Here and there – Shakespeare and the mob – and Trump

 

When the Three Estates convened at Versailles in 1789, the Nobility and the Clergy played hard to get with the rest of France the Third Estate.  Its delegates then wished to constitute themselves as the body representing the nation of France.  What should it call itself?  Assemblée Nationale or Représentants du people?  But if the latter, who were the ‘people’?  Many feared that the King and the Court and the Clergy would regard the peuple as the plebs rather than the populus, or, as Michelet framed it, le peuple inférieur.  So, they went for the name Assemblée Nationale.

Similar questions arise when you ask who is in the populus that populists appeal to?  If you answer that they are the plebs or the ‘inferior people,’ you may get into trouble, if not a fight.  Even the terms ‘commoner’ or ‘common people’ are tricky in a nation that claims to prize equality.

For the purposes of this note, I will say that the ‘people’ that Donald Trump appeals to are those who welcome his pardoning of a government officer who boasted of running a concentration camp for people who he thought were ethnically inferior, who ran up a bill for the people of Arizona of $70 million in defending his racial profiling, and who was then sentenced to jail for defying a court order.  The ‘people’ that Farage appeals to were those who loved that photo of their leader grinning in front of a large poster with a long line of towel-heads threatening to inundate the Fatherland.  These folks didn’t think the poster was racist, and would turn more nastily against those whom they call ‘elite’ if anyone dares to say so.  With Pauline Hanson, you have a smorgasbord, but for Australia generally, you might say that the ‘people’ that someone like Cory Bernardi might appeal to are those who think that Peter Dutton is a good Minister of the Crown and a man worthy to be Prime Minister of this great nation.

What did our greatest playwright have to say about the ‘people’?  Quite a lot – and it is hard to find anything favourable either to the people or those who appeal to them.

In a book I wrote some years ago, I said:

When Banjo Paterson came to stigmatize mindless youth in the then equivalent of our outer suburbs, he referred to gilded youths who sat along the wall:

‘Their eyes were dull, their heads were flat, they had no brains at all’.

This is a recurrent nightmare for us now, made worse on our trains and buses by sullen looks coming from vacant spaces between iPod exit points.  It is not that education has failed them– they have rejected education. There is nothing going on at all there. What might happen if that lot got into government?  The nightmare would be made real.

You can make up your own mind whether you think that that nightmare has become real in the U S or elsewhere, but the figure of Jack Cade in Act 4 of Henry VI Part II does look frighteningly prescient.

Cade is a demagogue from Kent.  We see him first as a pawn of a faction leader in the Wars of the Roses.  Cade appeals to the mob, but he has ideas of his own.  He thinks he can be king.  (He is no democrat, but dictators rarely are.)  Although he says that he is waging a class war, he still wants to be king.  But like Hitler, the ascent of Cade is by carrot and stick: give the masses what they want and purify the rest by terror by killing anyone who gets in the way.  ‘Let’s kill all the lawyers.’ (4.2.75) and ‘make it a felony to drink small beer’ (4.2.66).

The descent into Fantasyland is immediate: ‘Strike off his head’ (4.7.112).  This was the short answer of Robespierre, but at least Robespierre, who was a lawyer, was not terrified of writing.  Jack Cade will kill those who can write: only one who has to apply his mark may be considered an ‘honest plain-dealing man’ (4.2.100).  The Nazis went further and burnt books, but by and large these did not exist at the time of Jack Cade.  How often do we see this victimhood on the part of the mindless, pretending that only they are pure?  It’s as if you have to be a victim to be good.  And Cade can link class vindication to ideological cant:

And you that love the commons, follow me.

Now show yourselves men; ‘tis for liberty.

We will not leave one lord, one gentleman,

Spare none but such as go in clouted shoon.  (4.2.180-184)

‘Clouted shoon’ means hobnailed boots.  This is Romper Stomper six centuries ago.  Our nightmare was alive back then.  The reference to ‘liberty’ is moonshine.  Cade is in this only for himself.  He even wants the droit de seigneur (4.7.120-125). But almost immediately, the fickle mob drops him and he is dispatched – unconvincingly – by another more orthodox son of Kentish soil.  ‘Was ever feather so lightly blown to and fro, as this multitude?’(4.8.56-59).

Cade loathes literacy.  That and his capacity to hide behind a joke if he gets caught is something else Trump has in common with Cade.  In the destruction of the Savoy and the Inns of Court, and the burning of the records of the realm, Cade prefigures the mob in Paris in and after 1789.

Jack Cade then is the template for the loud, stupid, selfish populism of the Trump brand.  We see the mob being seduced in Richard III; Richard II is worried about the appeal of Bolingbroke to the mob; Henry IV lectures his son on how to present to them; and Joan of Arc has a popular appeal that Henry VI could not even dream of; but I shall confine my remarks to the Roman plays.

The gross political naivety of Brutus and the duplicity of Antony enabled the latter to convert and then unleash the mob in possibly the most famous speech for the stage in Julius Caesar, Act I Scene 2Brutus was silly not to have taken out Antony with his patron.  He was sillier to allow a disciple of Caesar to open his mouth in public about the murder.  Then he was even sillier to accept Antony’s promise not to ‘blame us’ (3.1.245).  Within minutes, Antony is speaking of letting slip the dogs of war.  The speech plays on the words ‘honorable’ and ‘ambition’ – lethally.  Then this masterpiece of political deceit plays on the word ‘mutiny’ – three times.  Inciting mutiny was of course Antony’s sole purpose in making the speech, and Brutus and the other killers would pay with their lives for their political innocence.

Many of those who are familiar with this speech forget its aftermath.  In the next scene, the hysterical mob becomes a lynch mob, and then we are shown the big hitters sharing the spoils of revenge.  They calmly decide which of their families will have to die.  Act 4 Scene 1 commences with Antony saying ‘These many men shall die; their names are pricked.’  Octavius responds ‘Your brother too must die; consent you, Lepidus?’  The murderous cold-bloodedness of these power brokers might remind you of a passage in Antony and Cleopatra. When the world beaters are getting drunk doing their big deal to split up the world, the aide to Pompey asks him if he would be lord of the whole world.  He then offers this amazing but sober proposal:

These three world-sharers, these competitors,

Are in thy vessel.  Let me cut the cable;

And when we are put off, fall to their throats.

All there is thine.  (2.7.73-74)

These rulers not only play with the mob – they kill them as if for sport.

The action in Coriolanus takes place during the class wars that sickened ancient Rome for so long.  We still are inclined to label some people ‘patrician’ and some ‘plebeian’ after the Latin terms for the two classes who were at each other’s throats in Rome.  Neither now is a term of affection.

Coriolanus was as patrician as you could get.  He loathed the plebeians – and he could not help himself from revealing his loathing – indeed, reveling in it.  If you regard the ‘people’ with contempt, and if you are happy to show them that contempt, you can hardly expect to achieve political success if the constitution decrees that you must appear before the people and obtain their assent to your appointment to the office you seek.  Since that’s what the Roman constitution provided, the play Coriolanus is inevitably a tragedy.

A dramatic high point comes when our hero erupts astoundingly when a tribune says ‘shall’ – a plebeian being imperative to a noble! (3.1.87).  Coriolanus spits the word ‘shall’ back at them four times.  The man who takes Coriolanus in and then turns on him knows what the word ‘boy’ will do (5.6.101).  The representatives of the ‘people’ are the ‘tribunes.’  They get a shocking press in this play.  They are like union organizers – Jesuitical or communist, depending on your phobia or fancy.  The film reeks of 1789.  ‘What is the city but the people?’ and ‘The people are the city.’  (3.1.198-9).  That is pure Robespierre.  The tribunes are cold blooded, self-interested, manipulative cowards.  Here is how they go about their work in steering the populus.

To the’ Capitol come

We shall be there before the stream o’ th’ people;

And this shall seem, as partly ‘tis, their own,

Which we have goaded onward.  (2.3.267-271)

Coriolanus is a sustained hatchet job of the puppeteers of the populus.  And it is another reason why we regard this playwright so highly for his insight into our politics.  The main lesson from this play for us in seeking to understand Trump is that if a person comes into political office with a character that makes him unfit for that office, you are kidding yourself if you think he might change character on the job.  Indeed, the likelihood is that he will only get worse the longer he stays in the job.  Power rarely improves people it and never makes them humble.

Tony Tanner referred to Plutarch speaking of Coriolanus and saying how an education might lead a man who was ‘rude and rough of nature’ to be ‘civil and courteous.’  He went on:

During the Renaissance, there was much discussion concerning the proper education, duties, and responsibilities of the good prince or governor – what qualified a person to exercise ‘the speciality of rule’.  As Plutarch stresses, it is precisely these qualifications which Coriolanus so signally lacks: he is a prime example of what Renaissance thinkers regarded as the ill-educated prince, a man from the governing classes who is, by nature, temperament, and upbringing, unfitted and unfit to rule.

That is Donald Trump word for word.  From Rome to Washington, and from Plutarch to the New York Times, there is nothing new under the political sun.

TERROR AND THE POLICE STATE: CHAPTER 21

 

 

[This is a short version of a book ‘Terror and the Police State; Punishment as a Measure of Despair’, published in 2015.  The book focussed on France after 1789, Russia after 1917, and Germany after 1933.  The instalments will follow the 21 chapter headings that are as follows: 1 Terms of Engagement; 2 Enduring emergency; 3 Righteousness; 4 Good bye to the law; 5 Instruments of terror; 6 Civil war; 7 Waves of terror; 8 Degradation; 9 Secret police; 10 Surveillance; 11 Denunciation; 12 Fear; 13 Popular courts and show trials; 14 Scapegoats, suspicion and proof; 15 Gulags; 16 Propaganda, religion, and cults; 17 Surrealism and banality; 18 The numbers; 19 The horror; 20 The meaning?; 21 Common features; 22 Justification: Epilogue.  The short version is about one quarter the length of the original.  Each instalment is about 1200 words.]

21

Common features

Here then are some of the features, for better or worse, of our three regimes.

Triumphalism

Each of France – under the Terror or under Napoleon – Communist Russia, and Nazi Germany had something more than mere righteousness, or self-righteousness.  Each of them believed, and was convinced, that their way was the way of the future.  France and Russia hoped and believed the rest of the world would follow their lead.  Hitler had no such delusion.

Absolutism

One result of this triumphalism, this splendid newness and hard-won sanctity, was a kind of absolutism that promoted intolerance.  Saint-Just, a true fanatic, said: ‘Since the French people has manifested its will, everything opposed to it is outside the sovereign.  Whatever is outside the sovereign is an enemy.’  This was an invocation of Rousseau’s Social Contract to justify the Terror.  These notions are inherently vicious over and above their waffly foundation of an abstraction of ‘the people.’  The people of France rose up in 1789 against privilege. 

Ungodliness

Napoleon and Mussolini manipulated religion as a tool of government and to keep the hordes content.  In the course of their revolutions, both the French and the Russians took the opposite view.  The objection was not to the teaching of Christ.  They were objecting in a way to what the Roman emperors were attracted to – the role of the church as a part of governing.

Inexperience

The French and the Russians were taking over from autocrats.  Those leading the revolutions had little or no experience in government, and they were not inclined to trust any of the machinery of their predecessors.  And just as importantly, Louis and Nicholas had no experience in politics or negotiation.

Anxiety

In neither France nor in Germany did the regime as a whole ever feel at peace or at rest.  France went from being threatened by all around them to something close to perpetual war and the defeat of Napoleon brought no settlement.  Lenin’s personal need to short-circuit Marx meant that the Russian process was off-keel from the start.  The New Economic Policy showed that they were making it up as they went.

Intolerance

Anxiety and intolerance were mutually self-supporting.  Professor Furet said: ‘As early as 1789, the French Revolution could envisage resistance – real or imaginary – only as a gigantic and permanent conspiracy, which it must ceaselessly crush… Its political repertoire had never given the slightest opening to expressions of disagreement, let alone conflict: the people had appropriated the absolutist heritage and taken the place of the king.’

Immoderation

You can see this need for absolutism all the time during the French Revolution.  It is as if moderation had been banned.  Everything is over the top – someone said that the whole Third Reich was just one long, bad opera.  Robespierre wrote to Danton, one of those whose death he would compass: ‘I love you more than ever.  I love you until death.  At this moment, I am you.’  That could have come from Wuthering Heights. 

Conflict

Armed insurrection became something of a habit for the French, and barricades became moveable parts of municipal furniture.  Some kind of civil war was inevitable.  Napoleon convulsed Europe for about a generation, and five million died. The Russian Revolution was based on received dogma of inevitable and universal class wars, and led to a civil war more frightful than anything the French had known

Intellectualism

Mein Kampf is a flat denial of thought.  But at least some in the lead of the French Revolution, and almost all those in the vanguard of the Russian Revolution, claimed some intellectual background to their violence.  This was not helpful in either case.  Intellectualism has never been a problem in England.

Nationalism

The nationalism inherent in the Nazi regime is obvious from its name and nature – an attempt to win living room and to conquer at least Europe.  But it very soon also emerged with the revolutions in France and Russia, and in ways that were equally obnoxious and lethal to the neighbours.

Patriotism

Patriotism now has an aura very different to what it had in 1789, and even then it varied greatly from one nation to the next.  Its history is in part linked to that of nationalism.  It too is a dirty word.  Both the French and Russian revolutions saw aggressive nationalism which achieved its nadir under Hitler.

Exclusivism

When people revolt against a system of government, they commonly want to transfer shares of power down the ladder, but they hardly ever want to go all the way down.  If you had suggested to those behind the English Revolution of 1689 or the American Revolution in 1776 that they were democrats, they would have been scandalised.

Rumour

Nowadays, the opposition to repressive regimes is facilitated by communication over the internet.  The reverse problems obtained in much of France, and even Paris, and even in some of Germany.  The absence of quick and reliable communication encouraged rumour, suspicion, and fear, the lifeblood of the mob.  Ignorance can lead to almost a cult of suspicion.  Now social media enables others to manipulate elections and to murder the very idea of truth.

Unreality

All these people were going where no man had been before, and most of them did not know what they were doing – but only the French understood that.  Ignorance deterred none of them.

Degradation

We all know that all power corrupts.  Robespierre was incorruptible financially but his political success, the adulation of a crowd, and a belief in his own nonsense about the Supreme Being turned his head. He was one of those responsible for the execution of hundreds or thousands of enemies of the people.  Before that, he had been opposed to capital punishment

Passing Bull 142 – Gilding the lily

 

A registered psychologist cast doubt on the qualifications of people behind an outfit called Creative Mind that had been engaged to conduct a pre-season taring camp for the Adelaide Football Club.  The event was controversial.  (But not as controversial as Melbourne’s – they cancelled theirs.)  The camp was modestly called ‘Mankind Project.’  On the website www.the soulspace.com.au, the qualifications of the principal of Creative Mind were described as:

Amon is trained in a range of coaching, assessment and training approaches, including Vertical Mindset Assessment and Coaching, Power Stage Assessment and Coaching, and more.  He integrates those coaching approaches with extensive experience in the leadership field, and through a long-time involvement with the national masculinity and men’s work community.

You might wonder if Amon has anything against national femininity or Horizontal Mindset Assessment and Coaching.  In a statement to The Age, Amon said:

Our organisation specialises in performance training, focusing on leadership [mindset] and team performance.

Personally, I’m a coach, facilitator and trainer who has a background in leadership and culture in large organisations and I am certified in coaching a range of assessment tools and diagnostics for leaders and teams.  I also hold a Master of Business from the University of Queensland.

Could it be that the word Amon was searching for was quack?  Amon sounds like the kind of dude Donald Trump would appoint to run Veterans’ Affairs or bring peace to the Middle East – more bullshit than you can point a stick at.  If I were a Crows supporter, I would be minded to inquire how much Amon trousered for the Mankind Project.  I wonder if the Crows think Mankind is better off for the Project.

Bloopers

‘Networking drinks 4.30pm to 6pm.’

Advertisement for global food forum.

The Australian, 22 March 2018

Can you get a drink even if you are not into networking?  We’re going bad when people who get together to talk about food need an excuse for a drink.

 

‘Russia’s behaviour continues to trouble us and we are continuing to push back in meaningful ways,’ a senior national security official said.

The Guardian, 16 March, 2018

On the eve of the Crimean War, the Launceston morning paper began its editorial ‘This newspaper warns the Tsar of Russia.’

Here and there – Fallacies, fallibility, and hypocrisy in our psyche

 

On the day of the underarm bowling incident, I had worked hard all day.  My cab driver was full of shocked disbelief and disgust.  When he told me, I started laughing.  This upset him.  ‘What else do you expect when you sell your soul for lucre?’  Then The Age reported on one tight one-day game under the headline ‘Come on dollar, come on.’  Creighton Burns told me he feared that they might go under.  I can’t recall if the article quoted that great line from The Great Gatsby.

It never occurred to me that one man could start to play with the faith of fifty million people – with the single-mindedness of a burglar blowing a safe.

As the smoke clears after the disaster at Cape Town, and as the pendulum swings back, we might reflect on two fallacies.  One is that sporting bodies can be run as a business in the same way that any business can be run.  That’s just wrong – for reasons that Donald Trump is finding out.  The other fallacy is that at the top professional level, people are playing games as part of a sport.  In some sense they are, but they are also leading figures in the entertainment industry, and that industry is a significant source of business for broadcasting and gaming companies.  The so-called players are as integral to the economy as widget-makers.  Hence their outrageous pay.

Next, with one possible exception, none of us is infallible.  We all make mistakes.  And thank God – the contrary is unthinkable automation.  Some of our wholly fallible young men in Cape Town made a big mistake.  They are paying a hideous price.

People say that the underarm job was lawful and that this case is worse.  I disagree.  I don’t think that you can measure moral culpability by degrees of lawfulness.  Our whole legal system is predicated on our capacity to review the ‘equity’ of the case.  If you break the rules, you face the sanctions imposed by the rules.  But if you evade the rules and by doing so you hurt the game, then in my view you are the more toxic and culpable agent.  It’s like tax evasion.  For that reason, I regard the conduct of Trevor Chappell and his brother, and that of Stuart Broad in refusing to walk, as doing a lot more harm to the game than the breach of the rules admitted in Cape Town.  For that reason too, I regard our young men as far less blameworthy.

Now for hypocrisy.  Let’s start with ‘we the people’.  We may be outraged, but we can’t say that we are surprised.  We tolerated a hopelessly outmoded administration – dominated by an old god with a gong – treating our champions as medieval serfs and making them ideal prey to Kerry Packer and the gods of television.  Then we supported those ludicrous pyjama games that have so debased our own coinage – and character.  Then we turned up to cheer an even sluttier version.  And for about a generation, we have sat idly by while a patently weak body, Cricket Australia, just allowed things to get worse and worse.  We should be ashamed of ourselves.  But, no, we had to have our ritual humiliation, and on Good Friday eve.

The hypocrisy of the ICC is unspeakable.  They are inept and bent.

Mr Sutherland’s position is untenable.  At its most polite, he has been standing too close to too many accidents.  He and the board are responsible, not just in the sense of being answerable, but because their failures of governance have led to this mess.  And the whole nation knows it.  If Mr Lehmann had to take responsibility, so must Mr Sutherland.

Then there are the corporates who talk about ‘core values’.  That is pure bullshit.  Did the CBA even have the gall to stick up its head?  People are already comparing our cricketers to our bankers.  The bankers committed their crimes over time, and directly for the thirty pieces of silver.  Will any of them be punished as hard as Steve Smith?  Not on your bloody Nelly, Mate.

As for the mockers elsewhere, do you really think that you are well placed to cast the first stone?  At least our boys came clean and are taking it down the front.  Your turn will surely come.

There is something very, very wrong when a good young man like Steve Smith must take all this pain, while those responsible walk free.  The whole body needs cleansing – the whole of it – and every player must have seared into his being the proposition that when he puts on that jumper, he stands in a position of trust to me because that jumper is mine.

And remember this.  Bodyline was lawful.  Who says that Smith is guiltier than Jardine?

Here and there – Dear Mr Sutherland,

 

Yesterday I sent an email to Cricket Australia:

Cheats

At a bare minimum, Sutherland, Lehmann, Smith and Warner must be fired, and not just from their position in the case of the players, but from the team.  None of them is fit to wear or represent my colours.  Now in my 73rd year, I have never been so ashamed of my country.

Yours truly

Geoffrey Gibson

Here are my reasons for that call.

Sometimes people make mistakes and then their reaction shows that they were not up to the job.  That goes for you, Smith, Warner and Lehmann.

It also goes for the Prime Minister.  He said: ‘Our cricketers are role models and cricket is synonymous with fair play.’  Each of those propositions is pure moonshine, and has been so for forty years – ever since Mr Packer started shelling out lucre to his hired darlings.  And he only got the chance because your predecessors treated our players like medieval serfs.  They sowed the wind.  Now you reap the whirlwind.  And what sane parents would want their children to model themselves on David Warner?

You should resign or be fired because you have presided over and are therefore responsible for the decline in standards in our national sport for nearly a generation.  Money – from Mr Packer and now India – has become king and you have allowed those who claim to represent us to be corrupted by it.  You have allowed the horses to take over the stable.  Your response yesterday was, I regret to say, wholly in character – vapid.  I also have no idea why you had to send two people to get the facts.  Do we send teams overseas without putting some reliable proconsul in charge of them?

Smith and Warner have admitted cheating.  They have brought disgrace upon the whole of my country.  Yet their callous arrogance and wilful inanity show just how poisoned our Test cricketers have become.  This disaster at Cape Town is just the final step in the process of corruption that started with Mr Packer and was perfected on the subcontinent – where these brats coin millions by moonlighting.  And there is more than a whiff of cowardice in their decision to deploy a young bunny and then say that it was the idea of the seasoned players.

Nor can I understand what logic would conclude that although the guilty parties may be entrusted with my colours as players, they should not be so trusted in a position of responsibility.  When they merely pull on my jumper, they take a position of mighty responsibility.  To give them some but not all trust would be like saying that a dope-cheat in cycling or weightlifting may be trusted after taking a holiday.  These cheats have forfeited their trust, and I will not give it back to them.  I will not support a side that has either of them in it in any capacity.

Lehmann should resign or be fired because he has been in charge of and therefore responsible for the morale and morals of our team over the period of its worst decline.  On this incident, he has the Volkswagen problem.  He either knew or he didn’t.  Either way, he’s gone.  For what it’s worth, it’s been a long time since I saw a man look so guilty.

We will need more than one generation to get over this.  I will be long gone.  I agree with Jeff Kennett.  ‘A disgrace of the first order. All involved should be banned from international cricket for life.  Australia’s sporting reputation demands immediate response from CA.’  Painful surgery is immediately required to start the process of healing.  If that means that we may field an inferior team, we have brought that on ourselves, and we will get the needed reminder that winning is not everything.  That attitude, and the dollar, are what have landed us in this very visible gutter.

And I have the clear view that nothing short of these sackings will serve to ease the outrage being felt across this nation.

Yours truly

Geoffrey Gibson

TERROR AND THE POLICE STATE: CHAPTER 20

 

 

[This is a short version of a book ‘Terror and the Police State; Punishment as a Measure of Despair’, published in 2015.  The book focussed on France after 1789, Russia after 1917, and Germany after 1933.  The instalments will follow the 21 chapter headings that are as follows: 1 Terms of Engagement; 2 Enduring emergency; 3 Righteousness; 4 Good bye to the law; 5 Instruments of terror; 6 Civil war; 7 Waves of terror; 8 Degradation; 9 Secret police; 10 Surveillance; 11 Denunciation; 12 Fear; 13 Popular courts and show trials; 14 Scapegoats, suspicion and proof; 15 Gulags; 16 Propaganda, religion, and cults; 17 Surrealism and banality; 18 The numbers; 19 The horror; 20 The meaning?; 21 Justification.  The short version is about one quarter the length of the original.  Each instalment is about 1200 words.]

20

The meaning?

It is obvious that there is no such thing as a revolution.  ‘Revolution’ is a label that we apply to a series of events.  Some people like to use abstract or group nouns to categorise the kinds of people taking part in the violent changes.  These categories have bedevilled discussion of the French and Russian revolutions.  The notorious terms are bourgeoisie, class, elite, kulaks, masses, peasants, proletariat and sans-culottes.  It is obvious that these very loose and broad labels may involve unproductive word-games.  How do you define the criteria for membership?  How do you apply those criteria?  What on earth is a plutocrat?

If you take as given that each of us has an inner worth or dignity merely because we are human, the police state will inevitably work against that dignity, and be opposed to our humanity.  It does so in at least two ways.  It says that the state is more important than the individual – that the government means more than either you or me – and that therefore the individual has to give way to the state.  It goes further and says that if there is doubt, the issue must be resolved in favour of the state.

The other way that the police state is against our dignity is that it judges or assesses people not by their own worth, but merely by the fact of their being a member of a group.  In doing that, it engages in the kind of word-game that we have just looked at.

Both of those failings derive from a kind of arrogance.  Those behind the police state believe that they have used the power of their minds to find an answer to our social problems.  Since they believe that their answer is demonstrably true, if not logically necessary, they believe that they have the answer.  It follows that those who do not accept that answer are demonstrably wrong, and, equally demonstrably, that they are acting against the interests of the whole community, by standing in the way of the implementation of the answer the acceptance of which will benefit everyone.  But, and this is also fundamental to the police state, it follows that the state is entitled to use force to implement the answer because in doing so it will be acting to benefit the community as a whole.

We might recall the two first pillars of the rule of law.  First, the law is supreme over government and any one person or arm of government – government derives from the law, and not vice versa.  Secondly, and relatedly, everyone is equal before the law.  Obviously, rule by one man or the police or simply by ‘government’ above the law contravenes the first, and any regime that adjusts rights by political belief or membership of a group contravenes the second.  .

The first way that the police state puts us down is by putting the state over any one person and therefore over everyone.  It prefers an abstraction to real people.  That is the hallmark of the totalitarian state.  That state must be all-powerful and therefore it cannot give way to any man: no rights of an individual can stand in its way.  The people pushing this line tend to see the rights of individuals deriving from the state, rather than seeing the state as some kind of construct permitted under conditions by the people.

Intellectuals are prey to this kind of thinking, because they put too much faith in the power of their own thinking.  What is critical is the state of mind that says that when in doubt, the individual must give way to the state.  That is not the way that decent states try to proceed.  They think that it is better that some wrongdoers go free than that anyone innocent is imprisoned.

The second affront to humanity comes from a smallness of mind and meanness of spirit that is sadly common enough to be part of all of us.  It is, if you like, our dark side.  This is our attachment to prejudice – it is the refusal or failure to treat each person on their merits, but our readiness to deal with them merely as a member of a group, where such membership warrants certain treatment by the state irrespective of the merits of any one person in that group.

Examples of kinds of group that are the basis of prejudice seen in this book are class (aristocrats or bourgeois), office (priests and bishops), economic standing (kulaks or other capitalists), nationality (foreigners), religion (Protestants, Catholics, or atheists), politics (royalists or fascist or communists), sex and sexuality (women and homosexuals), infirm (aged or retarded) and race (gypsies).  These groupings have all been used to disadvantage the members of those groups.  When those disadvantages derive from the law, the discrimination contravenes the rule of law by expressly denying the principle of equality before the law.

Sometimes a regime will seek to ascribe dangerous attributes to members of such classes in order to give some warrant to a kind of block condemnation, but ultimately that is not necessary – the whole purpose of the prejudice is to relieve us of the task of facing one person and treating them on their merits.  The disadvantaged are objects of either contempt or fear or both in a failure not just of the mind but of character.  This failure is found more among people whose ignorance comes from a lack of intelligence or education and whose edge comes from a lack of recognition.  This weakness is then exploited by political leaders or their functionaries and their camp followers in the press.  The grossest modern examples are called shock jocks, parts of the Murdoch press, Sky TV, and fringe political parties that exploit fear of strangers like migrants or refugees or those following minority faiths.

The worst part is the evident pleasure that these people take in kicking someone when they are down – this somehow serves to redeem them from their own mediocrity and to comfort them in their frailty.  It is a kind of revenge on the world.  You get the impression that nothing could make them happier than a good clean lynching.

Unhappily the gorilla called prejudice lurks in us all – it is just that some are graced with a better capacity to keep the iron gates shut and stop the gorilla from coming out.  (Someone once said that that the major difference between us and the gorillas is cutlery.  The proposition is instructive.  It may be that the iron gates are properly called courtesy or manners, and that people get these at home rather than at school – or not at all.)

The police state has a circular process under which anyone who denies its maxims or who questions the authority of the current regime is without more an enemy of the people, and an enemy of the people is anyone showing any such behaviour.  The result of this circularity is that the accused cannot, and the accuser does not have to, identify any conduct the proof which would found a finding of a discrete breach of the criminal law.  Because the regime is above the law, it is commonly enough as a matter of fact for the state to act against someone on the ground that that person is suspected of showing such behaviour or otherwise being an enemy of the people.

The phrase ‘enemy of the people’ is of course itself a lie.  An ‘enemy of the people’ is in truth merely an ‘opponent or possible opponent of the regime’ and the regime does not represent the people.  The two propositions are worlds apart, but they are conflated by pride and prejudice.

Here and there – How taxing it is

Part II

[This is the second part of a piece on the current debate on refunding tax credits.]

Secondly, the relevant law has been in place since 2000.  Very many people have conducted their affairs on the footing of that law.  As I said, this law is no mere wheeze.  I should here disclose that you are now talking to a paradigm case of a target of the proposed change.  My superfund is invested entirely in public companies that issue fully franked dividends.  No other course even comes close for my purposes – I see cash as pure waste.  I believe that my fund will support me, but if the income of the fund is reduced by 30 per cent as a result of this proposal, I will have to look seriously at the alternatives.

There is a well-established principle of our general law that if one party to an arrangement makes a representation that the other party relies on to their detriment, then the law will restrain the party making the representation from resiling from it.  Although I am prejudiced, that law seems to me to meet my case – and doubtless that of many thousands of others who have arranged their affairs in good faith in reliance upon the good faith of government.

We cannot preclude parliament from changing the law, but we can seek to hold politicians to their promises.  When the present government sought to legislate against retired fundholders about two years ago, I was struck by the vehemence of the opposition that came from members of the government’s own party.  Lawyers I respect said that the proposed legislation was retrospective.  I have some difficulty with that as a matter of law – but I have far less difficulty in envisioning some people feeling betrayed.  People were expressly invited to conduct their affairs on the ground chosen by government and now, in the middle of the game so to speak, the government wants to change the rules.  That is not fair – and as between parties subject to the general law, it would not be allowed.

Thirdly, the relevant law is horribly complex and looked at by most people, including most lawyers, with a blend of disgust and horror.  Whatever else may be said about the proposal, it will not ‘reform’ the law in the sense of making it better or clearer.  It will add another complication and inducement to people to get advice on how to beat it.  Those who clip the ticket – there are far too many of them – will be thrilled to bits.  The suspicion of government, and the system, will get worse – particularly if the proponents say that they are targeting the wealthy, or, worse, those who don’t vote for them anyway.  (That way lies the vice of Donald Trump.)  No one wants to see superannuation, something this country has done well, as what Alan Kohler calls ‘an object of political contest’ – or, put bluntly, a till to be tickled.  People who have worked hard and paid their taxes, and then followed the government’s advice and request to look after their own retirement, so relieving ongoing taxpayers, will justifiably resent and react to a government that seeks to go back on its word.  It’s no comfort to be told that a different party is in government – that’s like a company saying it can walk away from a contract because there is a new board of management.

My conclusion – which I agree is biased – is that although the proposal is justifiable on the theory of the original reform, it is at best unfortunate that its burden falls on the those who currently receive less income, and it is downright wrong unless the government moves to exempt or protect those who for about a generation have planned their retirement on the footing that the government of the Commonwealth of Australia can be trusted to keep its word.

We do, after all, have a long history of suspicion about tax and our parliaments.  In the book referred to I said:

In 1799, England was at war with revolutionary France.  France was then led by Napoleon Bonaparte, a man of military genius and unlimited ambition – and on the first count alone, he was a much more dangerous threat to England than Adolf Hitler would be.  The war was ruinously expensive.  How was the British government to fund it? 

William Pitt had become Prime Minister at the age of twenty four.  He was a leader of great authority, but the English parliament had been feisty about tax from its inception.  The national touchiness on revenue goes back at least as far as Magna Carta of 1215.  The American colonists had revolted over taxation – in the form of the Stamps Act – less than a quarter of a century ago.  (Ironically, France went bankrupt helping the Americans against their old enemy England and this bankruptcy had led to the Revolution and to the ascension of Bonaparte.  This could be the ultimate historical example of the cost of living beyond your means.)

Then the Prime Minister made a shocking proposal that was understandably denounced as ‘inquisitorial’.  He proposed a tax on incomes!  In the name of heaven, was no property to be sacred?  Well, it was just an emergency war-time measure.  It had to be – it was assessed at the demonic and confiscatory rate of two shillings (now, ten pence) in the pound (10%)! 

England went on to win the war – but not until Waterloo in 1815.  (Had England not won, we might be having this conversation in French.)  And some historians think that the victory of England owed more to revenue than naval or military successes.  But income tax reappeared, and has stayed, and it will be with us forever.  The only real change is that the law is more than ten times as long.  And it all started with an interim, emergency wartime measure.

Passing Bull 141 – A sole billboard outside Trinity

 

Am I the only old boy of another school to wonder about the sanity of Trinity Old Boys?  As I follow it, they think that a staff sacking was too harsh. Their remedy is to sack one or more of those responsible. It’s like the French Revolution – has anyone seen the ghost of Robespierre at the podium?  Is it possible to imagine a worse form of publicity for any school?   Do they not realise that any publicity for a school that is seen as – in that ghastly word – elite, is bad publicity?

Now, some well-heeled clown has put up a billboard.  ‘It’s time to go.  Our school community is far too progressive and inclusive for your 18th century values.’  Mate – ‘progressive’ and ‘inclusive’ are terms of abuse in some circles.  I had thought that such abuse was bullshit.  Now I wonder.  The Trinity Old Boys seem intent on murdering sense as well as the English language.

The herd mentality is rarely attractive, and it is never pleasant when it is as mean as this.  If they do get their man, his replacement will be looking at a cup as full of poison as any seen since the Crusades.

Bloopers

I propose to add some citations from the press that seem to me to be a symptom of our time.  I would be more than happy to receive suggestions.  I will start with one that will be harder to beat than Lewis Hamilton in today’s Grand Prix in Melbourne.

‘It makes sense for Australians to treat the President as he is.  Trump is clever and cunning.  He does not read much but he is highly intelligent.’

Gerard Henderson, The Weekend Australian 17-18 March 2018

Here is a party or pub game.  State the facts to justify the claim that Donald Trump is highly intelligent.  Here is one suggestion:

As when he instructed his lawyers to claim $20 million from a porn star for breaching an agreement to which he was not a party, and for which he gave no consideration, and for referring to something that did not happen.

Could Einstein have topped that?

Here and there – How taxing it is

[This is very long and difficult in parts, but there are many conflicting views out there, and it is hard to find a logical account of the relevant law and the proposed changes to it.]

Part I

If I shine shoes for a living – that is to say, for money – the law says that the income I derive will be taxed.  The tax is called income tax.  If I pay someone to do the shoe shining, or a buy a shoe shining business, the law says that any profit I derive will be subject to income tax.  The people that I pay to shine the shoes will have to pay income tax.  What I pay them is part of the cost of the business.  But the profit of the business is subject to one tax only.  I am the only person getting the benefit of the profit, and I am the only person who pays tax on the profit.

But the position is different if instead of my employing people in my business, I incorporate the business – that is to say, if I form a company to conduct the business.  The position is different because the law imposes income tax on the company for any profit that it makes.  Any profit that is passed on to those who own the business of the company – the shareholders – is arrived at after making allowance for the payment of the corporate tax.  If the company then distributes the after tax profit to shareholders in the form of dividends, the law says that those dividends are income in the hands of the shareholder.  As income they are liable to the personal income tax of the shareholder.

Since that personal income is only derived after allowing for the corporate tax paid by the company, the shareholder’s income has been twice reduced by a liability to income tax, the corporate and the personal taxes.  This leads to unhappiness and a sense of unfairness.  (Of course, big businesses, like BHP or Telstra, result in myriads of other taxes being paid – the income tax of the employees, payroll tax, sales taxes on plant and machinery, and so on, but we can put all that to one side.)

In a book about superannuation, which is still in preparation, I said:

Prior to the Hawke/Keating government, investors in shares in companies had been subject to double taxation.  Prior to declaring a dividend on its profit, a company has paid corporate tax on that profit.  The corporate rate is 30%.  Then the dividend was taxable as income in the hands of the shareholder.  If he or she was paying tax at 50%, they had lost at least 80% of the value of the return on their investment as a result of this double taxation.  The government legislated to ensure that the taxpayer only paid the one amount of tax. 

But the government went further for dividends received by superannuation funds.  The law says that if a super fund receives a dividend from a company that has paid the company tax, and issued the dividend ‘fully franked’, the fund will get a credit for the tax paid by the company. 

The result is that you add about 30% to the value of the dividend in your hands.  6% becomes 8% (rounding off.)  While you need to be careful about allowing tax considerations to dictate how you do business, you need to bear this treatment of dividend income of super funds firmly in mind.  This is no mere wheeze.  This law is fundamental to the way that this nation has legislated for its future.  It does for example bear on the attraction of foreign equity.  European and American companies traditionally return much lower dividends than Australian companies – and you do not get the benefit of these tax credits.

As I follow it, and the thread is not easy to pick up, the relief from double taxation in the first place was limited to a credit on tax otherwise payable by the person receiving the dividend (provided, of course, that the dividends were issued ‘fully franked’).  Then a government of a different colour (that of Howard/Costello) changed the law, in the year 2000, to allow for cash credits to be paid to super funds that had no income tax to pay.

There is now a proposal by the other party – the one that introduced the reform – to take the law back to that made by made by the Hawke/Keating government and to stop allowing the payment of cash credits.  The Howard/Costello changes have been broadly criticised, if not condemned, as a profligate buying of votes in the form of what is called middle class welfare during boom times, and that it is time the government stopped paying perks that we no longer afford.  I can follow all that, but the proposal, as it seems to me, is open to the following observations.

First, if the object is to save revenue, which the government can then redistribute, then the people taking the hit will be those earning less rather than those earning more.  This is because the whole point of the change is to stop paying cash refunds to those who earn less than the fundholders who can apply refund credits to income they otherwise earn.  If that is right, it is an unusual exercise in redistribution to commence by putting a burden on those who receive less than those who are better off.  I refer to what Alan Kohler said in The Weekend Australian.

But the problem is that conceptually, there is no difference between cash not paid and cash received, to the party at either end; franking credit cash refunds are not a loophole but an equalisation, between those who pay 30 per cent tax or more and those who happen to pay less, mainly because they earn less.  Drawing a line between the elimination of tax that would otherwise be paid but is not because 30 per cent tax has already been paid on that money, and rebating it as cash refund is arbitrary, illogical and discriminatory.

In the same paper, Terry McCrann said:

In terms of the structure and integrity of imputation, it is irrelevant of whether the credit is less than or exceeds any other net tax payable by the shareholder.  More simply, the company has paid ‘too much’ tax on behalf of those shareholders with marginal rates of less than 30 per cent.  The refund is effectively exactly the same as normal refunds of too much personal tax paid by a taxpayer.

Is the answer to those objections that if the person receiving the dividend does not have to pay tax on it, then the issue of double taxation does not arise for that taxpayer on that dividend – and the cash refund has been paid to deal with an anomaly or inequity which in truth does not exist?  The revenue is boxing at a shadow.  The Latin phrase is cadit quaestio (the issue does not arise, or is dead)To go back to my starting sample, if I do not pay tax on the dividend I receive from the shoe shine company, there is no double tax for me to be relieved of.  That is why this proposal hits lower earners.

This is how Judith Sloan seeks to explain the argument for the Howard/Costello change to the law in The Australian.

If an individual earns more than $180,000 a year, the marginal income tax is 47 per cent, including the Medicare levy.

When that individual receives dividends from a company issuing fully franked dividends, the tax on the dividends is 17 per cent – 47 per cent minus the 30 per cent already paid.

When an individual earns less than $18,200 and pays no tax, then the individual receives a cash refund of 30 per cent.  This is only fair.  Without cash refunds, the effect on very low income earners would be a tax on 30 per cent of dividends.

I cannot follow that.  All income received as dividends is subject to 30 per cent tax.  If the dividend is not taxable in the hands of a taxpayer because he or she earns so little, that taxpayer needs no protection from double taxation.  The payment has only borne tax once.

My problem may be with the link to imputation.  I am familiar with the notion of a ‘progressive tax’, but to frame a law predicated on the need to look after those who are not so well off looks to me to come dangerously close to what some call ‘identity politics.’  A state-acquired El Dorado is not something we associate with The Australian.  It could lead to heart attacks at the IPA, and a call-out of the Minutemen at the Tea Party.  Just think of it – in the name of ‘equity’ or ‘fairness’, the government gives away money to those investors who have made less profit than others.  This would have brought tears to the eyes of the late Californian oligarch Chief Justice Rose Bird or a Russian oligarch wolfing down his black caviar in Siberian exile.  Nor should we forget that the word ‘imputation’ is itself pregnant with fiction – it is as intellectually respectable as ‘deemed’ – or ‘derivative.’

[To be continued.]

Passing Bull 140 – Bull about reform

 

The word ‘reform’ is loaded, and not just in the political context.  The Oxford English Dictionary says ‘To amend or improve (an arrangement, state of things, institution, etc.) by removal of faults or abuses.’  The word ‘amend’ has to be read with ‘by removal of faults or abuses’, and the ‘removal of faults’ must be read to include ‘rectifying omissions.’

So, there are two things involved – change, and improvement.  There is rarely doubt about the fact of change, but there is often argument about whether the change is for the better.  One of the most significant legislative reforms came in England with the passing of the Reform Act, 1832.  We now know that this reform paved the way for democracy, which was unthinkable then, and we believe that if the opposition to it had prevailed, there may well have been a revolution.

There is I think a general agreement now that changes to the law introduced by the Hawke and Keating governments relating to taxation, currency, and superannuation effected real improvements, and were therefore real reforms.  But it is not easy to think of many other reforms in our recent history.

We have just seen another example.  The federal opposition just announced a proposal to change part of the law dealing with double taxation of dividends in the hands of shareholders.  The relevant law formed part of the reforms of Mr Keating.  The proposed changes just announced can obviously be rationally defended as being required to make the law work better.  That would mean that the change would amount to a reform – and Mr Keating was reported to have said that it was.  But you could just count the minutes before a political hack used the term ‘tax grab’, usually with the epithet ‘brutal’, and wheel out a worthy couple of retirees who have structured their life savings on the faith that government will not then change the rules to make them worse off – the phrase is ‘shift the goalposts.’  For these people the proposed change is for the worse, and not for the better.  It is anything but a reform.  And they have a point.  They have invested in good faith relying on representations from both parties that government will respect their investments and leave them alone.  Taking away an ‘entitlement’ is far more threatening than offering a chance of another.

We see this problem all the time.  One example is tuition fees for university students.  These fees were put up as reforms – but not for the student being saddled with $100,000 debt – for fees imposed by politicians most of whose graduate members had not had to pay a cracker.

The Reformation at least began about reform.  In his History of the Reformation in Germany, Leopold von Ranke said:

No man, to whatever confession he may belong, can deny, what was admitted even by the most zealous Catholics of that day; viz. that the Latin church stood in need of reform.  Its thorough worldliness, and the ever-increasing rigidity and unintelligible formalism of its dogma and observances, rendered this necessary in a religious view; while the interference of the papal court, which was not only oppressive in a pecuniary sense, by consuming all the surplus revenue, but destructive of the unity and independence of the nation, made it not less essential to the national interest.

But while reform was essential, a schism, or split, was not.  Ranke said:

Public order rests on two foundations – first, the stability of the governing body; secondly, the consent and accordance of public opinion with the established government…..But when the constituted powers doubt, vacillate and conflict with one another, whilst at the same moment, opinions essentially hostile to the existing order of things become predominant, then, indeed, is the peril imminent.

That proposition is pregnant for our time, and we will come back to it.  But what happens when the reform movement hits full swing?

…..it is not in human nature to rest content with a moderate success; it is vain to expect reason from a conquering multitude….for the most part they were goaded by long-cherished hatred and lust for revenge, which now found vent.

We see that all the time. Some see a bit of it now in the #MeToo movement.  The Germans’ political dam threatened to burst.

It was now taught that as all were children of one father, and all equally redeemed by the blood of Christ, there should be no longer inequality of wealth or station.

Well, that was at least three centuries ahead of its time (although we may be due for another explosion about inequality.)  That was the way of the Peasants’ War, and a dint in the democratic glow of Martin Luther.

There were also consequences that were not foreseen.

By rejecting celibacy, they [the clergy] secured a new influence over the mind of the nation.  The body of married clergy became a nursery for the learned professions and civil offices; the centre of a cultivated middle class…..In the year 1750, Justus Möser reckoned that from ten to fifteen millions of human beings in all countries and regions of the globe owed their existence to Luther, and to his example, and adds, ‘A statue ought to be erected to him as the preserver of the species.’

That’s a diverting proposition, but if Ranke is right about ‘the centre of a cultivated middle class’ in Reformation areas – such as Germany, Holland and England – that may go some way to explain the difference in political maturity between the nations of northern Europe and southern Europe.

But to return to what Ranke said about the breakdown of public order, it finds a curious echo in in the Bagehot column of last week’s Economist.

The biggest threat to British institutions, however, comes from a growing sense that democracy has let people down.  Stephen Holmes of New York university points out that liberal democracy is ‘a time-tested system for managing political disappointment’ – once you’ve lost patience with the existing elite you can vote them out.  But disappointment is surging, at a time when democracy’s ability to manage disappointment is declining…..The proportion of Britons who support a ‘strongman leader’ has increased from 25% in 1999 to 50%.  The under-25s are much more critical than people of the same age were two decades ago.  It is too early to head for the exits….But anyone who doesn’t know where the exits are is a fool.

If you believe that a decent ‘strongman leader’ is a contradiction in terms – and we are daily given countless repellent examples – then this trend is very scary.  We may in truth need major reform.