Mirror Images

Via a comment by Smoking Lamp, this report:

One of the most notable legal changes in the Czech Republic this year has been a ban on smoking in pubs and restaurants that entered force before the summer. However a new opinion poll suggests that almost three-fifths of Czechs believe the prohibition is too strict.

The first thing that struck me about this was that there was some sort of public debate about the new smoking ban taking place in the Czech Republic, with public opinion being polled. How wonderful! There is no public debate in the UK about the smoking ban that was introduced in the UK on 1 July 2007. And there was no public debate about it back in 2007 either.

All of which means that the Czech Republic is a much more democratic country (i.e. one in which public opinion is consulted) with a much richer public discourse than the UK.

The second thing that struck me was that Czech smoking prevalence was almost certainly much higher than in the UK or France or Germany, because until around 1990 it had been part of the socialist Eastern Bloc in which Western antismoking zealotry had never taken root.

And the third thing that struck me was that most Czechs could probably see in state-legislated smoking bans an echo or repetition of the top-down, state-controlled Eastern Bloc from which they had only recently escaped. And they do not like what they see.

And the fourth thing that struck me was that while the former Eastern Bloc and Soviet Union had only recently been freed from top-down socialist state control, the Western world has everywhere been becoming more and more top-down, state-controlled, and centralised. The two sides – capitalists and communists – have been, in effect, swapping places.   It was Mikhail Gorbachev who remarked that the European Union was reconstructing the structures of Soviet state control within Europe, just as they were being dismantled in Russia.

“The most puzzling development in politics during the last decade is the apparent determination of Western European leaders to re-create the Soviet Union in Western Europe.”

Perhaps this shouldn’t be too surprising. At any one time, the critics of any society will be pointing out its present, most glaringly obvious defects. And so in the capitalist West social critics were usually criticizing capitalism, and in the communist East social critics (e.g. Solzhenitsyn) were usually criticizing communism. In a swinging pendulum, the most powerful counterforce to its motion is found at each extreme of its swing, and pushing in the opposite direction.

People are always responding to their own personal experience. If they find fault anywhere, it must be in their own societies rather than anybody else’s. Martin Luther found fault in European Catholic Christianity because that was where he lived. And if his namesake Martin Luther King found fault with the absence of civil rights in the USA, it was because he lived in the USA. Both wrote and spoke from out of their own experience.

In the UK there has long been a powerful reaction against unfettered capitalism, ever since the industrial revolution that began circa 1750. The “dark satanic mills” of Manchester or Huddersfield provided a powerful impulse in opposition to them. But the most powerful impulse towards socialism must happen during wartime, when the state calls up young men to fight in its army, and industry is set to work making armaments. The wartime state is always a top-down-controlled socialist state in which the goals of the state (self-preservation) gain priority over all personal or individual aspirations.

And so if at the end of WW2 Britain became a socialist state under the 1945 Labour government of Clement Attlee, it was because it had already just experienced some six years of socialism from 1939 to 1945, and returning servicemen dreamed of harnessing the newly-created socialist state in the service of peace rather than war, with the state-controlled factories producing houses and cars and radios rather than guns and bombs and ships.

And perhaps exactly the same explanation applied in Russia in 1917? For in 1914, at the outset of WW1, Russia also became a top-down-controlled socialist state, as millions of Russians were called up to fight, and Russian factories and farms were requisitioned to provide munitions and supplies for the Russian armies facing those of Germany and Austria. And it was these returning soldiers and sailors who rallied around Lenin when he arrived in St Peterburg with his socialist doctrine. All they had to do was to continue what Tsar Nicholas II had inadvertently started.

So also with Germany? Hitler was a decorated soldier in WW1, and so were many members of the Nazi party. He too had experienced socialist state control during WW1, and resolved to build a new national socialist German state, and gained just as much support in Germany as Lenin had in Russia.

The lesson would seem to be that, if you want to build a centralised, top-down-controlled, socialist state, you should fight a war. And if you want a socialist revolution that overthrows the existing order, you should not only fight a war, but you should also lose that war. For the 1917 Bolshevik revolution in Russia came in the wake of defeat by Germany. And the communist Chinese revolution came in the wake of defeat by Japan. For the experience of defeat in war must always be more powerful and compelling than the experience of victory. If Britain had been defeated in either WW1 or WW2, there would probably have been a communist revolution. It didn’t, and so it instead enjoyed a peacefully-elected socialist government and a “mixed” (half privately-owned, half state-owned) economy.

But the principal victor after WW1 and WW2 was the USA. And because it was a victor, it did not experience a revolution, nor even a socialist government. But one of the prices of victory was that the USA then became a global policeman in place of the British Empire which it superseded. The USA maintained (and still maintains) a fleet that is at least as large as the British navy ever was. And, after WW2, it found itself being drawn into wars in Korea, and then Vietnam, and in many other places, including most recently Iraq and Afghanistan.

And so the USA has been more or less constantly fighting wars for the past 70 years. And it has very arguably lost all those wars. Was the Korean war a victory? No, North Korea remained a communist state. Was Vietnam a victory? No. Were Iraq or Afghanistan victories? No.

And because it has been fighting all these wars, the USA has arguably gradually been itself becoming yet another top-down-controlled socialist state, much like the Soviet Union. Power has become ever more centralised in the US presidency, much as it was in the General Secretaries of the USSR (e.g. Joseph Stalin). And the US federal government also greatly expanded in power, as should be expected in wartime. And the USA has a whole set of intelligence agencies in the CIA and FBI and NSA, just like the old Soviet KGB and NKVD. It even has a prison gulag system to rival that of the Soviet Union, with over 2 million prisoners.  And if KGB chairman Yuri Andropov became the General Secretary of the USSR, then CIA Director George H.W. Bush became President of the United States. And might not antismoking and global warming zealotry be a form of American Lysenkoism?

The two rival powers gradually came to resemble each other more and more. They became mirror images of each other. One might even go on to suggest that Donald Trump is a latter-day Mikhail Gorbachev, who is setting out to fundamentally reform the US government, and “drain the swamp” in Washington in much the same way that Gorbachev attempted in Moscow.

One difference between the Russian and American experiences over the past century or so has been that state socialism appeared almost overnight in Russia in 1917, and became gradually less oppressive over the next 70 years. But in the USA (and Europe), state socialism has been gradually increasing its grip on society. And more or less all US and EU politicians are socialists or “progressives” in some degree or other. And government and universities and mainstream media are filled with socialists. US mainstream media organisations like CNN, MSNBC, etc, may not be state-owned, but they are very often privately owned by socialists, which amounts to the same thing.

But now that there is a pretty thoroughly top-down-controlled socialist European Union, and an almost-equally socialist USA (or parts of the USA, like California), a reaction has begun to set in. People are getting sick of top-down control. Brexit is one result. The election of Donald Trump another. And we can expect to see the same pattern being reproduced all over Europe in the coming years, particularly in former Eastern Bloc countries like the Czech Republic, which have no wish to repeat inside the EU the experience of  Eastern Bloc socialism from which they have only recently emerged, and which remains fresh in their memory. It is in these former Eastern Bloc countries that the new political leadership of Europe (e.g. Vaclav Klaus, Viktor Orban)  is likely to emerge. And it will be these former Eastern Bloc countries which will likely start leaving the socialist EU as its strictures become more and more intolerable (examples 1, 2, 3)

And there is of course no better example of excessive top-down state control than the smoking bans which have been sweeping Europe for the past decade or more, as well of the wave of migrants that have been sweeping over Europe at the same time. These are the present experiences of Europeans, and it will be to these that they will begin (and already have begun) responding.


About Frank Davis

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19 Responses to Mirror Images

  1. Tony says:

    The Wikipedia page on US incarceration that you link to contains a striking graphic showing a substantial rise in the gradient in 1980 (A gradient that continues until a slight fall off around 2005).
    The text further down notes:
    ‘Perhaps the single greatest force behind the growth of the prison population has been the national “War on Drugs.” The number of incarcerated drug offenders has increased twelvefold since 1980.’
    I know it’s dangerous to rely too much on a single graphic trend but it does seem to me to encapsulate the loss of individual autonomy and the rise of big state control that you describe.
    The word ‘war’ as in the ‘War on Drugs’ also resonates with your post.

    • Frank Davis says:

      I think a lot of the prison inmates are indeed people who’ve been smoking something, or selling people something to smoke

      • nisakiman says:

        As I understand it, many of the prisons in the USA are privately owned and run, and those prisons have a powerful motive for keeping the ‘drug war’ going. The more inmates they have, the more money they make. As do the law enforcement agencies, which employ tens of thousands to police the ‘war on drugs’. And then you have the immensely rich and powerful drugs cartels, who also have a vested interest in keeping the ‘war’ going, as it keeps prices (and thus profits) high. And they will all, in their separate ways, be lobbying (or bribing) government officials to keep the ‘war on drugs’ going.

        All for the good of the people, of course.

  2. Rose says:

    For Mark Jarratt

    22 tonnes of illegal tobacco smuggled into Hull dock
    29 DEC 2017

    “More than 20 tonnes of tobacco was discovered by Border Force when officers searched a HGV lorry that had arrived in the port from Rotterdam.”
    “A total of 33 pallets of large cardboard boxes were found to contain unprocessed tobacco. The shipment had been falsely declared as paper.”

    Less creative than the chicken fillets.

    • Mark Jarratt, Launceston, Australia says:

      Well spotted thanks Rose. It’s a platitude to state that prohibitionist policies fuel the black market, a fact monomaniac tax and ban puritans ignore, as they do other unintended consequences. During my service as an Australian customs officer the interdiction rate for prohibited drugs was estimated at no greater than 5%. Now that punitive tobacco sin taxes approach drug prices that rate probably applies to tobacco too. Prohibition never works while market demand exists. Anti tobacco zealots ignore evidence contradicting their preconceived bias as they are not exponents of reality.

    • smokingscot says:

      @ Rose

      Something’s odd about this:

      22 tonnes of raw tobacco makes a lot of stuff
      No one will try to bring in that quantity to have it sit in a warehouse for months.
      I’d be very suspicious that it’s going to some sort of manufacturing plant.
      I’d be suspicious this is only one of many consignments.
      To make what and to distribute it how?

      In other words I would never have opened anything, just waved it through. I believe they have those tracker devices, so they can follow it by drone or an unmarked vehicle to its destination.

      It’s doubtful the drop off point is at the processing plant, so patience and they could follow the whole operation right the way to the eventual purchaser.

      Now that would wound, if not hurt a very great deal.

      Afraid this sort of grandstanding by Customs shows them to be a bunch of keystone cops.

      22 tonnes of raw tobacco is all they’ve lost. The truck and driver, well that’s not their problem.

      And at $4 a kilo, that’s less than $85,000. Wholesaled in 50 gr pouches at £8, that’s £3,520,000. Retailers can get a markup of up to £6 a pouch, though most will take a little less. They can flog virtually anything for £12.

      (You can vary the figures – £2 = £880,000. My point is it’s 4/5ths of eff all to the importer).

      Packaging’s very easy now because few people know what brands are available. But here’s the kicker; don’t use UK packaging, use foreign brands and matching warning labels. Believe it or not, there’s a certain “cool” in some areas to be seen with a tobacco pouch with indecipherable warnings.

      Yup our Border Force have screwed up royally on this. And Hull will be avoided for a while.

      • Mark Jarratt, Launceston, Australia says:

        Sound calculations, and tobacco smuggling profit margins are now even more attractive. This ill conceived policy illustrates the prohibitionists and fellow traveller legislators live in a health cult bubble. Longevity is their only public good, but like personal health it’s a personal good.

      • Mick Walker says:

        I’ve been battling Customs for 18 years.
        They are simply ambush predators.
        All careful precautions turn out to be a waste of time, they never leave their den (unless a TV documentary crew is there).
        They don’t even care that some prey escapes after a brief struggle. There’s plenty more waiting in the queue. They just get the weak or unlucky ones.
        No predator wants to drive its prey species extinct. Just sustainable harvesting.

        I’ve often been stopped, driving a minibus off the Hull ferry. They check the nearest bag to the back door, and then lose interest. Sometimes they look under the bus with a mirror on little wheels. Because they’ve got one.

        • smokingscot says:

          @ Mick

          Making an assumption here that you know a bit about tobacco.

          Been back to the article Rose linked to. Noted they show a very small cut in the cardboard; just enough to see the tobacco leaf is very dark and has white bits on it.

          Soo… We see a panel truck with not one, but umpteen layers of plastic outside and a plastic liner inside each box.

          We know it’s hellish humid in mid December and it could be the panel truck has one of those semi transparent roofs.

          You’ve got damp and heat, all trapped in plastic seals.

          So my take is they didn’t need all their fancy devices. THE TOBACCO’S FERMENTING! !!!

          The stink when they opened those doors must have been enough to kill a mule!

          In truth they did the importers a big favour. No way they could make saleable stuff from that putrefying mess. They’d have to get rid of it – and that’s not easy.

          Border force comes to their rescue. Does it for them!

        • RdM says:

          To smokingscot

          It’s hard to tell from the image, but in any case white bits aren’t necessarily bad.
          Mold, mould would be a problem – under a microscope you can see the threads.

          Naturally crystallizing sugars can also seem white spots on old tobacco, I found out when I researched the appearance of tobacco in a tin from the ’40’s I was lucky enough to buy cheap at auction, as an aside:

          (They were definitely sugar crystals and it smoked superbly in a pipe!)

          That’s irrelevant to fresh tobacco, but as I was asserting in the SBD yesterday, the discovery of fermenting tobacco, in a barrel on a ship sailing back to Portugal from the Americas in the early days, due to the weather, and the appreciation of the much better smoking taste of it from raw, lead to the development of curing it, as far I as recall and understand it.

          More to it than at first meets the eye, perhaps?


      • Rose says:

        I came to the conclusion that there must be a processing plant somewhere, but it’s all so unnecessary, if the government hadn’t declared war on the law-abiding consumer none of this would exist. But that’s how Prohibition ended.

        John D. Rockefeller 1932
        “When Prohibition was introduced, I hoped that it would be widely supported by public opinion and the day would soon come when the evil effects of alcohol would be recognized. I have slowly and reluctantly come to believe that this has not been the result. Instead, drinking has generally increased; the speakeasy has replaced the saloon; a vast army of lawbreakers has appeared; many of our best citizens have openly ignored Prohibition; respect for the law has been greatly lessened; and crime has increased to a level never seen before.”

        • Mick Walker says:

          “Unprocessed” leaf is already cured, but not yet shredded.
          It usually comes in a double-thickness huge cardboard box, cling-filmed on the outside.
          It’s very cheap, so a bit of wastage is acceptable. In reasonable conditions, it will keep at least a year, as is.
          The smell of a few tons is powerful and very pleasant! (Not like an ashtray!)
          Until early this year, it was legal to import and handle, as long as it wasn’t shredded.
          Nevertheless, Customs would often seize it if they found it, but not always. Also the poor courier’s truck! (But released the truck after a couple of hours, just enough to piss off the courier so they’d refuse future consignments.) Customs never just kept quiet and followed it, they really couldn’t be bothered.
          It was possible to get a seized consignment back, but easier and cheaper to just order some more.

          I’m not involved since the law changed, so I’m not giving away any secrets here. But the trade continues, of course.
          It’s the “Laffer curve”, if tax is too high, then the total revenue goes down because of the black market.
          It’s Customs’ job to demonstrably seize stuff, not kill off their own industry. Rational parasitism.

    • Roobeedoo2 says:

      Back in July 2015, Rose, I was minuting a meeting for the company I worked for and the senior bods were discussing an opportunity to pitch for work with Associated British Ports, beefing up the security. The port of Hull was an example given as it’s security systems were quite antiquated.

      The ‘problem’ of tobacco smuggling through UK ports was so enormous because a whole town (like, for instance, Hull) condones and makes money from the smuggling…

  3. junican says:

    I went on holiday to Prague a few years ago for seven days. I found a shop (Chinese?) which ordered in my request for 20 x 200 cigs at a price of about £2.50 for 20. I cannot say that I enjoyed the trip because the weather was cold and wet, and so I spent most of my time in my room, reading and playing chess. But I did ‘venture forth’. I found that Prague had by no means recovered from Communist control. Fine buildings were filthy and covered with graffiti. There was not much that was not, how shall I say, crude. I stayed in a ’boutique’ hotel, meaning a small hotel. Smoking was not permitted in the hotel. Across the way was a bar. Smoking was permitted there. For some reason, the owner and his son took to me. Every evening, I had dinner there and was treated to traditional Check cooking. I cannot say that I enjoyed every concoction which appeared before me, but the experience was worth it. I met a few interesting people there, and had a game of chess with a Swedish chap. He gave me a sample of ‘traditional’ snus – not in a packet, but raw tobacco which was inserted under one’s top lip. I did not like it. I also met a Polish young woman who was on her way back to Australia, having visited her relatives in Poland. I almost tempted her into bed!, but not quite. I think that she was slightly tempted …..

    I got a strong feeling that the Check people, post-communism, were very rebellious. They are not weak people. But they suffer from the usual problem – authoritarian MPs. Perhaps persons who stand for Parliament have an authoritarian streak.
    I wonder if that ‘authoritarian streak’ is very common. Very, very common. Have there been any studies about that tendency?

    • Rhys says:

      Junican, I think Jordan Peterson and a couple of his students have been working on this. I’m certain there’s older research about, too, but can’t call it to name.

    • Frank Davis says:

      I got a strong feeling that the Check people, post-communism, were very rebellious.

      And perhaps the earlier Czech people, during communism, were very rebellious too (e.g. Vaclav Havel)?.

  4. waltc says:

    Just to amplify on American political history…tho we were on the winning team in WW1, in its wake (an elite flirtation with Mussolini aside, and a 1919 “Red Scare” aside) socialist, even communist ideas were on the rise and hit their peak in the 1930s, capturing the imaginations of both the working class and the elites, some–not all– of whom became disillusioned by the Hitler-Stalin pact–and then (zig-zag-zig) many anti-communists also became confused by the subsequent military alliance with Russia. True, the war itself (WW2) killed leftist sentiments as Russia, post war, almost instantly became the enemy, and (zig zag zig) the witch hunts began–the Hollywood Trials, McCarthy, blacklists–and our foreign as well as domestic policy lurched to the right. Then too the post war period was the start of economic boom times for all, and capitalism, the font of rising wages and Made In America patriotism, didn’t seem like something you’d want to overthrow. Nor would the left be rising again now if the economic reality as well as its prospects had been seen as hopeful.

  5. smokingscot says:

    Seems they think this phenomenon may be down to rebellious individuals seeking a way to circumvent their smoking ban.


    And I see the WHO thinks that after a 60 to 80 minute hookah session the punter’s smoked the equivalent of over 100 cigarettes, which is complete bull.

    However help is at hand for enterprising Kenyans; there’s an e hookah!


    (And on page 3 of this link they’ve got a vast selection of hookah tobacco that’s cheap as chips, but only in Armenia).

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