Archive for the ‘Economics’ Category

The Poorhouse

June 26, 2022

Over the last two hundred years, the poorhouse took in—I almost wrote cared for—the destitute and indigent folks, nobly trading work for food and shelter, but also featuring such choice perks as physical punishment.

In the United States, poorhouses were often associated with prison farms—you get the picture. Elsewhere, the lot of the poor was little better—and in much of the world, far worse—it still is.

It was this asymmetry between poor and rich, labor and capital, that fermented the ideas of Carl Marx and Friedrich Engels and ultimately led to over a century of social experiments with communism.

I read The Communist Manifesto around the same time I read Animal Farm and I could not reconcile my knowledge of evolutionary biology and primate behavior with a system where humans could not elevate themselves gainfully according to their capacity—inevitably, some animals would be more equal than others.

Communism would never be the solution to the woes of poor people if by increasing poverty in general those folks became marginally less poor. In practice, both hard-right and hard-left systems led to the same societal outcomes: the formation of small elites, different gradations of large communities of poor people, and general social malaise.

Wildcat capitalism and the control of the poor through low wages, lack of education, and physical violence—the mainstay of the Iberian peninsula in the times of Franco and Salazar—is (and was) always going to end badly.

Let us take another case. In the winter of 1847, in consequence of bad harvest, the most indispensable means of subsistence – grains, meat, butter, cheese, etc. – rose greatly in price. Let us suppose that the workers still received the same sum of money for their labour-power as before. Did not their wages fall? To be sure. For the same money they received in exchange less bread, meat, etc. Their wages fell, not because the value of silver was less, but because the value of the means of subsistence had increased.

These words, written by Uncle Carl almost two hundred years ago, ring a disturbing echo in the summer of 2022. The world is very different now but the consequences of price rises in energy and food—a double whammy for the latter due to both energy costs and scarcity—are similar.

Many of the families now struggling are heavily in debt—there’s a mortgage to pay and a orgy of assorted liabilities: energy bills, cell phones, vehicle installments, pre-booked holidays, credit card arrears…

I was going to play you the Ry Cooder version of this classic, but by the time I dried the tears from my eyes it had to be this one.

And the outcomes are fairly predictable.

Russia sells less gas in Europe and a lot more in China and India, which in a high energy cost market gives it ample ammunition, if you excuse the pun, to prosecute its ‘special operation.’

Grain has been weaponized—many African nations had long-standing relationships with the USSR—including all the Portuguese ex-colonies. The Soviets always projected themselves as a bastion of resistance against Western imperialism and Russia is now more than happy to sell grain to Egypt and other African nations in exchange for support for its actions in the Ukraine.

This is particularly easy because Russia is selling grain it doesn’t own. The story has been breaking in Western media in recent weeks—it tells a simple and eminently believable narrative, whereby wheat and other products stored in cities like Melitopol are being trucked to Crimea and then shipped through Istanbul to Turkish or North African ports in the Eastern Mediterranean.

It’s a real-life espionage thriller, with bulk carriers turning off their transponders in the middle of the Black Sea and satellite images showing Russian vessels docking in Syria.

Satellite images from Maxar allegedly show the Russian ship Matros Kozynich transporting stolen Ukrainian grain to Syria.

The Turks say they’re investigating Western claims, all the while stalling the admission of Sweden and Finland into NATO, and the politicians in Washington, Brussels, and London are busy figuring out the best way to respond, while all the time things at home unravel.

Britain kicked off the inevitable industrial action but strikes and protests are mushrooming in the West. People who live paycheck to paycheck and carry a mountain of debt are suddenly caught in a tipping point where they are simply unable to get by—it’s no longer a question of doing without everyday indulgences, it’s the inability to afford essential goods.

With inflation nudging ten percent in the US, EU, and Britain, politicians are listening to the voters and beginning to turn a deaf ear to Zelensky—this, of course (excuse the atrocious pun) is just grist to the vladimill.

Framing the Western drama is the terrible inequity between haves and have-nots, a surefire recipe for demagogues. And while the citizens of the EU break under ten percent inflation, Turkey registered 73.5% in the last year.

The global consequences of this relatively small war are already breathtaking and will continue to worsen.

Tell me how can a poor man stand such times and live.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

Food Chess

May 21, 2022

It’s one of my favorite games—chess that is, without the food bit.

Perhaps it’s because it mimics life in so many ways. The subtlety of feminism, where the queen is the most powerful piece on the board, and the king is just an impotent fugitive, skulking behind his minions.

The game is non-linear—a pawn can deliver the coup-de-grace, or turn into a queen (there’s a kind of gay twist there), and whoever dreamed up the knight moves really was a wizard.

And possibly the most important message—life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans—played well, chess is full of surprises.

My father taught me to play when I was eight or nine, and after a few months I could easily beat him, so I cast around for other partners—almost anyone who came to the house was challenged to a game.

Some years later, Bobby Fischer came along and beat Boris Spassky for the world title—that and the numerous books I had on chess made me aware of the Russian obsession with the game.

To build my bridge to food chess, I must now address food. Again, a Russian obsession, made clear in its relationship with Ukraine over a period of centuries—this means that the use of grain in the national interest is unsurprising.

Whether or not the Russian chess brain worked out the play beforehand, the fact is that the sequence:

Invasion of Ukraine -> Resistance -> International sanctions -> Arms supplies to Ukraine -> Boycott of products -> Application of the Magnitsky Act -> Stalling of Russian occupation -> Global shortage of wheat -> Fuel scarcity -> Inflation spike -> Use of food as a veppon… is a classic sequence of chess moves.

The Americans protest that Western sanctions were carefully calibrated to exclude fertilizer and agricultural goods, in order to allow continued export of grain and other foodstuffs and avoid disrupting the world order—they’re missing the point.

A chart from the US agricultural publication FarmdocDaily shows some worrying numbers on the West’s dependence on Russian ammonia and potassium—the data shown are for Brazil.

Russia, China, and a host of other countries do not play by the rules—the law of the jungle is all that matters—if Putin’s perception is that the world will suffer as a consequence of the protracted Ukrainian ‘special operation’, and if he attributes this protraction to US arms supplies to the enemy, then the logical move is to broaden the suffering as a means to apply pressure.

Food chess has devastating consequences—the Mid-East and Africa have been hard hit, and food insecurity will have knock-on effects on civil unrest, war, and immigration to Europe. The US is feeling similar pressures as impoverished Central and South American nationals trek north to the Yankee El Dorado.

The Russians know that supply-chain issues are hitting the West where it hurts—the vote—and they are hoping the populations of Western countries will react timorously by weakening their politicians; in time, the world will adjust to a new order, thinks Uncle Vlad, where sanctions are relaxed and military aid decommissioned.

In this new world, Putin will export the U-grain, prices will come down, and the former breadbasket of the USSR will effectively become the breadbasket of Russia. The new Russian province will be docile, Western voters will have forgotten the inconvenient truths of exile and murder of millions, and all will be well.

Contrary to the oil and renewables discussion, there is no alternative to grain. Food production is limited by thermodynamics—and now climate change further complicates matters.

So who has the wheat? North America. Europe also produces plenty of cereals. Elsewhere, it’s more patchy: India and China are significant producers, and Argentina also stands out.

But Africa and the rest of South America are in big trouble—with serious indirect consequences for Europe and North America.

So here’s how one scenario plays out: Russia captures the Ukrainian Black Sea ports, stopping the Ukraine from exporting grain and vegetable oils. The war is a Mexican standoff. The Ukrainian economy collapses and can survive only on permanent Western life support. Oil prices continue prohibitive and Europeans and Americans vote with their feet. Africa starves even more than usual and South America follows suit. The situation can only be resolved by NATO action in the Ukraine—a prelude to nuclear war. Russia’s NATO neighbors, particularly Turkey, Poland, Germany and now also Finland and Sweden, are less than sanguine about that option.

A long game indeed.

Many books have been written about the chess endgame. It’s noble to win when the board is half full, but if it comes to that, it’s necessary to win when the board is almost empty—and that’s an art form.

In life, as in chess, fifty moves is a stalemate.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

One, Two, Skip a Few

May 7, 2022

They got me as I stepped off the plane.

An officious woman in a yellow safety vest demanded to see my passport. She thumbed it suspiciously then handed it back. I proceeded towards immigration and an officer went through my documents again.

I lingered past the booth and watched a young man approach the same officer and hand him a document. “Speak English,” the cop said. No reply. “Well, if you can’t speak English go sit over there. The translator will come soon.”

I watched this happen to four other people—all were herded into a corner bench airside—courtesy was certainly not the policeman’s forte.

I’ve come into Ireland dozens of times, and this was the most aggressive border control I’ve ever seen—I blame Brexit. The border between Ireland and Northern Ireland is one of the most contentious issues between the EU and UK.

I drove across it twice last week, and in both cases you only notice you’ve changed country because the road signs change color and up north they do miles. England’s greatest paranoia is immigrants using Ireland as an entry point to reach the UK mainland and—horror of horrors—get a job!

Belfast was pullulating with posters, one week before local elections. We’re on the island of Ireland, so the candidates had names like O’Toole, and a few were of the ginger persuasion. I walked past Queens in the early morning sunshine and wondered how the Northern Ireland political landscape might shift, given that this nation voted against Brexit and that the uncertainty about the border and the Northern Ireland Protocol remains.

The British government—whose odious minister for immigration (herself the child of immigrants) is as desperate to reduce the entry rate of foreigners to English soil as British businesses are to employ those who make it—can only check folks who cross north from Ireland at the Irish port of entry.

The land of Céad míle fáilte appeared a thousand times less welcoming than when I last visited—and it’s sad to see the Irish do the dirty work of the English.

The week got too busy for me to write my usual piece here, but I did collate all the articles ever written in these pages—they amount to half a million words—one thousand five hundred pages, or around five books. I’m uncomfortable with all that material sitting on a cloud I don’t control, so from time to time I need to collate and store. But it turns out the wait was fruitful, because today we know how Northern Ireland voted, and boy was it a doozy!

Queens on a rare cloudless morning—a classic old-school university, the pride of Belfast.

The change has been long in coming, but come it will.

It’s been a nightmare week for Boris ‘Party’ Johnson, who saw his conservative party get flogged across England—begorrah! They lost Westminster, for cryin’ out loud. Is there no end to the pain?

It’s likely that the Tories will pull out the long knives—they’re fully cognizant Boris is a numpty, but as long as he can win elections they’ll hold their nose and back him. And of course local elections work like the mid-terms in the US—it’s punishment season, but the Boris bus lost four hundred council seats—so it might be time to unhinge the nose clip.

But all that’s just a drop in the bucket compared to Northern Ireland. Siin Féin (pronounced ‘shin fayn’) has won an historic victory, leading it to power in Stormont, the seat of government in Belfast.

Britain has a history of exporting citizens to particular areas and then calling a popular vote, whereby the majority express their wish to remain allied to the crown. This, along with the decimation of the local population through violence, famine, and emigration, has been a significant part of Ireland’s history. In Northern Ireland, Scottish immigrants were used to create a non-Irish majority. Much like the Afrikaners in South Africa, generations of these families are an integral part of Ireland, and rightly see themselves as Irish.

Nevertheless, the original split between Catholics and Protestants remains, and has been used to explain what the Irish euphemistically call ‘The Troubles’. ‘Tis a fact that Catholics breed faster than protestants—but Sinn Féin is still at twenty-seven as I write, with two seats open—the Alliance seems to have stolen votes from the hardline DUP. Then again, Sinn Féin started life as the political arm of the Irish Republican Army.

The upshot of all this is that the new ruling party, whose agenda includes the unification of the island of Ireland, will push hard for a referendum on unification. I’m not sure they can win it, but mayhem is to be expected.

So, another Big Brexit Bonus, to roll with the Boris Alliteration Discourse. Or in a nutshell…

Triple B for BAD.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

EuroPol

April 23, 2022

European politics has always been a messy business.

Mess is endemic to politics, and Europe is just a subset, but apart from that Europe is the continent that has the largest collection of constitutional democracies—by far.

The concept dates back to the city-states of Ancient Greece, with Athens at the forefront.

Democracies aren’t really the stuff of empires—the exception is perhaps England, which managed to sustain an empire throughout the reign of Queen Victoria—but the building of it was in more totalitarian times, and in any case women only got the vote after the First World War, and even then they had to be over thirty-five and own property.

A little like the pub sign that grants credit to the over eighty if accompanied by mom and dad.

So democracy—δῆμος and κράτος, or people power—went to sleep for two thousand years until the French revolution of 1789. The Athenian model only enfranchised about thirty percent of the population (women and slaves excluded) and in the early European democracies the same applied—In France women were only allowed to vote after 1944. So, overall, democracy, ma no troppo.

The first time any classical music pre-dating Bill Haley makes it onto these pages, but well deserved.

As pointed out by Churchill, democracy is an imperfect system—the worst but for all others—and yet it is wonderful how quickly it spread in Europe, despite entrenched opposition by the ruling classes.

European nations consolidated as a result of this, and the modern model of democracy is perhaps Europe’s greatest gift to the world—and it’s the gift that keeps on giving.

The example set by countries that are governed through the will of the people is the envy of many nations across the world—during Salazar’s dictatorship it was said that Portugal was controlled (or perhaps distracted) by the 3 F’s: Fado, Football, and Fatima, but the world in general is anxious for another three F’s: Food, Freedom, and Fun.

A little atonement for all that Allegro stuff…

Democracies rarely start wars—it’s possible and it has happened, but mainly the engines of war are the fuckheads who believe they’re the chosen ones—the list is long, and right now Putin is at the head of it as the fuckhead du jour.

France prepares for the second-round presidential vote tomorrow and much of what is happening there is of great importance for the future of Europe, yet it looks as if a significant part of the population will either not vote or spoil their ballot.

The tragic tale of abstention—France reflects the pattern in most democracies, particularly well-established ones.

The French election has been described as a contest between the woman who killed her father and the man who married his mother, and has been further colored by the tale that the Le Pens fell out because father Le Pen’s dog killed Marine’s cat.

But this election is really an attempt to rally the French electorate into giving up on the European ideal, going back to the franc, imposing border controls, and generally following Britain out the door. Le Pen (fille) secured a Russian bank loan to fund her party back in 2014 and subsequently met Putin in Moscow—the Russian dictator was very engaged in any actions that can split Europe—having seen the solid EU response to the Ukraine invasion, it is easy to see why.

If there’s ever been a reason for the French to vote, the Ukrainian invasion is it—France must unequivocally demonstrate that it favors a united Europe, one which preserves national ideals yet leverages the whole, one that speaks with one voice against this disgraceful war.

Given that the highest abstention rate will be in the two youngest age groups, which are of course those that have the most to lose if democracy fails, all I can say is…

Allons enfants!

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

Endless War

April 2, 2022

It is impossible to contextualize the war in the Ukraine without understanding the country’s history.

Or, for that matter, to see these seismic events solely through Western eyes. I asked some African friends for their analysis and found them unsympathetic to the Ukrainian plight. Why? Because images of black students being pulled to one side and refused travel while Ukrainian refugees were welcomed in other European nations rammed home the quintessential horrors of racism.

In African eyes, the whole issue turned into a ‘first world problem’—the immediate reaction was why the West didn’t express similar concerns about malaria—although in fairness, a lot of effort has gone into development of a malarial vaccine, distribution of mosquito nets to remote villages, and social awareness and education.

A further issue was the enormous sympathy Ukrainian refugees were generating in Western Europe when compared to the intake of African refugees crossing the Mediterranean by way of Libya and Ceuta—here too, there is a counterargument because the Ukrainians vehemently declare their wish to return home when the war ends, and cannot therefore be classified as economic migrants.

One of many derelict properties along the Alexandria corniche—what was once an emblematic coastal promenade is now a cacophony of chaos.

These discussions took place in Cairo and Alexandria—Egypt is a proud ambassador of Arab culture and tradition, but I was stunned by how little it cares for its people. Perhaps due to its remarkable history—my heart longed to spot Pero da Covilhã, the handsome spy from The India Road—I expected Alexandria to reflect past glory, or at least to curate it, but I found nothing of the sort.

Instead, Alexandria manages to resemble Beirut, despite never having been bombed. The corniche, wending its way along the waterfront, is a melee of carts, trucks, and bikes engaged in a contest to out-honk and out-pong each other.

The taxi ‘fleet’ largely consists of yellow and black Ladas that pre-date the fall of the Berlin Wall, and I saw cars limping their way through the streets that transported me to another era—Peugeot 504, Fiat 127, the boxy Mirafiori clones, Simca, and dozens of VW pop-tops, tail flap open to help cool the little four-cylinder engine.

Arabs are as a rule extremely prejudiced against kuffar, particularly against the black peoples of sub-Saharan Africa, and Egypt is a supremely macho society—it was egregious to hear street vendors addressing female black tourists with a rude “Hey, brown sugar,” followed by a lewd grin.

All in all, I found many reasons not to be in Egypt, and none at all to return—the country seems hell-bent on making itself unattractive. When you see the lack of basic living conditions in Cairo or Alexandria, the whole Arab Spring revolution becomes immediately obvious, and the trappings of a police state ruled with an iron fist are everywhere.

An armored car machine gun post at the highway toll station between Cairo and Alexandria.

Egypt is the world’s largest importer of wheat—thirteen million metric tonnes—and has therefore been crucified by the war in Ukraine. The whole food issue related to the Ukrainian conflict is remarkable, and it affects both direct human consumption and animal feeds—in the aquaculture sector, which now produces around eighty million tonnes of fish per year, feed prices are soaring—wheat is used as a binding agent for pelleted feed.

The history of war in the Ukraine is also the history of food. In Anne Applebaum’s superb book, Red Famine, she takes the reader through the history of Little Russia—as the Russians patronizingly called Ukraine—with a particular focus on the heady days of the Russian revolution, when Lenin, Molotov, and the other champions of Bolshevism raped the Ukraine of grain, and on the follow-on war led by Stalin.

As in the present day, the Ukrainians didn’t give anything up without a fight—in 1919 Kyiv changed hands twelve times. The Kremlin understood that without food the proletariat would not be on its side.

In 1921, when an American relief mission was negotiating to enter the Soviet Union, one of its representatives told the Soviet negotiator Maksim Litvinov that ‘we do not come to fight Russia, we come to feed.’ Litvinov responded very succintly, in English: ‘Yes, but food is a veppon…’

There is an old military adage that an army marches on its stomach—Lenin took this to heart, understanding that the only path to a successful revolution in Russia was to obtain food from the world’s breadbasket through the use of extreme violence. After Lenin, Stalin, and after him Putin.

Egyptians are huge consumers of wheat products—bread is sold everywhere, from street hawkers to swank hotels.

The difference this time is that Russia is paying too high a cost. Its oligarchs have watched their assets—their whole way of life—disappear overnight. And the military-intelligence complex, known as the siloviki—names like Bortnikov and Patrushev—is supremely unhappy.

As the days go by, it is increasingly likely that Putin will have an ‘accident.’ In 1921, Lenin set up a research lab called the ‘Special Office’—the USSR had created a laboratory to develop and manufacture poisons, a favorite means of dealing with enemies from the days of the ancient Greeks to the Borgias of the Italian renaissance.

In recent years, Russian poisons have been used on the Skripals in the UK, Navalny in Russia, and most recently in an alleged incident involving Abramovich and Ukrainian negotiators in Kyiv. Some time before, ex-FSB agent Litvinenko was turned into agent orange in a London hotel when polonium was added to his tea, along with the cream and sugar.

The oligarchs are straining at the leash—they don’t see a way out of this without removing the Russian president. They may not have the means, but the siloviki certainly do.

And Novichok means recently arrived.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

Meet the Larpers

March 20, 2022

This was originally a pre-war blog, but it was overtaken by events. I’ve been too busy over the last few days to follow the news, but it appears the Russians continue to pound since they can’t gain ground.

There’s lots going on that we don’t know about, including the supply of advanced weapons to the Ukraine by the West, and the consequences to Russian heavy armor.

Within Russia itself, the situation is increasingly complex—social media is like coronavirus, it thrives in the background even as Vlad’s coterie try to suppress it—the true story gets through, and multiple sanctions are beginning to bite.

It is vitally important we continue to talk about the war—I did so last week in a public address in Holland: “However complex the problem we are discussing here, remember it pales into insignificance compared to what is presently happening in Europe.”

In that context, I encourage you to listen to (or read) an excellent piece by Stephen Kotkin.

Now, let’s git larpin’.

I got into this through an excellent podcast from the BBC called The Coming Storm, narrated by Gabriel Gatehouse. The general theme of the show is the 2020 assault on the capitol during the US senate vote, but it provides a backdrop starting with the Clintons as Bill made his way from governor of Arkansas to president of the United States.

A movie entitled The Clinton Chronicles, shot by a religious right fanatic called Patrick Matrisciana, tracks a—quite literally—incredible story of cocaine, prostitutes, money laundering, murder, and general mayhem attributed in full to the Clinton couple. I would classify it as WAGWET (watchable garbage with elements of truth)—most disinformation material has those characteristics—and I won’t link it, but it is reasonably easy to find based on the information above.

The film was released in 1994—the net was taking its first baby steps, with the appearance of NCSA Mosaic and the meteoric growth of the world wide web, and those who wanted to step into that mysterious world needed to delve into the wonders of modems and BAUD rates—there was a whole lotta (hand)shakin going on.

At the time, it made some headway, but its day in the sun came much later on, driven by web sites such as 4chan and 8chan, now 8kun, and by QAnon. Once more, I provide no links because these sites are infamous for neo-Nazism, white supremacy, mass shootings, and child porn—Frederick Brennan, the founder of 8chan, is interviewed in the BBC podcast—not pretty.

LARP, or Live Action Role Playing, derives from computer gaming, but the application of LARP to politics, and now to war, is the goldmine—QAnon recently managed to transition a spoof on US biological weapons in Ukraine straight into Fox News.

The Ukrainian Nazi fairytale, or the massacres of ethnic Russians, are neat LARPs, as is the satan-worshipping, child-molesting Clinton LARP—gullible citizens then literally move to live action, from the sad-sack Comet Pizzagate episode to the horrifying January 6th attack on the US capitol.

In a 1990s book called The Sovereign Individual, William Rees-Mogg argued that the digital revolution will be a much faster paradigm shift than its industrial and agricultural predecessors. Mogg, who was the father of the recently appointed Brexit opportunities minister Jacob, speculated that the empowerment provided by the internet would shift power towards individuals and business, drawing it away from government—Brexit, which his son enthusiastically supports, is an actionable example of this trend.

In the case of QAnon, a man named Jim Watkins who ran servers out of the Philippines was allegedly behind the LARPing lark, and the results are both profound and persistent.

Watkins and others understood that in today’s social media befuddlement of factoids, good LARPs control the narrative.

And he who controls the narrative controls the world.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

War In Our Time

March 12, 2022

A century ago we had a war followed by a pandemic. This time it’s very different—a pandemic followed by a war—that’s ’cause we’re civilized now.

And there’s a few other differences, too—where a fuckhead like Hitler relied on a conventional army through most of WWII, only dabbling with missiles and nuclear weapons at the very end, and too late to move the scoreboard—Putin has the world’s biggest collection of nukes.

The irony is that the Ukraine was itself flush with nuclear weapons prior to 1994—Wikipedia tells us that:

Ukraine held about one third of the Soviet nuclear arsenal, the third largest in the world at the time, as well as significant means of its design and production. 130 UR-100N intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) with six warheads each, 46 RT-23 Molodets ICBMs with ten warheads apiece, as well as 33 heavy bombers, totaling approximately 1,700 warheads remained on Ukrainian territory…

I bet they miss ’em now.

Kim Jong-un sits there and grins. “See, I told you so,” he says, as he munches his Matdongsan.

For a weaker country invaded by a powerful neighbor, it’s the only game in town. Then again, if the Ukes had the Nukes, World War Three would have already begun—nukes are only valuable as a deterrent because MAD is a zero sum game.

Distribution of the planet’s 17,000 nukes (courtesy Business Insider)

If we go by numbers alone, Russia inherited the USSR’s arsenal and according to Business Insider boasts almost 8500 warheads. However, Kristensen & Korda put the number at 4477. There are also questions about the quality of these weapons. Nevertheless, when compared to the rest of Europe, ninety percent of the atomic armor is in Russia.

The thing about nukes is that it only takes one to ruin your day. A few well-aimed missiles could wreak havoc from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok, by way of Moscow and Minsk. Of course, since Russia owns thousands, it could turn Europe into another Hiroshima—if we cast Putin as a Bond villain, laughing manically as Europe collapses, then it all makes sense.

The Russian president is clearly delusional, and he wields a lot of power—but he understands how much damage a couple of hits on Russia would cause. Putin would have preferred to start this war with the orang-u-tan in the White House, despite the fact that Biden is no wartime president—then again, the USA isn’t in the war.

Trump has come out indirectly in support of Putin, calling him a genius for taking direct action and suggesting a parallel with Mexico—one of his more bizarre twists, along with his subsequent one hundred and eighty about ‘holocaust‘ and his most recent rant about windmills.

I have no doubt Putin would have invaded Ukraine if the orange man was in power, and I shudder at the idea of Trump as the leader of the free world on the eve of a global conflagration. The former US president never supported NATO, considered Europe a bunch of cheats and scroungers, and would have done a covid on the old continent—flip-flopped his way to tragedy.

Lord knows the tragedy is here already—for China, this is a real-world test of American resolve. The temptation to do a uke in Taiwan—particularly as the war develops in Eastern Europe—must have the Chinese hawks swooping on the doves. I can hear them in the war rooms, in the closed meetings of the Zhongnanhai—there’s never been a better time, Mr.Chairman. Carpe diem.

“Close the skies,” the Ukrainian president begs, as the missiles pound his cities. “That would be the start of World War III,” chorus Biden and NATO, while the EU makes docile noises about adhesion.

After Ukraine falls, Russia will once more have a border with Poland, and an appetite for annexing the ‘little friends’, the Baltic states who showed how easy it is to thrive when you come out from under the paw of the bear.

At that stage, Putin will test NATO’s resolve—Germany has already put one hundred billion euros into its defense spending, up from forty-seven billion in 2021. The country has no nukes, but they could quickly get some—after all, they invented the damn things.

The stage is being set, with Poland once again being the larger prize—memories of the Nazi invasion of Sudetenland, followed by the start of World War II on September 1st, 1939.

Churchill told Europe, when Romania chose to appease Hitler, “Every nation feeds the crocodile, in the hope the crocodile will eat them last.”

As soon as the Ukraine’s done, Russia will have de facto borders with NATO. It will also have tens of millions of Ukrainians whose lives have been destroyed, families murdered, and hopes shattered.

All the trappings of the crime of the century.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

Victor

February 26, 2022

I have a Dutch friend called Victor. His parents gave him that name because he was born on VE day, when Holland regained its independence from the Nazis.

If you’ve been with me on this journey over the years, you know I recurrently address war, because human history is in its most elemental form, the History of War.

Refugees don’t leave until it’s too late, hoping against hope the inevitable is evitable—life is non-linear, we are not.

As the crowds press against the borders of Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Moldova, the able-bodied men are turned back—anyone between the ages of eighteen and sixty is expected to defend the homeland.

The refugees echo that empty look you see in dog-eared photographs of World War II. Their eyes are hollow—how could this happen to me? Their heads are in turmoil, people at bus stations, train platforms, and border posts—there’s always a backpack or a small suitcase.

Behind them all their lives, all their memories. Dogs and cats will have been left behind in their thousands, poor pets wandering around Kiev today, unable to understand why they won’t be walked, fed, and given love—soon they will turn feral, as the grim reality sets in and hunger gnaws at their gut.

The Russian pincer movement—people are dying as I write these words.

I have done business with the Ukraine for a couple of decades now, and last week I sent a friend a message of hope and solidarity—although my hope was long gone. Ukrainians are not great talkers, and his reply was simple.

“Hope everything will resolve peacefully but we are ready to defend.”

Many Ukrainians share that feeling—these are stoic, brave people. Like any nation with a powerful neighbor, they know what happens when you let a bully push you around. So they will fight, and they will die.

Ukraine has a violent history. The vast plains of wheat are a battleground since the days of Genghis Khan—in 1240, Kiev was destroyed by the Mongol invaders. From Genovese colonies on the Black Sea to the recent occupation of Crimea, the history of the country is one of strife. In the last few hundred years, Ukraine has been occupied by Poles and Lithuanians, repeatedly invaded by Tatars, and caught up in territorial battles between Poland and Russia, with Cossacks thrown in for good measure.

The diversity of the inhabitants mirrors this—Turks, Germans, Poles, Russians, Greeks have over the centuries become part of this melting pot.

In the two world wars, Ukraine was split in its loyalties, with some fighting for Austria and Germany and others fighting for Russia—but fight they did.

Many years ago I read the stories of Babi Yar, a ravine in Kiev where Nazi forces committed large-scale atrocities on Russians and Jews. In my early teens, I never forgot the narrative of survivors buried under the mass of people shot by the Germans.

There was also a story about a soccer match—Ukrainian prisoners had played a match against their Nazi camp guards. By half-time, the Ukrainians were winning—unsurprising, since a number of the players were members of a crack football team, Dynamo Kiev.

The original poster for the death match.

In the days of the Iron Curtain, all the football teams from the communist East Bloc were either Locomotiv or Dynamo—there was a clear Soviet fixation with electrical equipment.

The way I heard the story, the SS guards instructed the Ukrainians to lose the game, but the Dynamo team ignored the recommendation, won the match, and was subsequently murdered by a Nazi firing squad. As I relive these tales on the internet, I find them more nuanced—like King Canute, the sensitive Viking, it now appears that the whole killing thing was somewhat different—but there seems to be no question about the murder of a number of Ukrainian soccer stars.

During the days of the Warsaw Pact—the USSR’s response to NATO—the joke was that it was the only defense alliance that attacked itself. Just ask the Czechs and Hungarians.

But this is a different world from 1968, and the geopolitical panorama now includes sanctions and targeting of individuals. Putin is an old man of seventy years, and this is his last shout—this makes him a desperate man, but like his KGB predecessor Andropov, he has misjudged his opponent, the world around him, and his own people.

Perhaps he’s fallen prey to the curse of every dictator—the sycophants he surrounds himself with and his own delusion of immortality. Russian soldiers are coming back in body bags, and social media will show ordinary Russian citizens the forbidden images banned from RT.

Contrary to the orangutan’s ridiculous comments earlier in the week, Putin made the wrong move on the chessboard. In any competition, from soccer to tennis to chess, you must have an end game.

I’ve long been a student of the noble board and there are numerous books on the matter. Bush senior had an Iraq end game, Bush junior did not. Afghanistan was a gung ho mess that ended in humanitarian disaster and a failed state.

Russia has the firepower to occupy the key Ukrainian cities, and can certainly remove President Zelenskyy from power. And then? A Russian puppet in Kiev? Russia’s borders will extend to the south and the whole notion of a buffer state between Russia and NATO disappears—Hungary, Romania, Poland, and Slovakia are all members—suddenly, instead of a tentative discussion on one NATO neighbor, Putin finds himself in the unenviable position of having four de facto members—all enamored of Article 5.

So what’s the next move, Vladimir? Starting the third world war is an option, and the man is mad enough to consider it. There’s no doubt Russia has an impressive assemblage of nukes, and nuclear war in Europe is a terrible prospect, but again, it’s a war no one can win—back in the cold war days, it was called Mutually Assured Destruction—the acronym MAD was not set by chance.

In other republics, the rumblings have started. Ukraine’s neighbor Georgia—itself severely punished by the Russians in 2008—is one to watch, and then there’s Chechnya, where Putin made his bones.

Catherine Belton’s wonderful book, Putin’s People, takes us on a sinister journey through the dictator’s life, from the old DDR to St. Petersburg, the power grab from Yeltsin, and the following decades. If Belton were Russian, she’d be dead by now.

And so we come to the final chapter, as yet unwritten.

Zelenskyy is an ex-comedian.

Alive or dead, he’ll have the last laugh.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

Kwasa Kwasa

February 19, 2022

Michela Wrong’s book ‘It’s Our Turn To Eat’ provides a great narrative of the ups and downs of Kenyan politics and the toxic relationship that the country had, and probably retains, with ‘donors’.

Above all, it helps us understand the very complex history of sub-Saharan Africa—because although the specificities differ, there are a number of broad strokes painted across the entire landscape.

XVIth century Portuguese soldier in the Congo—figurine in the Quai Branly Museum, Paris

When the Portuguese of The India Road first arrived in West Africa—and these bearded white men who docked at São Jorge da Mina, with their breastplates and crossbows, were the first foreigners the local tribesmen had ever seen—the European love affair with Africa began.

Unrequited love, that is, because the new arrivals spelled nothing but trouble. After the Portuguese came the Dutch, English, French—even the Belgians, who managed to kill more people in under a century than any of the other white tribes.

The Arabs too had made East Africa their own—the derogatory South African word kaffir comes from the Arabic for unbeliever, and the Portuguese used an adaptation of the word—cafre. But the Arab exploration of southern Africa was hamstrung by the dhow, a boat with no deck—suitable for the Red Sea and the Gulf, perhaps, but once the Indian Ocean widened and the storms of the Agulhas struck, the glorified rowing boats shipped water and sank. As a result, Islam never made it south of King Solomon’s mines.

After the world wars, independence wars, and all the other wars, African nations emerged scarred, confused, and divided. Different administrative structures had been left by the colonists, including a plethora of religions, education systems, and common and Roman law.

The locals were poorly educated and ill-equipped to deal with institutional models that were not their own, were highly complex, and organized their society along Western guidelines.

In addition, the European conquerors fractured communities, imposing arbitrary boundaries with complete disrespect for tribal heartlands, and defined national borders with set square and ruler. As an example, the Luo people, from whom President Obama hails, are distributed all around Lake Victoria, including Uganda, western Kenya, and northern Tanzania.

Distribution of ethnic groups (a polite way of saying ‘tribes’) in Kenya (map courtesy of the BBC).

As the newly independent African nations split along tribal lines, western businesses expanded in a formulaic manner by bribing officials, taking advantage of abundant natural resources and cheap labor, and repatriating vast profits to Europe, North America, or offshore jurisdictions.

In parallel, the World Bank, IMF, and many well-intentioned charities—collectively termed ‘donors’—poured money into teetering African economies. In her book, In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz, Michela Wrong tells the astonishing tale of the Congo under Mobutu.

Until cancer got him, Mobutu was the quintessential African dictator—charismatic, ruthless, kleptocratic, and eternal. His capacity to out-ruse the West, as well as his political enemies, was remarkable.

The Congolese are experts in the art of se débrouiller—take matters into your own hands, or more colloquially, get by on a wing and a prayer. The concept is consigned in a (fake) constitutional article—the message was “Vous êtes chez vous, débrouillez vous.”

They are also legendary for music and dance, and have spread this very Congolese art form to neighboring countries, Europe, and North America. Quoi ça quoi ça has been bastardized into Kwasa Kwasa, and is one of many musical genres invented in Zaire, DRC, or whatever flavor du jour the Congo is called tomorrow.

Congolese rumba, soukous, and ndombola are related genres made famous by artists like the late Papa Wemba.

In the DRC and elsewhere, the donor money continues to enrich the well-heeled, and the aim of self-sufficiency remains elusive. When things go wrong, debts are forgotten and the slate is wiped clean—foreign policy is a long game and memories only last until today’s World Bank official is replaced.

As the XXIst century goes into its own roaring twenties, complete with pandemic and now with an imminent European war, Africa continues to be a playground for power grabs and predators, and poverty and suffering are the fare of ordinary folk.

The latest arrivals come from the east rather than the west and their presence is ubiquitous and inescapable.

They bring moneys too. To lend, not give. And they bring people—not to make the locals work, as the previous colonials did, but to take their jobs instead.

When the Perfect Prince came to Africa, Portugal had 1.2 million people.

The continent’s new friends have 1.4 billion.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

Too Long In Exile

February 12, 2022

It’s early morning in Copenhagen, and the government has abolished Covid. I walked right through the airport a few days ago without a hint of vax pass or PCR blah. Mind you, it was pushing midnight, and all well-behaved Danes are in slumberland.

It’s been so weird to suddenly be unmasked, to see women smile at me again, to not even worry about peepee (sorry, I meant PPE). And yet, in about one day, it became normality and I re-adjusted. Totally. Humans are such social animals, I half-expect to see them all grooming at breakfast.

The fact that the Danes and Swedes declared the pandemic over kind of freaks me out—they didn’t do it UK-style, to divert attention from the worzel‘s lockdown parties, attended by mediocre people fueled on mediocre booze—they did all the sciency bit and made a law.

I was going to compare this declaration to the arrogance of the (Danish) King Canute, sitting at the water’s edge in southern England and commanding the tide to recede, but apparently I had it ass-over-tit—Canute enjoyed being drenched to make the point that kings are not omnipotent—who knew that Viking kings were caring, sensitive, and politically correct?

Anyhow, pretty soon Putin will also declare the pandemic extinct, along with the Ukraine, and we’ll all be fine. I’m just worried that, in the words of Samuel Clemens, Miss Covid (for it is she) may waltz onto the world stage again, singing “rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated” to the tune of I get around.

Covid is now endemic in Scandinavia, so that’s okay—the issue becomes what Africans call a first-world problem—it doesn’t come with a death sentence.

I made the mistake of telling a Danish friend that the hippo was the animal that killed most people in Africa—she immediately fired back, “Number two. First one is the mosquito.”

Near Kisumu, malaria capital of Kenya and home of the Luo people, the mozzies await their bounty.

She’s dead right, if you excuse the pun. Hippos take about five hundred lives every year, malaria kills five hundred thousand. And folks everywhere adjust. A stone’s throw from Lake Victoria, I sit outside on a balmy evening, at an esplanade restaurant packed with locals. As I eat my Nile perch and munch on a very Kenyan new-found delight—turbo nan, stuffed with chili peppers—I watch the mosquitoes doing their deadly dance next to a cooler full of Tusker beer, and marvel at human resilience.

Heading west on C27 out of Kisumu, folks keep jumping out on to the road and bowing low, arms held high in the air. Every time we go through a village, the cattle and chickens grazing by the roadside, sometimes watched by a placid baboon, the same thing happens.

There must be something about our black SUV and the tinted windows that triggers this adoration—is it homage to Japanese engineering? Early morning calisthenics? Suicidal jaywalking? Oh no, much simpler than that—it’s politics.

In Kenya, a general election is coming—in August, but people are getting oh so ready. Western Kenya is Luo country—the people of the lake. Here, male surnames start with an ‘O’, as in Obonyo, Odoyo, and… Obama—his father was born in a village one hour’s drive from Kisumu.

The names have meanings, as they should—these three examples mean ‘born during a locust plague’, ‘born during weeding’, and ‘twisting’—I’m sure the Breitbart brigade would have a field day with that one.

The Luo are the liberal arts tribe: the doctors, academics, lawyers. They’re cerebral, and the joke in-country is that it’s easier for a Luo to be elected president of the United States than to do so in Kenya—this harks back (at least) to the terrible violence in 2007 that followed the Kibaki versus Odinga election.

On the shores of Lake Victoria, Sindo fishers bring in omena, a small freshwater sardine that is dried as staple protein in the great lake regions.

The other major tribes, out of a total of forty-two (+), are the Kikuyu, Luhya, and Kalenjin. The Kikuyu number about eight million, slightly less that twenty percent of the population, and are renowned for their business skills—they’re the folks who do the commerce, the negotiations—smart as a whip.

I had my ear out for a distinctive vocal trait—like the Chinese, many Kikuyu trade ‘R’ for ‘L’ when they speak English. “This load is so busy in the lush hour,” I was told, as we left JKIA in the early morning. I smiled happily and felt right at home.

The cab driver was a mzee—an old man. Kenyans will tell you that Swahili, which has a lot of Arab words, is a very easy language because you speak exactly as you write. For the most part, that’s true, but mzee is pronounced mzé, an in ‘elephant’.

Africa lives and dies young, so I was curious.

“When do you become a mzee?”

“At forty-five.” Joseph was peremptory.

“We slaughter a goat to celebrate,” he added.

Kikuyu are born negotiators, so I was sure I could trade that up to fifty, but in any case my non-mzee days were done. Oh well, youth is wasted on the young—and I’m owed a goat.

Three things struck me about the Kenyan people—genuinely nice, easy to talk to, and a great sense of humor. Highly educated—even in the beach communities where the samaki is artisanally farmed, the knowledge was stunning—the potential is everywhere for a great future. And vibrant—Kenya moves!

Already in the airport precinct, I poked my nose into a bar landside to score a couple of Tuskers for an old friend. He grew up in Kenya, and the prospect of nipe Tusker baridi might well warm his heart.

“Bottles, not cans.”

The two youngsters behind the bar insisted I could not take bottles with me. They pushed cans at the stubborn mzee.

“Only cans, there’s a deposit on the bottles. Only to drink here.”

“I need the bottles. It’s special,” I said. “Eight hundred for the beer, right?”

The boys nodded.

“Okay, here’s a thousand. The change is yours.”

The boys looked at each other and half-smiled.

I smiled back.

There I was, in a holding pattern with two young kikuyu negotiators.

“Tell you what.” I peeled another two hundred bill from my pocket.

Asante sana, I have a plane to catch.”

The soon-to-be-mzees (only twenty-five years to go, kids) grinned at each other, shrugged, and pushed the bottles across the bar. There goes another crazy mzungu.

A prominent sign lays down the law as you enter the airport perimeter. Good to know.

My heart was heavy as I took off, peering out the little window at the feverish activity below, the airport road vendors pushing peanuts and PPE at the jammed-up vehicles, even the Marabou storks choking on diesel.

Zebras on one side, airplanes on the other, Tuskers in the hold… my kind of chaos.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.


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