From the monthly archives:

August 2022

Mother Country Radicals

by Harry on August 30, 2022

I just finished listening to Mother Country Radicals, the podcast series about the Weather Underground made by Zayd Ayers Dohrn, son of Bernadine Dohrn and Bill Ayers. It brilliantly made, and well worth listening to: the (living) protagonists are given considerable space to give their account of events, and even if you know quite a lot about the period and the events you’ll probably learn some things you didn’t know.

It must be weird making a documentary in which one’s own parents are the main characters. It’s clear that Ayers and Dohrn have been loving and good parents to their children, and that Ayers Dohrn loves them unconditionally: but that must make it even stranger given the distasteful nature of some of what they did, and the pretty awful character of some of what they say. It was very hard for me to figure out whether Ayres Dohrn was giving them enough rope, or whether he just wasn’t, himself, appalled by some of what they were saying. In the unlikely event that my parents had said some of those things I would have been tempted to leave them out. Maybe I don’t have what it takes to make a documentary; I for sure don’t have what it would take to make a documentary about my parents if I loved them and they had been terrorists.

Were Ayres and Dorn terrorists? Ayers Dorhn does put the question to his father. And his father dismisses the label with a redefinition of terrorism on which most terrorist activity is carried out by states. I haven’t bothered to get the exact quote, but it was almost exactly what he says in his own memoir “Terrorists terrorize…they kill innocent civilians, while we organized and agitated. Terrorists destroy randomly, while our actions bore, we hoped, the precise stamp of a cut diamond. Terrorists intimidate, while we aimed only to educate.”

It is true that between the Greenwich Townhouse explosion and the Brinks robbery (by which time Ayers and Dohrn were no longer underground, and in which they had no part) Weather took considerable precautions to ensure that they did not injure or kill actual people, only to damage property. This isn’t said in the documentary but we know for sure that they took considerable precautions because if you set that many bombs, avoiding casualties isn’t random.

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The end of the Bitcoin monster?

by John Q on August 29, 2022

For a few years now, I and others been banging on about the environmental cost of Bitcoin, and similar cryptocurrencies. This cost from the electricity wasted on the pointless calculations used to ‘mine’ Bitcoins, under the ‘proof of work’ protocol used to ensure the validity of entries in the Bitcoin blockchain. The cost is huge, about the same as the energy use of a medium size country.

For almost as long, we’ve been promised an alternative ‘proof of stake’, in which the integrity of the blockchain would be protected by participants putting up some of their cryptocurrency as a ‘stake’ (more details here). But like nuclear fusion, proof of stale always seemed just over the horizon.

Now, it seems, it may be going to happen. Bitcoin’s biggest rival, Ethereum, has been testing a proof-of-stake blockchain for some time, in parallel with its existing proof-of-work chain. On 15 September, it is planned, the two will be merged in an event creatively called The Merge, and future operation will be proof-of-stake.

If this succeeds, the electricity consumption of Ethereum will be reduced by around 99 per cent. That will make it, in the words of Douglas Adams, mostly harmless. That doesn’t change the fact that, like cryptocurrencies in general, Ethereum is also pretty much useless. Its most notable function is as the basis for pricing non-fungible tokens (NFTs), digital certificates asserting ownership of an image (which anyone else can duplicate, but not own). That’s frivolous but no worse than collecting baseball cards or postage stamps (remember them?).

The big payoff from successful proof-of-stake is that it provides a way to kill the Bitcoin monster once and for all. Rather than banning Bitcoin, all that’s necessary is to ban proof-of-work. If Bitcoin made the transition to proof-of-stake, well and good. If not, no problem. Either way, its disastrous drain on world energy would be over.

On gender identity, again

by Miriam Ronzoni on August 29, 2022

I mentioned a few weeks ago my fairly recently exploded passion for a bunch of Youtube video essay makers which used to  be called “Breadtubers” (I have been told in the meantime that the term is already a bit passé). As I wrote then, the quality of some of these essays – from an informative and argumentative point of view – is so high and innovative that I assign a handful of them as “readings” for my Gender, Sex and Politics class. Although (again, as a commentator noticed), my favourite content makers within this loose category of content creators are trans women, not all videos by them which I assign are about issues of gender identity. And yet, two videos by two of them, on what is actually a different topic, made me grasp a couple of important points about gender identity in a much more lived, visceral way than I had been thinking about before (as in: they didn’t change my mind, but they made me see and feel much more intensely something which I already sort of believed, but in a way I could not precisely pin down). I am referring to “Beauty” by Contrapoints creator Natalie Wynn; and “Food, Beauty, Mind,” by Philosophy Tube creator Abigail Thorn. [click to continue…]

Sunday photoblogging: Liverpool, St George’s Hall

by Chris Bertram on August 27, 2022

St George's Hall, Liverpool

Italy’s citizens’ income: on its way out already?

by Miriam Ronzoni on August 24, 2022

The last-but-one Italian Government, led by the 5 star movement’s leader Giuseppe Conte, introduced the reddito di cittadinanza (“citizens’ income”), the first form of universal social welfare scheme that Italy has ever had. In spite of its name, it is not a universal basic income of sorts, but a means-tested guaranteed minimum income which, when relevant/appropriate, is supposed to be conditional on willingness to retrain and accept proposed job offers. This model of welfare provision is, by European standards, nothing new or particularly impressive; yet the Italian welfare state never had a comprehensive system of this kind in place – the status quo before the reddito di cittadinanza was highly piece meal and unequal, with unemployment benefits restricted to certain categories; disability checks very intricately regulated; and no entitlements whatsoever based on sheer need alone.

Now, I am not exactly new to prejudices against welfare recipients, not only by the wealthy, but especially by those who are only ever so slightly better off – I live in the UK. Yet, in a country where the family represents, de facto, the welfare state for many people, and where many families are increasingly incapable of covering that role, I wasn’t prepared for just the level of hatred against the policy which, however anecdotally, I encountered over several conversations this Summer. [click to continue…]

All history is presentism

by John Q on August 23, 2022

Earlier this year, I wrote a piece in defense of presentism, discovering just before I posted, that the same title had been used (also this year) by David Armitage, Professor of History at Harvard.

It was good to know that I wasn’t alone, but as Armitage made clear, “presentism” has been “a term of abuse conventionally deployed to describe an interpretation of history that is biased towards and coloured by present-day concerns, preoccupations and values”. A fairly standard version of the critique was given by Lynn Hunt, then President of the American Historical Association, in 2002 [1]

It seems however, that things are changing fast. A couple of weeks ago, James Sweet, Hunt’s successor as AHA President, wrote a more or less routine denunciation of presentism , which unsurprisingly picked on the 1619 Project as Exhibit A (for balance, the article also criticised the misuse of historical evidence by Justices Thomas and Alito). This produced a hostile response which forced Sweet to attach an apology to his piece.

The negative response to Sweet’s article reflects in part the intensity of the debate around racism in the US and about the 1619 Project in particular. But it also attracted more fundamental critiques, like this one from Kevin Gannon who concludes “all history is presentism”. As Gannon observes,

the very act of selecting a topic, arranging evidence , and presenting one interpretation of all that as more legitimate than the others—this scholarly ritual is absolutely shaped by the concerns of our present. That it even exists is because of “the concerns of the present.”

As I mentioned, exactly this point was made long ago by critics of “value-free economics”. Hopefully, value-free history will soon join value-free economics in the dustbin of intellectual history. At a minimum, we should see the end of the lazy use of “presentism” as a pejorative.

fn1. This orthodoxy is commonly traced back to Herbert Butterfield’s critique of the Whig Interpretation of History, but I’ve seen some suggestions that this is a misreading.

A typology of research questions about society

by Ingrid Robeyns on August 22, 2022

One of the things I really like about my job, is that I have been appointed on a chair with the explicit expectation to advance interdisciplinary collaborations between ethics and political philosophy on the one hand, and the social sciences (broadly defined) on the other. I’ve been co-teaching with historians, taught some courses that were open to students from the entire university, have been giving guest lectures to students in many other programs including economics, pharmacology, education, and geosciences; and I co-supervised a PhD-student in social work. I’ve written an interdisciplinary book on the capability approach, and have co-authored papers with scholars from various disciplines. So interdisciplinarity is deeply engrained in much of what I do professionally.

But while I love it enormously, interdisciplinary teaching and research is also often quite hard. One of the challanges I’ve encountered in practice, is that students as well as professors/researchers are not always able to recognise the many different kind of questions that we can ask about society, its rules, policies, social norms and structures, and other forms of institutions (broadly defined). This then leads to misunderstandings, frustrations, and much time that is lost trying to solve these. I think it would help us if we would better understand the many different types of research that scholars working on all those aspects of society are engaged in. [click to continue…]

Sunday photoblogging: Clifton suspension bridge, Bristol

by Chris Bertram on August 21, 2022

Contre-jour suspension bridge


by Miriam Ronzoni on August 19, 2022

I discovered “Breadtube” relatively recently (I know, pathetic…) and I am completely hooked. Breadtube is a Youtube genre consisting in publishing long, complex video essays of left-leaning content, often aimed at debunking right-wing conspiracies or conservative arguments. The term is used to refer both to the genre itself and to the loose group of content creators in this genre. [click to continue…]

Is there a democratic path to civilizational survival?

by Chris Bertram on August 16, 2022

A few weeks ago, faced with yet another disappointingly cautious announcement from the leadership of Britain’s Labour party, I quipped on twitter that it seemed impossible to get elected in the UK without promising not to do any of the things that are necessary to fix the country and, perhaps, the world. It is indeed hard not to be gripped by pessimism about the capacity of democratic politics to solve the problems we face, especially if solving them imposes any sort of cost or inconvenience on the more prosperous among the electorates of the wealthiest countries on earth. Yet we face a series of interlocking crises, several of which even threaten our survival as a species and perhaps life of earth itself. When I set about enumerating those crises, I have a sneaking fear that I may have forgotten one or two of them, but this looks like a reasonable list:

  1. Climate change and the risk that global temperatures will rise so much that it will be difficult to sustain life anywhere near the equator and so that life in coastal areas will be overwhelmed by sea-level rise.
  2. Nuclear warfare and the risk that an exchange that starts off conventionally escalates quickly to the use of tactical and then strategic nuclear weapons, with nuclear winter a likely consequences. The obvious immediate danger is over Ukraine, but it is quite possible that a confrontation between the US and China could spin out of control quickly. While nuclear weapons look like the most likely military threat to human survival, there are, let us not forget, other weapons of mass destruction, particularly biological agents, that could also kill lots of us.

  3. Pandemics and disease, and risk that a new strain of flu or a new coronavirus ends up killing very large numbers of people very fast, leading to civilizational collapse.

  4. Fascism, and the danger that liberal and democratic institutions are destroyed and that in their place nationalistic oligarchies use increasing violence against one another and against minorities within their borders.

  5. Crises of insufficiency and inequality, as crops fail and many people have insufficient means to meet their basic needs.

(To these we can add that in many countries, after decades of underinvestment in basic infrastructure and health-care systems desperately need public spending that only increased growth and tax revenues can provide.)
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Sunday photoblogging: Genoa washing

by Chris Bertram on August 14, 2022

Genoa: washing

Book note: Sally Hayden, My Fourth Time We Drowned

by Chris Bertram on August 13, 2022

A few years ago at Crooked Timber, I posted a review of Oscar Martinez’s book The Beast, about the migration route to the United States from Central America through Mexico. It was a horrifying catalogue of coercion, physical injuries, murders and rapes and one friend who read it on my recommendation told me he regretted having done so, because it was so disturbing. If anything a more horrible story is told in My Fourth Time We Drowned: Seeking Refuge on the World’s Deadliest Migration Route, by the Irish journalist Sally Hayden. It is a book that exposes the deadly migration route across the Sahara to Libya, the Libyan detention camps run by militias, and then the attempts to cross the Mediterranean that are often foiled by the EU-funded Libyan “coastguard”, that often lead to mass drownings and only sometimes to an arrival in Italy or Malta.

There are many nationalities trying to cross to Europe, but many of them, and a particular focus of Hayden’s narrative, are Eritreans. Eritrea is the most repressive state in Africa and by some measures more repressive than North Korea. The Eritreans who are trying to flee this police state are trying to escape a life of indefinite conscription, often punctuated by violence and by sexual abuse. European states, in an echo of their actions in trying to prevent Jews from fleeing Germany in the 1930s, act so as to make it as difficult for people to escape as possible. In doing so, they empower and enrich both the people smugglers who treat these escapees as exploitable assets and the various militias who run detention camps within Libya.

As they make their way across the desert, where many are abandoned and die, migrants fall into the hands of smugglers to whom they may already have paid a fee. They are held and their relatives receive pictures of them demanding more money for their onward transit, pictures of sons and daughter being tortured that resemble for all the world those pictures of Abu Ghraib. The smugglers who hold them in these coralls, not only torture for money and recreation, they also rape large numbers of the women held there.
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All or nothing

by John Q on August 11, 2022

I was going to do some more work on this post, but it’s being overtaken by events, so here it is

Among the many things to be depressed about at the moment, the impending end of US democracy is near the top of my list. The recent Republican primaries brought that one step closer. It’s now clear that unless they are stopped Republican officials in most states are ready to overturn any election result they do not like.

A necessary though not sufficient condition stop the Republicans is retaining Democratic control of the US Congress at the midterm elections in November with a margin sufficient to end a filibuster in the Senate, and pass voting rights legislation preventing state officials from overturning elections or returning bogus electors in a presidential election.

There are two broad strategies being urged on the Democrats. The first pushed by commentators including David Shor and Ruy Teixera is to win back the ‘white working class’, that is, white voters with low education, particularly in rural areas. Some but not all ‘white working class’ voters are wage workers with low income and wealth . However a large portion are relatively well off retirees. The central idea for Shor and Teixera is to soft pedal cultural issues and focus on promising economic benefits from moderately progressive, but not radical economic policies.

Whatever the merits of this approach in general, it’s a recipe for failure this time around. The incumbent party usually loses ground in midterm elections unless the economy is doing spectacularly well. That’s not the perception are the average voter, concerned more about inflation and shortages than about unemployment. A pitch to centrist voters might limit democratic losses but is highly unlikely to secure the victory that is needed.

The alternative is to make the election a referendum on the Republican Party, including Trump, the insurrection, the Supreme Court, and Christian nationalism. The starting results of the abortion referendum in Kansas suggest that if the election can be framed in these terms, the Democrats had a strong chance of winning and of forming a coalition that can win again in 2024. A big success would also split the Republicans, potentially emboldening business conservatives to break with the current Trumpist majority.

Mobilising single-issue pro-choice voters is part of the strategy. But, as far as possible, the aim should be to present the attack on abortion rights as part of a comprehensive package of opposition to freedom and democracy. One part of that is rejecting any suggestion of moving on beyond the insurrection. Trump and everyone involved should be prosecuted, making it impossible for the rightwing media to bury the issue as they have done. Christian nationalism should be used in the same way as the right used spurious ideas like ‘neo-Marxism’ and ‘critical race theory’ to attack liberals and centrist Dems alike.

I’ll be interested in thoughts on this, but not in any commentary to the effect that Democrats and Republicans are the same. Anyone who wants to express this view is welcome to take it here.

On mental fitness vs mental health

by Miriam Ronzoni on August 10, 2022

I really enjoyed John’s suggestion that the idea of mental health (=absence of mental illness) might not be as helpful as the idea of mental fitness (=something that requires sustained effort, and is hardly ever fully reached). I wonder, though, whether it might be a double edged sword.

The idea that attending to our mental well being is hard work is certainly something that deserves centre stage – both to get rid of the dangerous idea that it can be dealt with via a quick fix (be it a pill or a self-contained package of therapy sessions); and to acknowledge that, for those who struggle with it, it is something that requires ongoing and complicated labour. It most often involves false starts, dead ends, set backs, ups and and downs, and long phases where a lot of effort only produces incremental results.

On the other hand, though, the idea of mental well being as a state of fitness that requires sustained effort also suggests – much like the analogy with physical fitness which John himself makes – the idea of something which is in our hands if only we put in the work. In other words, it might put more emphasis on individual, atomised responsibility. Don’t be lazy: chuck the junk food; go for a run; do what you need to reach mental fitness.

This logic of individual blame and personal responsibility is the last thing that people who struggle with their mental well being need; yet, the idea of mental fitness rather than health is a powerful one. Is there a way of embracing it without sliding into this logic? Which kind of moves would that involve? What would we need to pay attention to? Interested in reading any thoughts on this.


When we ask the question what we should do about climate change, the answer to that question depends a lot on who the “we” in that sentence is. There have been many answers to the questions what governments should do, or more in general “what should be done” without specifying who the agent of change is, as in, for example, the list of action points provided by Project Drawdown. We might have responsibilities related to climate change that we have specifically in our roles as elected politicians and office holders, as professionals, as entrepreneurs, as investors, and so forth.

But what can citizens, in their capacity of citizens rather than any professional role, do? What can human beings, simply by the fact that they are human beings and thus sharing this planet with other living creatures, do about climate change and ecological degradation?

When searching for an answer to that question, I’ve been wondering whether we could help ourselves by making a compact version of what our action plan to deal with climate change could be. Something that is easy to remember; something that is put in langauge that is not just for insiders or specialists; something that could contribute to a wide range of efforts to get things in motion; something that could serve as a structure, starting point or aide in conversations; and something that can help us very concretely in deciding where to start or what to do next.

Because no matter what the already inevitable consequences of climate change are (such as more frequent extreme weather events, droughts, floodings, wildfires etc.), we can always aim to limit the even more harmful consequences that will come with additional increases in greenhouse gas emissions. Similarly, we have to prepare for what will come (even under the best-case scenarios). And in unfolding those strategies, it would help to be united as people in our capacity as citizens and inhabitants of this world, and also to feel united and empowered.

Here’s my proposal for a citizens’ climate action plan in 10 bullet points (so easy to remember!). I will only say a few words about each of these bullet points, not aiming at being comprehensive. [click to continue…]