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Chris Bertram

A Paris memoir from 1978

by Chris Bertram on May 25, 2015

One thing about the interwebs is that you sometimes get to find out about someone you’ve been disconnected from for years. It happened to me yesterday, when I discovered that the guy who had been my “handler” in Lutte Ouvière had died in 2011 aged 62, following a stroke. I’d noticed that some prominent French administrator had the same name and googled to see if it was the same guy. It wasn’t, but up came the obituary of Denis Robin, comrade Cerdon, and with it a whole bunch of memories of the nineteen-year-old me from 1978.

Back then I had finished school, having taken the Oxbridge entrance exams before Christmas. I therefore had about nine months on my hands and wanted to spend it in Paris, where I had friends (and still do) through a language exchange with a family there. I landed a job as a courier with an agency called the Banque Centrale de Compensation which recorded transactions on the Paris commodity exchange, the Bourse de Commerce. This meant that I spent my days running from our office to the Bourse and to the HQs of the various coffee, cocoa, soya and sugar companies.

I’d long been interested in the French left and had even done a school project on May 1968, sucking up lots of information on the various groupuscules. This was, I think it fair to say, alternately irritating and amusing to my French friends who were stalwarts of the Socialists, then in electoral alliance with the barely post-Stalinist Parti Communiste. After one dinner-table debate they expressed scepticism about whether my money would ever follow my mouth, and I took this as something of a challenge. The following day, when I was making a delivery to the main offices of the Crédit Lyonnais, I encountered a bunch of militants selling Lutte Ouvrière, a Trotskyist weekly newpaper and engaged them in conversation. One of the people there was comrade Cerdon, and I agreed to meet him on the evening of Mayday for a conversation, ideally having joined up with their contingent on the big demonstration. I never found LO demonstrators that day and ended up marching with UNEF, the Communist student union. But we did meet in a café in the Place de la République that evening and began one of a series of long conversations about politics and related matters, the purpose of which was to recruit me to the organization. [click to continue…]

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Sunday photoblogging: Florence scooters

by Chris Bertram on May 24, 2015

Florence scooters

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Sunday photoblogging: Pantheon

by Chris Bertram on May 17, 2015

Possibly the greatest building in the history of the world ….

Rome: The Pantheon

Britain’s new government

by Chris Bertram on May 13, 2015

Within less than a week of coming to power, the new British government has made financial threats or legislative proposals with the following effects:

In a rather chilling turn of phrase, the Prime Minister tells us (by way of explanation):

“For too long, we have been a passively tolerant society, saying to our citizens: as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone.”

By my rough estimate, the party making these proposals has the positive support of around 22% of the adults subject to coercive state power who are resident on the territory. This was the party that used to go on about the perils of “elective dictatorship”. So it goes.

Sunday photoblogging: Hotwells and Cliftonwood

by Chris Bertram on May 10, 2015

Hotwells and Cliftonwood

Sunday photoblogging: Trieste

by Chris Bertram on May 3, 2015

Sunday photoblogging: Puces de Vanves

by Chris Bertram on April 26, 2015

Rolleiflex T, Ilford HP5+

Migrant deaths: who is responsible?

by Chris Bertram on April 21, 2015

Yesterday, in response to a series of tragedies involving migrants drowning in the Mediterranean, the EU issued a ten-point plan with a lot of emphasis on taking action against people smugglers and a range of further measures, such as fingerprinting migrants, that seem irrelevant to events. British Prime Minister David Cameron, whose government last year refused to back search and rescue plans on the grounds that they encouraged people to take risks, is now blaming “the human traffickers and the criminals that are running this trade.” The one group European politicians are not blaming, by and large, is themselves. Yet they, and the electorates they appease, bear most of the responsibility.

The reason for this is simple, and it is obvious. All European states are signatories to the Refugee Convention and that places obligations on them to offer sanctuary to people who arrive on their shores and who have a “well-founded fear” of persecution (on various grounds). Although politicians like to claim that their countries have a proud history of taking in the persecuted — as Cameron claimed in a speech last year — they now do everything in their power to make it as hard as possible for those seeking asylum to arrive on their territory. Devices such as heavy financial penalties on airlines and other carriers and ever tighter visa restrictions mean that people fleeing countries such as Syria and Eritrea simply cannot arrive in Europe by safe routes, and if they do so by using false documents they are often prosecuted and imprisoned. People from these countries make up a significant proportion of those trying to cross from Libya to Italy. Because people cannot travel via safe routes, they travel via dangerous ones, just as they do in other parts of the world. They put themselves in the hands of people smugglers and they take the risk of crossing the Mediterranean in flimsy boats. But the people smugglers, though no doubt unscrupulous criminals on the whole, are simply responding to a demand that European politicians and their electorates have created.

There is more. Whilst politicians from all of Europe are culpable, many those in northern Europe are particularly so. They have put in place a system in the EU that means that those people who do arrive and claim asylum must do so in the country they first enter. It is very hard to enter the UK, and most of those arriving turn up in countries such as Italy, Greece, Malta and Spain, southern European countries hardest hit by the economic crisis. Countries such as the UK can disclaim responsibility and have no incentive to agree to a fair system of burden sharing.

Fingers pointed at people-smugglers and “traffickers” are pointed in the wrong direction. Europeans need only look in the mirror to see those responsible.

Sunday photoblogging: sculls in the Floating Harbour

by Chris Bertram on April 19, 2015

Sunday photoblogging: rent protest!

by Chris Bertram on April 12, 2015

Yesterday morning there was a protest near my house in Bristol against a letting agent who has been pushing for rent increases, the story made the national press. Here’s my photo:

National-weighted consequentialism?

by Chris Bertram on April 10, 2015

I’ve been looking again at a two-year-old discussion on immigration policy between Jonathan Portes and Martin Wolf, and particularly on Wolf’s take on the reasons that ought to inform policy. As far as I can tell, Wolf’s position is a kind of national-weighted consequentialism. Immigration policy is to be viewed as an aspect of economic policy, and the relevant considerations are simply whether a policy is beneficial to existing members of society, with no weight to be given to the interests of immigrants. Portes raises the interesting objection that, once we factor time into our national felicific calculus, then the well-being of future members who have yet to be naturalized ought to count, but this is a mere wrinkle in the argument. Wolf’s view is that

countries are like clubs. They can decide who members are. Once you are a member, you matter to the club. If you are not a member, you don’t.

I hope that Wolf doesn’t mean what he says. The disanology between clubs and countries is pretty stark, since countries are compulsory associations which most people don’t have a choice about, whereas clubs are not. Moreover, most people think that countries do not have an unlimited discretion to decide on who their members are, that Nazi laws to remove citizenship from Jews were unjust, that policies that are blatantly discriminatory on racial or gender lines have no moral standing, whatever the insider electors think. We also, I hope, think that laws that condemn generations of minority permanent residents to non-membership — until recently a feature of German citizenship law — are unjust. So at best Wolf must mean that countries have a discretion to admit as members outsiders with no other moral claim to admission or membership.

The interesting question, then, when we have got the discretionary membership issue out of the way is what could justify national-weighted consequentialism? Whilst there might be all kinds of deontological reasons for states to favour insiders over outsiders (the global justice literature is about little else), in my experience, economists don’t think in those terms. Rather, they think of themselves as being consequentialists all the way down, and of rights, powers, permissions etc as being ultimately justified by outcomes. If I’m right that this is the picture, then the claim would have to be that a global system of nationally-weighted consequentialisms, perhaps by assigning the promotion of individual interests to particular states, gives rise to the best consequences overall. That’s an empirical claim, but one that is very very unlikely to be true since it locks so many people away from opportunities they would otherwise have to be productive and makes the world a poorer place as a result. So I’m still puzzled. What do economists think justifies national-weighted consequentialism?

Sunday photoblogging: Enna, Sicily

by Chris Bertram on April 5, 2015

Sunday photoblogging: Bristol, the bendy bridge

by Chris Bertram on March 29, 2015

Sunday photoblogging: Adriatic

by Chris Bertram on March 22, 2015

Sunday photoblogging:

by Chris Bertram on March 15, 2015

In the old Blind School on Hardman Street, Liverpool, subsequently trade union offices and the home of the Picket (a music venue), there’s a cupola with a mural celebrating the workers’ movement. Sadly, the damp is getting to it. The mural was painted by artist Mick Jones, son of Jack Jones the trade union leader. Arthur Scargill leads Karl Marx and there is much other detail of interest. The owner of the nearby Hope Street Hotel owns the building now and has plans for to turn it into a gastropub, so let’s hope it gets restored rather than destroyed. (There are move shots of the mural in the adjacent sections of my Flickr stream.)