Power Dynamics

The Globalist Mindset

If you love planet earth and the human race, may I humbly suggest corporate globalisation leading to a grotesque misappropriation of resources may not be such a good idea after all. However, some self-proclaimed progressives disagree. They somehow associate the onward march of transnational organisations, the proliferation of branded retail outlets and the relentless expansion of the non-productive hedonism business with a concept they like to call progress. Indeed, even many wishful-thinking greens and socialists have internalised the notion that we, as a species, are all on a one-way journey towards a better tomorrow and we can face all potential challenges through ever greater cooperation. Guiding us are an alliance of transnational organisations, multinational enterprises and virtual social networks integrated seamlessly with the entertainment industry. As soon as people gain access to the World Wide Web from Norway to Chile or Japan to Angola, they tend to join Facebook apparently to stay in touch with a diaspora of friends and family, but also to broaden their mindmap of familiar faces to friends of friends or newly formed virtual communities of special interest groups. Never has the world been more connected and never has travel from one country to another been so easy. Many global optimists already view countries as mere relics of a bygone era of nation states, fallen empires and anachronistic religions. Local languages, dress codes, cuisines and custom blend into a potpourri of flavours and choices available in an apparent free market. Whether a modern world citizen happens to be relaxing by the beach in Goa, visiting museums in New York City or Paris, attending a business conference in Dubai or inspecting a factory in a Chinese megacity, the interconnected global culture never seems far away. The same brands and artefacts of our postmodern decadence and techno-wizardry accompany financial wealth wherever it spreads. While 50 years ago opulence was concentrated in a handful of wealthy countries, extreme decadence has spread worldwide. There are billionaires in countries we once prefixed with the label third-world such as India, Brazil, Indonesia and even Nigeria, and billionaires in the first and second world countries often hail from former colonies of the old imperial powers. Nowhere is the scourge of ostentation as daunting as in the Middle East, the scene of over 80 years of imperialist meddling and destabilisation. Yet without easy access and control of the world's cheapest oil reserves in the Middle East, the global economy would shrink.

Just 20 years after the fall of the former Warsaw Pact, European governments have become little more than county councils negotiating deals with multinationals and harmonising legislation in line with new laws in other countries and with the wishes of international pressure groups. In practice government ministers act merely as middle managers implementing policies decided elsewhere and liaising with local underlings to mitigate adverse effects for social stability. In many ways the history of post-war Europe has been a conflict between rival visions of global harmonisation. As long as the rift between the Stalinist East and Capitalist West remained, leaders paid lip-service to outmoded concepts such as self-determination, national sovereignty and workers' rights. Countries could intervene to protect markets against destabilising global competition thus protecting not only local jobs, but also key skill bases. After the big powers had redrawn boundaries and forced millions to move, enduring extreme hardship and even starvation, from around 1950 to 1990, Europe enjoyed one of its longest periods of peace, social stability and general prosperity. Admittedly large pockets of relative poverty and social exclusion remained, as did authoritarian regimes in Eastern Europe and until the mid 1970s in Spain, Portugal and Greece. However, the degree of democratic participation and freedom of expression tended to reflect both social and economic realities. Those countries with the highest material living standards and thus best equipped to meet demands for better pay, working conditions and availability of life's pleasures and luxuries, could allow greater debate on economic policies and tolerate much greater dissent. If the business classes can distract the populace with bread and circuses and carefully manage the range of acceptable opinions, dissent can be easily sidelined or channelled into narrow lifestyle issues. Despite longstanding cultural differences, all Western European government pursued essentially social democratic policies. While governments allowed industries to compete, trade, expand and satisfy growing demand for consumer goods, they also invested in technological innovation and infrastructure, expanded welfare provision and protected national markets and workers against unfair competition from low-wage economies.

In the 1980s globalisation entered a new era with the Reaganite and Thatcherite obsession with supply-side economics and outsourcing of manufacturing. Since the fall of the former Warsaw Pact, we have seen the expansion of the European Union from a small set of countries with similar living standards to encompass most of the continent from Ireland to Romania or Finland to Portugal alongside other regional trading pacts from NAFTA, Mercosur to ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations). As a result the social democratic dream must either be extended to all and sundry or be gradually dismantled. In the UK we have the paradoxical situation where many descendants of the once proud working classes have become trapped in welfare dependence while low-wage jobs are increasingly the preserve of newcomers. To put things in perspective, despite public concerns about immigration from Commonwealth countries in 1950s to the 1980s, this immigration was always relatively balanced by emigration. Indeed between 1945 and 1995, total immigration to the UK was just under 2 million, a large number but spread over 50 years. Of course, the demographic effects were distorted by varying birth rates. Since 1995 more than net migration has been running at between 100,000 and 250,000 a year and the population has risen from a 58 million in 1991 to 63 million in 2011 despite a below replacement fertility rate among the native population. This means the UK has import raw materials, manufactured goods and food to sustain economic growth. So, as ironical as may seem to many trendy lefties, a higher population and greater economic growth in the UK leads to greater depredation of resources elsewhere. Where people suffer hardships in many apparently developing countries, it is often because foreign multinationals have uprooted them from their ancestral lands to exploit resources required by global markets. Yet corporate globalisation acts as double-edged sword, forcing people to leave their homelands and conveniently shifting the blame to the incompetence or corruptions of local leaders, while simultaneously promoting the very consumption-led economic growth that causes this displacement.

A False Sense of Security

Harold MacMillan, British prime minister in the late 1950s, once claimed "You've never had it so good". In some respects our material wellbeing and life expectancy have continued to improve since. However,what mattered most to those who remembered the humiliation of mass unemployment, soup kitchens, orphanages and real poverty below the breadline, were a secure job, affordable housing and a better future for their children. By the early 1960s most Western Europeans had all three essential components of the good life. With the advent of affordable television sets and growing car ownership, the new norm came to resemble the American Dream. It mattered little that most of the world still lived in a kind of post-colonial semi-feudalism or had to endure the excesses of Maoist or Stalinist authoritarian idealism.

Power Dynamics

11 million empty homes, in the wrong places

The Guardian newspaper has just revealed to its credulous readers that EU-wide no fewer than 11 million dwellings stand empty. This apparent news has been endlessly recycled by various well-funded lobbies and think-tanks to suggest there is no housing crisis in the regions that have recently attracted most inward migration. Meanwhile to accommodate 4 million new UK residents, the government has relaxed planning laws to allow the building of 3 million new homes, many on prime agricultural land. At the same time it has sanctioned hydraulic fracturing across England, which will pollute the groundwater in much of the remaining farmland. So presumably news of 11 million empty homes could not come at a better time. We may be able to house everyone and keep our farmland to cope with rising global fuel and food prices, or can we ?

The trouble is most of these empty homes are far from where most jobs are. Indeed many millions are the direct result of international commuting as young people vacate their home towns and villages in Eastern and Southern Europe and head to the wealthier climes of Northern Europe and the British Isles. Many millions more are second homes built for ex-pats in Mediterranean or Black Seas tourist resorts. Just 700,000 of these empty homes are in the UK, most of which are in rundown post-industrial wastelands. At the other end of the scale are prime pieces of real estate in overpriced neighbourhoods bought as investment by international gangsters, so just as many London-based workers have to commute several hours a day or make do with substandard accommodation, sumptuous properties lie empty in Hampstead and Mayfair.

However, what would happen if we could force the government to seize these properties and allocate them to those more in need? For starters demand would greatly exceed supply. There are nowhere near 11 million des-res Hampstead villas waiting for minimum wage workers to take up residence, there are at best a few hundred. London-wide there may be several thousands of empty properties, but many would require renovation and would only temporarily ease an artificial housing shortage. I say artificial because without mass migration, there would be enough houses for all without destroying valuable farmland. Forced repossession of empty luxury properties would have one very positive side effect, it would discourage property speculators (mainly foreign) from distorting the London market and thus deflate the economy and diminish the need for so-many temporary service workers. Like it or not, the whole London economy thrives on recycling wealth generated somewhere else, so once again you either support corporate globalisation and live with its many consequences, or you support more viable alternatives, that inevitably means economic shrinkage in overheating economies.

Few seem prepared to admit the obvious. With huge economic imbalances between regions, a growing rich-poor divide, shrinking middle classes and open labour markets, globalisation has succeeded in simultaneously creating chronic overcrowding and unbearable congestion while leaving other areas in a state of abandon and social decline.

In addition the environmental impact of housing depends very much on habitation. Abandoned properties may decay, but they pollute very little. Inhabited properties inevitably consume water, electricity, produce sewage, add to local retail consumption and traffic (especially if their owners insist on driving everywhere). For every inhabited house we need to provide more shops, schools, hospitals and roads.

Europe's empty properties fall into 4 categories:

  1. Too expensive, only suitable for wealthy property investors
  2. Holiday homes by the sea or on the slopes, not suitable for young city workers
  3. In areas of high unemployment and mass emigration
  4. Substandard, in a state of disrepair

Of these only the fourth could be easily repurposed to cope temporarily with Europe's large population movements, but long-term we should look at smarter solutions. Rather than moving to where big business offers more lucrative employment opportunities, how about restructuring the economy so jobs are more evenly spread. It really makes little sense for more Eastern Europeans to abandon underpopulated regions to add to environmental problems in London, Frankfurt or Stockholm.

Power Dynamics

What’s going on in Ukraine?

All of sudden the world's media turns its attention to the transition of power in one of Europe's most mysterious regions extending from Eastern Poland, Slovakia,Moldova and Romania in the West, Belarus to the north and the Russian Federation to the East.

While the mainstream media in the West lay the blame for the Ukrainian crisis clearly with Viktor Yanukovych's deposed Russophile government and its refusal to sign an association agreement with the EU, others note the role played by the US-based National Endowment for Democracy and myriad NGOs in funding and supporting the opposition Euro-Maidan movement, named after Kiev's eponymous central square. The uprising followed a script familiar to observers of other apparent insurgencies in places as disparate as Syria and Venezuela and come sjust 10 years after the much trumpeted Orange Revolution. The young appear to embrace organisations and policies favoured by an international coalition, while the incumbent administrations are invariably depicted in uncomplimentary anti-democratic terms. It must seem rather odd the National Endowment for Democracy support Islamic fundamentalists in Syria against Assad's current secular government, opponents of economic redistribution and social justice in Venezuela (which remains one of the most unequal countries on the planet) and now xenophobes in Ukraine. However, a little perspective is in order. Ukraine remains of the poorest regions in Europe. At $7600 its 2012 GDP per capita is not only much lower than that in neighbouring Poland ($21,000), but also than Russia's at $17,000.

Since the Kievan Rus fell to the Duchies of Poland and Lithuania around 1400, the Ukraine has only existed as a notional ethnolinguistic region. Although it briefly enjoyed independence in 1920, it has only existed in its current borders since 1954 and as independent state since 1991. For most of its history Western and Central Ukraine formed part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. With the demise of Poland and expansion of Russia, Prussia and Austria in the 19th century, the Ruthenian region was annexed by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, while the remainder was incorporated into the Russian Empire. After the First World War, Lviv rejoined Poland as Lwow, while Ruthenia formed the easternmost region of the newly created Czechoslovakia. The remainder of the region became the Ukrainian SSR. Known as Russia's bread basket, the region experienced one of the worst famines of the 20th century known as Holodomor, largely due to forced collectivisation, bad economic management and its inability to deal with extreme weather events. Many Ukrainians blamed the Moscow-based Bolshevik leadership and this played a major role in the subsequent collaboration of Ukrainian nationalists with occupying Nazis and their post-WW2 insurgency against Stalinist expansionism.

The 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop pact allowed the Soviet Union to claim Eastern Poland and temporarily expand Ukrainian territory. After its short-lived, but turbulent Nazi occupation from 1941 - 44, Ukraine became a major beneficiary of the Soviet Union's western terroritial gains. It now incorporated Eastern Galicia, east of the Curzon Line, Slovak Ruthenia and parts of Romania. Millions of Poles were forced to move to Poland's new Western Territories. Before the war, Ukrainians accounted for just over a third of the population in Poland's Eastern provinces. Ethnic cleansing began with the infamous Nazi Einsatzgruppen, responsible for rounding up and massacring Jews and and continued with attacks on remaining Poles and other ethnic minorities by the anti-communist Ukrainian Insurgent Army from 1944 to 1952.

Despite these tumultuous events, the Soviet era saw greater integration with the Russian Federation, with many Russians moving to the Ukraine and Ukrainians to Russia proper, in keeping with a general policy of ethnic mingling among the peoples of the USSR. Although Ukrainian enjoyed official recognition, Russian became the dominant language of education and administration. Since the fall of the former Soviet Union, Russian has lost considerable international prestige. Indeed Ukrainian is now the sole official language as a strong statement of cultural independence.

The hastily improvised coalition that has taken power in Kiev seeks, rather unsurprisingly, to join the European Union and, by consequence, NATO. This will very likely force the Ukrainian government to adopt otherwise unpopular economic convergence policies and allow Western European businesses to expand their retail and banking empires, with higher property and retail prices. Inevitably younger Ukrainians will migrate west, exacerbating a brain drain and demographic imbalance in Ukraine, and competing with other Eastern and Southern Europeans in a very precarious job market in wealthier EU countries. This place even greater downward pressure on wages at the bottom end of the salary scale.


  1. Kiev is the customary English transliteration of the Russian name for the city, Киев, while some authors prefer Kyiv based on the Ukrainian variant, Київ . While I sympathise with this approach, why do we still refer to the Flemish city of Brugge by its French name of Bruges or insist on translating the names of so many other European cities from Naples to Copenhagen?