On the politics of the EU, ‘Leave’ has the right arguments – but come to the wrong conclusion

By Ask Foldspang Neve

Hands up if you voted Labour in the last EP elections to get Martin Schultz as your Spitzenkandidat for the Presidency of the European Commission. No takers? What about those who voted Tory to get Jean-Claude Juncker? Fewer still? OK. Everybody’s at fault: In the 2014 EP elections, the major candidates all steered clear of Britain, and Britain’s pro-EU parties all steered clear of them. Everybody informally agreed that leaving the skeptical islanders alone would probably be the least risky path to follow.

The problem is that, as many Euroskeptics have said for a while, the pro-European has chosen tacit dishonesty over and over again. This is by no means an isolated British phenomenon; it has long been common in the more skeptically inclined Northern European countries. Pro-Europeans in each country have spoken to their respective populations about the European project in terms that were likely to be received positively without the need for convincing. In Northern Europe, that has primarily meant not talking about Europe at all. And that’s the pro-Europeans’ biggest mistake.

Pro-Europeans have utterly failed at taking the criticisms of the EU seriously. The EU is still vastly undemocratic, meaning that national citizens feel that they have hardly any say over who gets to rule in Brussels or how their vote will influence which policies are discussed and agreed upon. That the leaders of the major voting blocs in the EP all agreed on the Spitzenkandidaten system almost only made matters worse: since it was so woefully short of the real democratic reform – nay, revolution – that was needed, they came to be seen not as political alternatives, but instead reaffirmed the suspicion among skeptics that there really is such a thing as a coherent, scheming European elite (instead of simply leaders and politicians from a number of EU countries, who are no more related to each other than to their British peers).

Juncker, Schulz and Farage

European halfway house: Is anybody really enjoying themself? (Source: The Telegraph / AFP PHOTO / FREDERICK FLORIN /Getty Images)

The problem is then that we have found ourselves in a compromise that is increasingly unacceptable to secessionists and federalists alike. The issue obviously is not compromising itself: most stable political projects are, in some way, compromises. The great empires certainly were; and non-compromising political movements tend to see continuous splintering, the common fate of religious and political fundamentalists alike.

There needs to be common polity space, however, for a compromise. If the ground in between two positions seems less attractive to both parties than continued fighting, peace is not in sight. And that might be exactly what has happened to the European Union. We have ended up with a political grotesque that satisfies nobody. The free-market policies, such as the rules of the Maastricht Treaty and the Growth and Stability Pact, have been given constitutional status – instead of simply being up for political discussion. That free-market basis is what has been the cause for traditional leftwing opposition to the EU all over Europe, and is likely to have been the cause for the recent drop in enthusiasm for further integration in the South, in particular in Spain and Greece. Yet those very same policies were also used as ‘safeguards’ to placate the rightwing skeptics of the project in the North. For those who wanted the EU to be more like the EEC and less of Union, having established free-market policies (for the North) and agricultural subsidies (for the South) that are outside of the political discussion was exactly what they aimed for. Yet Northern (centrist and rightwing) skeptics were happy to ignore these equally valid criticisms of the compromises made by people on the left.

Not allowing for basic matters of policy, however, might diminish the legitimacy of any polity. Not even having mechanisms for effectively representing different points of view only exacerbates the problem. The solution is to realize that the two visions of Europe – a free-trade zone and a political union – are not compatible and lead in unmistakably different directions. A true political union should not favor one set of policies over another in its constitution. It needs a discussion of states’ rights, and of how it can become as liberally democratic as possible. A free-trade zone probably needs none of that. Of course, it also offers none of the real political advantages of union: the ability to shield the increasingly marginalized European countries and their values in a world that will otherwise be dominated by giants such as China, India and the United States. That latter discussion is of course one that Leave, on its part, find inconvenient and seeks to avoid, instead preferring to pretend that Britain could stand up to countries 20 times its size on its own.

It is time for the pro-Europeans to reveal their true colors: the aim is not to create “trade-zone plus”. It is to redraw the map and create a real polity, since that is what European countries must to avoid potentially catastrophic strategic marginalization. If they don’t even know what they are aiming for – as Cameron might not – they should take the advice of some, either skeptics or federalists, who do. And most importantly, pro-Europeans should stop defending the status quo, which is arguably the worst of both worlds: enough to disenfranchize its citizens yet far too little to implement effective polities, as the European Triple Crisis – the economic crisis, the refugee crisis, and the Russian security dilemma – has shown.

Lego Politics 2: The Most Noble Order of the (mostly) Sacred Freedom of Speech

By Ask Foldspang Neve

Small countries are, as a rule, constantly nervous about how they are perceived abroad. Little wonder that is: if you depend on alliances for your prosperity and maybe even your potential prosperity, impressions matter. Their mythical golden ages are typically also farther away than that of the immediate has-beens, and so looking abroad does not threaten national solidarity and pride quite as easily.

Mostly small societies are just happy if they get any attention at all. American presidents are masters of using this fact to their advantage: you can get the support of almost every minor power simply by mentioning that they ‘punch above their weight’. Even when they realize that their patron superpower is not being exclusive in such praise, minor powers are so addicted to attention that they will soak it up when given. Former great powers such as the UK must still be talked into believing that such a thing as a ‘special relationship’ exists, faithfully adhering to it, even if the Brits and people on the payroll of the American Department of State know that it is special.

Denmark is obviously no exception from the rule of attention-starved client polities. There is seemingly no end to the joy Danes can get from hearing about how Danes are the happiest people in the world: in fact, it seems like a potentially self-fulfilling prophecy.

Exhibit A: A necessary defense of the Freedom of Speech. Should be defended at all costs.

Exhibit A: A necessary defense of the freedom of speech and the secular democracy. Should be defended at all costs.

When you are so obsessed with the feelings of others for your own fulfilment, it is no wonder, then, that you feel hurt and become defensive when their praise turns into scorn or reprimands. And whereas the praise often has to do with arguably less immediately consequential considerations such as the percentage of the electricity supply  wind energy or  bike lanes, the international fallout that was the result of a newly introduced and much discussed Danish policy of seizing certain assets of asylum-seekers as a means of deterring newcomers.

The Guardian on Lars Løkke Rasmussen

Exhibit B: An unnecessary, ahistorical and hurtful cartoon creating strife and animosity. Should be withdrawn and apologized for.

This only hurt so much more because Denmark, like Sweden and many continental European countries have been profoundly unable to develop a model of citizenship that is not based on either xenophilia or xenophobia; i.e., that tolerance of the strange customs of others does not imply having to love it. Continentals, it seems, are puzzled at the meaning of Lockean tolerance, and so feel safer banning what they cannot love. Switzerland’s 2009 ban on minarets and Denmark’s recent Meatball War – the latest round of which resulted in the local council of Randers, a medium-sized city, deciding that pork must be served in its schools and kindergartens – are both prominent examples.

So when outside attention is given to this dysfunctionality, it hurts. So much, in fact, that the liberal principles espoused by a whole host of brave knights defending freedom of speech during the 2005-2006 Cartoon Controversy can be forgotten. Back then, the nativist right was busy defending Jyllands-Posten editor Flemming Rose’s editorial that stated that in a “secular democracy with freedom of speech, one must put up with mockery, insults, and ridicule.” When the Guardian meta-mocked that same political movement, the DPP were suddenly less keen on the mockery. Hence the following medley of the founder of the Danish People’s Party alternately demanding absolute freedom of speech and that the Guardian withdraw its cartoon.

Houston, we’ve had a gender-class-culture problem

 

Ask Foldspang Neve, on facebook

Jessica, I largely agree with Rowling, but I don’t agree with her if she wants the discussion to be only about gender. Right now liberals and conservatives would like the discussion to be about two different things – which, of course, is often the case in any political struggle. As for the relevance of culture vs. gender, I’m personally currently of a boring ‘both are probably relevant’ opinion, but let me just quickly elaborate.

So, the above quote is one, very important part of the question; it has always been applicable, presumably through human history. This is what conservatives are keen to downplay – they would like the case to be seen mostly or purely as an issue of the ‘incompatibility’ between different cultures or the ‘inherent violence’ of Islamic culture, and many proclaim not to be able to see why a comparison with violence committed by non-Muslim men could possibly be relevant.

The other aspect is the conservative argument – which liberals in turn tend to downplay – that culture does seem to play some part. Again, different versions of the argument exist, but that’s not the important point here. Now, I don’t want to make too much inference from the Cologne case for now, as the only thing we know is that a large number of women were hurt, but little about their assailants.

Statistically, however, immigrants (and their descendants, but that’s an even more complicated question) from different countries fare very differently on average depending on where they are from; this is true across host nations, and not only in the West. That’s where the conservatives are right; even if you control for common social and economic (and demographic) indicators, this difference (often) persists. Now, people who fare badly get more press, but empirically it is easy to observe ethnicity having an impact either way.

Where it gets more complicated is that culture interacts with gender: In Europe, men do much worse than women in many immigrant communities, and this is a much more pronounced difference than among the natives. Moreover, it also interacts with class, as does gender, and both at the same time. What we end up with is an exciting, but hard-to-handle three-way interaction.

Pakistani female doctors

The female MD: countries should woo her; some do. Source: http://www.dailyrounds.org/blog/doctors-or-wives-is-a-pakistani-female-medical-students-dilemma-real-or-self-made

So in other words, an outcome of the US being very selective with their non-Hispanic immigration has been that many recent immigrants do extremely well. As Pew outlined in their 2012 report The Rise of the Asian Americans, Indian-Americans, for example, earn more than 50 per cent more than the median personal income; the difference between household incomes is more than 75 per cent higher.

Pakistani-Americans, by comparison, do not stand out, but are still doing better than the population at large. While their personal incomes are only slightly higher than the median, the share of Pakistani Americans who have a college degree is twice as high as for the general population (27.9 % vs. 55.7 %).  While there is a gender difference, it is not huge (and at least for Indian-Americans, it still favors men).

Clearly, the by now almost mainstream European reactionary argument of Islam being a dysfunctional religion has no grounding in data in its simple form. Now Pakistani Brits (and Pakistani Danes) don’t do nearly as well; they are mostly working class, and the men clearly do worse than the women. Thus, we see that gender having a cross-cutting effect on who gets higher education to begin with, but also is important in affecting the negative effects of not being middle-class; and that ethnicity or culture again affects the interaction between the two so much that working-class immigrants seem to be the worst off – in Europe at least – while highly educated immigrant men seem to be among the best off.

Coming back to the original topic of sexual violence, as for the data I know the best – i.e., the very detailed registry data from Denmark – this also seems to be the case there (although I have to say that crime is not my usual topic). There is a clear overrepresentation of non-Westerners (as they are unhelpfully categorized) among those found guilty of sex crimes. Now, some not insubstantial part of this effect is explained by class alone: simply that lower class people commit more of those crimes, and more of the non-Western migrants are lower-class. Yet a substantial effect remains, although, I suspect, not among white-collar immigrants. I.e., it is working-class immigrants who fare particularly badly; and when it comes to violent crime and sex crimes, men (of all races and classes) vastly outnumber women as perpetrators. Thus, the full intersection.

This, I think, is worth looking seriously at by policy-makers. The most obvious differences between migration to the US and to Europe are often said to be what characterizes the host countries: that in the US, people expect and accept diversity, and they much less so in Europe, especially outside of France and the UK (the liberal explanation); and that the much less generous welfare state incentivizes people to work, and thus doesn’t ‘trap’ them in receiving benefits (the conservative explanation). However, migrant characteristics are vastly different also: The US and Canada tend to pick people who are very foreseeably going to be productive members of society. Europe has received many more working-class migrants, who are neither received as well or as good at adapting – and for the men, this results in very different crime rates.

Canada has taken what seems like a not very egalitarian consequence of this: they are now not taking any single men. That’s quite a drastic policy change, but much of the electorate is onboard with it, also since there is still so much goodwill towards the not-freaking-Harper government for being, well, not led by Harper. While I don’t have the statistics on it, I would be very surprised if they didn’t in their ‘health and security’ screening also find out whether people seemed like potentially successful new citizens. The interviews that many countries, but very notably those on the North American continent carry out among UN refugees and internally displaced persons are largely about desirability. It is also exactly what the US does, and did even when it was people from its supposed ally who was doing the fleeing, as after the Vietnam War – which is likely to explain at least part of the difference in reception between the educated first and less well-educated second waves of refugees from Viet Nam to the United States.

Going back to Europe where authorities can be less selective about who is arriving than their North American counterparts, the interaction between culture, class and gender does seem, from an empirical perspective at least, to bring to the forefront legitimate policy questions of targeted immigration policies – something that the political left in Europe has puzzlingly refused mostly on egalitarian principles and less on liberal cultural principles (with Britain being a possible exception). That is, many European social democrats were rather willing to discriminate between different applicants on the basis of culture than on class. While this may seem intuitive given a materialist background, it hardly is a defense of the electorate of these same parties: when asked in polls, the British public for example is highly skeptical of immigration in general, but highly positive of the immigration of doctors and nurses: whereas three quarters of the British public favor reducing immigration in general, roughly the same share supported admitting more immigrants – if they were doctors or nurses. Similarly trending results were found in a highly-cited 2010 experiment published in the American Political Science Review using US data.

In other words, it seems that a large segment of the population mostly has material interests in mind when it considers immigration. A smaller section – maybe 20 % – may be genuinely anti-immigration, no matter its benefits, but that is way too small a group to wield political power outside of a class alliance. Most likely, the larger group is a mix of middle-class and working class citizens, while the ‘true’ reactionaries are the current UKIP voters, whose core voters are overwhelmingly petit-bourgeois. This can be understandable, though: from a working-class perspective, increased competition for the kinds of jobs and social benefits your own group depends on is unlikely to be welcome, especially when those jobs and benefits are already being squeezed. This indicates that mostly, immigration-skeptics are not primarily motivated by cultural disdain or xenophobia, but by more tangible self-interest – like everybody else.

Now a current problem of the immigration policies of (North-Western) European countries is that it has been successful in attracting mostly the opposite group of people, i.e. low-skilled males. As Texas A&M professor Valerie Hudson pointed out two days ago in Politico Europe, there is a striking sex imbalance in the current group of migrants and refugees coming to Europe. In Sweden, 71 per cent of all applicants for asylum in 2015 were male. According to Hudson, “18,615 males aged 16 and 17 entered Sweden over the course of the past year, compared with 2,555 females of the same age.” That is actually enough of an imbalance to seriously skew the sex ratio in the population at large for the young cohorts. Again, quoting Hudson: “when those figures are added to the existing counts of 16- and 17-year-old boys and girls in Sweden—103,299 and 96,524, respectively, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s International Database—you end up with a total of 121,914 males in Sweden aged 16 or 17 and 99,079 females of the same age.” While I argued just a few days ago that the overall number of immigrants – just about one million in the ‘record-breaking’ year of 2015 – is not a problem by itself for a continent of 500 million people, the class and gender of those migrants may pose a problem and Europe would do well to devise a strategy that either favors families and women like Canada does (without excluding single males partout, as there are obvious ethical problems with doing so), or strongly favors high-skilled migration (again, like both Canada and the US) or both. This stands in contrast with current liberal approaches in Europe. Simultaneously, there is no empirical evidence, however, of there being a benefit of limiting immigration from Muslim countries like many right-wing politicians claim; it is matter of whom you attract from those societies.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2015, the year of exodus? A proportionality check


by Ask Foldspang Neve
 

The current refugee crisis did not start in 2015, nor will it end there. Rather, the singular case does little justice to describe the situation of the people around the world. People have obviously been fleeing from a number of conflicts for years, although they have been largely ignored. The long plight of people fleeing either too much political order, as in Eritrea, or too little, as in Somalia, Congo, and the Central African Republic, are examples. Yet it is often repeated that the number of refugees is now higher than anytime since the Balkan Wars in the 1990s – or even since World War Two, with the worsening of the war in Syria and the collapse of any resemblance of a state in Afghanistan being the two main contributors to the rise in numbers. Still, the 972,500 refugees who came to Europe in 2015 make up only 1.6 % of the at least 60m people forcibly displaced worldwide; and there were less than half as many people reaching Europe last year as there were refugees staying in Turkey.

What spurred the change in the level of attention citizens and governments in the West pay to the change was the appearance of refugees in Europe, where disunited governments who could reasonably have foreseen the currently unfolding events years ago claim that they were caught unaware. In reality, all Western governments were caught unaware of was the ability and determination of displaced people to make their way across state borders once their situation had become sufficiently hopeless. What mattered to European governments was not that people were fleeing; it was the direction they were fleeing in.

The myopia became crippling when Western governments failed to fund UN agencies doing one of the few things they are really successful at: responding to humanitarian crises outside of a political context. This forced the UN to halve its rations to refugees in Kenya and cut a third of its aid to Syrian refugees and to healthcare to internally displaced Iraqis. Stripped even of food and the most rudimentary medical attention, the cross-border exodus gained pace. While nation-building or even ending conflict remains firmly out of range of our social technology, providing food, shelter and basic sanitation and healthcare is not, and the price is small: the 500,000 refugees in Kenya cost less than $10m a month to feed, yet even this paltry sum was too much for increasingly inward-facing authorities in rich countries. (The same scenario also played out in the end of 2014, when a last-minute call for donations finally staved off cuts for refugees in Kenya for another half a year.)

Refugees and the population of Europe

Not a lot, if you ask the nationalists. Sources: UNHCR and EUROSTAT

In a debate that seems to have lost all proportionality – and is rapidly leading to political despair in Europe and the incapacitation of the Schengen agreement spurred by the demands of nativist and right-collectivist parties – a sense of proportions seems to be more important than ever. We should us remind ourselves that the cumulative number of refugees arriving in Europe by sea since 2013 is still only 1,305,630. That is the equivalent of less than a third of a per cent of the EU population of 508 million. And even if Europeans decided to foot the entirety of the bill for the ‘record-high’ funding appeal from the UN system for humanitarian aid for 2016, it would cost them only $19.9b, or 0.1 % of their GDP. In other words, if Europeans decide to let European unity be shattered by a few million refugees, it is entirely of their own choosing.

We never bailed out Greece. We bailed out its private-sector creditors.

The Greeks have voted no!

Even though almost everyone agrees that it is unclear exactly what has been voted on, most of Europe’s rightwing politicians and pundits – and quite a few on the center-left – have been reacting with scorn at these Hellenic rebels: First they spend and spend, the argument goes, and now they are upset that they have to save a little. What a spoiled nation.

It has been pointed out many times that Greece’s economic problems do not simply stem from feckless spending and that, to bust just one myth, Greece’s effective average retirement age has been among the highest in Europe until the onset of the economic crisis in 2010.

Moreover, individual pensions have dropped dramatically – many by 30 % or more. According to the blog MacroPolis, the average pension was in March 2015 €884 a month, including both public and private fund contributions; 45 % of pensioners, however, received less than the €665 a month poverty limit.

Greece’s healthcare system has seen severe cuts as well: where it took up 7.1 % of GDP in 2010, it took up only 5.3 % of a much lower GDP in 2013, according to the IMF.

A common misconception in Northern Europe in particular is, however, that the Greeks ‘keep spending money that they don’t have’ – meaning, on welfare benefits such as pensions, the health-care system and unemployment benefits; and that, since Greeks are lazy, they use Northern money now that they’ve run out of their own.

But in fact, the vast majority of the first two bailout funds – one bilateral and the other multilateral – has gone to the international creditors who hold Greek sovereign debt, as has already been reported on in the Guardian and mentioned by Joseph Stiglitz in the same place. However, while Stiglitz is right about this being a political, and not a primarily an economic question, he does not back up the claim with data.

And while the data is complicated, there are some relatively simple points to be made: the bailouts were given to hold major European financial institutions free of losses, not to sustain Greek public spending.

On the left, these financial institutions have often been called ‘reckless’. However, that misses the point: they received high payoffs through comparatively higher interest rates. That reflects the market’s willingness to gamble: those who are willing to lend to a poorer country receive a higher payment, but also run a higher risk of the debtor defaulting on the loan.

Except, of course, when other governments step in to short-circuit that mechanism to keep banks based in their own countries free of damage.

EU governments have been unwilling to realize that an early default was needed. Instead, they simply transferred the burden of Greece’s debt from the private lenders who had received interest rates on giving the loans to public hands – European and, through the IMF, international citizens.

Interestingly, IMF stakeholders were painfully aware of this, as can be seen from the leaked minutes of the IMF board meeting in 2010 when the IMF approved its engagement in the First Economic Adjustment Programme. The documents were leaked by the Wall Street Journal, no less.

Basically, every non-EU envoy made it clear that they thought the program was flawed in this way:

““Several chairs (Argentina, Brazil, India, Russia, and Switzerland) lamented that the program has a missing element: it should have included debt restructuring and Private Sector Involvement (PSI) to avoid, according to the Brazilian ED, ‘a bailout of Greece’s private sector bondholders, mainly European financial institutions.’”

And in the words of the Swiss envoy,

“We have “considerable doubts about the feasibility of the program…We have doubts on the growth assumptions, which seem to be overly benign. Even a small negative deviation from the baseline growth projections would make the debt level unsustainable over the longer term…Why has debt restructuring and the involvement of the private sector in the rescue package not been considered so far?””

The most succinct statement, however, was delivered by Brazil’s representative:

“The risks of the program are immense…As it stands, the programs risks substituting private for official financing. In other and starker words, it may be seen not as a rescue of Greece, which will have to undergo a wrenching adjustment, but as a bailout of Greece’s private debt holders, mainly European financial institutions.”

And so it happened. Not only did the conditions included in both packages act fiercely pro-cyclically, severely contracting public spending when an expansion was called for; but the money that was lend to Greece – this was never a donation, as some seem to think – did little to change the Greek debt burden, because it simply made the loans change hands.

This is the reason that Greece’s debt today is higher, not lower, than when the Troika started intervening: in 2010, it was €310 billion, and currently, it stands at around €342 billion. That would be an astounding failure if the aim were to stabilize Greece and relieve it from debt.

Graph of Troika's loans to Greece, per area of expenditure

In billions of Euros. Source: IMF and jubileedebt.org.uk.

 

As summarized by the pro-debt relief group the Jubilee Debt Campaign, in fact only 8 % of the €252 billion loaned by Greece from the Troika has gone to Greek public spending. The rest has gone to pay off on the principal and on interest on privately held loans – mostly from German and French banks; on ‘recapitalizing’ Greek banks – i.e., buying large shares in banks that held government debt and which would likely collapse after the debt swap in the second agreement; and to cash payments for private investors – again, mostly the same banks and investment funds – as part of the debt swap agreement.

Finally, around €20 billion have been injected into Greek government budgets: a figure that will do little good when overall unemployment stands at 26 % and youth unemployment is at 49 % – and which will have to be paid back, with interest.

 

Right-wing conservative liberals? Centrist liberal socialists?

A guide for two-party voters to understanding the rise of the Danish People’s Party in multiparty Denmark

Thursday’s election results puzzled international observers: how could the ruling Social Democrats win more seats than in the last election and still lose power, while the opposition Liberal Party lost a third of theirs, were overtaken by the nativist Danish People’s Party as the second largest party in the country, and still be expected to lead the next government?

In other words: the winner lost and the loser won?

Not so in a real multiparty system.

It all comes down to fragmented class voting and proportional representation. As I have briefly argued elsewhere today, as parties have realigned to counter the influence of the Danish People’s Party, the constant sum of support for redistribution, immigration and European integration might not have changed much with the present election. Danish voters overwhelmingly seem to vote for pro-redistributive, anti-immigrant, moderately pro-European parties – although there is no single party with all three stances. Add to that large minorities on all three issues, and it is visible why, institutions allowing, a large multitude of parties would form.

This confuses many international observers.

So what happened?

Overall, the Danish People’s Party (DPP) triumphed. This was the one thing that Slate got right about the election. Slate’s self-invented Liberal-Conservative name for the party called Venstre – meaning Left – and usually translated as the Liberal Party only makes sense to those with no frame of reference outside of American politics where ‘liberal’ is always considered ‘lefty’ and conservative the opposite.

As in most other European countries, however, there are still social-democratic and even socialist parties in Denmark, making liberal parties rather right wing: Bill Clinton would have been an unelectable right-winger in Denmark in the 1990s. This is not (primarily) because the word ‘liberal’ is used differently in the two countries. It mostly has to do with ‘left’ and ‘right’ being relative terms and ‘liberal’ being an absolute (if very broad) term.

The DPP was originally built on the ashes of the economically libertarian, but socially conservative Progress Party, whose founder advocated a 0% income tax and the deportation of Muslims from Denmark. This was briefly successful, but the party succumbed to internal infighting and ended up excluding, and then reintroducing its founder. Moreover, the libertarian-yet-racist electorate turned out to be limited, after all.

The DPP was created by a group of decisively anti-socialist senior members of the dying Progress Party, and their voting record is very mixed – the party is deeply pragmatic. They have no ties to the traditional labor movement, which most of its senior figures spent their years in the Progress Party fighting. At the same time, they very successfully rebooted their new party as a social-democratic conservative party, aiming for taking a stance that was not yet taken by any party at the time.

Thus, it’s not clear that Denmark has moved ‘far to the right’. The DPP is certainly the most communitarian, reactionary party in Denmark. They oscillate between openly bigoted anti-Muslim points of view and more coded language, much the same as some Republicans use dog-whistling to signal allegiance to white voters in the US.

Yet, the economic policies of the DPP are shaped by the preferences of the Danish electorate, and their economic policy preferences lie far to the left of any Democratic senators – probably even of Bernie Sanders’s.

The DPP’s pro-welfare rhetoric (and sometimes voting) has earned it a solid representation among the Danish working class and petit-bourgeoisie. Just as British scholars are currently discussing where UKIPs voters come from, so have the Danish party elites, political scientists and news contributors discussed where the DPP’s electorate came from.

Conventional wisdom held that they were disgruntled Social Democratic voters who didn’t like the socially liberal politics of the post-1960s Social Democratic Party. Surprisingly, it wasn’t as often mentioned what impact the Blairite turn in the 1990s might have had (a point that Evans, Mellon, Ford and Goodwin all have a better grasp of for the British case).

I have not worked the data out for the entire period the DPP has been running – it will hopefully be available later – but so far it seems clear the Danish and British cases are alike. The immediate movement of voters was not primarily between the Social Democrats and the DPP, but instead from the Liberal Party to the DPP; however, many of those voters had come from the Social Democrats in earlier elections.

The Danish Broadcasting Company (DR) presents the following data based on almost 5,000 exit-poll interviews:

 

Voters moving to the DPP from 2011 to 2015

 

The voting behavior of 2011 DPP voters in 2015

 

 

It shows that the party received far more voters from the Liberal Party than anywhere else, but also a substantial number of voters who didn’t vote in the last election – either because they were too young, or because they didn’t participate (this basic dataset unfortunately does not distinguish). The DPP also received a fair number of votes from the Social Democrats. This is unsurprising, given the hypothesis above. Had the US had a system of proportional representation, there is good reason to believe that ‘red state Democrat’, socially conservative, economically moderately lefty position would become very popular in the United States as well. That would be the end of any lefties-must-be-liberals confusion.

Iconoclasm is a progressive indispensability

By Ask Foldspang Neve

The terrorist attacks on the Paris-based satirical newspaper, Charlie Hebdo, will force European progressives of many kinds to reconsider their stance on the relationship between iconoclasm and hate speech, properly separating the two.

To be effective, satire must question that which the powerful wants to be left unquestioned, or highlight that which the powerful wants to stay shrouded in obscurity. Asking ‘who benefits?’ is often the most powerful question of all: asking it persistently of any religious system of beliefs is certainly challenging its clergy, the secular rulers allied to it, and those within the family (often the pater familias) whose unequal prosperity is legitimized by the specific set of ideals supported by the religion. Thus, satire, in general, is important because it challenges power. To use a by now slightly altmodisch term, it has emancipatory potential.

Then, why the focus on Muslims in Europe? Certainly, Europe’s Muslim minorities are not in power. There is nearly no social sphere in Europe, least of all the political, in which Muslims are well represented in the top. Conservative Muslims, whose ideals certainly invite criticism from progressives, are the least represented of all: they have no electorate in the West. As many progressive and leftist commentators have done before, including notabilities such as Noam Chomsky, it could seem obvious to denounce all Western satire of Islam as simple reactionary politics.

But the Charlie Hebdo attack, and before it, the Iranian hunt for Salman Rushdie, the 2004 murder of Theo van Gogh, the attacks on Danish embassies and businesses during the 2006 Cartoon Crisis and the later assassination attempts at one of the cartoonists, change that. While Muslims hold no power over anyone in Europe apart from other Muslims, sovereign societies still cannot accept that religious zealots (or East-Asian crypto-fascist monarchies, for that matter) can decide on what can be printed and what cannot. It is the paradoxical truth that such satire has created a market for itself, with the generous helping hand of the belief of some Muslims that religion can legitimize murder.

 

Siné clergy

Not uncontroversial, but necessary: Siné and the Abrahamic religions

These many incidents mean that there is a need for the continuous lampooning of Muslim religious dogma, just as there has been for every other world religion. The major difference, of course, is that Westerners should be clear that this time, they are not doing it to emancipate themselves: the sudden conservative impulse to stand up for the rights of brown women while fighting for ‘traditional values’ with regards to everyone else has never been credible to anyone, least of all the minorities it purportedly seeks to address.

There can be little doubt that much social progress is needed both in Muslim-majority countries and within many Muslim communities in the West, but at the same time, there is almost as little doubt that this struggle needs to be taken from within (with outside support, if and of the kind asked for). It is an obvious affront to human equality to believe female sexuality is somehow ‘dangerous’ and needs to be reined in, while male sexuality is not (oddly enough, no patriarchal society decided that men could not go unaccompanied outdoors, or could not engage in business, or hold political office).

So, this time, keeping the focus on the self-serving absurdities that make up the many strands of conservative Islam is a defense of the fragile order that makes up the open societies that are still so young even in the West. Answering violence with more irreverence, but without violence, state-sanctioned or otherwise, will reinforce the open societies that many reactionaries, both Christian and Muslims, seek to dismantle.

 

Exposing the CIA

Is this also just following a right-wing agenda?

 

If progressives shy away from this task, they leave it to conservatives and reactionaries to answer. We already know what that answer will look like: every reactionary leader gains politically from incidents like what just took place in Paris. UKIP are already proposing getting rid of the “fifth column living [in Western countries]”. A nominally moderate, Danish Lutheran minister already called for “the democratic liberties” of “Muslim extremists” to be curtailed because they “are waging war”. Another columnist in the same conservative daily has long based his pro-torture argument on the writings of the Nazi court lawyer Carl Schmitt, the idea being the same, namely that ‘humans’ have no rights per se, and so the political friend/enemy distinction takes precedence. American conservatives, of course, have long supported torture, a pledge many have just renewed (with the notable and honorable exception of senator John McCain).

It is therefore regrettable that it has become so fashionable among everyone from centrist progressives and to semi-leftists to denounce the ‘new atheists’ as servants of the right because they ridicule Muslim practices as well as Christian ones. The basic argument of the criticism is understandable: many minorities, including many Muslims, are under constant attack in the West. Moreover, as argued above, there are no Muslim kings, emirs or Mullahs in power in the West, nor will there be. So why add to the pressure?

The answer was given above. By rejecting criticism of Islam, or pretending that certain beliefs and practices are more acceptable because they are held by members of religious or ethnic minorities, room is simply given to right-wing Christians and nationalists who are more than happy to fill the vacuum. Moreover, nothing is gained: the criticism is often correct, and when it is not, it only becomes more important to make it so, not by asking those who criticize to stay silent, but by publishing one’s own, less crude, and more salient treatise. Finally, the typical progressive defense of the ‘foreigner’ smacks strongly of the same kind of orientalism that it publicly denounces, only now intended as a defense instead of an attack: this kind of progressive sees Rousseauean noble savages where a John Wayne character sees Indians he wants dead. Or worse, still, he sees someone in need of upper-middle-class intercession on their behalf.

Iconoclasm has always been important for progressives. Until the 1970s, it could still be legally problematic to challenge Christianity in Western Europe. Famously, Monty Python’s Life of Brian was banned in both Ireland and Norway, bastions of Catholicism and Lutheranism, respectively. And it certainly has only become more precarious to criticize the ever more entangled church-state relationship in Russia, where Dimitry Enteo, the leader of a group ultraconservative Orthodox activists called “God’s Will” has already called the Hebdo cartoonists “worthy of capital punishment” as he staged a rally in front of the French Embassy in Moscow on the day of the shooting. Like the Evangelical Westboro Baptist Church, Enteo obviously has a taste for sensation, and he uses the same Abrahamic metaphors of tragedy being God’s punishment for straying from the path. On his VKontakte page, he adds to his reactionary bona fides by asserting his belief in the Jewish deicide and likening the Hebdo attack to the second destruction of Jerusalem. To many of these Orthodox zealots, it was religiously meaningful that the attack to place on January 7, the date of Christmas in Orthodoxy (which still follows the Julian calendar).

 

Russian picket in front of the French embassy

Fundamentalists of the world, unite! (“Responsibility for the tragedy lies with the government of France. They do not protect the feelings of believers.”). Source: yopolis.ru

 

Many European states also still uphold anti-blasphemy laws, as well as state churches. Both are an affront to a supposedly demystified society. Moreover, whereas the state churches are often supported more vigorously by the right than the left, the opposite is true of blasphemy laws. This is because progressives have felt that blasphemy laws often make good addenda to hate-speech paragraphs and limitations on racist slur. This is a reversal from a few decades ago, when some conservative Christians would still see blasphemy paragraphs used to protect their specific version of the sacred. Such a turnaround should make progressives suspicious: why are we suddenly protecting an erstwhile conservative pet policy?

This digs deeper into a discussion internal to political liberalism between different visions of society. In one, the center of gravity is on toleration between groups, such as envisioned in Lockean terms. In the other, the center is on individual freedom, including from the community oneself is born into, including separating the political community from religion and metaphysical doxa. In the crudest of terms, Britain has become representative of one idea, and France of the other. The United States has tried to combine them, and still struggles to reconcile them. Most of the rest of Europe never fully subscribed to either, and so is struggling both with tolerance in practice and with individual protection from majority (or plurality) power.

Since European liberals have long been as inept at (or disinterested in) discussing political ideals that were not ultimately about the need for Thatcherite market-driven reform as American lefties have been at discussing how one might bring about incremental change towards working social-democracy, the discussion about liberal political ideals in Europe has for a few decades mostly been about following American struggles from afar. Unfortunately for both Americans and Europeans, much of the progressive struggle in the United States has been so devoid of reflection on its own historical embeddedness that it risks creating as many problems as it solves.

It might even entrench current inequalities: much of the current ‘progress’ is being made by essentializing ethnic and religious differences rather than showing them to be the results of ideological or material differences. Paradoxically, this has even been the effect in the gender debate, home to some of the most anti-essentialist activists and thinkers: Many contemporary feminists still insist that sexuality is something especially dangerous, or vulnerable, or otherwise qualitatively different, that sets it apart from the rest of human social life. Again, on this, they agree with conservatives, albeit also they are divided in Jean-Jacques and Dukes.

After Hebdo, European progressives should forcefully reenter the public sphere on the issue. While it is nice, as many Western leaders have done to counter right-wing extremism, to distinguish between religious zealots and ordinary Muslims, it is not enough. One should go further, and actively seek to remove the influence of mysticism of all its branches on our societies, from the absurd American public affirmations of faith to Muslim codes of honor to alternative medicine and astrology to the cult of the nation that still hold common cooperation back, while further supporting and protecting the rights of minorities to do as they please – as long as the rules of peaceful political engagement and the rights of the individual are upheld.

Just after Life of Brian was released, two prominent English mystics and patriarchs made the mistake of debating John Cleese and Michael Palin on the BBC show Friday Night, Saturday Morning. Watch it below and rejoice. And let me summarize by quoting Cleese: “[the film is about] closed systems of thought, whether they are political or theological or religious or whatever: systems by which, whatever evidence is given to a person, he merely adapts it, fits it into his ideology.”

 

 

Torture and Guilt

By Ask Foldspang Neve

To the limited attention of the world outside New York City, Eric Garner was choked to death on July 17 of this year; he was suspected by police officers of the crime of selling ‘loosies’, single cigarettes, whereby he could have made a profit of several dollars. The case was not given wider attention until the common law system under whose jurisdiction Garner and his headsman found themselves, decided that immediate capital punishment without trial was not necessarily too harsh given the circumstances: Garner was, after all, standing while black (even if that same offence used to be punished only by arrest).

One should think that a legal system that defends without trial the immediate, violent death of a suspected loosie-dealer must have unfathomably harsh punishments in place for those responsible for those responsible for well-documented, systematic, organized, intentional torture and killing of prisoners?

Not so. The accused have already absolved themselves of any blame. This did not work well for the alleged cigarette-seller, but it does seem very likely that it will indeed be enough for the politicians and CIA leaders and operatives responsible for the American torture program. The defenses invoked so far have been mostly predictable, tired tropes: torture ‘saved American lives’, a fully unsubstantiated claim that rests on a counterfactual, the evidence about which the accused claim they have to keep to themselves; and, techniques such as waterboarding and “insects placed in a confinement box” did not constitute torture. (As if Orwell’s Winston would have reacted very differently in Room 101 had his phobia been about arthropods instead of rodents.)

CIA Confinement Box

The “confinement box”, as drawn by a survivor. (photo: hrw.org)

There is, of course, no good reason to think that a bureaucrat or a politician, any more than other person, is simply speaking in his or her own interest when asked to witness about the factuality and circumstances of a crime in which he or she is suspected to be involved.

Just as any other individual is entitled to state his or her case, so is a government official, especially one that has been accused of anything as terrible as being responsible for a program of systematically torturing prisoners placed under their supervision. The idea that the facts of a case can be interpreted differently, and that a defendant’s stating his or her case can change the perception of whoever is judging the case, is integral to our interpretation of justice.

Yet just as such a defense should not be discounted in virtue of being the defendant’s claim, so it should not be counted as anything more than a defense. Whether the facts are disputed or not and whether the defendant is in fact – in the eyes of the system of law in question – culpable or not, such testimony should always be considered biased toward the interest of the speaker.

This does not become less true simply because you are a CIA boss and get to publish your defense in a Wall Street Journal op-ed where you invoke in your defense that your work environment “felt like the classic “ticking time bomb” scenario—every single day.” Stressful working conditions are of course a factor to be considered in wrongdoing, but it would hardly exonerate somebody from a speeding ticket, much less the tormenting to death of a man chained naked to the walls of what its director called “a dungeon”. Moreover, if establishing the torture program really was the right thing to do, why do you even need to invoke that you were under a lot of stress?

In other words, just because a former vice-president who has all along been a vocal advocate of torture calls a report clearly incriminating him “a bunch of hooey”, it does not mean that we should necessarily be swayed by his eloquence.

The same goes for Dr James Mitchell, who as a psychologist trained to understand the human psyche put those insights to use as the contracted developer of the CIA’s torture program, when he agrees with said vice-president that the report on torture is a “load of hooey”.

James Mitchell

How power deals with guilt (photo: VICE News).

 

In fact, if we are in doubt about the verisimilitude of that statement, let us look at motives: Dr Mitchell and his partner, Dr Bruce Jessen, reaped rewards of $81m worth of contracts as the former Air Force psychologists sold their services to the CIA through a newly-established company.

As the New York Times reported back in 2009, the psychologists had no knowledge of either actual interrogations aimed at uncovering the truth, of Al Qaeda, or of Middle Eastern or Central Asian cultures. What they did know about was a variety of torture techniques employed on American POWs during the Korean and Vietnam wars, knowledge they had from dealing with returned, former prisoners. If they had listened to John McCain or any medical expertise on torture, they would also have known that torture is not efficient as a means of interrogation, but highly efficient as a means of terror and repression.

As for guilt, currently only power shields the perpetrators. A system of direct authority, such as in a military chain of command, exonerates neither the actual executioner nor the officer issuing the criminal order. Hence arguments, such as former (Obama-era) CIA director Leon Panetta’s, that say that assigning guilt would be unfair to CIA operatives who thought they acted under orders are misguided. It is the assigned-to-be torturer’s responsibility to back away from torturing, at the cost of his or her career if necessary. Most sensible souls should agree that even in the narrowest selfish terms, a career is not worth becoming a torturer for.

The same, of course, governs the mutual expectations of action that rests on economic incentives rather than on (or in addition to) traditional authority. Thus it does not help Mitchell at all to say that he was “”just a guy who got asked to do something for his country by people at the highest level of government, and I did the best that I could.”” That is an admission of guilt, not a defense.

(For progressives, it is hard not to be gleeful when reading in the same interview with the Guardian that Mitchell “also criticized Obama’s healthcare policy – a “shit sandwich” – and his administration’s approach to global warming. [He] believes it’s a myth.”

Yet taking down Bush-era policies was always easy, but inadequate: most CIA personnel are in intelligence as a vocation and have continued their careers under the current administration.)

This is important not only for the big fish such as the CIA directors, the torture entrepreneurs and the vice-president: as the Guardian reports, the tormenter responsible for the death of Gul Rahman ‘was recommended to receive a $2,500 cash bonus for his “consistently superior work”’, when, of course, he should have been charged with murder.

But apart from the truly applaudable fact that the open society struck back by publishing the report (something that would almost certainly never have happened in, say, Russia, Saudi Arabia, or Iran), maybe we are supposed to find consolation only in the fact that even torturers now have performance reviews and must see their jobs outsourced to freelancing hacks with dubious business plans to leech on the public purse.

 

 

Lego politics, part 1: Introducing Geertsen’s Constant

The biggest party in Denmark is called Venstre, which, translated literally, means Left; it is the dominant party of the right. Its full name is actually Left – The Liberal Party of Denmark; it is advocating that Denmark is too liberal when it comes to immigration, crime and gender politics.

After a few years where Danes have spent a lot of time talking about increasing inequality, stagnating wages and unemployment, Left are eager to get Danes talking about immigration again, since this is how Left usually win elections.

Left won three elections in a row in the 2000s by increasing public spending, lowering taxes and making immigration more difficult, but then lost the first election after the Financial Crisis. Left needs immigration to come back on the agenda.

However, since the ruling Social-Democratic party has lurched so far to the right on social issues that immigration policy has stayed almost constant after they came to power, family reunification and other standard immigration policies will hardly do if you want to win the next election. And Left really want to win the next election.

Enter the asylum seekers.

While not immigrants in the conventional sense, asylum seekers in Denmark still do tend to come from Muslim-majority countries. From 2011-2013, Denmark has faced a surge of asylum seekers with Syrian nationality (and also of stateless people, of which most are Palestinians). In total, Denmark received 7,557 applications for asylum in 2013, up from 6,184 the year before and 3,806 the year before that.

That is why Left decided to send its spokesperson on immigration, Martin Geertsen, on a frontal charge against the government’s asylum policies. By 2020, claims Mr. Geertsen, Denmark will receive no less than 83,355 applications for asylum – almost as many as eleven-times-bigger Britain received at its peak in 1983.

But some would say that this is still a surprising number. So where did Left get it from? Simple. They applied Geertsen’s Constant.

Making the observation that the development in applications for asylum received from 2011 to 2013 amounted to an annual increase of 40.9 %, Geertsen and his party were able to reliably predict the number of asylum-seekers in 2020. It did not involve complicated and contestable discussions about the development of conflicts around the globe. Instead their solution was intriguingly simple: they expected the annual increase in asylum-seekers to be constant unless more Danes start to vote Left.

(Unfortunately, one would imagine that this also means an annual increase of 40.9 % in the number of bloody conflicts forcing people to flee their home countries, which does not bode well for the world. Then again, Left and the rest of the right does make a point out of neglecting the push factors of migration.)

As a few Danish journalists noted, this would lead to rather unmanageable numbers of asylum seekers in the future. They predicted that by 2050, 8.5 billion asylum seekers would arrive in Denmark in that year alone.

Going even further, we can see that within the lifespan of generation Y, the annual number of applicants will rise beyond the number of human beings ever to have lived. One can only start guessing at how Danes will make universal social services work for an estimated 110 billion people.

Geertsen forecast of the annual number of asylum-seekers coming to Denmark through the year 2150, compared to other, very large numbers (logarithmic scale)

Will it never end?

Will it never end?


By the turn of the century, Denmark will receive 68,573,637,424,690,800 asylum-seekers. If we accept the average mass of a human being to be c. 62 kg (Walpole et al. 2012), the total mass of asylum seekers arriving in 2100 will be an astounding 4.25157*10^18 kg, or a million times the mass of Mount Everest. Further applying the Geertsen Constant however, we find that by February 2141, the mass of asylum seekers arriving in Denmark that year will be greater than the mass of planet Earth, which could affect the planet’s gravitational pull. How many large-scale wars will be going by then? The answer is 46,389,622,711,637,100,000. That is what a failed Middle East policy looks like. Thanks a lot, Obama.

Pope Francis and the End of Clerical Celibacy

Pope Francis, already deemed a great herald of progressive change in the Catholic Church (more so as his more traditional arguments get little or no attention in the general press), a few weeks ago hinted at changes to the rules of clerical celibacy in what turned out to be an explosive interview in Espresso.

As the pope acknowledged, clerical celibacy was not widespread even in the Latin Church for the first 900 years of its existence – and maybe even after that. Today, however, that specific sacerdotal vow has come to be a major identity marker for Catholics. This might have a lot to do with the fact that neither mainstream Orthodox nor mainstream Protestant churches practice it; the very distinction makes it all the more important.

This makes sense from a sociological point of view, as group identity is strongly dependent on real or fictional differences to the outside world that can serve as boundaries between insiders and outsiders.

In both Orthodox and Protestant theology, moreover, it also makes intuitive sense that being different is a sign of virtue: for the Orthodox, it is a sign of not having veered off the path; for the Protestant, is a sign of having scraped away man-made tradition and found the path again through scripture.

For the Catholic Church, however, Francis’s reference to the traditions of the Eastern Church as a legitimate concern makes sense. Being ‘catholic’ in the literal sense invariably involves seeing your organization as a big tent in which all divisions, no matter how many millennia they span, are ultimately temporary. Thus, while both Eastern and Northern Christians can be content with being part of the few who are saved, the Catholic shepherd must always try to gather his flock, even if that means changing the way he does so.

Historically, the introduction of clerical celibacy was part of a wider shift of family practices that the Catholic Church successfully imposed upon itself and the elites of Europe; it is one of the biggest intentional programs of social engineering not carried out at the tip of a sword in European history. The Church successfully disbanded with a number of Germano-Roman family practices, including the wider clan system (since marrying even remote family members was outlawed), the Roman adoption practice, the Judaic levirate (otherwise commanded by God in the story of Onan) – and the inheritance of clerical office.

Obviously, the change was not fast-paced: for most dynastic leaders, giving up their right to pass on any kind of inheritance to their progeny was deeply illogical and contrary to the very reason of power. The change did occur, however, not least as orders of monks gained in importance within the Church, and the canon regular – clergy who have taken monastic vows –became a more prominent figure.

The celibate faction also had a strong, anti-Semitic argument on its side: inheritance of office seems Jewish, since Jewish tradition has it that the Kohanim and other priestly clans are granted specific priestly rights and duties – and Jesus, the highest priest, was not of the Kohanim. As anti-Semitic sentiments were often running high in Latin Europe (and much more so than in the Arab world), being seen as pro-Jewish was a major legitimacy problem.

 

Pope Francis,  photo from vatican.va

The issue of issue: a question for the father.

Theologically, the major argument for clerical celibacy is, as many other doctrines that seem contrary to parts of scripture, a Pauline one. As celibacy has been practiced in many religious traditions both before and after the birth of Christianity, the discussion about the value, positive or negative of worldly signs of piety, was already raging in the first centuries CE.

Famously, 1 Timothy 4 reads (in the English Standard Version): “Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.”

Timothy thus, like Pauline readings, can be enacted as a an argument for the New Covenant as replacing the old one, and that the Mosaic rules governing human behavior – such as which foods to eat or to abstain from – have been cancelled, since such foods (and, presumably, other objects regulated in especially Leviticus, such as clothes) are ‘made holy by the word of God and prayer’.

However, it obviously also contradicts the notion of holiness through abstinence, a fact that has been pointed out by both Orthodox Christians (who never adopted celibacy in the first place) and various Protestants (who revolted against it, and made marriage a litmus test for priests and bishops to prove their anti-papist stance).

The Bible, however, is obviously an anthology whose editors were not too concerned with the coherence of its message. The Pauline argument for celibacy is scripturally based on 1 Corinthians 7, especially verses 7-8: “I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another. To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single as I am.” Out of its context, it indeed does seem that Paul advocates celibacy as a purer way of life (purity being a main concern of the ascetic faction that Timothy argues against).

Even Corinthians, however, deals with the seemliness of marriage and says nothing explicitly about clerical abstinence. That such leeway is granted to the unmarried and widows does appear, in context, to be more of a matter of respite given to those unfortunate enough to become spinsters or to have husbands who passed early: to make sure that they were not treated as outcasts as was often the case, especially in the lower orders of society.

The Catholic stance admits as much: “we grant that the motive here appealed to is in some measure utilitarian”, states the Catholic Encyclopedia on 1 Corinthians 7.

However, the cult of virginity is strong within the Church, and today, 1100 years after inheritance of office was a major concern for the Church, this explanation has become the strongest official one, together with the paternal allegory that also serves the reasoning behind barring women from clerical office: the priest as the father of his parishioners, whom he guides and looks after. If he had biological children of his own, he would have to look after them first, and his parishioners second, with which they would not be served properly.

What was novel about Francis’s statement, then, was that he acknowledged a historical reality that Catholic scholars are fully aware of: the institution of celibacy is purely a man-made one, also in a theological sense (i.e., not just for the outside observer, but also for the inside practitioner). The Catholic Church traditionally has had few problems with admitting as much, as it has given much weight to what is also itself saw as derived practices.

Lately, however, conservative Catholics, just as conservative Protestants – traditional opponents – have reacted with similar conviction in galvanizing their stances on a number conservative issues as they have found themselves pushed further and further back by a liberal world order. That is why issues of sexuality became the main focal point for both groups: anti-abortion, anti-gay and anti-contraception.

Francis’s statements were thus explosive because they reminded Catholics who might otherwise have forgotten about Catholicism not being defined by the distinction to other Christian traditions; that the Catholic Church could indeed endure, as Catholic, without clerical celibacy.

How plausible is this change, then? In the short term, not very. Francis is unlikely to survive long enough to see such a change carried through. His immense popularity in an age of rising inequality and social liberalization, however, might make it difficult for his detractors in the Church to elect another Retzinger as his successor. The unwillingness and inability of the conservative Popes in handling pedophilia in the Church – the immediate reason for Francis to even discuss celibacy – have also made the progressive cause easier.

Still, Francis is more likely to let a hundred flowers bloom and let non-celibate practice slowly seep into the mainline Church, apart from its already existing enclaves within Anglican converts and many Eastern Catholics. The main strength of the Roman organization has always been its ability to contain various practices and only enforce a very small core of beliefs upon all. Francis just signaled that celibacy might be leaving that core, signaling to those for whom it matters that they could find amnesty, and with time even acceptance, if they were to take up official family lives.

Ask Foldspang Neve is currently pursuing his PhD in sociology at the University of Oxford. Ask Foldspang Neve