Friday, 2 November 2012


I have heard bits of the reading on Radio 4 of “Tombstone” by Yang Jishen. This morning's broadcast spoke of the imposition of communal kitchens and then their closure.

Household kitchens were abolished. Vegetable gardens too. Even kitchen tools removed.
36 million people starved.

Any historical account is subject to later revision and Yang is a journalist rather than an hisorian.

But he seems to be of some substance, working for Xinhua in Beijing for decades and latterly a Fellow of Hong Kong University. He was until recently still in Beijing; but his book is banned there.

One had heard much of this aspect of the Great Leap Forward already.My assumption is that, from my point of view, one who is not going to use the time to study the period of the Chinese Famine – this hearing may be all I give to it – the account is substantially true.

As I heard it, I was imagining all the people who will latch on to it and say there you are – “Communism” or “Authoritarianism” or even “Chinese” followed by “what do you expect?”

But what I heard was a rather extreme example of something that is all too common. I have likened it to playing chess when you only know the rules of draughts. Actually, that may be too kind. It may be playing chess when you only know the rules to scrabble.

In practice the thinking which leads to all sorts of cock ups assumes that everything is more or less as good as it can get; but maybe a few things can be improved if we go about it slowly and someone else takes responsibility. (The analysis is that of fools.) Yet the only proof that is accepted is catastrophic failure. The infection of our ash trees is an example. Instead of saying “This is dangerous to our trees” the government (and the previous government) has said “Perhaps it will be all right”. (As I say, fools.)

A couple of examples that occur to me almost arbitrarily. First Great Western have an arbitrary policy of not selling tickets more than 12 weeks before departure. Ask them why and they give all sorts of reasons without managing to make it sound less than improvised. There may be changes to the schedule, they say. Well, yes, there are all sorts of changes now. Yes, they say, but after 12 weeks it would be worse. 

So, is 12 weeks optimal?

What do you mean?

Tell them that National Express will take bookings way ahead and they say “Well that's National Express” but never specify what the difference is. And so on.

They also stop a long time at Plymouth on the way to Penzance overnight. There is no reason. It used to be to tie in with the post office. Now it's because they have always done that. There would need to be changes to schedules and shifts, but nothing that could not be negotiated and organised. So the journey is much longer than it needs to be.

Where I live even a small change to the furniture of the street or the cabling or piping takes weeks because of the way they have taylorised the work force. Inquire into this and sooner or later someone will say something including the words “I suppose”. No one actually knows what the benefits are. They are deemed to be there.

It is a question of obedience. True obedience does not wait to be told, it sniffs out and second guesses what is to be obeyed and what others might like to be obeyed. Every religion and every political system, in so far as there is a difference, relies upon obedience.

Obedience then is a fundamental characteristic of the good citizen. The good citizen does not question too much. That is interpreted as not thinking too much.

So the apparatchik, whether they work for FGW or the Chinese Peoples' Republic, starts with an idea it is acceptable to hold and follows it like a sniffer dog to its logical extreme.

If you have ever been interviewed by a doctoral student you may have experienced this. Many of them start from assumptions that have a basis in some text somewhere but which anyone who knows the subject would find laughable. Challenge them and they will retaliate with their reference. In terms of the criteria for assessment under which they operate, that is fine; but in terms of good science it is not very reliable.

I have in the past summed it up: a dunghead has what they think is an idea and all their dunghead friends tell them it is a good idea.

This is the point at which a meme is to be distinguished from a me me.

In the case of China, Yang suggests that the family was seen as a source of “rightist” resistance and the family meal the centre of family life. Right then says the dunghead with power, we'll abolish family meals. Well, to do that, we must abolish cooking, and to do that we must abolish the family kitchen. This meant that the production of food increased greatly.

Yes, it has achieved the original (insane) response to “rightism” but it has consequences which are unintended. That they are unintended hardly exonerates anyone. Only a culpable fool does not consider the consequences of their actions.

In China, there were very few places you could buy food. There were fewer places producing food.
As things went wrong, instead of saying they were going wrong, they accused people of deviationist tendencies. They made it worse.

One of the earliest offices I worked in was completely revamped while I was there. One of my colleagues found it difficult to work at his new desk because it was right-handed and he was left-handed. They wouldn't let him have a left-handed desk because that wasn't in the plan. 

When it was said originally that the plan should be adhered to, no one intended that a left-handed man should work at a right-handed desk. They didn't even consider the possibility. 

In some cultures they might have given him therapy to make him right-handed I suppose. A past lover of mine told me she was hit with a ruler when she was a child because she used her left hand... She still writes with her left hand...

But the original ruling really meant: this is a good way to do things; do stick with it. Any sane person would have gone back to the base ideas of the plan; but what dungheads do, and dungheads predominate, is look for rules.

Instead of saying What do we want to achieve? Dungheads ask What problems must we solve?

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