the other and none will listen. Soon the factions are so widely separated and angry that more guards are called in as more and more discord breaks out.

And then, one man with a louder mouth who seems somehow to have the ear of the armed factions steps in. He ousts the Prince and installs himself in his place. He is a strong man He is one the crowd trust to “get things done”. Those who armed themselves are grateful for his intervention as he brings in increasingly Draconian rules to deal with foreigners and traders, and anyone who steps beyond his increasingly eccentric and tight restrictions.

Others complain that he is taking away freedoms, others that he is favouring certain groups over others, others that he is a bully.

All of these things may be true, or none may be true. The point is that while the people are thus preoccupied with their rage and accusation at each other, they do not even notice the coup that has taken place, nor fully appreciate how their lives have changed. The few who do notice and make a stand are shouted down and buried with rumours by agents. And in order to discredit those seeking to reinstate rational discourse, new rumour-spreaders join the rational side, so that there is very little rational discourse, only more and more rage, and more and more accusation.

Against those who do still persist in trying to speak their milder or more perceptive truths, it is not difficult now to raise an outraged mob. Some are intimidated into silence. Some disappear.

Meanwhile, the loudmouth who got to power continues to strengthen his hold, spreading further lies and adding to the general sense of distrust with proclamations and with increasingly sweeping powers. Those who want order at any cost rally round him, calling those who oppose his approach traitors, not seeing that what he is doing is quite the opposite of what they wanted, which was to bring them peace and liberty. And what his agenda is, nobody knows, though some suspect that the foreign power that some voices warned about in regard to the old Prince, have in fact installed this one in his place.

That is how one uses the freedom of the market to bring about its opposite. It is also, of course, an allegory of how free speech can, ironically, be democracy’s worst enemy.