Inter|national Section writer
Justin is a writer and designer working in Norwich. He writes about politics, economics, technology and culture and the intersections between them. When not doing so he might be found participating in political campaigning, dabbling with electronic music or walking along his much loved East Anglian coastline.
(06.05.18) – Review: A Party with Socialists In It, by Simon Hannah
It was too beautiful to last. The fragile truce established between Labour’s dueling factions after the party’s unexpectedly strong 2017 general election performance disintegrated just in time for this year’s local election campaign.
Despite everything, Labour still made gains, indicating that its simple anti-austerity message continues to have the capacity to cut through the interference generated by chronic internal feuding. But the result was hardly good enough to foster a new outbreak of peace.
(08.04.18) – Heavenly Palaces and Space Junks: China’s Quiet Space Revolution
There was some apprehension as a Chinese ‘Heavenly Palace’ fell to Earth last week. The 8.5 tonne Tiangong-1 space station, adrift since China’s space agency lost connection with it two years ago, made an ‘uncontrolled’ re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere early on Easter Monday.
Fortunately there was never much cause for concern, the European Space Agency calculating the chances of being hit by debris as ’10 million times smaller than the yearly chance of being hit by lightning’. Most of the station burned up on contact with Earth’s atmosphere and the remaining fragments plunged into the South Pacific. But the episode had a eerie resonance, symbolising something of the West’s prevailing perception of China as an enigmatic, technologically advanced state, glowing with – rather like its wayward satellite – a nebulous sense of danger.
(11.03.18) – Helping People See the Economy Anew
Why, 10 years after a crisis of capitalism that has entrenched inequalities and insecurity, does the left still struggle to convince a sceptical public that an alternative economics is possible? That question was the focus of one of several intriguing sessions at The Norwich Radical’s recent War of Words conference. A new report by the New Economics Foundation (NEF) attempts to answer it.
Framing the Economy argues that progressives need to spend less time discussing the detail of economic policy and more on telling simple stories about how the economy works that people can understand. The project grew from a recognition that the right has long been better than the left at presenting ‘common sense’ understandings economic mechanisms.
(24.02.18) – Jacob Rees-Mogg, Jeremy Corbyn, Courtesy and Conviction
Writing in the midst of Europe’s interwar turbulence, the Italian political theorist Antonio Gramsci observed that ‘the old world is dying away, and the new world struggles to come forth: now is the time of monsters.’ Though contemporary parallels with Gramsci’s troubled world can be overplayed, these transitional times have spawned, if not monsters, an impressive array of fabulous beasts.
Donald Trump is President of the United States. Self-proclaimed socialist Bernie Sanders almost won the Democrat nomination. Silvio Berlusconi is once again on the verge of becoming the leading powerbroker in Italian politics. Jeremy Corbyn emerged from the deepest political wilderness to lead the Labour Party.
If, as the Brexit negotiations intensify, Theresa May’s vestigial authority finally fades away, the Government may have little option but to take a chance with a charismatic leader able to hold it together through sheer force of personality. And it is no longer absurd to suggest that, just as Labour members insisted on Corbyn, the Tories might turn to his mirror-image, Jacob Rees-Mogg.
(28.01.18) – Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the Possibilities of AI
Frankenstein: or The Modern Prometheus, the classic novel by Mary Shelley that stands at the pinnacle of the gothic tradition and looks forward to the new genre of science fiction, was first published 200 years ago this month. Shelley’s visceral tale of the terrible consequences that follow the failure of brilliant young scientist Victor Frankenstein to take responsibility for the strange new life he creates, is both of its time and utterly contemporary.
It can be read as a high Romantic fantasy set against a background of electric storms, shimmering Alpine peaks, Rhineland forests and Arctic wastelands, and as a subtle meditation on themes of knowledge and responsibility that resonate with today’s hopes and fears for the possibilities opened by artificial intelligence (AI) and synthetic biology.
(31.12.17) – Israel, Palestine, and the Judgement of Solomon: Must the Land be Divided?
Perhaps the most significant reaction to the Trump administration’s unilateral recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital was that of Saeb Erekat, a veteran peace negotiator for the Palestine Liberation Organisation.
‘[T]he two-state solution is over’, Erekat told the Israeli daily Haaretz. ‘Now is the time to transform the struggle for one-state with equal rights for everyone living in historic Palestine, from the river to the sea.’
It’s a vision with intuitive aesthetic and ethical appeal, proposing to stitch the frayed patchwork of Israel, the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem into a unitary state in which Jews, Muslims, Christians, Druze and Bedouin would live under the same secular jurisdiction.
(16.12.17) – Engineering Utopia: China’s Project For Designing Trustworthiness
Visions of a great civilisation enjoying ‘peace under heaven’ have haunted the Chinese imagination from the time of the sages to today, when President Xi Jingping’s ‘China Dream’ of a prosperous ordered nation is propagated ceaselessly by the state-controlled media.
Here hypermodernity is filtered through ancient virtues. China’s gleaming new cities, high-speed rail links and technology parks are studded with billboards urging honesty, modesty and filial piety. Its vast wired economy is screened for decadent Western influences, blocking Facebook, Google and YouTube, and magazines infatuated with celebrity gossip or ‘crude language’. This year the ‘Great Firewall of China’ was reinforced when the state banned VPN services used by millions to break through to the global web.
Now China is finetuning the ultimate technological fix for designing a virtuous society: a ‘Social Credit System’ that will use the data produced by a population of some 1.4 billion citizens in the course of their daily interactions with digital services to rank them according to ‘trustworthiness’.
(03.12.17) – Love & Loss, Then & Now: Reading Ovid’s Poetry of Exile
Two thousand years ago this winter, a heartbroken Roman nobleman died far from home by the frozen shores of the Black Sea.
The poet Publius Ovidius Naso, known to the world as Ovid, had lived a very different life from the millions of Syrian refugees who today find precarious asylum in nearby Turkey, or the Rohingya, further east, camped in the fields of Bangladesh. But he too knew the pain and bitterness of exile.
In Rome, together with his contemporaries Horace and Virgil, he had been lauded as one of the greats of Latin literature. He was certainly the most fashionable. Born into the Roman aristocracy and enjoying the patronage of the legendary benefactor Maecenas, Ovid had won fame with his sly, knowing love poetry, before writing one of the classics of world literature, the Metamorphoses.
(19.11.17) – Communism, Confucius and Confusion: China’s Turn to the Sages.
Fifty years ago Mao Zedong’s Red Guards rampaged through the ancient streets of Qufu, home city of the sage Confucius, pulling down statues, burning temples and desecrating graves.
The ‘old customs, old culture, old habits and old ideas’ associated with the teacher who for millennia had provided philosophical legitimacy for China’s feudal order were to be swept aside by the Cultural Revolution to make way for a new classless society.
But today Qufu is one of communist China’s foremost places of pilgrimage. An sprawling museum and park complex stands by the restored temple, overlooked by a giant figure of Confucius the size of the Statue of Liberty. ‘The Holy City of the Orient’, with its gleaming new high-speed rail link, now attracts more visitors each year than the land of Israel.
(05.11.17) – A Promise of Everything and Nothing: The Balfour Declaration 100 Years On
The Balfour Declaration carries the same incendiary charge as when it was first published a century ago this week.
For most Israelis, the short letter expressing British sympathy for the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine continues to be venerated as the first formal recognition from one of the world’s great powers of the legitimacy of the Zionist enterprise.
For the Palestinians it still stands condemned as an act of imperialist chauvinism according to which, in the withering assessment of the (Jewish) writer Arthur Koestler, ‘one nation solemnly promised to a second nation the country of a third.’
The Declaration, so the conventional narrative goes, ignited a slow-burning process of settlement that had been edging forwards since the late 19th century.