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Chris Bertram

Cormac McCarthy used to live in El Paso, just over the border from Cuidad Juarez, Mexico. I kept thinking about this as I read Oscar Martinez’s book The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail (Verso) because the parallels between Martinez’s non-fiction work and McCarthy’s novel The Road were sometimes striking and horrifying. Martinez is a journalist from El Salvador who has taken the courageous step of following the migrant trail that Central Americans would-be migrants to the US take through Mexico. “The Beast” of the (English) title is a reference to the trains that so many of them cling to through days and nights. Each chapter tells a different aspect of the story, from what makes people flee their homes in El Salavador, Guatemala or Honduras to the risky business of how to swim the Rio Grande at the end. Each chapter is different, yet each has the same essential theme: poor and desperate people who are the prey of criminal organizations in Mexico – the drug cartels – with police, the “polleros” and “coyotes” (migrant guides) and others being induced by a mixture of greed and fear (mainly the latter) to act as agents for the cartels (such as the Zetas) or at least to pay the tax they demand.

If you are a woman who undertakes the journey, you will almost certainly be raped, perhaps many times. Maybe this will happen when your are misdirected into an ambush in La Arrocera (near the beginning of the trail), perhaps it will happen on the train, perhaps it will happen when you are kidnapped and held on a ranch with hundreds of others whilst your relatives wire a ransom to the gangs, perhaps near the US border where a “bra tree” displays the underwear of victims as the rapists’ trophies. The stories of mass kidnapping and the warehousing of migrants by the gangs, with torture a regular part of the plan and summary death (in front of the others) for escapees are chilling.
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Screw the taxpayer

by Chris Bertram on November 5, 2013

The term “the taxpayer” is playing an increasing role in British public debate, often introduced, seemingly, as an apparently neutral synonym for “the public” whilst really being no such thing. The term is endlessly repeated by BBC interviewers asking “tough questions” of politicians and civil servants and it seems as if none of them either notices or is willing to question the ideological assumptions and tacit theory of legitimacy that lie behind the term.

Point 1. In a state that at least markets itself as a democracy, the principle ought to be that the state is answerable to the electorate. Pretty much everyone in the electorate pays taxes (VAT at least) but the key idea is not that the state is answerable to them because they pay for it, but rather because it is a non-voluntary entity that claims authority over them and subjects them to its laws. Whether they are “net contributors” to the public purse is neither here nor there. People who pay in more than they receive – such as the mythical “taxpayer” – have no special claim to extra influence.

Point 2. The “taxpayer” idea is being used in very harmful ways to deprive many ordinary people of their basic human rights, including the right to marry and form a family with a partner of their choice. (In the UK, the government asked an advisory committee to calculate the income levels at which families of various sizes would not be net beneficiaries of the tax-and-transfer regime in order to rule that people who failed to meet that income threshold would not have the right to have their foreign spouse live with them in the country.)

Point 3. The “taxpayer” idea claims that only those who pay more in taxes than they receive in benefits make “a contribution”. But that’s nonsense. Many poorly paid people make a contribution through work that they ought to be paid more for. The fact that they are underpaid and exploited shouldn’t be held against the many many people who, for example, keep our public and health services running. Many people who are not “economically active” make a contribution to society as parents, carers or in many other ways. And those unable to make a contribution because of age or disability: they have the same right to a say as anybody else.

The “taxpayer” trope is a pernicious ideological assault on the very idea of equal citizenship. It is elitist and exclusionary and promulgates a false theory of the state according to which government belongs to the propertied. No it doesn’t: it belongs to its citizens, rich and poor, old and young.

Lighter Than My Shadow

by Chris Bertram on October 6, 2013

Last Thursday I went to the launch party for Katie Green’s Lighter Than My Shadow (just published by Jonathan Cape) a graphic memoir in which she tells the story of her descent into and recovery from anorexia (and quite a bit besides). It is a big book, 524 pages in all, which somewhat belies its title, yet I read the whole thing in one sitting. I know I’m not alone in having done this: once you start, it is very hard to stop. It is compelling but a hard book to read: I felt the tears welling up several times. It is also a great book. The graphic format works perfectly for the story and Katie – a terrific illustrator – has managed to convey very vividly some little part of what it felt like from the inside. The black cloud of despair, the screaming monsters in the head, the desperate urge to control, control, control and the sense of alienation from those closest to her, the pain she knows she’s inflicting on them but can’t help doing so.

When she spoke at the book launch Katie said that she hadn’t written the book to help anyone. Nevertheless, I’m sure it will help one very large group of people, the people who can’t imagine what it is like for someone in her position, who can’t understand the sense of compulsion, and why the sick person can’t just “pull themselves together”. In giving voice to this inside, Katie has pulled off something comparable to what William Styron did for depression in Darkness Visible. That’s a pretty high standard of comparison, I know, and I’m feeling swayed by the immediate experience of just having read Lighter Than My Shadow, but I don’t think it an unfitting one.

I should disclose a slight interest. I know Katie slightly (she’s a friend of one of my children) and a photo I took is on the cover flap. So I’m not entirely impartial. Still, I think this is, objectively, a very great achievement. And I don’t mean to relativise in a way that suggests that it is great for someone who has gone through her experience to have produced something this good. I mean that it would be great for anyone to have created this, even though her experience is a condition of having done so. Anyway, people out there, this is a book that most of you ought to read. You can get it at Amazon of course, but better to buy from somewhere else. (The Guardian had a feature on the book last week.)

With a bottle of wine, and some pills on the shelf

by Chris Bertram on September 19, 2013

Today is the fortieth anniversary of Gram Parsons’s death in Joshua Tree, CA, a death famously followed by two funerals, after the coffin containing his body was stolen from LAX by his road manager so that he could be cremated in the desert (as previously agreed, apparently). Relatives got the partially incinerated body back, and completed the job (as it were) in Florida. There’s even a rather uneven film about it: Grand Theft Parsons.

When Parsons died, he’d never had a hit record. He was a too-rich young man from the South, who loved country music, fancied being a rock star, and who threw much of his talent away with the drugs and booze he could readily afford. Not much to admire, you might think.

Parsons’s fame rests on five albums: the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo, the Flying Burrito Brothers’ Gilded Palace of Sin and Burrito Deluxe, then the solo GP and Grievous Angel (the latter two cut with the top session musicians his money could afford). All of them contain a mix of his own songs and covers of classic country and sometimes soul. His own compositions, written in the country-rock idiom he helped invent, are suggestive, even enigmatic, vignettes of American life, love, faith, betrayal and death. “$1000 Dollar Wedding”, perhaps my personal favourite (though I change my mind all the time) tells a story of death and tragedy, a wedding transformed into a funeral, but what, exactly, has happened? We have to invent a lot of that for ourselves. “Sin City”, recorded with the Burritos, also tells a story of something. What? Evangelism? Conflict between money and faith? “The scientists say, it will all wash away, but we don’t believe any more ….” And other songs depict childhood, nostalgia and loss: “Hickory Wind” (recorded with the Byrds and re-recorded on Grievous Angel), “Brass Buttons”, in which he remembers his mother. None of them have dated.
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Forty years after Pinochet’s coup

by Chris Bertram on September 11, 2013

My department just moved into a new building, and, being in a new building, acquired a new set of cleaners. I got chatting to one of them the other day and asked her where she was from. “Chile,” she told me. She had come to the UK some time after the coup, when other family members had been imprisoned and life had become impossible. She had been given refugee status and had raised a family here. She had been back once, but Chile had become a foreign country to her, all her life was now in the UK where her children had grown up. Often, such is the fate of the refugee, permanently exiled, a whole life, with its plans, expectations and connections, very different from how it might have been. In the late 1970s and early 80s I was involved in Latin American solidarity work in Oxford and got to know quite a few Chileans. Many seemed to be happy and friendly people but others were scarred by the experiences they had been through before exile, and it showed. People fleeing conflict, persecution and the threat of torture or death are very vulnerable and often fragile. At least British governments of the 1970s and 80s recognised and put into practice their obligations towards such people. Things are different now.

Today is the fortieth anniversary of that other, bloodier, September 11th when General Augusto Pinochet seized power in Chile and overthrew a democratically-elected left-wing government, with thousands killed, “disappeared”, tortured or imprisoned. The Chilean coup hung over the leftists of my generation as a warning of what can and might happen, should capital ever be seriously worried about its entitlements and prerogatives. Such an atmosphere spawned novels such as Chris Mullin’s A Very British Coup, an imaginative recreation of what a British Chile could be like. We know that in the recesses of MI5 and the Tory right there were murmurings and proto-plans. Plans for eventualities in which the country proved “ungovernable”, where the far left become too strong, or where the miners “brought down” another government. (Of course, it was the electors who actually deposed Edward Heath.) We knew too of the likely hand-wringing reaction of supposedly democratic liberals and conservatives, should such an intervention prove “necessary” closer to home. That thought was present in Ralph Miliband’s well-known “The Coup in Chile”:
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Democratic values? A nice idea ….

by Chris Bertram on August 28, 2013

In an op-ed with the Orwellian title “This is a moment for democratic nations to live up to their values”, British Foreign Secretary William Hague makes the case for intervention in Syria. I just want to focus on one sentence of his article:

According to the UN, the Syrian conflict is already the worst refugee crisis since the Rwandan genocide, creating nearly two million refugees and killing more than 100,000 people so far.

Last year, Hague’s colleague, Home Secretary Theresa May put in place measures to make it as hard as possible for Syrian refugees to reach sanctuary in the UK. Subsequently, Syrians who have travelled to the UK and sought asylum have been prosecuted for travelling on false papers and imprisoned, despite the Court of Appeal having ruled that this should not happen. Meanwhile, much poorer countries, such as Jordan, have been coping with a volume of refugees much greater that wealthy countries like the UK have ever had to. The complaints of western politicians that they are motivated by humanitarian concern as they ratchet up the rhetoric for bombing should be listened to in the light of their shameful efforts to evade their humanitarian obligations in the conflict so far.

Fingerprinting migrants in France: the back story

by Chris Bertram on August 8, 2013

The big item on this morning’s UK news (Guardian, BBC) is a report by the Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, John Vine, that is highly critical of the UK Border Force. Large sections of the report have been redacted, leading opposition politicians, such as Labour’s Chris Bryant, to accuse Home Secretary Theresa May and Immigration Minister Mark Harper of a “cover up”. What struck me about the report, though, was the basic failure in reporting by the news media, such that the ordinary reader or listener would really not understand the back story.

From the BBC report:


But inspectors found UK officials at Calais had stopped taking photographs and fingerprints of illegal immigrants in 2010 because of problems with the availability of cells to hold people in. This was also later stopped at Coquelles. Mr Vine said: “Gathering biometric information such as fingerprints could assist the decision-making process if these individuals were ultimately successful in reaching the UK and went on to claim asylum.”

The reporting follows the UK Home Office in stigmatizing people as “illegal” in advance of any judicial process, but it also fails to explain the background in the Dublin Regulation that states that people can only claim asylum in the first EU country they enter. This means that states in northern Europe, such as the UK, can disclaim responsibility for people fleeing persecution, just so long as they can show that the asylum seekers were previously present in another member state. This adds to armoury of extra-territorial checks (fines on carriers etc) that make it impossible for asylum seekers to reach the UK legally. Since most asylum seekers enter the EU through southern Europe (many dying in leaky boats in the Mediterranean), the Dublin Regulation effectively assigns responsibility to those states least able to cope (partly because of the Eurozone crisis) and where racism, xenophobia and violence towards foreigners is most marked. (There are regular horror stories about the suffering of asylum seekers in Greece.) A progressive policy would both recognize our humanitarian obligations towards refugees and put in place a mechanism for sharing that responsibility fairly across all EU member states. Unfortunately, rather than campaigning for such a policy, politicians of the “left” in northern Europe, like Bryant, use episodes like this to make a noise about “controlling our borders”.

Migration and the least advantaged

by Chris Bertram on August 5, 2013

One reason to favour a more open and liberal migration regime is because of the gains in economic efficiency and prosperity it would bring, because of the benefits brought by younger and more active workers who pay more in taxes than they take in benefits, and so on. But when people voice this argument, there’s one response that is almost instantly trotted out. This is to say that, even if it true that a more open regime is better in the aggregate, it isn’t better for the least advantaged among the indigenous population because labour market competition from the incomers depresses wages and often leaves low-skilled native workers out of a job. Now conceding, if strictly for the sake of argument, that there might be other reasons to restrict immigration (cultural impacts on the native poor, whatever …) and focusing on the economic argument alone, I can’t see that this objection makes much sense. If there’s something that is good in the aggregate, but has bad distributive consequences, the solution is surely to use the tax-and-transfer system to fix those distributive outcomes. You could either do this directly (maybe, for example, taxing the surplus to fund a citizen’s or basic income) or indirectly, by funding better education or training. But it doesn’t seem to make much sense for forego the aggregate benefit.

Now an objection to this might be that, given a lack of confidence that political leaders will actually introduce such redistributive measures (rather than, say, letting aggregate gains flow to the one per cent), it is rational for indigenous workers and their political representatives to lobby for tighter labour protectionism via immigration controls. But given the obvious downsides to that second-best strategy, particularly in its divisiveness and its fostering of xenophobia and racism, it seems clear that the left should prefer to take the aggregate benefits and redistribute them. Certainly it seems as if the left should be making such an argument rather than just pandering to “anxieties” among their traditional constituencies as the likes of “Blue Labour” tend to do.

Two questions occur to me. First, am I right about the “in principle” economics of this? Second, are there respectable political counterarguments, even if I am right about the economics?

[Note that this post is not about the right of the state to restrict migration, a matter on which I’m far more sceptical than most people. It concedes that right for the sake of argument and focuses on what the best policy should be.]

Migration woes in the UK

by Chris Bertram on August 2, 2013

At a time when the debate on immigration in the US seems to be going in a more liberal direction, things in the UK have become far far worse. One manifestation of this was a co-ordinated series of over 200 raids yesterday by the UK Home Office, which detained more than 100 people suspected of immigration and visa offences. Many of the raids took place in and around tube and rail stations in areas of London with high non-white populations and, according to eyewitnesses, involved the selection and harassment for “papers! papers!” of people who – at least in the view of the enforcement heavies – looked foreign. This is certainly an abuse of power by the Home Office: expect claims for compensation from racially-profiled British people and other legal challenges shortly. Needless to say, random harassment of non-white people also threatens a serious deterioration in race relations in some parts of London. The raids come immediately after a campaign involving a large truck driven around those same areas of London with the the offensive suggestion that people of irregular status should “go home”. Though this campaign is pitched as enforcement against people who don’t have the right to be in the UK, very very many of those with irregular status are in limbo not through any fault of their own, but because the Home Office (and formerly the UK Border Agency) has failed to process applications in a timely manner, has lost vital personal documents and so on.
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Truckin’: ten years of Crooked Timber

by Chris Bertram on July 8, 2013

Today, July 8th, is the tenth anniversary of Crooked Timber. I don’t suppose that when we started, any of us expected it to last this long, but it has, retaining its distinctive character through many changes of personnel. By way of marking the occasion, I thought I’d set down how the blog came into being, and a little bit about its prehistory.

Some time early in 2003, I decided that I couldn’t keep going with my solo blog, Junius. My colleague Keith Graham had unexpectedly taken early retirement and the finger was pointing at me to head the philosophy department at Bristol. But I didn’t want to quit blogging: I’d made a bunch of friends online and I was enjoying arguing with people about ideas. Still, I knew I couldn’t keep Junius going if it meant updating a blog several times a week. So the idea struck me that I should invite some of the people I’d most liked interacting with to form a group blog. To them I added a few other friends whom I wanted to read online but who hadn’t yet taken the plunge.
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Annals of anti-egalitarian hyperbole

by Chris Bertram on June 16, 2013

Remember when Robert Nozick wrote in Anarchy State and Utopia that income taxation is akin to forced labour? Well it turns out that that is far far worse than that. Taxing the 1 per cent would be like the state forcibly ripping out their spare internal organs! At least that’s what Gregory Mankiw thinks. His paper, forthcoming in the Journal of Economic Perspectives also includes a thinly-disguised rehash of the Wilt Chamberlain parable, but no proper acknowledgement to Nozick (suprising that the referees or editors at JEP didn’t make this point).

Iraq 2003, looking back

by Chris Bertram on June 15, 2013

British Tory MP and former diplomat Rory Stewart starts speaking at about 1h 30 minutes. Definitely worth a listen, particularly as we hear the usual suspects crank up enthusiasm for war again.






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And (thanks to Chris Brooke) for those who would prefer just to read, the Hansard transcript.

Insubordination and the surveillance state

by Chris Bertram on June 13, 2013

Responding to concern about PRISM and the issue of whether intelligence collaboration with the US enabled British agencies to circumvent legal restrictions, Foreign Secretary William Hague told us that “law-abiding citizens” have nothing to fear. Not only do I not wish to be the kind of person Hague thinks of as “law abiding”, more generally it is social movements that willfully break the law that are most likely to bring about change and to threaten established power and privilege. And it is just such movements, and their leaders, who are at risk from pervasive state surveillance of our communications.
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Unoriginal impressions of Brasilia

by Chris Bertram on June 2, 2013

I’m in Brasilia for two nights, which is a little bit unexpected. I’ve travelled here for a Rousseau Colloquium in nearby Pirenopolis but it turns out I’m not going there until tomorrow, hence this opportunity to explore Brazil’s capital city.

I say, “opportunity”, but that is a bit misleading since the pedestrian here has to find the few footpaths that have been grudgingly placed along six-lane highways and then, when necessary, seize the chance to run across said highways in order to get from A to B.

As a new city, built on the red highland earth in the 1950s, Brasilia incorporates all the best town-planning theory of that era. It is rigidly divided into different zones or sectors, each dedicated to a particular function or activity. Commerce and government have their designated zones, and so do hotels. Apparently, nobody had the idea that the people staying in hotels might want to see anything other than more hotels …

Having said that, there is something magnificent about the fading modernism of the place, particularly the Congress Building and the Praca dos Tres Poderes. Oscar Niemeyer had a good eye for form and structure; pity the poor humans. On a bus tour this afternoon we whizzed past some government building, all clean and pure, but it seemed to be guarded by people dressed in something like Swiss Guards’ uniform: two different notions of how to project the state’s majesty, incongruously juxtaposed. But the strongest clash with the modernist ideal comes from nature, from the cracked concrete, the uneven surfaces, the red earth and plant life pushing through. A city of two million people where nobody lived before; a triumph of bureaucratic will, but for how long?

When I made some remarks along these lines on Facebook, Michael Rosen directed me to a clip from Robert Hughes’s The Shock of the New. As he puts it, “miles of jerry-built Platonic nowhere infested with Volkswagens.” Needless to say the film is followed by angry comments saying that Hughes doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Well 48 hours in a place hardly gives me the right to an opinion either, and, as a fan of James C. Scott’s critique of high modernism, I’m already ideologically predisposed. But Hughes seems broadly correct to me. Enjoy

My reflections on Britain since the Seventies the other day partly depended on a narrative about social mobility that has become part of the political culture, repeated by the likes of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown and recycled by journalists and commentators. In brief: it is the conventional wisdom. That story is basically that Britain enjoyed a lot of social mobility between the Second World War and the 1970s, but that this has closed down since. It is an orthodoxy that can, and has, been put in the service of both left and right. The left can claim that neoliberalism results in a less fluid society than the postwar welfare state did; the right can go on about how the left, by abolishing the grammar schools, have locked the talented poor out of the elite. And New Labour, with its mantra of education, education, education, argued that more spending on schools and wider access to higher education could unfreeze the barriers to mobility. (Senior university administrators, hungry for funds, have also been keen to promote the notion that higher education is a social solvent.) [click to continue...]