Sep 9 2016

Fantastic Mr President: The Hyperrealities of Putin and Trump

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By Maria Brock

Vladmir_Putin_fishing_toplessIn July 2016 – more than 15 years into his time in office – Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin’s approval rating was at 82%, a figure made all the more remarkable by the fact that the country is experiencing a palpable and lengthy economic downturn. Some commentators have favoured an explanation that treats this as proof that a larger-than-life president is more in line with ‘what Russians want’, as Putin “satisfied a yearning for a strong leader who could make the Russian family proud”. However, concretising a Russian ‘national desire’ is less than helpful if we seek to understand the reasons behind Putin’s continued popularity. Equating a historical past with an inherent propensity to follow strong-men is an exercise in oversimplification, as it treats nations and groups as essentially static, prone to repeat the same historical patterns over and over again. Similarly, a focus on the more overt parallels with the earlier ‘Cults of Personality’ neglects the fact that the underlying ‘conditions of possibility’ that produced the two phenomena are different. Such comparisons also fail to explain the appeal of similarly larger-than-life politicians in countries with a longer democratic tradition. Clearly, an emphasis on national psychological propensities is not productive. Instead, an analysis of the appeal of such leader figures that taps into less conscious mechanisms is worthwhile. By simultaneously looking at the phenomenon of Donald Trump’s remarkable rise, a number of parallels pertaining to the creation of their public personae become apparent. In fact, such an analysis can serve to illuminate overarching principles structuring the successful creation of their outsized public personae. Continue reading

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Aug 25 2016

Monsters in the Mist: The Elusive Quest for Financial Security in Scotland post-Brexit

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By Faye Donnelly and William Vlcek

 

Image credit: First Minister of Scotland (CC-BY-SA-2.0)

Image credit: First Minister of Scotland (CC-BY-SA-2.0)

It is easy to become disillusioned, confused and even fanciful when trying to envision Scotland’s financial security in the aftermath of the Brexit vote. With a leap of imagination it is possible to conceive that there is now a higher probability of seeing the Loch Ness monster than there is of seeing any constructive resolution to the decisive vote emerging on the horizon. At first glance this assertion sounds like a fictitious rumination. Yet analysing the different stories that have surfaced about where Brexit leaves Scotland one quickly finds that they are rife with mystery. This blog argues that the complex discursive performances enacted since 23 June 2016 take on a particularly elusive quest when it comes to what financial security means for Scotland going forward. Akin to the Loch Ness monster, different actors have reported sightings. These vary from plots of the SNP canvassing for a second independence referendum to audacious acclaims of Scotland fighting to retain their membership in the European Union (EU). Let’s take a closer look at the ability of Scotland to synchronise these competing agendas.

With Scotland voting 62-38% to remain in the EU, the resurrection of independence as a political agenda certainly appears to have taken on a new lease of life with calls for ‘indyref2’. Speaking on 27 June 2016, First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, emphasised, “a second independence referendum is clearly an option that requires to be on the table and is very much on the table.” Stepping up efforts to ensure that Scotland’s interests are defended amidst post-Brexit negotiations the SNP party leader characterised Theresa May’s assurance that “Brexit means Brexit” as “a soundbite that masks a lack of any clear sense of direction”. At the same time, Sturgeon has indicated a willingness to participate in ‘engaged talks’ with the new elected UK Prime Minister. An easy explanation behind this discursive oscillation is that Scotland will need permission from Westminster to hold another referendum. What is also plain is that there must be public confidence in the prospect of an independent Scotland being financially secure, something that the latest YouGov polls figures have called into question. Elsewhere opponents to ‘indyref2’ are highlighting that the economic goals for an independent Scotland that appeared possible in 2014 (with oil at $100/barrel) have vanished (with oil hovering just below $50/barrel). Consequently, the projected political economy for an independent Scotland today forecasts either tax rises in order to maintain current public services or a reduction in the provision of those services. Faced with this reality Sturgeon has stopped short of demanding another independence referendum, in part because it is not clear that financial security lays at the end of that path.

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Aug 23 2016

What 7.5m tweets taught us about the Brexit campaign

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By Stefan Bauchowitz and Max Hänska

How did Eurosceptic (leave) and pro-European (remain) activity compare on social media in the run-up to the EU referendum, and was there a relationship between social media users and votes? To find out how leave and remain compared, we collected more than 7.5 million Brexit related tweets during the 23 days leading up to the referendum through twitter’s streaming API. We used a support vector machine to identify which tweets clearly supported the leave or remain camp (and manually coded a random sub-sample of those to ensure our allocation was reliable). Given the polarity of the issue this worked well, and the model correctly identified most tweets. We used the result of this exercise to assign each user in our sample to one of the two camps.

We collected tweets containing the terms ‘Brexit’, ‘EUref’ and ‘EU Referendum’, which were all frequently used to refer to the referendum. While the term Brexit has great currency across both camps, it was used more often by users who wanted to leave the EU as it lends itself more easily to positive slogans (e.g. “Can’t wait for #Brexit to win!” or “Brexit to save Europe”, also echoed by “Brexit means Brexit”). Even though EURef and EU Referendum are more neutral terms, in both sub-samples we find that support for leaving, measured by number of tweets, outstripped support for remaining by a factor of 2.3 and 1.75 respectively. The margins confirm a slight bias in the term ‘brexit’ where the strength of leave over remain was more pronounced. Overall it is clear that the army of leave users was larger in numbers and more active in tweeting their cause (see Figure 1).

level of tweet activity by keyword.

level of tweet activity by keyword.

 

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Aug 11 2016

How reliant is Britain on EU migrant workers?

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By Catherine Harris

2452304492_49aeff09dc_oBrexit – the UK vote to leave the European Union – has caused uncertainty in a number of areas. One of which is the impact that potentially reduced immigration will have on the British economy, particularly in industries which have a high proportion of migrant workers from the EU.

Workers from the EU are allowed to continue to work in the UK for the two years of Brexit negotiations, after which their future is uncertain. But the the UK’s new prime minister, Theresa May, has warned that the status of EU migrants is up for negotiation.

This could have a significant impact on the UK economy. Research has long shown that it will be worse off without its immigrant workers. Indeed, ratings agency Fitch has already downgraded the UK’s credit rating to AA from AA+ with a negative outlook, hinting that further downgrades might follow. It cited reduced immigration as one of the reasons for the UK’s weaker economy. Meanwhile, the National Institute of Economic and Social Research has said that reducing immigration by two-thirds will see the UK economy shrink 9% by 2065.

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Jul 28 2016

The EU’s lack of unity and strategy is being felt in Azerbaijan

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By Robert Ledger

The EU’s values-lite pragmatism towards its periphery is undermining its legitimacy in the South Caucasus. The violence that erupted in Nagorno-Karabakh in April 2016 exposed the weakness of the EU’s Eastern Partnership initiative in the region, as well as its “more-for-more” policy of promoting economic reform, democracy and human rights.

The EU’s relationship with Azerbaijan is one that has been consistently criticised for ignoring authoritarianism in return for access to Caspian Sea energy. Interviews with recently released Azerbaijani political prisoners reveal how EU policy in the South Caucasus, as well as other developments such as the refugee crisis, is damaging its prestige and its attraction to countries in its periphery.

Troubled policy 

The EU is a relatively new entrant to the complicated politics of the South Caucasus. Co-operation with Azerbaijan increased at the turn of the century due to the country’s significant energy repositories and became more formalised with the EU’s Eastern Partnership initiative, launched in 2009 along with Armenia, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. Here, the EU’s “more-for-more” approach would — in return for internalising the acquis communautaire — grant benefits such as visa-free travel and privileged trade agreements.

The relationship between Azerbaijan and the EU, however, has grown more strained as both sides have failed to grasp what the other seeks from the arrangement. Anar Mammadli, a prominent human rights activist, election monitor and political prisoner from 2013-2016, believes the EU sees Azerbaijan primarily as an energy corridor, while Armenia and Azerbaijan hoped the EU would assist in resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

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Jul 22 2016

From Brexit to Trump: Why mobilising anger in a constructive way is now one of the key challenges in modern politics

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By Sonja Avlijaš

Following Brexit, anger is palpable and omnipresent. Scrolling through Twitter as I write this, I find countless examples of anger on social media: Brexit was a cry of anger and frustration, anger of those left behind by globalisation, working-class anger, nationalist anger, Europeans in the UK are angry, anger at the European Parliament, anger produces unusual alliances…

Those disillusioned because of the Leave vote are angry too. Their anger is leading them to question and delegitimise the democratic process: This should have been a qualified majority vote; the UK cannot leave if some of its regions are against it; the over 65 year-olds and the uneducated got us into this predicament; it is not legal to base a political campaign on lies.

In short, anger matters. Our elites have been in denial on the role that the human experience and the emotions associated with it play in the political process. Technocrats and economists have been calmly trying to fix the euro while Greece has been facing a humanitarian catastrophe. The Silicon Valley techies are looking to end human mortality and build life on Mars, while the Bay area is facing a severe crisis of homelessness.

This twisted ambition to perfect the future human experience shows great intolerance towards accepting humanity as it is today, in all its imperfections. This imperfection is reflected in our mortality and our inability to predict the future or control uncertainty and a whole spectrum of good and bad emotions that arise from that predicament. Walter Weisskopf argued in the 1950s that neoclassical economics has the same psychological effect as valium – it is meant to soothe the human anxiety that stems from our inability to topple uncertainty by telling us that the world can be controlled and predictable. I would dare to extend the same diagnosis to the ongoing hi-tech revolution.

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Jul 12 2016

The battle lines have been etched

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By Max Hänska

Latent tensions became manifest with the result of the Brexit referendum, etching the battle line that will define the struggles ahead. Those who have embraced and built their lives around our liberal-cosmopolitan global order, and found opportunity in open markets, are now pitted against those who see themselves as excluded, maligned, and disenfranchised by this order, and those who plainly think their identity should matter more than it does. While the former have adapted, and exploited the opportunities globalisation has offered, the latter have risen to rebel against it.

To be fair, you cannot blame the rebels. Blue-collar workers have seen their opportunities eroded as manufacturing jobs scatter along global supply-chains, and migrant labour gladly accept lower pay, diminishing real incomes. What was once a land of opportunity, now looks like a sea gnarled with truncated hopes. Add economic malaise, the diminution public services, and a political system unable to even acknowledge domestic deprivation, and an ascendant melange of resurgent nationalism and protectionism catalyse potent political forces. They are joined by others who have done well out of globalisation, but resent the declining cache of an identity in which they have invested so much pride. With visceral passions the chorus asks why their community (whatever that may mean) is not put first.  Why should ‘we’ not matter more than ‘others’? What kind of country is it that is under obligation to treat foreigners on par with citizens, that allows continued immigration while natives are ever more dispossessed?  Why should ‘we’ support an international order that cares little about where you are from? What is left of identity if we don’t privilege our own?

But there are of course also vocal beneficiaries of the order that the referendum calls into question. Those who have made their fortune because (not in spite) of an open, liberal international order. Who have not merely adapted to this order, but for whom cosmopolitan internationalism is the very mortar that binds their economic and personal lives. The two sides will not be reconciled. The arch of their politics point in opposite directions. The next decades will determine which will prevail, and which will be assimilated or subjugated.

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Jul 7 2016

‘We want our country back’ – stop sneering, start listening

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By Michael Skey

The post-mortem is now well under way and the general consensus seems to be that those who voted leave were gullible fools led astray by a combination of a partisan press and slick political operators selling a particularly potent brand of snake oil, one part false promises, two parts undiluted bigotry. Notwithstanding the quality of the overall political debate around Brexit (it was awful on both sides), such a view might make Remainers feel better about themselves but offers little in making sense of what actually happened last Thursday and why.

In the lead up to the vote, there were very few who actually got what this was about. John Harris of the Guardian was one of them because he actually bothered to tour the country and talk to people in unglamorous places like Nuneaton (66% Leave), Barking (62% Leave) and Hartlepool (70% Leave). On Wednesday he wrote:

Even those who understand that something seismic is afoot among predominantly working-class voters are still too keen on the idea that they are gullible enough to be led over a cliff by people with whom they would actually disagree, if only they knew the facts. But most people are not really being “led” by anyone. In my experience, Farage, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove et al are viewed by most people with as much cynicism as the people fronting the remain campaign.

What is now happening … in the UK underlines a tangle of other stuff – to do with culture, belonging and community – that is going to require a completely different level of response.

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Jul 4 2016

On Brexit & Control

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By Tom Gaisford

The EU referendum result was not a triumph for democracy, so much as a symptom of large-scale manipulation. For all the discord and unrest it has unleashed, it may at least serve to enhance global awareness of how mind-control works.

The truth of what happened was that a minority group of politicians garnered support by offering us a rare opportunity to reclaim control of the nation from all those purportedly holding us back. Yet, the politicians’ offer was based on misinformation, designed primarily, it seems, to satisfy their personal ambitions and/or to control the nation themselves.wooden-mannequin-791720_1920

The strategy was no doubt to embolden nostalgic nationalists along with the generally disaffected, by professing to endorse their sovereignty, thereby overriding their willingness to engage critically with their liberators’ bogus prospectus. The message was music to the ears of many. Yet – as betrayed by the absence of any genuine plan – that is all it was.

The referendum vote was as unsafe as it was unrepresentative -­ it deserves as little respect as the architects who contrived it. “Regrexit” is testament to this. Yet, so too is the blind fervour of those who continue to cling to the untruths they invested in, while the country crashes around them.

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Jun 29 2016

Brexit and Democracy

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By Mary Kaldor

320px-PalaceOfWestminsterAtNightThe vote to leave Europe seems to have set off a spate of events spinning in different and dangerous directions. The two main political parties are falling apart. Scottish politicians are already a tabling a second referendum on the independence of Scotland. Sinn Fein politicians are talking about a referendum on a united Ireland. European leaders are calling for haste in separating Britain from the rest of Europe – a haste that will not insulate them from what has happened in Britain and indeed may have the opposite consequences from what they intended.

To me, it feels like the disintegration of Yugoslavia or the events that led to the First World War, where every wrong step contributed to the next wrong step. No-one can assume that these processes of disentanglement will be amicable or smooth. Already hate crime is on the rise in Britain.

The general consensus is that this was a ‘democratic moment’ and that we have to respect a democratic decision. But what does that mean? Certainly it was a populist moment. But surely democracy is about reasoned debate and constitutionalism. This was a failure of our institutions and our unwritten constitution. The vote was called not in response to popular demand but in response to internal differences within the Tory party. The ‘rules’ were ‘agreed’ by the Tory majority in the House of Commons. Commonwealth citizens were allowed to vote but not European citizens resident in Britain who are allowed to vote in local elections and European parliamentary elections. People over the age of 16 were allowed to vote in the Scottish referendum  but not in the EU referendum. And who decided on a simple majority? In most countries with a written constitution, changes of this magnitude require a much bigger majority as well as the agreement of all major regions. Continue reading

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