The Nixon Files

By Benjamin Burns

And so the summer of 2019 reaches its peak: another humid, overbearing ordeal in Tokyo, and one which I could quite easily do without.

Truth be told, I have always disliked summer, and sitting in a poorly air-conditioned café, somewhere amongst the concrete mess of Shibuya, does little to change that opinion.

Nevertheless, I am not immune to some of the charm that this season brings. It is, after all, a time when things become obvious. The skies grow clearer, the grass greener, wildlife more abundant; even people are free to expose more of themselves, though this does present something of a ‘mixed bag’.

In case you hadn’t caught it, this is also intended as an analogy more generally speaking, for just as the pondlife rises to the surface, for all to see, so to must other things. This week it is history.

For once again, from the swamp, comes a sordid artefact of the Nixon years, in the form of a taped phone conversation, this time between the man himself (Nixon) and darling of the neoliberal right, Ronald Reagan (then Gov. of California).

The precise content of this ugly little exchange scarcely needs repeating here—though for those who have not yet listened to it, you are advised to do so—suffice to say that concerns the 1971 recognition of the Peoples Republic of China as the official Chinese state, replacing the Republic of China (Taiwan) at the UN.

The United States, which had thrown its diplomatic weight behind Taiwan, for nearly three decades, was (to say the least) invested in that particular status quo, and not at all pleased about having its strategic ally unseated—least of all in favour of its communist antithesis.

To add insult to injury, the vote on Chinas recognition was perceived to have been carried by ‘the Third World’: newly independent, developing nations; largely African and largely sympathetic towards the political struggle of the PRC.

In hindsight, that this was considered a slight to both the vanity and competence of Richard Nixon, his administration, as well as US realpolitik generally speaking, perhaps goes without saying. And, knowing what we know about these two men, so too does their subsequent reaction to it.

Richard Nixon’s grotesque anti-Semitism and bigotry have been common knowledge for decades now, his very name becoming synonymous with political corruption. In fact, when measured against the vulgarity of his pre-existing recorded legacy, this conversation pales in comparison.

Likewise that Ronald Reagan, patron of white racism in southern Africa, scourge of Latin American democracy, might have harboured disdain towards the self-determination of newly independent African states, seems a revelation equally uninteresting.

So what is it that we are really surprised about here? What is it that we think these tapes reveal that is so shocking to us? Surely it is not that two men, both with a fairly well-documented history of such attitudes, had such a conversation, some 50 years ago.

No. Rather it is what we think this recording tells us about the present times, or, more specifically, the president: Donald Trump.

This angle has been fairly clear throughout reporting, though usually oblique, and rarely substantial, to the degree that I am often left wondering precisely who Donald Trump is being compared to, Nixon or Reagan—surely he cannot encapsulate both simultaneously.

Naftil, writing in the Atlantic, makes the connection somewhat clearer for us, suggesting that the relevance of these tapes to Donald Trump, is as a reminder that previous American Presidents have been racist—and more generally to race as a prevailing issue in American politics.

Well, if it took the haunting cackle of Richard Nixon, from beyond the grave, to remind you of either of those things, you may not be competent as a voice of reason on the issue; nor well equipped for the eventuality that the president may, in fact, be an ideological racist.

Of course, the true value is only ever implicitly stated, though well understood by those with an ear for it: if Reagan spoke like this on the phone, imagine what Trump says in private. The wider implications of this reasoning should, I hope, be equally understood.

I do not particularly like Donald Trump. I find him boorish, often ill-informed, his positions on international relations antiquated – as well as those on many other things. It strikes me that there are many reasons to dislike the man, and his presidency, without slavishly grasping at straws in a kind of historical kangaroo court.

Trump may be a racist; I do not know. He may be a racist, a sexual predator, a wife abuser, or any other variety of miscreant. He may be all of these things at once, even, yet it would remain beyond the relevance or indictment of a conversation between two separate individuals, recorded half a century earlier.

To assume otherwise is to say that all bad things are essentially alike, in so far as they sound and look alike to me, which in itself produces a kind of tyranny. A tyranny which is both pervasive and seductive in its simplicity.

There is certainly something attractive in doing this. If you simply lump all the people you don’t like together, as a sort of homogenous, albeit multi-headed, creature, you can make a number of broad assumptions, predictions and strategies.

This is, above all, a symptom of lazy thinking: the type which has seen the decay of the intellectual left in the western hemisphere. Yet it is also a precursor to something much more sinister if left unchecked, or even encouraged, as it has been.

Trump is not Nixon, nor is he Reagan, and the political environment he inhabits is a world apart from that of either. The sooner people start understanding Trump as an entity in himself, they may start to understand the reasons why he was elected in the first place, and contest him from that position—rather than assuming some common strain of evil.

Finally, If this tape is to remind us of anything, it is first and foremost the odious legacy Nixonism and its continued stain on the American political psyche; secondly, to contextualise the barbarous campaigns waged by Reagan and Nixon both against the developing world in the name of American self-interest.

 

Empire reimagined: thoughts on contemporary anti-imperialism.

I have a number of issues with the modern ‘anti-imperialist’ movement, upon which I have written to some extent, though some brief thoughts are as follows:

It seems to me that in trying to ferret out crypto-imperialists within the circles of western power, they have themselves started to adopt colonial patterns of thinking, with their subsequent theories therefore to some degree tainted by that which they so vehemently oppose.

For example, the idea that the modern developing world, and its many hardships, are defined principally by Europe’s imperial legacy therein; or even that the international system itself is shaped by imperialism (past or present). To me this is a notion of extreme arrogance and solipsism, which rivals in essence any put forward by a neo-imperialist.

To suggest that the difficulties faced by developing nations are fundamentally the cause and responsibility of the West is to remove responsibility from those indigenous people in their own affairs. This is an incredibly pernicious concept, not least in that it systematically undermines the agency of people in shaping their own society (for better or worse) and therefore their ability to improve it. Furthermore, by placing such a rigid emphasis on hierarchies and colonialism one condemns the developing world to colonialism in perpetuity. Afterall, how can one escape a state of abjection, when its very rasion d’tre is at the will of the rich and powerful?

Much like the theories it attempts to critique, it is an overly ‘western centric’ attempt to diagnose the problems faced by subject countries. It is also based in part on a misunderstanding or dismissal of the concerns relevant to individuals of those countries. It is difficult to argue these days that colonialism is a prominent or relatively important concern to citizens of, say, the Philippines—the object of Kipling’s infamous call to empire, ‘the white man’s burden’—but rather a host of logical concerns surrounding crime, governance and livelihood, much as would be the case for anyone, regardless of their citizenship or historical condition.

Equally troubling is the tendency for this narrative to create intellectual union with some rather unsavoury and reactionary (to say the least) forces around the world, which has done little to alleviate the conditions of the deprived, and for the most part only served to make them worse—again, this is not at all dissimilar from the dialectic used by imperialists, in supporting strongmen and dictators, albeit to different ends.

Of course, I do not discount the hideous legacy of imperialism, and the impact it has undoubtably had on many countries throughout the world; nor that an anti-imperialist critique is no longer important or necessary. However, a continuous and slavish focus on American foreign policy for example, at the expense of more pressing and relevant examples, has in many ways undermined it as a serious or reasonable critique.

There are a great many more points I would like to address on this subject, and I shall do so over the coming weeks, in a number of more specific articles and essays.

By Benjamin Elstobb

The end of the Third World

By Benjamin Elstobb

I have to confess, whenever I hear some discussion of the ‘Third World’ I can’t help but release a large, inward sigh (or potentially a small outward one, situation and company dependent), as the conversation follows its predictable tropes—who or what constitutes the Third World these days? Etc, etc.

I’ll start by laying my cards on the table. The distinction between First and ‘Third World’ is over, and it has been for some time now. This is to say that: the concept ceases to describe the international system in any kind of meaningful way, and as such is defunct, often posing more questions than it is capable of answering.

The expression itself has its genesis in the 1950s, being first coined by French intellectual Alfred Sauvy, in his ‘Three Worlds’ theory. The purpose of this was to map the post war ideological landscape. The First World was identified as the developed, capitalist west; the Second World consisted of the developing and semi-developed socialist states; and the Third World, the non-aligned, developing world, primarily relating to Asia, Africa and South America. It is worth emphasising the power dynamic here, the First and Second Worlds were in competition for influence over the Third.

If all of this is starting to sound fairly contrived, then you may just be on to something.

With the end of the Cold War, the ‘Second World’ ceased to exist as an ideological entity, its sub units to merging with the ‘Third’ world, leaving the system much like a two-legged milk stool. Nevertheless, there was an attempt to shoehorn this system solely into the context of development. Though as growth began to migrate further east, into the ‘Third World’, this economic dimension no longer made sense either, and only confused things further. Scholars have tried to establish a new dictionary, that better explains the modern world, though the translation into common sense has been, how shall we say, slow.

Regardless, the expression remains in common, albeit increasingly informal, usage. So the question I have been asking myself is, why? The need for humans to categorise as a means of simplification is well documented, but why in terms that are so obviously complicated? That people need to ask, for example, whether India, China or Russia are ‘Third World’ or not, displays how little utility this concept has in the first place; yet something about it remains irresistible.  It occurs to me, perhaps, that the idea of a ‘Third World’ has some value in itself, greater than its ability to describe anything tangible

Back in early January, during a bipartisan meeting with lawmakers, President Trump was alleged to have made loose reference to a number of ‘shithole countries’. Quite whether this was said or not remains to be seen, though I was not intrigued by the claim itself, so much as the general response to its verisimilitude. Typically, there was outrage for some, whilst for others it was greeted with a sort of ‘nudge-nudge, wink-wink’. Once again, the Donald appeared to be exercising his skill, in articulating that which was on everyone’s mind, but dare not be said.

This is interesting to me in a number of ways. Firstly, that the idea of a ‘Third World’ is ingrained on some level beyond its direct reference. Secondly, to note the particular ease with which such an idea gravitates between a categorisation and a pejorative. Thirdly, (and perhaps most importantly) the degree to which this ‘Third World’ exists in the collective imagination across the political spectrum.

Clearly, whether on the left or right, the ‘Third World’ is an important concept, even if only as a point of conflict upon which to diverge, to contrast their different ideas on the international. The left have traditionally seen themselves as its champion and protector; some of those on the right, in what might be termed pragmatism, are both the benefactors of and protectors from this prospective Third World. Yet a thick streak of patronage runs through both camps, which is clear in their response to it.

For example, if any notion of mutual respect existed, between the developing world and the left, it was to be shattered with the complete indignation shown by the left wing media circuit, after Trump’s attempt at describing the United States as ‘like a third world country’. Rather than contesting the use of a vague, out of date concept, or worse yet insulting their comrades overseas, offence was instead taken at being compared to them. If the United States was becoming like the Third World, they sneered, then it was only as a result of his policies. Of course, trading blows in such terms, however unpleasant, is not new; though it is quite out of sync with the enlightened language those same institutions usually favour.

It seems to me that the Third World will continue to exist in the hearts and minds of those who find some utility in its existence, whether it exists in reality or not. Quite where the Third World is located is harder to define, its borders nebulous as the concept itself. China, once the sick man of Asia, is now no longer; far from it. Likewise, for India, Brazil, Taiwan, South Korea; the African states, and many of the hurdles they face, are far more diverse than that of the 1980s ‘live aid’ conception that still prevails to this day. The world is changing, or, past tense, has changed. It remains fascinating to me, that language is amongst both the first and last things to change, or be affected by change. In each instance there is always a reason why; we ought to think about that.

Escape from Tokyo: State pay out to leave the city.

It should come as an interesting development, to those who read my previous article on Mie, and the effects of urbanisation on rural Japan, that the Japanese government has hinted at plans to subsidise migration and repatriation to the more remote prefectures.

It has been suggested that a payment of 3 million Yen could be made to individuals prepared to relocate outside of Tokyo’s 23 wards, for the ostensible purpose of starting business operations or taking up employment. Though this policy is in its infancy, it does represent possibly the first attempt by a developed nation to address the issue of urbanisation in such a way. Undoubtably the phenomenon is accelerated in Japan, to the degree where such an initiative is required, though the impact this could have for future policy making around the world is considerable.

Since the 2014 report, published by Hiroya Masuda, highlighted the sheer scale of urbanisation and depopulation in Japan, the ruling LDP has committed itself towards addressing the issue. The growing overpopulation of Tokyo has also put a tremendous strain on the city’s resources and infrastructure, making a solution all the more important.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has set the target of rebalancing internal migration by 2020, with this policy almost certainly being a major step towards doing so. Nevertheless, laudable though this is in its premise, one is inclined to question its potential for success. And there are number of reasons to be sceptical of this.

Though some effort was initially made, through the introduction of a ‘Regional Revitalisation Minister’ for example, the government’s 5-year plan is now reaching its end, and has yielded little in the way of tangible results. In fact, Abe has been increasingly criticised for ignoring the issue altogether. The start date for the ‘get out of Tokyo’ initiative is slated for some time 2019, leaving only a small window for success—typically these experiments take years to analyse in terms of merit and success. As things stand today, the target deadline of 2020 looks increasingly unlikely.

The policy itself has also come under scrutiny from both the public and private sector. Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike remains unconvinced over the potential for such payments to make a difference.  Indeed, currently there are no stipulations as to how far one needs actually to relocate from Tokyo in order to qualify for the subsidy. Furthermore, it seems to me that without some equal effort to address the reasons why people leave their hometowns in the first place, these payments (however generous) seem unlikely to have the desired effect.

It is worth noting, however, that there does seem to be some enthusiasm for such a payment, as well as an apparent growing desire among Tokyoites to at least consider the prospect of country life—according to the MLIT, 23% of those polled were receptive to the idea of leaving the city. Many of those polled seem to be migrants to Tokyo, rather than native citizens, pining for a quieter life. In any case, caution is always advised when using polls to interpret future behaviour.

Ichiro Asahina, CEO of the Aoyama Shachu think tank, believes that the best means of regional revitalisation is to attract talented leaders to local government and business. Through fresh ideas and innovative thinking, alongside further decentralisation, the tide of stagnation may be turned. There may well be some truth to this, after all, revitalisation efforts seem to have largely failed in the past due to outdated methods, and a money hose with no direction.

There are in fact many initiatives at both the central and local level, with the purpose of tackling the depopulation and overcrowding; though this payment can be seen as an attempt to speed up, or kick start the cycle of migration and reinvestment I mentioned in my previous piece, in a particularly ‘hands on’ manner. It certainly represents a break from traditional thinking on the subject (as evidenced by the ripples it has sent through the national and international press) though it also presents a long, costly affair, with no guarantee of success at the end of it; does the state have the ability to implement it properly, or the will to see it through to the end? Only time will tell, though,  at any rate, it seems best served as part of a broad package of reforms and initiatives, promoting growth at the local level, and achieving sustainable flows of internal migration.

It has been said before, that if one should desire to see the future of western society, then they ought to look to Japan, where the unintentional outcomes (low birth rate, overcrowding, depopulation) of capitalist development have been significantly accelerated. Whether this is true or not remains to be seen, though I personally find it a somewhat simplistic assumption. Nevertheless, the rest of the world will certainly be paying close attention to the outcome of this initiative.

By Benjamin Elstobb