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Gordon Campbell on the rise of the far right

Gordon Campbell on the rise of the far right, and battle bots

In his victory speech at the Cannes film festival this week, the British film director Ken Loach warned that the rise of far right parties in Europe was being fuelled by the economic policies of austerity, and manifested in a welfare bureaucracy that systematically denies assistance to those in most need. Regardless, the media has focused its attention on the anti-immigrant, Islamophobic policies of the European far right, with its scary echoes of the anti-Semitism of the 1930s. Meanwhile, the economic failure underlying the scapegoating barely rates a mention.

The failure of the media to follow up on Loach’s point means that the rise of the far right in Europe – and of Donald Trump in the US – appears to be almost inexplicable. Why, these people must be idiots, and racist to boot! In reality, the anti-immigrant sentiment has a strong economic rationale. Millions have seen their jobs lost and their wages depressed, while a tiny elite have prospered from the policies promoted by their friends in the political Establishment – who, over time, get richly rewarded for services rendered. The victims of austerity see the influx of immigrants as posing a further threat to their economic security. A healthy, inclusive economy would welcome immigrants. But an economy damaged by neo-liberalism – and where the welfare safety net has been shrunk by the mania for budget balancing – is in no shape to take on further strain.

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Austria is the latest example. This week, the far right Freedom Party of Norbert Hofer lost yesterday’s election to the moderate independent Alexander Van Der Bellen, but by only the thinnest of margins. Hofer has every reason to feel his time will come. Only the absentee ballots swung the result against him. How did Hofer get so far? Again, the international media has focused on the Freedom Party’s anti-immigrant, Islamophobic rhetoric.

More importantly, Hofer won votes by mobilising a lot of previous non-voters, and by uniting both the right and the left against the status quo. Hofer did so by opposing the policies of austerity via his promises of more jobs, higher wages and welfare spending:

Analysts credit Hofer…., with persuading the party to change course…..towards a more moderate-seeming (and vote-winning) focus on employment, incomes and welfare.

As with Trump in the US, the millions displaced by the policies of neo-liberalism and free trade, are not being wooed with the language of class conflict. Instead, the appeal is to a threatened national identity, and via the candidate’s claim to personal empathy with the lot of the displaced:

[Hofer’s] slick, unashamedly populist, Eurosceptic but largely uncontroversial campaign, promising to “put Austria first” with the slogan “Unspoilt, honest, good”, saw him collect 35% of the first-round vote in the presidential elections, his party’s best national score since its formation in 1956.

….. In a concession message posted on Facebook, Hofer urged his supporters to not be downcast. “I will remain loyal to you,” he wrote, “and make my contribution to a positive future for Austria.”

By contrast, the opponents of these right wing populists operate at a distinct disadvantage. Hillary Clinton in the US, and David Cameron in the UK – where the champions of Brexit are painting themselves as guardians of British identity – are widely seen as being the creatures of Wall Street and Canary Wharf. They are the candidates of a status quo that has consistently failed most of the public. In the wake of 30 years of neo-liberal economic policies, the US electorate faces a genuine dilemma; many of Donald Trump’s supporters may be idiots, but you'd really have to be an idiot to vote for more of the same from Hillary Clinton.

Robots in Foxholes

Talking of empathy… the US military is going through something of an existential crisis with its mechanised weapon systems. Sure, its drones work OK, give or take a lot of collateral damage by drone operators. Out on the battle field though, the battle bots do seem to be far less reliable. Evidently, the Pentagon has been trying to foster the same sort of bond between frontline troops and their battle robots as currently exist between the troops and their military working dogs. Problem is, the killer machines require so much oversight and maintenance, the relationship is more one of frustration, and resentment.

At the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab in Quantico, Virginia, officials are testing out a system that might inspire those kind of close man-machine relationships…..With decision-making power and the ability to learn preferences, some of the machines may be advanced enough to make Marines forget they're not dealing with another individual, suggested Col. James Jenkins, the director of the Warfighting Lab's Science and Technology division.

There is still quite a way to go, Colonel Jenkins concedes:

"The emotional bond will be different. In [Dr. Peter Singer's] book Wired for War, he talks about guys using [improvised explosive device removal robots]; literally, they're like dogs or almost kids to them and [ the Marines] are crying when a machine gets blown up," Jenkins told "Does that happen for a drone? No, probably not."

Bring on Spot, and Gus. But uh oh…

Specific machines now undergoing testing at the lab include Spot, a quadruped that can take commands and execute them, but struggles to react to changing situations, and Gus, an unmanned vehicle that can carry gear to troops in the field, but need operator input at the beginning and end. Right now, the questionable reliability of unmanned prototypes and their need for extensive supervision -- what Jenkins called the "irony of automation," can prevent Marines from getting close to their robotic counterparts.

"At the end of the day, what we found is when the bullets start flying, the Marine either becomes so absorbed in driving the robot that he loses essay of what's happening around him, or he drops the controller and becomes a rifleman," Jenkins said.

Thankfully, the other side is also having its own problems. Despite their reputation for ruthless competence, Islamic State fighters don’t always live up to their own hype. A few weeks ago, this blackly comic video surfaced, of a group of bungling IS fighters filmed out on the battlefield. Abu Hajaar is definitely not the guy you want in your foxhole.

Birthday Bob.

OK, so today is Bob Dylan’s 75th birthday. We are now two albums into Dylan’s latest incarnation, as a crooner of the hits and lesser known items from the Great American Songbook of the 1940s and 1950s. Yes, Dylan is turning late in life into a version of Willie Nelson, and repeating what Nelson did 30 years ago on his Stardust album.

Not many people will linger over these creaky twilight albums, when Dylan’s achievements are finally assessed. Unfortunately though, Dylan guards his copyrights online almost as obsessively as Prince used to do, and the live performances are much less rewarding. So what to do as a birthday tribute? Well, this terrific out-take - which inexplicably didn’t make the cut for the Oh Mercy album - is good for starters:

And if you’ve got an hour to spare, these remnants of his long lost Eat The Document documentary are still fascinating :

And here’s D.A. Pennebaker at age 90, talking just last week about the making of his Don’t Look Back movie.

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