Lessons from the Dutch General Election

The far right Party for Freedom came second in last week’s Dutch general election, but lessons should be taken from their last minute collapse.

The often euphoric reaction from moderates to a far right political party with one member and no government funding coming a distant second in an election in a Benelux country – just over ten years after the aforementioned party was founded – seems out-of-place. There are now resilient far right movements in many European nations, and the fact that one of them has now become the second largest party isn’t something to celebrate – even if there was a chance they might have become the largest. The rise of the PVV is a sign that mainstream parties need to sit up and take notice of the far right, and ask themselves why these movements are gaining so much traction.

Article continued on Leonards Review.

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Populism Doesn’t Mean What You Think

Populism has become a synonym for ‘movement that we don’t like’ in the weird political universe of 2016/17. The truth is though, it isn’t some malevolent force which guides despots and dictators into power and herds the people towards some destination with lies and deceit, populism can be defined in many ways, but broadly it is this: a style of politics which aims to mobilise the population against a government controlled by an out-of-touch elite who only act in their own best interests – alternatively, a simpler version of populism is simply to support the concerns of ordinary people, or to in some way aim yourself at ordinary people.

When you say ‘I want to fight rising populism’, what you are actually saying is one of: ‘I believe the government is controlled by an elite, and I’m fine with that’; ‘I don’t believe there is such a thing as the political class’; or ‘I don’t think the government and political groups should support ordinary people or attempt to appeal to them’. If you agree with one of those statements, then feel free to keep using the word ‘populism’ in your rhetoric, because you are using it correctly. If you find yourself disagreeing with all three of those statements, then unfortunately, you are actually a populist.

The biggest irony of populism is that it is usually used as a negative term by those who mean other people’s populism. As an example, Tony Blair has recently launched an organisation to fight populism. Tony Blair, the man who swept to victory on a platform of mobilising the population against a government he depicted as controlled by an out-of-touch elite who were acting in their own best interests, through a mechanism of supporting the concerns of ordinary people and appealing to their interests. Or as it is commonly phrased, populism.

Another irony is any supporter of Jeremy Corbyn describing populism in a negative way. Populism is Corbyn’s ideology of choice – indeed it is the ideology that has represented the notion of opposition in the West for nearly one hundred years. Yes, it can often be used for negative means, but that is not a reason to bash the concept.

The irony of the Left using the term ‘populism’ in a negative fashion is particularly acute: anyone who has ever used the words ‘bourgeoisie’ and ‘proletariat’ unironically is a populist. People who wish to fight the dominance of the 1% or who believe that government shouldn’t be about decisions being made by powerful elites in backroom deals are populists, plain and simple. Karl Marx was definitely a populist, it is essentially the ideology that founded Left wing ideology, it is the ideology that guides it, and the opposite of populism is supporting a government which is out-of-touch with popular sentiments and doesn’t work in the interests of ordinary people. A Left wing example of a non-populist government might perhaps be the Soviet Union, but then again, the Left would probably argue that wasn’t real socialism, because of course, real socialism is populist.

When the opponents of Donald Trump denounce the fact that his election represented some populist uprising, with their protests which seek to mobilise the population against an executive they see as being an out-of-touch elite acting for themselves, they seem to be unaware of the irony. The Women’s March and the various other protests that have occurred since the inauguration of Trump are textbook examples of populism at work – the reason they are acceptable to those who denounce populism is that they are ‘good’ populists, but that doesn’t hide the fact that they are a populist uprising.

The thing about populism is that most populists don’t self-identify as such, and yet nearly everyone in politics is a populist. A politician who cares about the problems of ordinary people is a populist. A politician who believes that government should follow the will of the people is a populist. A politician who doesn’t believe government should be about an out-of-touch elite making decisions in their own best interests is a populist. Whether they are on the left, the right, or the centre; whether their rosette is purple, red, blue, green, orange, yellow or any other hue, they are a populist.

Like most ideologies, populism can be a force for good, and it can be a force for bad. Like any political era, it remains important in 2017 to stand up and fight for what you believe in. Like anything, it does not make your argument better to use a word you think sounds sinister to mean something you want it to. If you have to insult your opponents, actually use the words that reflect what they are doing – if you believe that they are lying, call them liars, if you believe they are engaging in demagoguery, call them demagogues, but don’t make standing up for the opinions of ordinary people into a negative concept because it suits your personal political agenda.

When you say ‘I am fighting populism’, what you are saying is ‘I support out-of-touch elites ruling over us’. When Seb Dance MEP justifies holding an amusing sign behind Farage by telling us he wants to ‘challenge populism’, what he is saying is he wants to challenge attempts to make government work for the people. That may not be what you mean, but that is why you should use the right words to make your argument. If you wish to protest Trump, that is your right, if you wish to protest Brexit, that is your right, but if you do so by using the wrong words, your argument starts to look much less coherent, and much less convincing.

You probably don’t believe that the best government is one which is run by an out-of-touch elite against the interests of ordinary people, so stop saying you do. Populism doesn’t mean what you think it does, and you probably are a populist.

Lessons from 2016

2016 has been a year which has challenged the traditional political consensus. Brexit was delivered against all odds – a victory for all those who had campaigned against the undemocratic nature of the European Union, the unfair system of immigration it created whereby people from 27 countries are prioritised over people from the other 169, and the restrictions on policy choices available to British voters at the ballot box that membership of the EU brings with it. That victory, in spite of the ad hominem insults thrown at Leave voters, should teach valuable lessons on how to conduct a campaign in 2017.

The ultimate difference between the Leave campaign and the Remain campaign was twofold: the Leave campaign was positive and optimistic; and the Remain campaign offered very little by way of emotive arguments. The oft-quoted phrase that summed up the referendum (and perhaps 2016 as a whole) was Michael Gove’s quip: ‘People in this country have had enough of experts’. This is not strictly true, but what is true is that people don’t respond well to simply being told they should support a cause because they should – they want to be given an emotive reason why they should back it.

2016 has shown us the need for political campaigns to make an argument that combines emotive and logical reasoning – it isn’t enough to simply assume that people agree with your positions, you have to persuade them to agree with you. Likewise 2016 proved, once and for all, that negative campaigning is ineffective – particularly if people don’t believe what you are telling them. Merely having the support of an ‘expert’ isn’t sufficient to win you an election, and likewise fear and negativity (the weapons of choice of the Remain campaign and Zac Goldsmith’s mayoral campaign) aren’t as impactful as a positive, optimistic message.

The election of Donald Trump also compounded the argument that governments need to do more to prove they are listening to the will of the people. While Brexit vindicates David Cameron’s decision to hold a referendum on EU membership, as it proves the demand for a referendum was overwhelming more accurately than any opinion poll; Donald Trump is a reflection of an American establishment that has systematically failed to respond to its voters. Barack Obama was elected as a force for change in 2008, and so it was in 2016. Moreover, Trump’s election proved that insulting supporters of your opponents is unlikely to convince them to change their minds.

What does that mean for 2017?

The reactions of many to Brexit and Trump suggests they haven’t learn the primary message of 2016: voters need to be convinced of your position through discussion and debate, however objectively correct you think you may be. Those of us who believe in the value of democracy and tolerance have to work harder than ever to defend them.

2017 will see big electoral chances for Le Pen in France, Wilders in the Netherlands, and Alternative für Deutschland in Germany. Those fighting against them would do well to learn the lessons of 2016: when making the case against a populist demagogue, make it with passion, conviction and logic, and don’t insult those you are seeking to convert.

Communism fails because there is always a Castro

Watching the outpouring of political platitudes and grief on Saturday, one would never have guessed that the man who had died ruled Cuba from 1959 to 2006 without election before handing over to his brother. Nor that he was a dictator who had routinely rounded up and imprisoned people because they opposed his politics, who brutally suppressed freedom of expression, and who executed countless people during his four and a half decades in charge of one of the world’s poorest nations. It turns out, if the question needed to be asked, that building a few schools and some hospitals is enough to tip the balance between brutal totalitarian and champion of social justice.

The amusing hypocrisy that the same people who call Castro a champion of social justice are the same ones who got ‘Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead’ to number two in the UK charts doesn’t go unnoticed, but the silence over Castro’s barbarity does not dispel the fact that the world leader who best summed him up was Donald Trump: ‘a brutal dictator who oppressed his own people’.

Defenders of communism, and particularly its Marxist variant which shall be the focus of this piece, argue that the problem with communism is not in its theory, but in its execution – no state has ever achieved ‘true communism’, they argue. The problem, alas, is with both.

Marxism dictates the need for a socialist revolution to overthrow the existing regime and replace it with a communist one. This communist regime (or dictatorship of the proletariat) would then repurpose the means of production, redistribute society’s wealth, ‘re-educate’ the public to create a society conducive to a stateless communist utopia, and then fall away into oblivion leaving the aforementioned stateless communist utopia behind. That’s a fairly broad overview of the theory, but it’s enough for the purposes of this analysis.

The most logical place to start is at the beginnings of a Marxist transition. A socialist revolution is bad for two main reasons: firstly, the very notion of a revolution in modern society (where nearly all nations are democracies) is underpinned by a minority group seizing power, contrary to the will of the majority; and secondly it breeds the sort of climate that Mikhail Bakunin (who lost the ideological battle for the Left to Marx) warned of – that is to say that the manner of the revolution creates a state in its own image. The reason that so many communist leaders are military leaders: Castro, Mao, Stalin, Kim Il-sung, and others; is that revolutions are, by their very nature, led by military figures. That creates a state ruled by ruthless leaders who aren’t afraid to kill their opponents to cement their position.

That brings us on to the need for a communist state to have unrivalled supremacy over the politics of the society it governs. While Marx never ruled out democratic transitions, given the scale of transformation required for a dictatorship of the proletariat to be established, a successful democratic transition seems unlikely. Democratically imposed communism itself often leads to rigged elections (see Guatemala and Venezuela), the imprisonment of opposing thinkers, and the proscription of opposing political parties, and so the end result is the same.

Moving on from the transition to the actions of the dictatorship established to create a Marxist wonderland. In practice, Marxist re-education usually follows the same pattern (in spite of the ‘superb’ education policy pursued by Castro’s Cuba): suppression of freedom of expression, executions, arrests, manipulation of information, and propaganda. Every attempt to impose universal ideology: be that an ideology of fascist creed, communist creed, or liberal creed; has failed because people will always believe in different things – unfortunately, where you couple a brutal leader and a desire for universalism, that universalism is imposed brutally.

To repurpose the means of production and redistribute the wealth of the nation (neither of which are particularly liberal, but their merits aren’t relevant for this discussion), the creation of an extremely powerful, centralised state is required. If you need convincing of this, look at the authoritarian nature of every communist state ever created, or for that matter, look at the centralisation of power required by nearly every ideology left of centre. A powerful authoritarian state with only one party creates a powerful incentive for selfish politicians to take control of the system.

Thus, even if an ideologically pure, selfless leader came to power, even if they were able to consolidate power peacefully, there will be a point at which someone inevitably needs to succeed them. The power imbued within that leadership position will be much more attractive to selfish people than selfless ones, and that is why leaders like Stalin emerge and successions in countries like the Soviet Union and China have to be carefully managed and frequently result in murders and violence.

The dictatorship and ruthlessness required to create a Marxist utopia are the very reason that such a utopia can never be created. Wherever that much power is concentrated in the hands of such a small elite, the state will continue to act in the interests of the dictators who rule it. There is always a Castro standing between Marxist theory and Marxist reality, and presuming a circumstance in which there isn’t is simply unrealistic.

Those who would argue that Castro was more than the selfish, brutal dictator outlined in this article might take a moment to consider some interesting little pieces of information. While Jeremy Corbyn considers him a ‘champion of social justice’, Fidel Castro left office in 2006 with a net worth of $900 million (around a quarter of the net worth of Donald Trump) – not bad in a country where the average salary was $17 per month in 2015. The hundreds of political prisoners and political executions tell us a lot about Fidel’s softer side; while his government’s efforts to limit his citizens’ internet access and generally curtail access to information and freedom of expression show us that this man was clearly a champion of social justice.

Alas, Castro is but the most topical example one could use to highlight the failings of Marx’s main philosophy. Regardless of the means by which you create it (and especially if those means are revolutionary), a dictatorship of the proletariat will always create a state which must be brutal in dealing with its opponents, centralised in its management of society, and attractive to those who would use it to their own advantages, like Fidel Castro. Such a state does not need the addition of ‘of the proletariat’ and will never fall away, because human nature doesn’t work like that.

Centralisation, curtailing freedom of expression, revolution – these are ideas that a modern, progressive society should be replacing with devolution, free speech, and democracy. The people who laud Castro as a hero and a progressive seem to have lost touch with what it is to be a progressive.

Fidel Castro was indeed (to use the unintentional pun everyone else seems to be using) a revolutionary figure in 20th Century politics, but Castro’s legacy should not be in his healthcare system or his education system, it should be in the suffering and persecution he brought upon those who disagreed with him. Fidel Castro’s Cuba should stand as a warning marker against authoritarianism and Marxism – let the end of Castro’s era be the end of an era of failed politics.

To those who advocate and seek to bring it about: communism will always fail, because there is always another Castro.

Whatever Happened to Liberal Values?

This is not an article about Donald Trump. It is an article about his victory, but it is not about him, or his supporters. This article is about the death of liberal values brought about by their rejection by the very people who claim to uphold them.

Democracy is the pinnacle of all social liberal values. It represents the unique combination of tolerance, equality, freedom of speech and choice, and all of the other values than social liberals advocate. One cannot have these values and not believe in democracy – even to say that we should live in a society with liberal universalism or a benevolent dictatorship is to take away freedom of choice and the idea that all people are equal and thus entitled to an equal say.

Not all democracies are the same, but all elections are fought under the same basic premises: all candidates fight under the same system, play by the same rules, and accept the result even if they lose. That is why it matters that Donald Trump indicated he was unlikely to accept the result, and that is why it matters that his opponents refuse to accept his victory. It isn’t liberal or democratic to contest an election once you have lost – if you have an issue with the Electoral College system, protest it beforehand and keep protesting it afterwards, but if you would have been happy with your candidate winning the election and losing the popular vote, then your problem is not with the system but with the fact that people voted for your opponent.

Tolerance is another vital liberal value which has been sorely neglected since the election. There has been broad-scale use of ad hominem attacks – words like racist and misogynist have been thrown at anyone who voted for Donald Trump. Cases of assaults on Trump supporters have been reported – even on Americans based abroad who voted for Donald Trump – have soared.

That, however, is not the most worrying sign for liberal values. The number of people who have talked of the need to ‘re-educate’ voters who don’t espouse the same brand of politics as them has been, frankly, terrifying. Others have stood by and not objected to this call for re-education, and have equally failed the notion of social liberalism – whatever happened to that great tenet of liberal thought: ‘I detest what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it’?

Because Trump’s supporters are (accordingly to the ever-reliable opinion polls) predominantly white, working-class men with less education than their Clinton-voting counterparts, there have been people actively and openly discussing introducing intelligence tests for elections. Perhaps, they argue, only those who are educated should be able to vote? After all, they know better what the solutions to the nation’s ills are?

Such a shift in social attitudes is beneath us. Our ancestors fought and died for progress: for the rights of all people to share an equal say in our nation’s future, an equal vote in our ballot boxes, and an equal right in our courts. Disguising illiberalism in the guise of liberal universalism doesn’t make it less illiberal. Democracy, freedom of choice, and tolerance tell us that, even if we disagree with people’s choices, they have a right to make those choices, and in 2016 we must respect the fact that America chose Donald Trump. Trump’s voters deserve to be heard as much as Clinton’s – silencing them, ignoring them, telling them that they are racist or misogynistic, these are not liberal, they are socially authoritarian actions.

The risk we run in a liberal society is that people may disagree with us, and sometimes those people win. True liberalism is about accepting dissenting opinions, challenging and debating them, and ultimately yielding and accepting new realities when we lose the argument. Social authoritarianism is about only allowing one point of view and one opinion, and saying things like (and this is more or less a direct quote from someone during a discussion of Trump last week): ‘our ancestors fought for liberal values and equal rights, and allowing people like Donald Trump to be elected is a betrayal of those values’, as a justification for denying the democracy our forefathers fought for is as much a betrayal of liberal values as anything Donald Trump could possibly do.

Democracy and liberalism go hand-in-hand. To achieve a free, prosperous, democratic, tolerant, liberal society, we must not give in to the temptation to be undemocratic. Sometimes the candidate we don’t like wins (Clinton would have been no better, but that is a debate for another time), but the way to show tolerance and liberalism is to accept the result and make the best of the new reality.

Americans unhappy with Trump’s platform should lobby him and their representatives to implement a more liberal one. People around the world should continue to fight for what they believe in. ‘Re-education’ is never the answer, removing rights is never the answer, calling people names is never the answer.

Let’s return debate to society. If you believe something is an inherent fact in politics, you’ve already lost the debate. Let’s talk about immigration without the name-calling. Let’s talk about issues objectively. To give the people who were shocked by the election of Donald Trump the answer to their question: when you refuse to debate about something, you can’t change anyone’s mind; when you issue an ad hominem attack when someone disagrees with you, undecideds are unlikely to be any more supportive of your position.

The way to be liberal is to debate, to debate, and to debate again until you have won the argument. Stop telling people what to believe, and start telling them why to believe it – because the way to beat populists like Trump is to engage with their voters, and the way to understand why people vote for something is to ask them. If you aren’t willing to talk to people and you can’t make any more argument than a vague assertion that you are right, then can you really be surprised when people disagree with you?

Trump’s victory is not the worst thing to happen to liberalism in the western world. It is the wake-up call it has needed.

The Death of a Despot May Lead to Instability in Central Asia

The death of brutal dictator Islam Karimov was announced on Friday, bringing his 27 year rule of Uzbekistan to an end. The handling of the Uzbek President’s death has been reminiscent of the regime changes of the Soviet Union – a week of speculation followed his admission to hospital last Sunday, with suspicions that his death was kept quiet to allow backroom plotters time to plan his succession. With Karimov failing to specify whom he wished to succeed him, the risk of Uzbekistan’s government descending into infighting is very real – particularly in a country which has never experienced regime change before.

While there is a constitutional requirement for elections to replace the President, Uzbekistan was not renowned for adhering to its constitution during Karimov’s premiership, and there seems to be little reason to assume that a democratic transition into a post-Karimov era is likely. Realistically then, the best that can be hoped for for the people of Uzbekistan and the region in general is a stable transition. However, the lack of a clear and legitimate successor may tempt important government actors from the previous regime to attempt to seize the leadership – Rustam Inoyatov, the country’s powerful intelligence chief, might be tempted by the opportunity, or perhaps thrust one of his key allies into the Presidency. The risk of civil war then, in a country previously considered one of the most stable in Central Asia, is increased significantly by Karimov’s death.

One of the problems with regime changes in long-standing dictatorships – particularly ones which have only ever had one leader – is that the state institutions set up to govern the nation may not be strong enough to survive without the force of personality of the original dictator. Weak state institutions can lead to the sort of widespread instability seen in Iraq in recent years – where poor command structures have led to corruption and the failure of the police and military to deal with smaller threats, which have combined to aid the rise of Daesh.

The country’s new regime will be expected to continue Karimov’s strong secularism, which many in the West credit with expelling the dangers of Islamic terrorism from Uzbekistan, and again the success of this policy will depend on the strength of both the new leader and the underlying state institutions implemented since independence.

The situation surrounding the Uzbek leadership is further complicated by the country’s unique position in Asia. With the largest population of any of the five former republics of the Soviet Union and sitting on the border with Afghanistan, Uzbekistan has been an important ally for both the United States and Russia, particularly in the fight against organisations like the Taliban and Al-Qaeda – although relations with the US are not as close as they once were. The presence of a senior Russian delegation at the funeral of Karimov suggests that Moscow view this opportunity as a chance for closer relations with Tashkent, but there are parallels between Uzbekistan and Ukraine that cannot be ignored – and accordingly this regime change could result in further instability in Uzbekistan, and in Central Asia as a whole.

Uzbekistan’s Crimea is a region called Karakalpakstan. There is a constitutional allowance for a referendum on secession for Karakalpakstan, but as yet no referendum has been held, in spite of the separatist ambitions of many actors in the region. Parallels between the region and Crimea are easy to draw – and the question of Karakalpakstan will be one that may have to be answered by the new government fairly early on in its tenure. Independence for the region, perhaps backed by Russia if the new regime weakens ties with Putin, would cause serious instability in Central Asia and would be a major blow to Uzbekistan, in particular because the north-western region contains many important resources.

While the West and many in Uzbekistan will be glad of regime change, the chances of a democratic election are low, and regime change is likely to bring about instability in one of Central Asia’s most stable nations, and that could be bad for both Uzbekistan and the entirety of Central Asia in the long term.

Google’s Palestine Question

The politics of the map are often overlooked. Whether it be the fact that continents on conventional maps are sized not based on their real size, but on political sensibilities; or the fact that the creation of colonies in countries such as Iraq by drawing lines on a map has led to tensions within states years later, the impact of the map on politics is often given less credit than it deserves.

Google Maps then, has a tough job balancing the way in which it labels countries and borders to reflect the various sensibilities of the regions involved. Earlier this week, social media commentators noticed that there is no ‘Palestine’ label within the borders of the state, which prompted outcry and outrage. Google faces a curious dilemma here: if they introduce a label for Palestine then they risk provoking similar outrage from pro-Israel social media commentators; if they don’t introduce a Palestine label then pro-Palestinian commentators will continue to use ‘#PalestineIsHere’.

Is there justifiable reason for people to be outraged at the lack of a Palestine label? Let’s look at some other examples on Google Maps to see if there is some precedent.

Several overseas territories and autonomous areas belonging to other nations have their own labels on Google Maps. These areas get a status above that of Palestine but they are not particularly controversial, and their being given or not being given labels on the map is unlikely to provoke strong feelings from any sovereign nations or viewers. Areas such as the Falklands Islands, claimed by both the United Kingdom and Argentina, have bracketed secondary names to avoid complaints; while Crimea is not labelled and is separated from the rest of Ukraine by a dashed line. Considering the difference in circumstances between these areas and Palestine, there are no arguments for or against so far.

No states without any recognition have any status on Google Maps, while states with limited recognition (into which category Palestine falls) have various recognition on the service. Abkhazia (recognised by 4 UN Member States), South Ossetia (also recognised by 4), and Northern Cyprus (recognised by 1) all have dotted borders outlining their location but no name label, and as such could be considered to have the closest status to Palestine.

The Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (claiming the area of Western Sahara) has international recognition from 47 UN Member States but does not have a label on Google Maps – although Western Sahara is labelled and is separated from Morocco by a dotted line, in the same way that Palestine is separated from Israel, with the Gaza Strip and the West Bank being labelled.

So far then, it seems that Palestine – internationally recognised as a sovereign state by 136 nations and an Observer State of the United Nations – has a situation which is equivalent to many similar (albeit less well-known) cases for non-UN partially recognised states.

Unfortunately for Google, deeper analysis of their Maps service suggests that Palestine may not have a label because of a political motivation, rather than as part of a wider policy dealing with partially recognised states. Taiwan, recognised as independent by 21 UN Member States and without Palestine’s status as an Observer State, has its own label on Google Maps – despite its relations with China being similar to Palestine-Israel relations. Kosovo, recognised by 109 UN Member States, also has its own label and a dashed border.

When compared to these two latter cases, it seems that the ‘#PalestineIsHere’ group might have a case for the inclusion of a Palestine label on Google Maps. Palestine has vastly more significant international recognition than Taiwan and Kosovo – both labelled – and unlike both of those cases, Palestine has some status at the United Nations. What makes Taiwan and Kosovo worthy of labelling, yet prevents Palestine from being labelled? Presumably it can only be the contentious nature of the Israel-Palestine conflict in the West, compared with that of Serbia-Kosovo and China-Taiwan.

Granting Google recognition to Palestine could be just as important as formal diplomatic recognitions. Giving a country status on a map means that more people are likely to subconsciously accept the existence of that nation. Given the importance of the map to politics, Google’s continued lack of a Palestine label can only be a political decision.