(From ‘The Australian’ 11 March 2022 – cartoon by Johannes Leak)
Fighting the Tsar of All the Russias
- I concluded the previous article by saying:
Sending NATO troops to Ukraine would not be particularly helpful. Russia has complete local dominance in its region (land, sea and air) and would defeat NATO in such battles. But if the West wanted to do more than just send arms and other supplies to the Ukrainian resistance it could certainly cause serious military problems for Putin instead of just making speeches. For example Turkey could and should close the Bosphorous to bottle up the Russian fleet (as could and should have been done over Syria). NATO naval forces would be completely dominant everywhere else and could cut off most of Russia’s revenue from trade. It would be up to Russia whether it wished to escalate from a losing position or would prefer to withdraw quickly. A lot of lives could be saved if the West was not so completely gutless…https://c21stleft.com/2022/02/26/putins-war-on-the-peoples-of-russia-belarus-and-ukraine/
If NATO was as gutless as feared, Turkey would not have done it despite the fact that it really is not optional.
But Turkey HAS done it!!! That makes a BIG difference. It suggests that NATO will fight as well as make speeches.
In time of war, Article 19 of the Montreaux convention clearly prohibits warships of belligerent powers from passing through the straits in Turkish territory except to return to their bases (unless permitted by Turkey on the basis that they are assisting a victim of aggression or fulfilling international obligations). This isn’t optional. Russia is a belligerent. Russia’s Black Sea fleet can only return to Sevastapol (eg from Syria if they were based in Sevastapol rather than Vladivostok or Syria).
Russia’s war on the Syrian people did not make it technically a “belligerent” under that treaty since it was not at war with Syria but allied with the Syrian government iagainst the people, just as the US and Australia were not “belligerents” when the US occupied southern Vietnam and attacked the north in alliance with a puppet “Republic of South Vietnam”.
Turkey could, and should, have exercised its options under Articles 20 and 21 to “consider herself to be threatened with imminent danger of war” and prohibit passages of Russian warships supporting the Syrian regime despite Russia not technically being a “belligerent”.
But there in nothing optional about the prohibition under Article 19. Turkey would be actively complicit with Russia if it pretended Russia was not a belligerent in its current war. Turkey is far from being actively complicit this time, and so is NATO. The Syrian people were betrayed. The Ukrainians may not be.
Interestingly Russia’s entire Mediteranean naval presence of 16 ships are currently in Syrian waters headed directly for the Russian base at Tartarus:
Preventing Russia’s Black Sea fleet from leaving and permitting NATO naval forces to enter is unlikely to directly affect the war on Ukraine since NATO is unlikely to actually fight Russian naval forces on their home ground.
But if the West is serious about cutting off Russian trade, it has overwhelming naval superiority everywhere else in the world. A naval blockade would be an act of war but it would be up to Russia whether it wished to escalate from a losing position or accept having its ships searched for prohibited contraband by countries supporting the Ukrainian resistance by sanctions. Without the Black Sea fleet Russia really has no option but to submit to Russian ships being prevented from carrying Russian trade. China might well carry Russian trade by land and sea. But could not get Russian goods through customs in most of the developed world.
Some quick notes follow on other measures recently requested by Ukraine.
2. Requests for munitions are being met. The critical thing will be keeping supplies flowing under Russian occupation.
Ukrainia’s borders with the EU and NATO are nearly 1400km.
An occupation force of 140,000 can be thought of as 1 every 10m (if they did not have anything else to do).
3. A no fly zone has been requested but not yet offered. Over important parts of the border this could be critical for maintaining the flow of supplies as well as for protecting Ukrainian cities etc. It would take some time to establish since the NATO force posture is not prepared for it. A No Fly Zone does actually mean acts of war to shoot down Russian aircraft and missiles. The Stinger missiles already being supplied for use against assault helicopters etc would be operated by Ukrainian defence forces and would not be an act of war by the suppliers. But more effective air defence operated by NATO from NATO territory would be legitimate targets for Russian counter attack and would need to be heavily defended.
I don’t know how long it would take but it should start right now. NATO does at least have a force posture for rapid deployment to the Lithuania-Poland border area known as the Suwalki gap (named after the nearby town of Suwałki), because it represents a tough-to-defend flat narrow piece of land, a gap, that is between Belarus and Russia’s Kaliningrad exclave and that connects the NATO-member Baltic States to Poland and the rest of NATO.
A no fly zone there would also put pressure on Kaliningrad and Belorussia. It should be extended as rapidly as possible southward to fully cover the border regions close to Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and Rumania, then North to Latvia (putting further pressure on Belarus). Later consideration could be given to putting pressure directly on Russia by extending to Estonia and offering to Moldova.
As soon as the air defence deployments can be adequately protected from Russian counter attack they should start shooting down Russian aircraft and missiles. That may not be very soon so lots of munitions should be got across the border as fast as possible to be hidden away for long term use.
4. Removal of Russian veto. That has also been requested despite there being no obvious way it could be done since Russia would veto it.
But it can be done by UN General Assembly deciding to form a replacement United Nations that existing members not currently engaged in wars of aggression prohibited by the UN Charter are invited to join. Why not? The UN needs replacement anyway. Would require agreement on other changes to the Security Council of the replacement organization. That is long overdue and may take more time but the process could be started now and would immediately intensify the isolation of Russia long before it was completed. Even if China refused to join it would be sufficient if India joined together with most countries. The old UN would simply wither away along with the Tsarist regime in Russia.
4. The battle for is for democracy, not just in Ukraine. Victory requires democracy in Belorussia and Russia too:
Ukraine’s guerilla war could topple the Tsar of All the Russias.
Ukrainians will fight
And they have interesting competent leadership from a comedian who could also lead elsewhere
Putin’s War on the peoples of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine
Putin’s declaration of war does not mention Belarus. But it does mention Belgrade, Iraq, Libya and Syria.
Putin laments the existential threat to the Russian regime from the West, suggesting that Russia must invade Ukraine to avoid sharing the misfortunes of the fascist regimes in Belgrade, Iraq, Libya and Syria.
Putin pretends Russia faces a military threat from NATO, and does not mention the EU. But the real threat from “the West” to Russia’s backward Tsarist autocracy is very clear. The threat is that the slavs would prefer to flourish in the EU rather than the life of slaves to Tsarist autocrats.
It is too late to to drag the Ukrainians back to slavery. But it is not yet to too late to delay Belarus going the same way. A joint operation with Belarus to occupy parts of Ukraine could help postpone the next regime collapse in Russia. Maintaining endless conflict and disruption in Ukraine makes Ukraine’s path away from rule by corrupt oligarchs more difficult and slower. It also provides a basis for much harsher repression to keep the people down in both Russia and Belarus. Putin’s war can make Ukraine a less successful and attractive contrast to Russia’s stagnation and the “Western” enemy can be blamed for that stagnation continuing to get worse.
My guess is that’s what the war is about. If so, I would assume Putin would want to occupy areas with as few Ukrainians engaged in guerilla resistance as possible, while posing a constant threat to the rest. Occupying a narrow coastal strip from the Donbas to Transnistra would block Ukrainian access to the sea. That strip includes Odessa, Ukraine’s third largest city. But that is a less difficult proposition than long term occupation of the whole country. It is also easier to exit from if things go badly.
That’s just a guess. It is consistent with a blitzkrieg aimed at surrounding and then seizing Kiev, perhaps with special forces pretending to represent an internal coup from the Ukrainian army to decapitate the current government. But it does not require a capability to maintain a long term occupation with a puppet regime in Kiev. It could succeed if the West actively blocked Ukraine from getting adequate supplies of weapons and other support. But I don’t think the Western acquiescence over Ukraine is anywhere near the level of the current Western betrayal of Syria or the 1930s Western betrayal of Spain. Ukraine won’t run out of ammunition to keep fighting.
The omission of Belarus from Putin’s speech is curious. With only one ally directly participating, surely it would be worth mentioning?
“In the near future we will do what we and Russia need,” Sputnik Belarus quoted Lukashenko as saying.
He also stressed that, if necessary, Belarusian troops would be involved in Russia’s military operation in Ukraine.
“We will not make excuses about whether we participate or not participate in this conflict. Our troops are not there. But if it is necessary, if it is necessary for Belarus and Russia, they will,” the President of Belarus said.
https://tj.sputniknews.ru/20220224/lukashenko-belarus-operation-1046212644.html (Google translation)
The troops directly threatening Kiev crossed the northern border of Ukraine from Belarus at its weakest spot, the radioactive and therefore undefended Chernobyl exclusion zone. But most of them remain positioned in Belarus.
Lukashenko’s boasting that he persuaded Putin to keep Russian troops in Belarus for protection against the West has nothing to do with fears of NATO invasion from Poland, Lithuania or Latvia. It reminds the people already rising up against the local fascists that removing them would require more than breaking the local armed forces.
That reminder is realistic. When it falls the Belarus regime will fall more heavily as despised collaborators. But it will take longer to overthrow them than if they were not backed by a Tsarist garrison.
Putin’s speech is also a direct threat to the Russian people. Claims that they face genocide and nuclear attack from Ukrainian Nazis are not intended to convince anybody. Western media keeps repeating how ludicrous such claims are. But there seems to be some assumption that they would look less ludicrous to Russians. I haven’t seen any discussion of the implications of them looking ludicrous to Russians too.
To me these claims are similar to the sort of claims made by the Assad regime when it unleashed its thugs to suppress the Syrian people with nerve gas, Russian support and Western acquiescence. The point is that if you resist you will be crushed, not argued with. There is some support for invading Ukraine among the more stupid and reactionary sections of the Russian people. But not much, even among Putin’s fellow oligarchs. Putin has not even attempted to mobilize popular support and does not have reserves available to mobilize for a long occupation. If the present level of repression was maintained in Russia an anti-war movement would quickly gain majority support and become a serious threat to the regime. The message is that opposition will be far more ruthlessly crushed than previously. The regime knows it will continue to become less and less popular and is declaring that it will continue to rule by naked fascist force, as in China.
I haven’t studied what’s actually happening in Ukraine (or its neighbours) and am relying on quick impressions gained from reading the Australian (ie US) mass media plus the “other side” as linked above. A more nuanced version of the other side is provided from a Russian foreign policy think tank in an interview:
“How are Putin’s actions going down in Russia itself? What do Russians think about this?
It’s not a full-scale invasion as yet. This is something like the Syrian campaign. And till now we see only air strikes, targeted air strikes – something like surgical strikes in the Indian sense. Till now, Putin does not need the people’s support.
In the result of these strikes, there is no news about Ukrainian and Russian casualties. The limits of this operation will be known only by and by, and the level of the resistance from the Ukrainian forces. When you carry out air strikes, you don’t need any great public support – the US didn’t need public support in their campaign against Iraq, for example. Modi did not need public support, did not take Parliament’s support for surgical strikes. So until the [time the] scale is limited, the problem of public support is not an issue, not a question for Putin.
Where do you see it all heading? Will it stop at these strikes, do you see this escalating?
Because of the US and European sanctions against Russia since last year, they were very soft. The Russian economy did not face any problems because of these actions. If it is full-scale sanctions, problems with Swift, problems over our banks, it will be one thing. If these are softer sanctions, meant to find a resolution to the problem, it’s absolutely different. Now, the Russian economy is quite strong, we have very low national debt, we have our own system, we don’t have any great loans from the western market. What will happen further, I can’t say now.
But I don’t think he wants to incorporate Ukraine in Russia because for us, in fact, it needs a political solution. The Ukrainian issue has to be decided by compromise, not by incorporation.”
My impression is that interview is worth studying carefully as an indication of how the Russian foreign policy establishment views the war. I don’t think it’s just covering up an intention to maintain a long term occupation of Ukraine. Rather it reflects a realistic assessment that there is no support for a long term occupation and wishful thinking that the West will somehow actively rescue Putin by arranging a “compromise”.
My take above is that it is a war on the slav peoples rather than just a war on Ukraine.
I haven’t seen that suggested elsewhere so I am throwing it out there.
I may be quite wrong but it makes more sense to me than the ludicrous fantasies about it being some sort of contest between the West led by the USA (with Joe Biden as “leader of the free world”!) and Russia.
Even Greg Sheriden can see the obvious:
“So far, in response to his aggression against Ukraine, the West has hit Vladimir Putin with a swarm of denunciations and a sanctions response that resembles being beaten with a wet lettuce. This bodes very ill for Ukraine.”
The West has made it utterly clear that it won’t fight for Ukraine and won’t do much to help Ukraine fight. So Putin’s fight isn’t with the West. Certainly his fight is with the Ukraine, but I am saying it is also, and even more importantly a declaration of war by the Tsar of all the Russias against the peoples of all the Russias.
On February 18 Sheridan noticed that:
“… the number of Russian soldiers on Ukraine’s borders continues to increase and is now somewhere between 130,000 and 150,000.That is enough to invade Ukraine, given the superiority of Russian equipment, aircraft and firepower. It’s probably not enough to occupy a nation of 44 million people indefinitely.”
But despite that rare flash of insight, Sheridan by 23 February is totally pessimistic and defeatist:
“Here we come upon another intensely strange and paradoxical moral dilemma. The future of Europe may turn on how hard the Ukrainians are willing to fight for their freedom and independence. Yet if Moscow goes for a full-scale invasion, the superiority in quality and quantity of Russian arms must mean eventual defeat for the Ukrainians.
So should they fight or should they just surrender, because the result will be the same in the end anyway?”
Evidently Sheridan has not learned much from having been on the losing side in Vietnam.
Given the superiority of American equipment, aircraft and firepower it wasn’t enough to occupy the small nation of Vietnam indefinitely. That “superiority” just meant the American aggressors did more damage than the French before them. Of course the Vietnamese did not fight when and where the Americans wanted them to. They retreated and hid and fought when it suited them. The American “superiority” did not mean “eventual defeat” for the Vietnamese. Help from the rest of the world was important, especially from the American people and especially from anti-war US soldiers who killed their officers and broke the US army. The key point was that an expeditionary army of half a million was not enough to occupy another nation “indefinitely”.
Sending NATO troops to Ukraine would not be particularly helpful. Russia has complete local dominance in its region (land, sea and air) and would defeat NATO in such battles. But if the West wanted to do more than just send arms and other supplies to the Ukrainian resistance it could certainly cause serious military problems for Putin instead of just making speeches. For example Turkey could and should close the Bosphorous to bottle up the Russian fleet (as could and should have been done over Syria). NATO naval forces would be completely dominant everywhere else and could cut off most of Russia’s revenue from trade. It would be up to Russia whether it wished to escalate from a losing position or would prefer to withdraw quickly. A lot of lives could be saved if the West was not so completely gutless. But the peoples of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine will still win in the end. The long term result will be regime change in Russia again.
‘An alien association’: Master of Arts thesis on Maoism and the Communist Party of China 1971-1977
The late John Herouvim wrote a Master of Arts thesis at La Trobe University in 1983, drawing on wide and meticulous research and interviews with Communist Party of Australia (ML) members and former members. The former members included veterans of the working class struggle such as Clarrie O’Shea, Bill Wilson and Marj Broadbent. Most of the interviewees were still members and requested anonymity but they wanted to speak because of their growing disillusionment with that party.
I only recently came upon a copy of the completed thesis. It hasn’t previously been scanned, to the best of my knowledge.
I am yet to read it properly but recall having a few differences with John, such as his use of the term ‘ultra left’ too loosely. At the time he was researching it, there were a few social-fascist types who tried to stop his progress. John purchased a large steel safe, like a fridge, in which he kept his notes and drafts. He told me once that the safe would even survive a bomb blast. Thank heavens, it was never put to that test.
Ted Hill, the party chairman, wasn’t happy about John’s research and declined to cooperate with him but I remember John telling me that Hill offered him unrestricted access to the archives of a small trade union should he drop the project and focus on a history of that union instead. Presumably, the party had strong influence in that union, whose name I forget.
The thesis is now an historical document about a party and period that, in my view today, represented the decline of the left. I didn’t articulate my frustrations in that way at the time but quit organisationally in late 1980 or early 1981 and had no problems with being interviewed by John for his thesis. I was in the esteemed company of Clarrie O’Shea, after all.
Nearly four decades on, I have scanned the thesis and share it here (in four parts).
Soylent Green and the reactionary Malthusians
Karl Marx didn’t mince words when it came to the Rev. Thomas Malthus, the ‘pastor of the Poor House’. Marx described him as “the greatest destroyer of all hankerings after a progressive development of humanity” and “a shameless sycophant of the ruling classes“.
(Apart from that, he wasn’t too bad, though!)
In 1968, Paul Erlich’s book, ‘The Population Bomb’, revived Mathusian dystopianism and, surprisingly, was embraced by some people who regarded thermselves as on the Left. Yet in emphasizing population growth and limited resources as the source of problems, the neo-Malthusians overlooked the capitalist mode of production and the structures of class power.
In the C19th, in blaming ‘too many people’ as the source of poverty, Malthus was indeed committing “a libel on the human race” and offering “apologia for the poverty of the working classes”.
The Canberra Times recently published my article below. It had been gestating for a long time and the movie ‘Soylent Green‘ prompted me to write something, given that the dystopian sci-fi film is set in our year: 2022. The movie came out nearly 50 years ago.
My article in The Canberra Times took up a full page, so I definitely can’t complain about the generous word length. However, had I had more words, I would have included at least three more references
First, a personal memory: In the mid-1990s, I was at a party at a friend’s place overlooking the Georges River in Sylvania Heights, Sydney, and the eminent palaeontologist and climate alarmist, Tim Flannery, was among the guests. We had known each other, briefly, at La Trobe University around 1973 or 1974, and struck up a conversation. Tim was very much concerned about population growth, believing that Australia was already over-populated. He told me that the optimum population for Australia was seven million people. I pointed out that that figure approximated the population in 1947 and asked whether he really wanted an Australia of the 1947 type. He seemed not to have thought of it like that, in terms of society, before.
I would also have liked to add more examples of very popular dystopian sci-fi films that have helped create a disempowering doom-and-gloom ethos and that were proven completely wrong in how they saw the future. A powerful example is the original ‘Mad Max‘. The filmmakers in 1979 were so freaked out by the oil crisis of 1973 that they set Mad Max in the ‘wasteland’ of 1985!
Thirdly, it’s worth noting that the Internet Movie Data Base lists the top 500 dystopian sci-fi films – which means there are many more than that. They really are a cultural phenomenon.
Science fiction stories had a big impact on my early political development. I liked the ones that dealt with ‘the impossible’ that was nonetheless potentially possible. Unlike fantasy, which never interested me with its dragons and other mythical creatures and impossible scenarios, sci-fi had a basis in science and innovation. Stories and films about space travel, planetary exploration and colonisation of other planets thrilled me; they seemed beyond possibility back then but I loved to fantasize about a future in which they would be part of life. Later, I was influenced by ideas about how society itself could be reshaped into something much better and, through Marxism, came to a rudimentary understand about the forces that were retarding such progress and those that were pushing things forward.
It’s very rare to find progressive sci-fi in mainstream cinema today. An exception in the mainstream was the movie ‘The Martian‘ which came out in 2015. I really enjoyed the way it showed how humans can overcome obstacles imposed by Nature, in this case the apparently uninhabitable planet Mars. Human ingenuity, wit, courage, innovation and spirit combine to ‘conquer’ Nature. The stranded astronaut survives to tell the tale.
Anyway, here is my article…
‘SOYLENT GREEN’ IS STILL BAD FOR YOU – 50 YEARS ON
It is a brave science fiction film that offers a precise year in its speculations. This is particularly so in the dystopian genre where eco-catastrophe is a common theme.
The makers of the iconic ‘Soylent Green’, which was released nearly 50 years ago, offered us a glimpse to our own year, 2022. It was the first film to mention the Greenhouse Effect, though there is no suggestion that the inhumanly overcrowded, sweltering, society depicted is the result of CO2 emissions. Rather, all the problems in the dystopia of 2022 are caused by ‘overpopulation’.
The film was made in 1973 when the world’s population was 4 billion. Today, it is 7.7 billion. The filmmakers’ expected it to be much larger than that. Some countries, like China and India, with huge populations are lifting themselves from poverty. The United Nations Human Development Index, which has measured health, education, income, gender equality, and poverty since 1990, indicates that population growth and progress are not mutually exclusive.
Soylent Green is a type of biscuit on which the malnourished population portrayed in 2022 has come to rely. It was formerly made from plankton but then the oceans acidified. Soylent, the monopoly manufacturer, finds a new source, one that is not revealed until the film’s shocking end.
The action takes place in New York City, which in the film has a population of 40 million and is terribly overcrowded and polluted. (Reality check: New York City’s population today is 8.8 million). There is no sunshine, just grim darkness and power outages. The streets have people dying in gutters, car wrecks everywhere, and makeshift shanties in laneways. Tenements are dilapidated and their stairwells crowded with women and children who have nowhere else to sleep. The film’s main character, Detective Thorn, played by Charlton Heston, clammers over them to reach his small room.
In this imagined 2022, Manhattan has two million out of work. Corruption and crime are out of control. (Reality: crime has reduced greatly in New York City since the 1970s). In Thorn’s precinct, there are 137 murders a day. (Reality: there were 450 murders in all of New York City last year).
In the Soylent Corporation’s New York, everyone swelters as the days reach 32 degrees all year round. (Reality: Winters remain very, very, cold). The masses line up at rusty central water pumps for their ration of water which has become a scarce resource. (Reality: New York City’s seven reservoirs are at 88% capacity).
Fresh food is a luxury for the great mass of people who are malnourished. But not so the rich. Thorn, who is probably in his late 30s, has to be taught how to eat an apple by his best friend, Sol, the elderly man of wisdom who remembers how things used to be in ‘the good old days’ before ‘our scientific magicians poisoned the water’. (Reality: New York City water is only poisonous if you regard fluoride as a poison). Sol is played admirably by Edward G. Robinson in his last cinematic role.
An exasperated Sol declares that ‘Everything’s burning up! No-one cares!’, but that is hardly true when it comes to climate change. Not only do governments around the world take action to reduce CO2 emissions, admittedly some more than others, but some of the biggest multinational corporations are on side as well.
At its core, Soylent Green is a reactionary film because it adopts the Malthusian view that ‘too many people’ cause the problems. The misanthropy is expressed through Sol when he says: ‘People were always rotten but the world was beautiful’. Beautiful – but for the people?! None of the world’s problems, such as lack of democracy and development, corrupt governments, oppression of women, inequality, nationalism, shifts in climate patterns and the rule of capital, would be solved by reducing population numbers.
Charlton Heston, a prominent right-winger in the US, commissioned the script for the film. The great divide between rich and poor is revealed when Thorn investigates the murder of a director of the Soylent Corp and enters the victim’s spacious apartment in the ruling class’ exclusive Chelsea Towers. The capitalists live in utter luxury with fresh food, water, air-conditioning and the latest mod-cons, including video games. But the film goes nowhere with this class divide; instead, the problem is overpopulation. Echoing the Rev Thomas Malthus’ ‘libel against humanity’, as Marx described it 157 years ago, it is the poor, tired, huddled masses who are responsible for their own suffering. A very convenient belief system.
There is one scene in which the people riot but that is short-lived and they are easily defeated, their bodies scooped up from the streets in large front-end loaders and taken off to… well, that would be a spoiler.
The film’s portrayal of women in the imagined 2022 is laughable. They are either part of the sweaty anonymous mass or beautiful ‘furniture girls’, who are assigned to each new tenant in the apartments of the rich. They do what they are told. It’s as though the Women’s Liberation movement never happened.
The film ends with poor old Sol going to a euthanasia clinic. Given his attitude to Humanity, who can blame him? It’s legal in 2022 and performed in clean comfortable circumstances. Sol watches beautiful scenes of Nature on a large screen – blooming flowers, blue skies, fluffy white clouds, streaming rivers, forests, ocean waves crashing gently on a beach – while his favourite classical music is played in the background.
He is nearly eighty, which approximates the life expectancy in New York today. But in 1973, when the film was released, life expectancy was seventy-one.
After Sol dies, Thorn secretly follows the truck carrying the corpse to an unknown destination. Dozens of bodies end up in a large warehouse and are then processed into… you’ve guessed it! – Soylent Green. Thorn screams out: ‘It’s made out of people!’ Not a bad metaphor for capitalism, actually, as a system that objectifies our labour potential and exploits and consumes the best hours of our lives.
As the end credits roll, we again see the scenes of beautiful Nature. My mind turns to recent road trips with my wife along the east coast of Australia and the glorious scenery.
Soylent Green inspired hundreds of similar sci fi films and influenced countless numbers of people with its unreal dystopian vision. Such films are a reflection of a social system that accurately sees no future for itself.
Soylent Green, and the ideology it represents, really are bad for us – toxic, in fact.
Pandemic – what kind of society?
(The following article by Paul Komesaroff appeared in The Age on 15 January. I’m running it here without permission in order to promote further discussion. Please read it at the original AGE site and make comments there too)
January 15, 2022
Now that the disaster is upon us we can start to analyse how it happened.
I am a frontline health worker, lying listlessly in bed battling an infection with the Omicron variant. My illness has provided me with the opportunity to reflect on our current predicament and what lessons can be learnt from it.
Healthcare workers have been pushed to the limit by the crisis.
We do need to be clear, however: this is a true disaster. Unprecedented numbers of people have been admitted to our hospitals, which are now full. Deaths are mounting rapidly. Ambulances sit in line for hours waiting to discharge their sick patients to overrun emergency departments. Patients with serious non-COVID illnesses, like heart attacks and cancers, struggle to find doctors to treat them.
In the health services up to 10 per cent of workers are away sick, and many, unable to cope with the stress, have given up and resigned. Food and other essential services are failing. The frantic determination to avoid lockdowns has produced a de facto lockdown, more intense than the official ones because of its unplanned, chaotic nature and the absence of safety nets.
Admittedly, not all the news is bad. Even if the vaccines are imperfect at preventing infections and hospitalisations, they do greatly reduce the risk of death – and they may well have saved my life. Healthcare staff – doctors and nurses, young and old – are working tirelessly, often to the point of exhaustion, in heroic efforts to keep the system going.
But it is still a disaster. How did we get here? For nearly two years we had struggled to work together and protect each other. In Victoria, respected political and public health leadership provided reliable information and a determined and clearly argued plan. There were lapses – like hotel quarantine – that were subjected to ruthless public scrutiny, but overcoming the challenges and setbacks heightened the sense of solidarity and mutual caring.
But then it all unravelled. It seemed quick but in reality the forces had been in play all along. An unrelenting campaign to undermine the collective purpose, to oppose all restrictions, had worn away at confidence in public health measures. Campaigns of disinformation and conspiracy theories stimulated the rise of fringe Trump-like groups. The incessant talk about how injunctions to support the vulnerable were in reality a device to undermine prized individual “freedoms” hit home.
A concerted effort by the federal government, supported by the NSW government, attacked the few strategies that had been shown to work. Ballooning numbers in NSW quickly led to the spread of infections across the country.
Then, exactly as Omicron emerged, as health workers looked on with incredulity and horror, even the most minimal remaining restrictions were lifted.
It was widely acknowledged that this decision would produce disastrous consequences and would need quickly to be reversed. And it was true: the disaster happened and the restrictions were reversed. But the damage had been done and the effects were irreversible.
The policy that produced this decision was not the result of simple incompetence. It embodied a fully coherent, and carefully articulated, ethical world-view, on which we as a society now need to make a decision.
The “let it rip” strategy is a potent statement that health and human life should be held to be of little value; that individual “freedom” is directly opposed to collective action and mutual care; and that our society is richer and better if we and our governments repudiate responsibility to weaker members, to those fleeing persecution, and to future generations.
Through the clouds of my delirium I fancy that this understanding of society as a war of all against all had long been discredited. I imagine that most of us have become aware that freedom is enhanced when the structures of mutual support and opportunity remain intact. I muse that there is abundant evidence that the safety of our children and grandchildren can only be assured if we work collectively and co-operatively to protect and care for each other and for our planet.
The reality is that we are in the middle of a war – not just against the “invisible enemy” of the virus but also a new culture war, or more precisely, an ethics war. What is at stake is the vision we wish to have for our society: is it that of a collection of individuals opposed to each other, where security is limited to the powerful and the privileged?
Or is it of a world of shared values, where collective resources can be applied to those in most need, where each of us is prepared from time to time to defer our own comfort to assist and care for our fellow citizens?
In my fevered state, waiting for my clearance from infection control to return to the fray, I try to remind myself of the heroism of the young doctors, nurses and other essential workers. But I am not confident about the outcome.
Professor Paul Komesaroff is a Melbourne physician, ethicist and writer.
Tiananmen Square 1989 – an American Marxist-Maoist’s view from the ground
William Hinton (1919-2004) was an American Marxist who lived and worked in China before and after the revolution of 1949. In 1966, he wrote up his experiences and observations of daily life, class struggle, strategic planning and social transformation in Long Bow village. The book, ‘Fanshen‘, remains a classic. (‘Fanshen’ broadly means overturning something).
As a Marxist and ‘Maoist’, Hinton naturally rejected the ascendancy of the capitalist-roaders, such as Deng Xiaoping, and pulled no punches in his 1983 book, ‘Shenfan’ (meaning the opposite of Fanshen).
The account of what happened at Tiananmen Square in Hinton’s book is here.
I’m posting this because, incredibly, there are still people around who claim to be leftists but regard the rebellion as a foreign plot, its suppression as justified, and the massacre as fake news.
‘Blame it on the USA’ – a rock song for the 20th anniversary of September 11
This rock song was written by my close friend, Peter Gelling (1960-2018) – and me – long ago. I’ve decided to ‘release’ it now to mark the 20th anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attack on the US.
The explanatory text below accompanies the song on youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BUjseopCioc
‘Blame it on the USA’ was co-written by Peter Gelling (1960-2018) and yours truly in response to the knee-jerk anti-Americanism we experienced among our friends in the weeks after the September 11 terrorist attacks on the USA.
We found it strange that nearly all of our friends, including those who identified as being on the Left, were either gloating about what had happened or automatically blaming the US. They had not looked into the nature of Al Qaeda, the Islamo-fascist* outfit behind the attacks. It was as though all one needed to understand was that America was always wrong.
As one of many who had opposed the US war in Vietnam, I couldn’t see any similarity between the Vietnamese struggle for national liberation and the targetting of civilians by a reactionary religious fundamentalist terror group who hated modernity. One of the first things I did, at the time, was to google ‘Bin Laden’ to see what he believed in. What I found wasn’t pretty and essentially medievalist.
Fortunately, there were left-wing individuals who spoke up about all this while certainly recognizing that decades of US foreign policy – the backing and arming of hated dictators such as Saddam Hussein – had led to America being a dirty word among the masses in the Middle East and elsewhere.
But to blame the US for September 11, in an unqualified way, was to overlook the nature of those behind the attack.
Peter and I embraced the notion that there is a ‘pseudo-left’. Content is what matters and when ‘anti-imperialism’ serves fascism, it is not an anti-imperialism worth supporting. Especially when most people around the world who lived under tyranny were fighting for freedom. And still are.
I don’t remember when we wrote the song’s lyrics but I know the original idea was mine. I wanted the song to have a distinctively American rock sound and Peter, the master musician and multi-instrumentalist, laid down a great Chuck Berry riff. (It doesn’t get much more American than Chuck Berry).
The song has never been released to the public before, but I know Peter would be happy to have it shared on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attack.
The lyric “Maccas and Coke are just fine by me” will offend some people but none more than those who still want to turn the clock back to pre-modern times. The religious fascists rely on violence and terror because they know they will never win the consent of the majority in modern bourgeois-democracies. That is also why they hate things like free speech, women’s liberation, elections – and rock music.
*I rarely use this term as it can be misunderstood to mean that all Islamists are fascists but in the context of Al-Qaeda I regard it as fair usage. It was coined, I think, by the late great anti-fascist, Christopher Hitchens, whose absence is felt now more than ever.
Afghanistan, the Taliban and women/girls – and a poem
(contribution by Tom Griffiths)
With the Afghan government’s ignominious defeat on the tail of the US government’s humiliating withdrawal, a lot – and I mean a lot – of gloating has been in evidence on Farcebook by ostensible leftists, some of whom are former comrades, celebrating another defeat for good ole US imperialism.
Pointing out the defeat and the role of the US in effectively setting up this situation is not the problem. What the problem is is the total (this might be an exaggeration, but not by much) silence on the fate of the Afghan people, in particular Afghan women.
Nowhere amongst my former comrades do I see an ‘ok, now the Yanks and their lackeys have gone the main enemy of the people is the Taliban and the most likely means of defeating them will be through armed struggle.’ Instead, there is silence. If this continues for more than a nanosecond this silence transforms into collusion. Left in form, right in essence we could call it.
A year or so ago I wrote a poem celebrating the bravery and example of a 15 year old girl in regional Afghanistan who, in response to her parents being gunned down before her sought out her father’s machine gun and killed the murderers, at least one of whom was Taliban. I reprint it below:
Qamar Gul and a father’s teaching
As others forgot to question
And rushed to defend the
Old verities and
As others remained fast
Confusing darkness for light
The old spell began to break
And its truths began to decay
As others panicked
From the revealing light
Confusion spread and freedom beckoned.
From the depths ghouls and false healers emerged
Screaming and cajoling
Harnessing death and instilling fear
Settling old scores and new alike.
Such times are indeed dangerous.
How was this man to protect his family?
What if he should fall?
Can friend still be seen from foe?
What if he should fall?
Tradition dictates his daughter’s marriage
The past may still protect…
But what if these ways are not enough?
What if they should fail?
He placed his gun into her hands
He’ll teach her what to do
If fall he should and well he may
Let new ways show the way.
When death came bursting through the door
Stealing her parents from her
This father’s girl knew what to do
And didn’t fail to do it.
She honored her father’s teachings
And moved into the light.
I wrote this poem a year ago when news of Qamar Gul’s actions made international news. I was very impressed by her bravery and the example she was setting – and worry about her safety now given that the Taliban are back in control. When I completed the poem I sent it to a young Afghani colleague and asked her to check the accuracy of its ‘line’ and suggest corrections if necessary. She gave it the thumbs up.
covid-19 Pandemic of the unvaccinated
This is the third of a series of articles on covid-19 promised on May 25 in “Ongoing disaster from Shambolic Clots”:
I will link back to an update of this complete list each time a new article is published.
The danger from Shambolic Clots in NSW is greater today than ever before.
After seeding the virus throughout Greater Sydney and regional NSW the government has announced just enough steps for an intensified lockdown of the whole State to delay action against it. Contact tracing has already broken down completely with the source of 345 mystery cases “under investigation” out of 466 total. That means most of the infected people who infected today’s cases are still not in isolation and still spreading infection. Recovery from that requires a far more rigorous lockdown with full curfews and rostered hours for collecting supplies and exercise. Each day’s delay is likely to add another week to the necessary lockdown
But the strategy remains unchanged. Instead of aggressively suppressing the virus to eliminate community transmission like every other State in Australia, the NSW Government still intends to just keep vaccinating while the virus keeps infecting. Then they can announce that they have reached 70% “fully vaccinated” in a couple of months and then go to “phase B” and then “phase C” where we no longer bother about infections and only look at the number of deaths.
This is intended to force the rest of Australia into the same policy of opening up like the UK instead of stamping out each outbreak until it is safe to open up because the whole world has been vaccinated, like New Zealand.
If they are very lucky they may “succeed” by avoiding the hospitals being overwhelmed. Vaccination DOES dramatically reduce the death rate at present and so far the UK has been able to avoid mass deaths despite complete collapse of contact tracing and mass infection as is starting now in NSW.
Can they be stopped? Yes. New Zealand has reaffirmed its policy of elimination despite the fact that “allies have thrown in the towell”. Most of the public support the New Zealand policy rather than the media death cult’s campaign.
Public pressure could win in the long run. But we don’t have a long run.
Infections are already growing exponentially and will not be slowed much by today’s steps. If the numbers infected double every week it only takes 10 weeks to multiply by one thousand. Delta can double much faster than that.
There is no way for public pressure to force an unwilling State Government to change policy quickly. It takes many months to organize. A large majority in the UK against the Government policy were unable to prevent it going ahead.
The only people who can stop the NSW Government quickly are the Chief Health Officers (CHOs) of the other jurisdictions. They form the Australian Health Protection Principals Committee (AHPPC) responsible for fighting the pandemic.
They are busy trying to suppress outbreaks in their own States and Territories spread from NSW. But they have not yet done anything to actually support NSW. Instead State Premiers and Territory Chief Ministers have merely criticized at two successive weekly meetings of “National Cabinet” and the national “Chief Medical Officer” (who does not actually run any public health system) still describes vaccines as a “circuit breaker” when there is simply no way vaccinations can stop infections faster than Delta can spread them.
It is not clear whether the CHOs on the AHPPC know that it is actually possible for them to intervene in NSW. Most people simply assume it is politically impossible because the Federal Government has no authority over State public health systems and no desire to intervene against a coalition government. If they have time to think about it at all, it is likely that many CHOs have the same assumption. All they can do is close the borders as tightly as they can.
But it is possible for them to intervene. The Federal Health Minister can simply issue a decree under the Biosecurity Act. Formal advice to do so from the AHPPC would be hard to ignore. If the government did ignore them it would have even less chance of surviving the next elections than it does now. That Act provides the same dictatorial powers that CHOs have exercised in their own jurisdictions (including detentions of tens of thousands of people) to overide all other Australian law during a Biosecurity emergency. See my “draft 0” in the second article of this series:
covid-19 Draft Emergency Legislative Instrument
We need lawyers to draft the necessary “legislative instrument” (and perhaps some memos about the penalties for wilful neglect of duties by public officers) and medical doctors and scientists to ensure the CHOs promptly take action to insist on its prompt implementation (and second the necessary officers to lead the NSW public health response).
Everybody knows a doctor and pretty well any doctor is only 2 degrees of separation from a CHO. We can talk to doctors and persuade them to study the relevant documents carefully enough to pick up a phone and persuade a colleague closer to the CHO to do the same. Then it is just one more phone call to reach the local CHO and get them to take the time.
Something similar should be possible to find lawyers who know lawyers that could do the drafting.
A good starting point for reading by doctors and lawyers is the New Zealand Government’s position. Here it is:
Click on “Expand all” and read the speech by the main author of the NZ Government report recommending that they continue to “stamp out” each outbreak as it occurs. Then also download pdfs of the report.
Here’s an excerpt:
Many people argued that elimination was impossible. Well, they were wrong. New Zealand did eliminate COVID-19, and so did several other countries — including China.
There’s no doubt that our elimination strategy has served us well. I often compare us with Scotland, which also has just over 5 million people. New Zealand has had a total of 26 deaths during the pandemic. Scotland has had over 10,000 deaths, and more Scots have suffered chronic illness — the so-called ‘long Covid’. We dodged a bullet — and our social and community life has flourished, in comparison with countries where repeated lockdowns and restrictions on gatherings have made the past 16 months a time of frustration and grief.
But what about the future? Can we maintain elimination, as we re-open our borders (as we must do)? High levels of vaccination should make it easier to stamp out clusters of COVID-19, but new variants like Delta will make it more difficult. If we have to give up on elimination, and allow the virus to become endemic, many New Zealanders will end up in hospital and a sizeable number will die — though a lot fewer than if we had let the virus spread last year.
Our group wrestled with the question. We concluded that, at this stage of the pandemic, the elimination strategy is not only viable, but also the best option. It allows us to enjoy a lifestyle that is relatively unaffected by the ravages of COVID-19, and to protect our health service and our economy.
The UK, after a disastrous year, has had a great vaccination roll-out: 94% of English adults now have antibodies arising from vaccination or past infection, or both. Yet last week they still had 627 deaths from COVID — the equivalent of about 48 deaths a week in our population. And most British people are avoiding contacts with others: social contacts are still down on last summer, and are barely a quarter of pre-pandemic levels. Many people work at home, and about 90% are still wearing a mask when outside the house.
Look at this crowded room. None us of us is wearing a mask, and we are not fearful of contagion. This would be unthinkable in most countries. I hope not to spend the rest of my life shielding from others, especially in winter, and looking at faces covered by masks.
Next, to understand the full horror of the term “Pandemic of the Unvaccinated” it is necessary to understand that most of the world is unvaccinated and that a report to the 94th meeting of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies of the UK Government (SAGE) described:
Scenario One: A variant that causes severe disease in a greater proportion of the population than has occurred to date. For example, with similar morbidity/mortality to other zoonotic coronaviruses such as SARS-CoV (~10% case fatality) or MERS-CoV (~35% case fatality).
SAGE considered this report and officially confirmed that it has “high confidence” and is “almost certain” of “higher rates of transmission creating more opportunities for new variants to emerge” and that more severe disease is a “realistic possibility”. (See paragraph 37 and 39 of Minutes below).
The Minutes omit the reference to up to 35% case fatality but that is what was described as a “realistic possibility”.
These documents can be found at:
This includes the SAGE 94 minutes: Coronavirus (COVID-19) response, 22 July 2021
Published 6 August 2021:
and an updated version of the report on long term evolution discussed in those minutes:
That report includes a succinct summary of latest virology, immunology and phylodynamics from p6 to end at p15.
A summary of the report was published in the business executives magazine, “Forbes” on August 4:
The UK Government opened up the UK to unlimited infection on July 19 (“Freedom Day”) in the full knowledge that this is likely to unleash a “Pandemic of the Unvaccinated” both in the UK and worldwide.
They expect that pretty well everybody will get infected since Herd Immunity is unfeasible and that there is a “realistic possibility” that up to 35% will die. That’s more than 2 billion people!
The UK Government’s crime has been denounced by more than a thousand medical doctors and scientists in a politely worded statement:
The UK Government must reconsider its current strategy and take urgent steps to protect the public, including children. We believe the government is embarking on a dangerous and unethical experiment, and we call on it to pause plans to abandon mitigations on July 19, 2021.
Although politely worded the accusation of “unethical experiment” on humans happens to be considered a “crime against humanity” over which courts in many countries exercise “universal jurisdiction” regardless of where and by whom such crimes are committed.
We can leave aside consideration of what motivated the UK Government and what motivates the NSW Government until they are put on trial either by their own courts for “reckless endangerment” and “misconduct in public office” or by the courts of other countries affected by their crimes against humanity.
The point right now is to stop them by doing whatever we can to prevent mass infections while vaccinating the world (and developing a future “sterlizing vaccine” that actually eradicates the virus).
Below is the authoritative minutes from SAGE.
But there is more that doctors and lawers should be studying closely and that science journalists should be explaining to a wider public. Here is a starting point:
Assessing the risk of vaccine-driven virulence evolution in SARS-CoV-2
Ian F. Miller, Jessica E. Metcalf
It explains clearly the precise mechanism by which “vaccine-driven” virulence evolution has a realistic possibility of killing 2 billion unvaccinated people while being “unlikely” to threaten immunized populations.
How might COVID-19 vaccines alter selection for increased SARS-CoV-2 virulence, or lethality? Framing current evidence surrounding SARS-CoV-2 biology and COVID-19 vaccines in the context of evolutionary theory indicates that prospects for virulence evolution remain uncertain. However, differential effects of vaccinal immunity on transmission and disease severity between respiratory compartments could select for increased virulence. To bound expectations for this outcome, we analyze an evo-epidemiological model. Synthesizing model predictions with vaccine efficacy data, we conclude that while vaccine driven virulence evolution remains a theoretical risk, it is unlikely to threaten prospects for herd immunity in immunized populations. Given that this event would nevertheless impact unvaccinated populations, virulence should be monitored to facilitate swift mitigation efforts.
Vaccines can provide personal and population level protection against infectious disease, but these benefits can exert strong selective pressures on pathogens. Virulence, or lethality, is one pathogen trait that can evolve in response to vaccination. We investigated whether COVID-19 vaccines could select for increased SARS-CoV-2 virulence by reviewing current evidence about vaccine efficacy and SARS-CoV-2 biology in the context of evolutionary theory, and subsequently analyzing a mathematical model. Our findings indicate that while vaccine-driven virulence evolution in SARS-CoV-2 is a theoretical risk, the consequences of this event would be limited for vaccinated populations. However, virulence evolution should be monitored, as the ramifications of a more virulent strain spreading into an under-vaccinated population would be more severe.
Rather more than “monitoring” is required, we have to vaccinate the world.
Doctors and scientists should be able to find the relevant technical literature from seeing what recent papers have referenced the earlier papers listed in that preprint.
Lawyers should be able to prepare the necessary criminal indictments – but first we need the legislative instrument that helps NSW rejoin the rest of Australia in following the New Zealand path of maintaining elimination instead of the UK path of spreading infection.
Below is the relevant part of SAGE 94 minutes: Coronavirus (COVID-19) response, 22 July 2021
Published 6 August 2021
Long-term viral evolution
- It is almost certain that the emergence of new variants of SARS-CoV-2 is related to the amount of circulating virus, with higher rates of circulation and transmission creating more opportunities for new variants to emerge (high confidence).
- There are a number of possible scenarios which could lead to the emergence of a variant which is more transmissible, causes more severe disease, or has a degree of immune escape.
- A variant which causes more severe disease could emerge through recombination, where it is produced in an individual infected with two separate variants or acquire other genetic material from other viruses or the host (realistic possibility). Current vaccines are highly likely to continue to provide protection against serious disease for such new variants. However, since no vaccine is completely effective, there would likely still be an increase in morbidity and mortality from such a variant.
- An immune escape variant could emerge in several ways. This includes through antigenic shift, where natural recombination events change the spike glycoprotein of the virus (realistic possibility). It could also emerge through animals becoming infected, the virus mutating within that population and then later this new variant infecting humans (realistic possibility). A new variant could also emerge through antigenic drift, where antigenic variation eventually leads to current vaccine failure (almost certain). These could occur over different timeframes. It is unknown how levels of immunity change the risk of the establishment of such a variant.
- Reducing transmission, increasing vaccination levels, monitoring new variants and preparing to update vaccinations would mitigate the risks of such new variants.
- A new variant could emerge that evades current antiviral strategies. Reducing the likelihood of such a variant emerging requires careful use of antivirals. This includes taking particular care in the treatment of immunocompromised people, or others infected for a long period, in whom viral evolution is more likely to happen. In particular, those working with infected immunocompromised individuals should take extra precautions to prevent onwards transmission.
- Although unlikely in the short term, in the long term it is a realistic possibility that variants will arise that are more transmissible but with reduced virulence. This reduced virulence, along with high population immunity, could eventually lead to the virus causing a much less severe disease.
- As antiviral drugs become available it will be very important to use them in a way that does not induce viral escape from their effects, for example using them in combinations.
Impact of international vaccination
- The biggest threat to the UK’s health security and response to the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic is the emergence (and establishment within the UK) of variants that either have increased transmissibility, increased severity, escape prior immunity or a combination of these characteristics (high confidence). At this point in the epidemic, with a high degree of population immunity, an immune escape variant would be of particular concern (high confidence).
- Substantial global circulation of SARS-CoV-2 will lead to the evolution of new variants and continued risk of importation to the UK (medium confidence). Reducing prevalence globally will therefore reduce the risk to the UK. Multilateral coordination will be important in achieving this.
- Increased international vaccination (for example by sharing of doses or supporting increased manufacture) has the potential to reduce the appearance and establishment of variants internationally, as well as the risk of their importation to the UK (medium confidence). There are also strong ethical reasons for supporting international vaccination efforts. Targeting international vaccination efforts (for example to countries where there are higher numbers of immunocompromised people, for example due to HIV infection) may be particularly beneficial.
- The choice of vaccine is likely to be important and may change over time. Although using single doses would allow more people to be reached with limited supply, it may also result in more people having partial immunity which may increase the risk of an immune escape variant developing or spreading.
- Border measures may also reduce the risk to the UK, though these will delay rather than prevent the importation of variants. Reducing global prevalence may lessen the need for border measures. Strengthening global surveillance of variants (as well as continued surveillance in the UK) will be important in understanding the risk. SAGE strongly supports the need for effective surveillance systems in the UK (UKHSA) and the presence of a global surveillance system as envisioned in the G7 communique. In addition to sequencing, studies on biology including transmission fitness and antigenicity will be required to understand which variants may become dominant.