Blitzed: the Third Reich as a society on drugs

So my copy of Norman Ohler’s splendidly-titled Blitzed showed up. This could have been a really disappointing book – in the acknowledgments, Ohler mentions a Berlin DJ friend who told him Nazis took masses of drugs, and I can well imagine going from that beginning to lurid Hitler Channel kitsch. But Ohler has achieved so much more, and the mass of archival references in the back shows us how and why. Although this is quite a short book, it does something genuinely interesting and difficult, a new view on the Third Reich. Also, as well as the superb title, Shaun Whiteside has produced a really excellent translation of a text heavy with Nazi and bureaucratic jargon, street slang, and pharmaceutical technicalities.

Pervitin: getting cranked up from below

Where to begin? Perhaps we could kick off with the so-called discovery of fatigue back in the nineteenth century, as scientists and especially the military began to explore the limits of human performance. Obviously, there was a limit. Nutrition was involved; physical training could push the limit out further. And fascinatingly, the limit was closely linked up, in complicated ways, with the emotional and psychological forces of motivation, leadership, and unit-cohesion. Some people took this all the way to believing that the soul, the supernatural, or previously unknown physics was at work. Otto Ranke, a German physiologist, was running the German army’s medical research at the outbreak of war and specifically working on these problems.

If Nazism was anything, it was a doctrine that claimed Germany could overcome the limits of its purely material resources through the combination of new technology, inspired leadership, and ideological motivation through hatred. It was necessary to do more, push higher, go faster, succeed through will, outdo the other guy in working towards the leader. As the brilliance of Adolf Hitler and of German military commanders would inspire soldiers to triumph on the battlefield, the brilliance of great scientists and entrepreneurs wouid lead Germany to the economic triumph that was also required to win. Ohler’s first case study speaks directly to this.

The one branch of science that was most identified with Nazism was chemistry. Fischer-Tröpsch coal-to-liquids technology would provide the petrol to fuel the blitzkrieg; further advances in polymerisation would use F-T feedstocks to provide synthetic rubber and plastics. IG Farben’s money funded the party, and the party served IG Farben. We all know where this is going. But what about chemistry directed towards Germans, rather than the enemy?

Temmler-Werke of Johannisthal, Berlin didn’t invent methamphetamine – they pinched it from the Japanese – but they did do what industrial chemists mostly do all day. They scaled up the production process, nailed down consistent purity, and packaged it as conveniently shelf-stable and orally administered tablets. Pervitin was born. Then Temmler’s marketers did what pharma marketers mostly do all day; they corrupted the medical profession, lavishing entertainment, advertising, and copious free samples on every GP in Germany. Very soon you could get it in any chemist’s shop, and Germans took it in epic quantities. By mid-1941, Temmler was manufacturing 30 million “units” a month; it’s not clear whether a unit was one tablet, or a pack of 30, so it’s possible they were producing enough to give every German a couple of tabs a day.

Nazi policy on drugs was contradictory in a way that reflects Nazism. In one direction, they were very punitive – Ohler’s endnotes mention the terrifying case of a dentist accused of sampling the superbly pure Merck liquid cocaine he had access to, who was ordered to undergo compulsory detox and was gassed under Aktion T-4 the very next day – but they also conceptualised drugs as foreign, degenerate, possibly Jewish substances associated with dodgy Weimar characters. Meth, as an innovative and pharmaceutically pure product of Germany’s great chemical industries, didn’t fit into this worldview at all. And it didn’t help that it seemed to speak to Nazi aims and methods; everyone who was desperately competing for power, pushing production targets, choking down their doubts, or marching frantically across the heaths found it supremely useful and then, of course, indispensable. It fit with a society built on hyper-motivation.

In this way, Nazi Germany got cranked up on speed from below. Ohler shows a string of letters Heinrich Böll wrote home from the army during the Phoney War, asking his parents to send more Pervitin urgently because it kept him from sleeping on watch.

This brings us back to Otto Ranke. As the German army worked through a complex set of wargames to evaluate the official plan for the invasion of France versus the minority report created by Erich von Manstein, known as Operation SICHELSCHNITT, a key variable became obvious. When it took the German side less than five days to get to the River Meuse, they usually won; when they didn’t, the Allies usually did. If SICHELSCHNITT was to be implemented, nobody could afford to sleep, and Dr Ranke had just what they needed, 31 million Pervitin pills. Later, after Dunkirk, as the campaign entered its second phase of operations against Paris and the French reserve armies, Ranke made his own tour of the front distributing his own kind of resupply from a sack in his car. Where Colonel Hentsch of the General Staff had toured the Marne in 1914 spreading doubt and despondency, Staff Surgeon Ranke toured the front spreading synthetic certainty. Ohler makes a decent case that the Western campaign of 1940 was won through chemical warfare, with the unusual feature that the chemical was administered to friendly forces rather than the enemy.

(That said, Ohler’s military history is shaky on Dunkirk, where he uncritically relates the myth of the decisive halt order.)

The Wehrmacht was well satisfied, if increasingly twitchy; they ordered as much Pervitin again for each army group invading Russia.

Eukodal: Shooting up at the top

Ohler now switches focus. If the Pervitin experience got Germany high from below, what impact did drugs have on the men at the top? We’ve seen that, in an important sense, Nazism aimed to be like a drug itself; testimonies from the time are full of references to the “intoxication” of the great rallies and the leader’s speeches. And of course leadership is a drug. The motivational effects evoked by emotion are, in the end, biochemical. Nazi slang reflected this; as the war went on and got worse, the term for being cheered up by an interview with Hitler was a Betonspritze, a shot of concrete.

The relationship between dictator and subject can be seen as a drug relationship in more than one ways. For a start, there is the direct effect of the leader on the led. This also works the other way around, though. Ohler points out that Hitler’s own drug abuse began when he radically reduced his public speaking; denied the swing from stage-fright to performance high as a drug, he turned to other drugs. And how; his daily pharmacopeia included, during the winter of 1944, pervitin, barbiturates, intravenous oxycodone, cocaine, and testosterone all at once.

Addictiveness seems to have been an important and under-discussed feature of the tyrant’s personality – when he first received Eukodal, he was begging for more and drug-seeking by the end of the day, and Ohler quotes him rhapsodising to his ear, nose, and throat specialist about “that wonderful cocaine”. Perhaps that was why he was so keen on prohibition and lecturing those around about their health – was he aware of this trait and projecting? On one occasion, Hitler’s doctor miscalculated the dose and only gave him half his usual fix. Hitler was hysterical. The doctor gave him more. Hitler was delighted and pathetically grateful. Ohler glosses his meltdown in the bunker as, in part, withdrawal from opiates after the supply broke down. Certainly, he exhibited all the classic symptoms of opiate addiction, notably constipation. He also had several typical problems related to steroid use.

Morell: The dictator, his dealer, and occupied Europe

His doctor, Theodor Morell, had been best known as a sort of Dr Robert figure who served Weimar celebrity by keeping his prescribing pad open and his mouth shut, two services for which he was well paid. Ohler makes the fascinating point that, because Morell rarely gave Hitler the same shot twice, Hitler was unable to feel dependent on any particular molecule, but rather became addicted to his doctor. Looking at Morell and his bag of pills and potions, the only bag ever allowed into Hitler’s presence without search, we see much more about the Third Reich. Morell was getting hooked on Hitler. The dictator took up all his time; he was terrified of the Gestapo, and only one man could protect him from them; he couldn’t resist the financial possibilities being Hitler’s doctor gave him.

Morell managed to arrogate an aryanised drug factory in Czechoslovakia to himself and followed this up by claiming dibs on all the glands from the Ukraine’s slaughterhouses for his hormone preparations, escalating to the minister or even Hitler every time the military tried to grab back his rolling stock. Ohler quotes dozens of letters and telegrams of Morell’s badgering various officials for the glands. He had to have the glands. In a sense, he had become a vampire – sucking the blood out of the Ukraine and injecting it into the Nazi elite to keep them young. He even got a carve-out from the drug-approval regulations so that he would be allowed to sell anything he used successfully in his practice at the leader’s headquarters.

Like Morell, the German bourgeoisie didn’t like what it was getting into but couldn’t resist the opportunities, and the servitude it entered into was all the more servile for being the comfortable kind.

The closed system

A thought: every political party contains what Karl Popper would call a closed system of knowledge, rather as Lloyd George said each man has a House of Lords in his own head. This system incorporates the symbols of its identity and the tropes of its internal culture. The party also, however, must needs contain an open system of knowledge, in order to work with the institutions of the state and strategise against the opposition. If you want to achieve anything you must have one foot in both.

Today, all the parties seem to have been taken over by the closed system. So you have Kelvin Hopkins suggesting that perhaps Labour should make a priority of abolishing private health insurance, you have Liam Fox plotting to escape the EU’s ban on trade with China that only exists in his head. In Scotland, of course, it’s different – the closed system took over the country, not just a party.

I’m not sure where to go with this insight, but it doesn’t look like they’re trying to learn anything, does it?

I know, let’s put the Work Programme in charge of Brexit

So here’s the disgraced Liam Fox being all rah-rah about globalisation and free trade. You’d think in that case he’d be pretty keen on:

A single market without barriers—visible or invisible—giving you direct and unhindered access to the purchasing power of over 300 million of the world’s wealthiest and most prosperous people.

Bigger than Japan. Bigger than the United States. On your doorstep. And with the Channel Tunnel to give you direct access to it.

It’s not a dream. It’s not a vision. It’s not some bureaucrat’s plan. It’s for real

People often talk about the distinction between Keynesianism and Keynes, but check out the radical fracture between Thatcher and Thatcherites. Anyway, it’s blindingly obvious that Liam Fox, especially, is negotiating with the EU in his head. We’re looking at people with a very different mental model of reality to nearly anyone else, thrashing around in Boydian incoherence as they come up against it.

So, given that there is no shortage of civil servants who have spent decades managing the UK’s involvement in the European Union, who’s briefing them? Let’s have a look.

The all-new Department for International Trade basically consists of the UK Trade & Investment directorate, carved out of the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, plus some pieces from the Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy (i.e. BIS, DTI as was). That sounds like a good start. After all, UKTI has been assessed as being the best such agency in the developed world, which does rather raise the question as to why we’re fiddling with it and how anyone thinks the government somehow doesn’t do trade.

Its top officials are listed on its web page and profiled here by Civil Service World.

The boss, Sir Martin Donnelly, is the former BIS permanent secretary, was the FCO’s director of Europe and Globalisation, and before that, the deputy head of the Cabinet Office European Affairs Secretariat. I doubt it’s him who doesn’t know the difference between the customs union and the single market. Catherine Raines was the UKTI CEO, and before that ran AstraZeneca’s respiratory drugs supply chain among other things. John Alty is a career BIS official and the director of the Intellectual Property Office. Emma Squire was Sajid Javid’s private secretary at BIS, and before that, among other things, she ran the Treasury’s energy policy desk, the BIS nuclear desk, and the multilateral trade negotiating team.

I really doubt it’s any of these people. Not only is he evidently competent, Donnelly is actually doing two jobs, as he’s still got BEIS to run. Also, the ex-FCO people are technically on loan and the two departments are still arguing about whether they transfer over or not. Obviously, the FCO has vastly greater institutional heft in that fight. (Important CSW piece here. Interestingly, all snark aside, David Davis’ team seems quite a bit less flaky.)

Information about the new government’s SPADs is thin on the ground – neither CSW nor any of the PR firms has issued a full list like this one yet. DeSmogBlog names Fox’s press secretary David Goss, a Tory press officer. But that sounds a little bit meh.

What about this guy? Paul McComb rejoices in the title of Managing Director of Strategy UKTI and Transition Programme Director, and appears to have absolutely no relevant experience whatsoever. Better, he joins from the DWP, where he was Iain Duncan Smith’s principal private secretary and Deputy Director of Welfare Policy. Can it be…the guy who brought you Universal Credit? His LinkedIn page is here.

And that’s when I found something interesting.

Fascinatingly, a Paul McComb born in November 1967 appears in the register of companies as a director of Health and Employment Partnerships Ltd, private limited company 09431037. Astonishingly, H&EP Ltd. is actually up to date with its filings. It is classified under “Other business support services”, and it is worth pointing out here that it is not repeat not a charity or nonprofit of any kind. It is a plain-vanilla commercial company.

Is that the right McComb? The civil servant did his first university degree (Open, BSc Computer Science) in 1990. November ’67 guy would be 23 that year, which sounds a plausible age to take finals.

So what the balls is a health and employment partnership? The idea seems to be that ill people who are out of work have two problems, and dealing with them both might be sensible. But the combination of indifference, judgementalism, and relentless boosterism that characterised IDS’s – or shall we say Paul McComb’s – DWP can be counted on to take a reasonable idea and make it hellish. It doesn’t even take the length of this short blogpost to get from there to embedding Work Programme badgering into GP surgeries. So why do you think you’re anxious GET A JOB and JOB depressed OR WE’LL DOCK YOUR BENNIES then DON’T SWEAR WE HAVE A BEHAVIOUR POLICY WELL YOU SHOULD HAVE GOT THE LETTER?

And, it turns out, McComb and friends saw themselves implementing this on the other side of the table.

Social Finance has developed a new platform to co-commission health and employment services in partnership with a range of potential commissioning partners. HEP is a wholly-owned social purpose company whose mission is to work with commissioners, providers, and social investors to roll out best practice and innovative approaches to improving the wellbeing of people with health issues, through supporting them into employment.

“Social purpose company”; I like that. You might think that meant it was a company limited by guarantee not for profit. As we saw earlier, it isn’t. There’s more detail of what they were planning in this presentation; the whole idea was bound up with another wizard wheeze, social impact bonds. There’s a pilot project in Islington, funded out of Islington’s budget, which drew an angry demo – interestingly, another H&EP Ltd director is a top Islington Council official.

Is this really appropriate? It seems that people commissioning from this entity, with your money, are also directors of this entity and potentially beneficiaries of it.

Beyond that, I think this is really worrying. DWP was both the most ideologically warped department under the last government, and the least administratively effective. While McComb is settling into the DIT offices, aka a cupboard in the Foreign Office, the new minister, Damien Green, is in the process of shutting down IDS’s comedy crusades.

If there is one thing Britain’s trading relationships post-referendum don’t need, it’s the culture of Iain Duncan Smith’s DWP.

Bradford: Populism And After

Turned down by Politico Europe for being too local

The populist threat is on everyone’s mind, whether from Brexit, Trump, Le Pen, or the AfD. In the UK, it’s been argued in a classic twitterstorm that Labour’s Northern heartlands are especially threatened, precisely because they’re “the heartlands” – ultra-safe parliamentary seats and city councils where it’s very difficult for anyone but a Labour candidate approved by the local Labour establishment to get elected. So why bother voting?

The people who don’t vote haven’t gone away. They are still out there, and the potential exists for them to be reintegrated into the political system by, say, the Scottish Nationalists, the Leave campaign, or George Galloway. And in fact we can see this in action. Out of the top five local authorities by net Leave votes, one of them is notoriously corrupt and generally dysfunctional Doncaster, another, Dudley, is the scene of these bizarre shenanigans at the last election, and yet a third is Rotherham, now sadly renowned for its child abuse scandal.

And then there’s my home town, Bradford. Since 2012, Bradford has gone from a classic safe-seat cartel, through a populist insurgency, and out the other side to a Labour revival tainted by allegations of anti-Semitism, which further led to Ken Livingstone’s bizarre public meltdown.

It is true that Bradford Council isn’t permanently Labour, but it has been either Labour or no-overall-control since 1980. When the council is hung, it usually has a Labour leader. As such, the least important Labour councillors are swapped for the most important Conservatives within a permanent ruling group.
This group’s key claim is that it’s presiding over the post-industrial regeneration of Bradford, which would be fair enough if they hadn’t been at it all my life without achieving much. As someone said, Bradford folk talk about failed regeneration projects like other people talk about the weather. This is a city where the main motorway access ended in a line of traffic cones for two decades, and where half the city centre was pulled down to build a giant shopping centre and left as a gaping hole for years.

Of course all of this cost money and somebody got paid, while basic measures of poverty like infant mortality remain atrocious, things burn down, and school funds disappear.

If regeneration was the key claim, the key strategy, bridging the gap between promises and performance, was working the family patronage network. How this developed, and how it helped to secure an enduring Labour establishment, is well described in this BBC Look North piece by Sabbiyah Pervez. Irna Qureshi describes the doorstep processes well here, and makes the interesting point that Labour came to rely on the easy wins it provided so much, they weren’t that good at it any more.

The populist challenge arrived in 2012, with Marsha Singh MP’s retirement and George Galloway’s candidacy. Galloway presented himself nationally as a challenge to the Bradford political system (try here) but on the streets, he relied on key actors in it to get out the vote. He actually recruited Marsha Singh’s election agent to do the same job for him. If anybody knew Mirpuri patronage politics, he did. Importantly, signing him up also denied him and his contact book to the Labour candidate, Imran Hussein.

It may be a common feature of populists, almost a defining one, that they present themselves as revolutionaries but exist to prevent real change. Galloway’s tenure as MP for Bradford West, which was paralleled by the election of a dozen councillors on his ticket, had all the problems of Bradford politics, just more so, louder, more dramatically, and on TV, rather than in the cloistered privacy of someone’s best room in Manningham.
His solution to the regeneration problem had a simplicity, and a style, worthy of Donald Trump. He would just do it.

His policies were quite simple: regenerate the Odeon. Sort out Westfield. Sort out education. He either succeeds, in which case, great. Or he fails, in which case, we’re not exactly losing out are we?

If pressed, he said he would make a deal. He knew people in the Middle East.

I have big plans for Bradford City FC. With my connections in the Arab world, I am actively speaking to and seeking out sovereign wealth funds and Middle Eastern princes to pump investment into the club. There is massive potential. I’m also tapping up sovereign wealth funds to invest in the Odeon building”

As well he might – the Odeon, abandoned for two decades, is indeed both huge, and classy. It goes without saying that not a penny of this supposed investment ever showed up.

Old-school Bradford pols have often been accused of being soft on anti-Semitism and Islamic extremism. George rarely missed an opportunity to sail close to that particular wind. They have often been accused of sexism; he really nailed that one. A certain patriarchal authoritarianism might also be a concern. George tried to put a brewery out of business because they dissed him on Twitter, and this farrago of thuggishness defies summary.

The Labour Party meanwhile did what it does best these days – have a vicious internal feud. The problem was, in a sense, whether Galloway was a manageable populist with Bradford characteristics, or whether real change was necessary.

The losing candidate from 2012, Imran Hussein, wanted to stand again, and as the Bradford West party chairman, he, his friends, and his family had the advantage of controlling the process. His candidacy would represent either “one more heave”, or else, waiting to see if a boundary review would get rid of Galloway. Alternatively, it would leave the power structure intact in case it was possible to integrate Galloway back into the party, as happened with Ken Livingstone.

A lot of people suspected he would just lose again and keep losing, and the populists wouldn’t be as easy to manage as all that. One of those was then Labour leader Ed Miliband, who eventually decided to invoke a party rule that permits the leadership to require an all-women shortlist. That ruled Hussein out, but also ruled out an insurgent candidate backed by the trade unions, ex-bus driver Mohammed Taj. Hussein’s allies settled on councillor Shakeela Lal, but she failed to make it through the hustings to get on the shortlist, leaving them with the awful prospect of losing control of the process. In this kind of politics, control of the selectorate is everything.

It seems they settled on the following strategy: throw their support to national Labour’s candidate, Amina Ali, knowing that her Somali background would do her no good in the general election, precisely because they would then pull their support and make sure it didn’t. This would stop Ali and warn off the Labour leadership, but more importantly it would keep women’s rights activist Naz Shah off the ticket. Enjoying enormous respect in Bradford, her personal popularity menaced their control of the process. That the unions’ man had already been disposed of was a happy accident.

Galloway getting a second term was a price worth paying, especially as a boundary review was coming, his own flakiness might cause a by-election at any time, and perhaps they might come to some arrangement. Amina Ali seems to have seen through this, and resigned, thus disrupting the whole neat scheme and leading the Labour national executive committee to take over.

It was a shambles, they said. Nobody would vote, they said. An undemocratic stitchup by those people on the NEC, they said. As it turned out, though, the warnings were so much hot air. Naz Shah took Bradford West back with a wet sail, flipping Galloway’s 10,140 majority to a Labour majority of 11,420. The campaign was brutally tough – and there is no mystery why. It was a front-on challenge to a really rather unpleasant entrenched elite. As Naz Shah put it in a BBC TV interview:

“It’s family loyalties, it’s clan loyalties, it goes back to a Pakistani model of doing things,” she said, explaining that this resulted in women blocked from political office. “The kind of misogyny that exists is quite shocking. It’s a culture of gatekeeping. It’s a culture of power politics for the sake of having power, and that power resides with men,” she said.

Bradford politics is still reeling from the shock. In a follow-up move, the NEC took control of candidate selection in six more council wards, while Imran Hussein’s assistant during the campaign has been suspended from the party. Naz Shah’s intervention in the case of Samia Shahid, apparently murdered by her family in Punjab, led to the arrest of both a suspect, and a cop.

The first lesson here is that it can be done. The populist threat can be beaten. The second lesson here is that in the face of the populist challenge, the local organisations that delivered majorities for the national politicians for years are often as much part of the problem as they are of the solution. The third lesson is that the only way to do it is to do it – a political party that claims to want renewal must be willing to look elsewhere for candidates and for ideas.

And the fourth lesson is that it’s risky. First, there was that offensive Facebook meme and its astonishing cascade of consequences. That, by the way, happened immediately after Naz Shah outed a fairly important local Conservative for giving anti-Semitic speeches in Urdu. There’s a problem here, and it’s precisely one that grew in the long political stagnation, in the absence of competition, scrutiny, or self-criticism. The only way forward, though, is to confront it openly.

Meanwhile, a recent vote to replace the mayor saw someone in the council’s Labour group vote three times. To defeat the populists, Bradford Labour may have become more like them: coarser, more strident, and authentic for both good and ill.

Alternatively, this story can be seen as the process by which a whole population either excluded from politics, taken for granted by politics, or simply never addressed by politics, was integrated back into democracy, stumbling and finding its feet. For clues, try some of the blogs I’ve used as sources for this post.

Cybernetic Revolutionaries: Belated Review

So I should have done this almost a year ago, but I’m going back to the notes I made because I promised Owen Hatherley I’d eventually write it. Owen Hatherley, I hereby collect your TYR cookie and return you one unit of blog.

Eden Medina’s Cybernetic Revolutionaries is probably the definitive history of Project Cybersyn, the iconic (for some people) effort to create a real-time, decentralised planned economy in Allende’s Chile through computing. I liked the fact that the book is a Latin American history of a Latin American phenomenon, based heavily on interviews with people who were involved and on Chilean archives. This is a worthwhile counterbalance to the impact of Stafford Beer’s own telling of the story.

Show me your Cybersyn and I’ll show you your fears. Cold warriors thought the project was basically GOSPLAN with a faster refresh rate. Communists, for their part, didn’t like it much either – they assumed it was an effort to create a fascist-style corporate state, projecting the obvious point that fascism and communism have a lot in common onto the Chileans. Hippie radicals saw it as an unacceptable further extension of technocracy, instrumental rationality, and managerialism; perhaps they were projecting their own future careers. Beer himself had to suck up a lot of dog’s abuse over this, and Medina interviews one of the people who flamed him. Apparently he never realised things could go wrong in Chile.

Medina’s criticisms of Cybersyn are interesting. Her central criticism is that it baked a very specific definition of the worker into the software. This person was: a man, probably in a factory, and certainly not a peasant or even a miner. As most of what manufacturing industry there was in Chile was closely associated with mining, this set important limits for what it could achieve. This was also an important fact about Allende’s entire strategy, and the sociological assumptions that defined the politics eventually defined the code.

A lot of discussion of Cybersyn revolves around its decentralised nature. This element excited the Chileans, but Medina argues that Stafford Beer was very keen to ensure the project implemented his Viable Systems Model. Whether you consider the VSM to be hierarchical or not is a value judgment, but Beer always analogised it to the human central nervous system, spoke of the higher and lower functions, and crucially, he always drew it around a vertical axis.


Visualisation is important. So is naming things. Although Beer subscribed to the concept of embodied cognition, his most successful book is titled Brain of the Firm. Beer could have drawn the modules of the VSM from left to right; he could have called the book something else, but he didn’t.

One of the biggest problems with Cybersyn was technology adoption. For the workplaces that were meant to take part to get any benefit, they had to bother themselves to input data via the telex network, and act on the alerts that came back. As with any control system based on feedback, delay is a critical issue. Very often, because the enterprises on the system were behind with data entry, they only received predictive alerts after the events involved had happened, which was useless. Therefore they didn’t bother keeping up.

Crisis, though, caused adoption. The emergency deployment of Cybersyn to cope with the CIA-backed transport strike of 1972 actually took the system relatively close to Beer’s original design, and in a notably centralised variant. It worked well enough that take-up increased dramatically and the spice kept flowing. That said, when Allende asked for the Ops Room to be moved into the Moneda Palace, it’s possible that what he wanted wasn’t Cybersyn itself under his own hand, but rather the underlying telex network.

Most ironically of all, Cybersyn came into its own exactly for the purpose the New Left feared it would have – to use management information systems as a strike-breaking tool, or perhaps a paramilitary command and control network.

I’d strongly recommend the book, even if one thing I think it’s missing is examples of, say, a Cybersyn predictive alert message,

A clear statement about migration

I wrote this for Politico Europe, but they weren’t interested after much editing about. Apparently there were too many charts.

A clear statement about migration, says Theresa May of the vote for Brexit. The last thing you’ll find in the data is clarity. Or migration.

There has been a wealth of efforts to understand Brexit through data. But the most telling statistic in most of them is the R^2 value, the measure of how well a regression line fits the data. The higher the R^2, the more of the spread in your data you’ve managed to explain. Famously, although there is a faint correlation between some measures of migration and the vote, the R^2 value is pathetic – the data set is nothing but outliers.

It gets worse. Some analysts tried to save migration as an explanation by looking at the change in foreign-born population, rather than its level. This chart from The Economist is the classic statement. Perhaps the voters were shocked and bewildered by the speed of change, rather than its content, or something like that. Or maybe it’s a soft racist argument like Jacques Chirac’s Le bruit et l’odeur speech.


The problem is, again, the R^2 – without a very few extreme outliers, mostly very conservative small towns in the Fens with significant numbers of migrant farm workers, there wouldn’t be any effect at all, as Jo Mitchell points out here. You’ll notice they didn’t quote an R^2.

It gets still worse, though. Those outliers are dramatic, but they disappear when we control for the size of their population (from here). Small populations exaggerate all percentage changes; they show extremely high rates of immigration precisely because they have so few immigrants, and even if they voted Leave by a big margin, they had little impact on the contest because they have so few voters. We can deal with this by plotting votes rather than percentages – I’ve plotted the net Leave lead, i.e. Leave minus Remain, giving us each local authority’s contribution to the overall result.


As you can see, the Fenland outliers have vanished and so has the correlation. It makes sense; nobody ever won a general election in South Holland and the Deepings, a constituency that has been Conservative since 1922. Instead, a clutch of populous, Leave-leaning but contested, urban but not metropolitan districts emerge as the key battlegrounds. Dudley, for example, contributed 61,666 net Leave votes.

Let’s try something else. One argument – classically put by Daniel Davies in Vox – is that the problem is migration, but it’s internal migration. Post-industrial northern towns and the run-down seaside are emptying out as the young seek opportunity in the big city. It’s an elegant argument, with all the more emotional force because both Dan and I did just that ourselves. Unfortunately, the data doesn’t stand it up.


In fact, it’s the other way round, the correlation is quite strong, and the R^2 is at least less bad. This seems baffling; London is actually more populous now than it’s ever been, and deeply Remainy. Also, Cornwall is hardly the land of opportunity. The explanation may be age structure – young people flock into the big cities, retirees go the other way – but we’re already trying to save our hypothesis by fitting stories to an unconvincing data set. It needs a lot of nuance.

What about total population growth? Sorry, but that’s even less helpful.


We could try some other approach. The Right is convinced it’s all about immigration. The Left is convinced it was a massive protest vote about austerity. This is hard to test because there is no official data on total government spending by locality. Without it, we’d have to build our own private hell of cost-allocation problems. The Centre for Cities managed to create a snapshot for 2013-2014, but austerity is all about change in the fiscal stance. Also, a Keynesian would object that the allocation of the government deficit is what counts, so we’d need tax revenue data as well. And, anyway, it doesn’t tell us much.


There is, however, data for spending by local governments. A large fraction of the UK austerity programme consists of cuts to the Department for Communities and Local Government’s financing to town councils, so this ought to be a useful proxy for total spending.

We don’t find much correlation with the level of spending. But we do with the change from 2012-2016. Austerity, defined as the reduction in local government spending power, predicts about 20% of the variation in the net vote for Leave.


Another variable that does seem to have some predictive power is pay. The short-term change in median gross weekly earnings doesn’t seem to matter, but their level does, quite strongly. In fact, it’s better than austerity as a predictor; it’s the best one I found, with R^2 of 0.23. I ran the same analysis, using the Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings data set, for the 25th, 75th, and 90th percentiles of earners, but I didn’t find anything interesting.


So, it looks like the immigration story is a bust. The internal migration one might be saved with a lot more nuance, and you know what they say about nuance? And a pretty direct leftwing story about austerity and poverty seems to work better than anything else. Until you actually look at poverty itself. The standard measure of poverty in Britain is the government’s Index of Multiple Deprivation, which sums up a gaggle of social evils as a handy score.

This is interesting because the IMD tells us what happened after the welfare state did its thing – it’s a measure of poverty and inequality after redistribution, while the ASHE is a measure of income as determined by the market, before taxes and transfer payments. And the IMD doesn’t seem to show any correlation at all.


Now this is interesting. A major economic and political orthodoxy throughout the world since the late 1980s has been that economic change, however jarring, is basically healthy because the winners can compensate the losers through the tax and transfer system. This doctrine was the source of legitimacy for the whole free-trade agenda – NAFTA in the States, Single Market completion and the Eurozone in Europe. And now it’s breaking down. Transfers don’t buy legitimacy, and maybe they never did.

For the UK, there’s an important and difficult problem here. The UK doesn’t do regional policy well, but redistribution of income between regions does happen to a very significant extent. Leaving aside the rows about the Barnett formula and Scottish oil, let’s just remember that 30% of all taxes paid in the UK are paid by Londoners, who make up 13% of the population. How much more are you going to ask them for?

Part of the problem is that redistribution must be done, but it must also be seen to be done, like justice. The UK, very unusually among federations, doesn’t really have an explicit political process to determine how government spending is divvied up. There’s no equivalent of a Länderfinanzausgleich. Therefore, it’s hardly surprising nobody thinks they have any control over it.

This also suggests another way economic unions fail. It’s a commonplace that the Eurozone is troubled because it lacks both a big discretionary budget and full labour mobility, unlike the United States or Germany. Therefore, bits of it can end up with an inappropriate real exchange rate and high unemployment for an indefinite period of time. But the UK doesn’t have any language barriers, and it does have a big federal budget. You could say the same for the US. However, bits of it still seem to end up stuck in a low-income equilibrium for decades.

Perhaps that internal migration hypothesis deserves another look? Perhaps, without explicit and forceful regional policy, some places just empty out? And does that remind anyone of Donald Trump?

Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail 1972, in 2016

There are some books I re-read regularly. Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 is one; I read it every time there’s a presidential election on.

In 2008, the first time around, it was a ghastly memento mori for the failure of a great movement campaign, and also a reassuring reminder of the consummate competence of the Obama campaign. In 2012, as the Obama campaign purred along to the win, it formed a sort of demented counterpoint of bad craziness, this time mirroring the weirdness of the Republicans.

This time? I got a gaggle of insights into how a great insurgent campaign fails. If the 2008 reading was about Obama, the current one is about Sanders, Trump, and Jeremy Corbyn. Obviously, Trump is perfect for Thompson’s style, but that’s not my point.

Thompson mentions, in the postmortem interviews near the end of the book, that McGovern did startlingly badly with black voters. This is telling because HST doesn’t talk much about that for the rest of the book. He talks about individuals, but he doesn’t talk about how McGovern tried to address blacks or didn’t, which is weird because one of the best things in the book is Thompson’s coverage of the practicalities of politics.

An obvious conclusion is that he didn’t write about it because it wasn’t there. The same has been said about Bernie Sanders in this classic blog post, and we probably need to talk about the Corbyn offering the two black ladies each others’ jobs.

Thompson also discusses how he thought McGovern was successfully addressing the working class during the primaries, but failing to do so during the general election. Again, he doesn’t want to talk about his own besetting case of the great hippie sin, massive condescension to workers and to the unions that represented them.

The rallies were great. The volunteers were all bright and young and handsome. The campaign did nothing better than campaigning to its own volunteers.

What Thompson didn’t and couldn’t know is that both the collegiate sneering and the Boss Tweed swagger would be swept away by the macroeconomic revolution of Reagan and Paul Volcker soon enough, of course. Thompson missed that this civil war in the Democrats would destroy both combatants, which is weird seeing as he classically diagnosed it in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Perhaps he couldn’t accept his own role in it.

With regard to the Corbyn, it’s more the other way around. He addresses the RMT tolerably well. The problem is everyone else. If we’re lucky and Duncan Weldon is right, the macro shift that finishes him might be a swing to reflation across the G-7. If we’re lucky.

And, of course, what HST wanted was a campaign that specifically would destabilise and maybe finish the Democratic Party. He repeatedly says as much. Oddly enough, he didn’t much like the results. But that’s what happens if you decide to piss your side’s institutions up the wall because the rallies are great.

The specific failure mode is that if you don’t care about that stuff, you end up not caring about the skills and operational practices that underlie it. Everyone but HST thought the killer was competence; lacking it, the campaign never got close enough to put Nixon under pressure.

This year, the book is a painful story of a movement campaign that never escaped from its deeply hippyish and middle-class roots and that as a result risked losing the whole party.

Please stop looking for Labour voters in the Fens. They never existed

Chuka Umunna is apparently off to Boston, Lincolnshire to understand Brexit. He should save himself the journey. You can understand Boston really well from the simple fact that it has elected a Labour MP – indeed anything other than a Conservative – precisely once in history, immediately after the First World War. It’s really conservative. This should be simple. If any political party should worry about it, it’s the Tories. It’s their seat!

But there’s a weird kind of tourist industry in going there to look for the Very Real Concerns. John Harris seems to be there every other week. I suspect it may be something to do with the fact it’s really conservative big-farm country, and hence it’s easy to find copy-generating racists, and that it’s not actually that far from King’s Cross station, and therefore a reporting trip there is both practical and cheap.

Also, if you were to ask my dad the ex-immigration officer, you’d learn that immigrants certainly didn’t start showing up there one day in 2004; for many years before that, there was a specific carve-out of the rules for seasonal farm workers going there. Immigration there isn’t new; it’s probably as old as the engineering interventions that made it farm-able just after the civil war. A 70s Cambridge Marxist might have made something of that, but nobody imagines UKIP voters in Boston spend their spare time reading Christopher Hill.

I have a less snarky point, though. Boston voted for Brexit by the highest percentage in the country. This has a lot to do with the fact not many people live there. The Economist is very pleased with the insight that although it doesn’t have that many immigrants, the percentage increase is large. This has a lot to do with the fact that not many people live there and not that many immigrants choose to live there.

Consider the following chart. I’ve plotted the population change due to immigration against the Leave lead in votes. Referendums aren’t population weighted – it profits you not to win Skye by 90% but lose Haringey by 1%, in much the same way that piling up votes in safe seats doesn’t help you win a parliamentary election. Also, I’ve started the clock in 2004, the year VRC fans reckon it all went wrong.


Note that when you take into account how many votes they actually delivered, the Fenland outliers just vanish. They’re just not very important. Think about it; who ever won a general election fighting hyper-safe Tory seats in the Fens?

On the other hand, look at Dudley, which delivered 61,666 net Leave votes all on its alone-io, more than anywhere else in the country. Dudley has about four times the population of Boston, and delivered about three times the net Leave vote. We could look at Doncaster, or Wakefield, or Sandwell. Wakefield has the same level of immigration in that timeframe as Wandsworth, but it was about a third more Brexity. Lambeth had four times as many immigrants as Wandsworth, but it was just as Remainy.

Sandwell! That’s next door to Dudley. From a Labour point of view, we seriously failed in the West Midlands in 2015 and that was probably why we didn’t win. It looks like that’s why we failed to prevent Brexit. Whatever the man who wants “Decent funky house and no trash” – don’t we all – is up to, his time would be better used in Birmingham.

Referendums, like elections, are won where the net votes are. Labour isn’t going to take Boston or Wokingham, we probably shouldn’t care about that, and we shouldn’t trade winnable seats for forlorn hopes.

Wild speculation rides again!

Here’s a translation of the Israeli Defence Forces’ new strategic concept, from the Belfer Centre at Kennedy School of Government. From the section on “Characteristics of the Operating Environment”:

Increased threat of fire on the home front (volume, pace, accuracy,
size of the payload, survivability) and an attempt to create a strategic threat against national weak spots and the national economy. This is in addition to an ongoing endeavor by the enemy to assure the survival of its firepower through decentralization, camouflage, protection and the use of the civilian environment to provide it with a bargaining chip and “victory photographs.”

This July 2014 TYR Flashback refers.

A Brexit charts tip

Picking up on a tip from Jo Mitchell’s excellent post here, I replotted the data in the previous post using the Leave lead in votes, rather than percentage terms. This is, of course, appropriate because referendums aren’t counted in terms of parliamentary constituencies. Also, this means that tiny outlier constituencies – looking at you, South Holland and the Deepings – aren’t overrepresented relative to places like, well, Birmingham.

A couple of interesting things result. For a start, the R^2 value doubles to a whole 0.21! I win at data! Secondly, putting the Fenland outliers back in their box tells us something interesting and important, which is that austerity-battered northern and midland cities contributed hundreds of thousands of net Leave votes. Not only was winning in Boston, Lincolnshire probably impossible, it couldn’t possibly have helped in the light of relative failure in the West Midlands. There are lots of people in Birmingham. Labour’s Midlands problem is a thing.

Screenshot from 2016-07-28 22:39:52

Pulling London out of this doesn’t help much. R^2 nudges up by a hair. It further confirms, though, that you should stop obsessing about tiny places that voted weirdly, and worry about big ones that voted kind of normally but for the wrong side.

Screenshot from 2016-07-28 22:52:48

In that way, the Breferendum was far more like a parliamentary election than it seemed. Where it was decided, austerity does actually seem to have mattered quite a bit.