In this week's New Statesman: Will Europe ever go to war again?

T.G. Otte on why we have learned nothing from the First World War. PLUS: Olivier Roy on the myth of the Islamist winter and the News Photos of the Year 2012.

In the New Statesman’s leader this week, we address Leveson, the press and transparency. The public debate post-Leveson has been “dominated by the threat that any implementation of his central recommendations might pose to the principle of free speech” and with far less emphasis on “the best way to protect members of the public from the kind of offences that the Leveson process exposed”.

An “ad hoc” meeting of news editors at 10 Downing Street (from which Private Eye, the Observer, the New Statesman and others were omitted) has done little to move the debate towards a fair and unbiased perspective on industry reform:

The awkward truth for all concerned is that the press is a shrinking corner of the media landscape. So many of our newspapers are losing tens of millions in income each year. There are urgent debates to be had about the protection of free speech, the boundaries of acceptable discourse and what constitutes invasion of privacy – online. The clubbable disquisitions of newspaper editors are as relevant to the moral and legal challenges thrown up by the digital revolution as the concerns of monasteries were when the printing press threatened their monopoly on scripture.

What matters most in this case is not the system the editors’ club conveniently devises to let itself off the hook of statutory regulation but the perception that the process is honest, transparent and driven by respect for victims of press abuse as well as the principle of free expression.

In our second leader, the NS applauds “how much has changed” since David Cameron voted in favour of a ban on “promoting” homosexuality in schools in 2003:

Perhaps no other piece of legislation introduced by Mr Cameron’s government will do more to promote human happiness. At a time of economic misery, that is something to celebrate.

 

T.G. Otte: The great carnage

The historian and former Foreign Office adviser T. G. Otte writes a sweeping analysis that considering the nature and consequences of the First World War and the tensions within Europe present then, and now. The fraught posturing of politicians in 1914 may seem familiar to many of us today — but have we failed to learn our “broader lesson” from the war? He begins:

The announcement of the government’s plans for a programme of events to commemorate the First World War is welcome, not least because policymakers should know and understand the nature and consequences of conflict. To learn any broader “les­sons”, it is necessary to re-examine what led to the war. It is tempting to look for large causes, given that July 1914 started a chain reaction that led to two world wars and a European “civil war” that lasted until 1989/91. But, in doing so, historians often paint a picture of an inevitable conflict, of Europe reaching boiling point and then exploding violently. That would be the wrong lesson . . .

The decision-makers of 1914 could not know their future any more than we can know ours. It is therefore important to appreciate the elements of risk and uncertainty their calculations contained. International crises generate their own dynamic and internal logic, of which events are both cause and consequence – and it is here that 1914 offers lessons.

 

Olivier Roy: The myth of the Islamist winter

The prolific author and expert on political Islam Olivier Roy, writing for the NS this week, debunks the myth of an “Islamist winter”. In a bilateral discussion of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the al-Nahda government in Tunisia, Roy asserts that the spirit of protest which gripped the two nations throughout the Arab spring “is not about to be extinguished”. Far from being an “Islamic revolution”, Roy says, the current state of government in the Arab world is rather “a coalition that is con­servative in politics and morals but neoliberal in economics”, and one that bows to a newly empowered public:

In Tunisia, as in Egypt, the Islamists who came to power through the ballot box are seeing their popularity erode and are tempted to hold on to power by recourse to authoritarian measures. But they have to deal with the legacy of the Arab spring. They face a new political culture: now, one where people who disagree with the government take to the streets; where there is no reverence for established power and the army and the police no longer inspire fear.

Morsi’s success on the international stage has encouraged him to flex his muscles at home. But Morsi has gone too far too fast in his attempt to reinforce the power of the presidency at the expense of a judicial apparatus that was able to retain a degree of autonomy under Hosni Mubarak. And his failure to anticipate and understand the strength of public opinion has made things worse.

What is more, society [in Tunisia] has absorbed the culture of protest more deeply than in Egypt. At the local level, demonstrations and riots against the government are common currency... The Islamists can use old techniques (treating their political opponents as “traitors”, introducing censorship, martial law or a state of emergency), but this won’t prevent the people from calling them to account.

 

Photo Special: The Best News Images of 2012

In a special feature in this week’s magazine, the New Statesman brings together the year’s best news photography. From the highs of the London Olympics and Barack Obama’s re-election to the lows of civil war in Syria and Libya, to the voices of courageous women such as Malala Yousafzai and Pussy Riot, who made their protests “heard in the face of terror and oppression” – this was 2012. Curated by Rebecca McClelland and with an introduction by Sophie Elmhirst.

(A Libyan man looks out from his ruined apartment in Ajdabiyah, destroyed by heavy shelling during the Libyan civil war. PHOTO: Yuri Kozyrev Noor Images)

 

ELSEWHERE IN THE MAGAZINE

 

Rafael Behr: Forget the lib-lab pact, Clegg's current position suits the opposition perfectly

In the Politics Column this week, Rafael Behr writes on cross-party political allegiances: “There is nothing new in political rivals teaming up to achieve their goals.” On the Leveson report, Nick Clegg finds himself closer to Ed Miliband, but he cannot be seen to jump ship from the Conservative coalition just yet, whether on this matter or others:

 

. . . the Lib Dems are pushing coalition as an attractive and stable system of government. That requires getting to the end of the parliament with a chest full of gleaming policy trophies. Prematurely flouncing away from power is not in the plan.

 “We can’t be seen to be throwing off the fiscal straitjacket at the first opportunity,” says a Lib Dem strategist of the party’s dilemma. “Nor can we stand at the next election in a position where people can say, ‘They have exactly the same platform as the Tories.’

 

Laurie Penny: The urge to "save" women from selling sex is little more than puritanism

For “In the Red” this week, Laurie Penny argues in favour of decriminalising sex work, lambasting the “treacherous stream of public opinion” that has seen the debate over the sex trade usurped by “neo-Victorian” lobbyists and the public, rather than the voice of those within the industry. Penny writes that legislation is more often “designed to protect the middle classes from the more ‘unsavoury’ elements of the community” than to protect sex workers effectively. It is a class, even a gender, issue:

 

Their stories [those of female and male sex workers] are often very different from the simple tale of victimhood told by anti-sex-trade campaigners. The voices and opinions of sex workers, however, are usually silenced in “mainstream” debates about prostitution.

The elements of class suspicion at work here shouldn’t have to be spelled out. When “nice” women with regular incomes take a stand to deny the agency and attack the morality of people working in precarious conditions, what else are we supposed to call it?

For groups such as the European Women’s Lobby, prostitution is always male violence against women – so the many men who work as prostitutes don’t really count. Sexually conservative feminists have never seemed anxious to save male sex workers. It’s as if there were a sort of “prejudging” going on. It’s almost like – what’s the word? Oh, yes. Prejudice.

 

In the Critics

In the Critics section of this week's magazine, Simon Kuper, author most recently of The Football Men, reviews Tout seul, the memoir of the former French national coach Raymond Domenech. None of the stars of the French game – Zinédine Zidane, Nicolas Anelka, Samir Nasri and Franck Ribéry, to name just four – emerges unscathed.

Also in the Critics:

David Herman reviews In Two Minds, Kate Bassett’s biography of Jonathan Miller

Lesley Chamberlain on Benoît Peeters’s biography of Jacques Derrida

Leo Robson reviews Both Flesh and Not, a posthumous collection of essays by David Foster Wallace

Philip Maughan talks to the crime writer Val McDermid

Architect Amanda Levete charts the progress of her firm's scheme for a new gallery at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London

Ryan Gilbey reviews The Hobbit: an Unexpected Journey

For this and more read our "In the Critics this week" feature on Cultural Capital.

 

Purchase a copy of this week's New Statesman in newsstands today, or online at: www.newstatesman.com/subscribe

Charlotte Simmonds is a writer and blogger living in London. She was formerly an editorial assistant at the New Statesman. You can follow her on Twitter @thesmallgalleon.

Photo: Getty
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Empty highs: why throwaway plastic goes hand in hand with bankrupt consumerism

We are in the throes of a terrible addiction to stuff.

A University of California study revealed this week that mankind has produced more than nine billion tonnes of plastic since the 1950s, with almost all of it ending up in landfill or the ocean. With the terrible effects of our decades-long addiction to throwaway packaging becoming increasingly apparent, it’s clear that a fresh approach is needed.

In April 2010, David Cameron set out his vision for Britain in the Conservative Party’s manifesto. Keen to show that the Tories had turned away from the "I’m Alright Jack" individualism of the 1980s, Cameron sought to fashion a softer, more inclusive brand.

The good society, Cameron argued, embraced much higher levels of personal, professional, civic and corporate responsibility. There was such a thing as society, and we’d all do well to talk to our neighbours a bit more. The Big Society, however, was roundly derided as a smokescreen for an aggressive tightening of the Government purse strings. And on the advice of his 2015 election fixer Lynton Crosby, Cameron later dropped it in favour of well-worn lines about economic security and jobs.   

While most would argue that the Big Society failed to amount to much, Cameron was at least right about one thing. We are happiest when we are part of something bigger than ourselves. No matter how much the credit card companies try to convince us otherwise, mindless individualism won’t make us nearly as contented as we’re led to believe by big conglomerates.

By any measure, we are in the throes of a terrible addiction to stuff. As a nation, we have run up unsecured debts of more than £350bn, which works out at £13,000 per household. Fuelled by a toxic mix of readily available credit and interest rates at historic lows, we cripple ourselves financially to feel the empty high derived from acquiring yet more stuff.

Purchasing has become a leisure pursuit, ensuring the rate at which we acquire new stuff exceeds the rate at which we can find somewhere to put it. Burdened with ever increasing amounts of stuff, consumers are forced to outsource their storage. The UK didn’t have a self-storage industry 30 years ago, but now it is the largest in Europe.

With the personal debt mountain soaring, we’d all do well to realise that we will never have enough of something we don’t need.

The growth of rampant consumerism has coincided with an explosion in demand for single-use plastic. Like the superfluous possessions we acquire, throwaway plastic packaging helps satisfy our desire to get exactly what we want without having any thought for the long-term consequences. Plastic packaging is easy and convenient, but ultimately, will do us immense harm.

In 1950, close to 1.5 million tonnes of plastic was produced globally. Today, the figure stands at more than 320 million tonnes. The vast majority of our plastic waste either ends up in landfill or the ocean, and our failure to kick the plastic habit has put is in the ludicrous position where there is set to be more plastic than fish in global seas by 2050.

There is also growing evidence that our penchant for endless throwaway plastic might be storing up serious health problems for our children later down the line. According to a University of Ghent study published earlier this year, British seafood eaters risk ingesting up to 11,000 pieces of plastic each year. The report followed UN warnings last year that cancer-causing chemicals from plastic are becoming increasingly present in the food chain.

Something must give. Unsustainable as our reliance on fast credit to finance ever more stuff, our addiction to plastic packaging is storing up serious problems for future generations. The instant gratification society, high on the dopamine rush that fades so quickly after acquiring yet another material asset, is doomed unless decisive action is forthcoming.

So what is to be done? The 2016 US documentary Minimalism points to a smarter way forward. Minimalism follows the lives of ordinary people who have shunned the rat race in favour of a simpler life with less stuff and less stress. The most poignant bit of the film features ex-broker AJ Leon recounting how he chose to forgo the glamour and riches of Wall Street for a simpler life. After a meteoric rise to the top of his profession, Leon decided to jack it all in for a more fulfilling existence.

While challenging the view that to be a citizen is to be a consumer is easier said than done, there are small changes that we can enact today that will make a huge difference. We simply have no choice but to dramatically reduce the amount of plastic that we can consume. If we don’t, we may soon have to contend with the ocean being home to more plastic than fish.

Like plastic, our bloated consumer culture is a disaster waiting to happen. There must be a better way.

Sian Sutherland is co-founder of campaign group A Plastic Planet which is campaigning for a plastic free-aisle in supermarkets.

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