Thursday, March 31, 2005

The Third Way

Chris Brooke has a series of five posts, partly prompted by an article in the Grauniad today, about the slightly disturbing way in which the Labour Party under Blair has adopted slogans used in the past by fascists, going on to discuss what exactly the ideological content of New Labour is. They're all interesting, but what really piqued my interest was the reference to my kind-of supervisor, Stuart White, and his piece in the book he edited on the Third Way. As I understood when but a lowly undergraduate, his point is that there are two roughly left-right cleavages within Third Way European social democracy: real vs. formal equality of opportunity and social responsibilities vs. individual rights.

The idea is that within a broad framework of equality of opportunity and civic responsibility, which are the distinctive normative commitments of the Third Way, there are choices between emphasizing a lack of formal barriers, or providing a genuine helping hand, and between taking punitive action against those who degrade a social environment, or recognizing sometimes awkward individual rights, precisely because of the broadness of the framework. This leaves a kind of two-two matrix giving ideological slants within the Third Way: economically egalitarian and socially liberal, economically egalitarian and socially authoritarian, economically free-market and socially liberal, and ecomomically free-market and socially authoritarian.

One could believe for example, in extensive support for the poorly paid, for working mothers, and generous retraining and relocation programmes, encouraging businesses to move into economically deprived areas, and in attempting to eliminate, through redistributive taxation, inherited inequalities, and take either the position that low-level vandalism should be stamped by curfews and all the rest, or that it should be dealt with by an engagement with its primarily social causes and a respect for the rights of the criminal, as well as those of the victim. Equally, one could combine the belief that once a basic level of services and a minimally decent level of income are secured for all, our economic obligations are fulfilled, with either of those two positions.

I think White's idea about the main normative commitments of the Third Way is basically right: equality of outcome is more or less gone as an end for Labour under Blair, for example, and the references to vaguely communitarian notions ought to be familiar (he also talks about the way that Third Way politicians emphasise the importance of non-state actors in securing these goals: hence PFI, privately-run but mostly state-funded schools and so on). What's interesting is that I think it's fairly clear on which sides of these two divides New Labour comes down, the socially authoritarian and the economically free-market. Whilst their attacks on civil liberties, both of terrorists and of petty criminals, are fairly well known, it is noticeable that their welfare reforms have basically aimed at ensuring that it is possible and not economically disadvantageous to enter employment, rather than attacking an ingrained class structure which does substanially alter opportunity sets.

This makes them basically One-Nation Tories: although some of us may be at the bottom of the pile, those at the top have the responsibility to ensure that they have the opportunity to live a minimally decent life, as long as they do not fall into the category of the undeserving poor (all that rhetoric about social exclusion does hide the basic fact that New Labour has resurrected, maybe only morally, as opposed to economically, the category of the undeserving poor) either through idleness or moral squalor. For all Blair's rhetoric about being the inheritor of Gladstonian liberalism as well as of the vision of the New Jerusalem bequeathed by the 1945 government, the late-nineteenth century politician he resembles the most is Gladstone's opponent across the dispatch box, Disraeli. Perhaps the apparent alliance with brewers is not wholly coincidental, in this respect: Gladstone's liberal party, good non-conformists to a man, would have never extended pub opening hours, whereas the Tory sympathies of publicans were an electoral force of no little note in the nineteenth century.

Anyway, to return to Chris Brooke's posts. Chris talks a bit about how a lot of New Labour rhetoric is not quite fascist, but similar to the rhetoric of Vichy France, which from what little I know about it, was basically a kind of One-Nation Tory deal. But White's diagnosis could have told us that too.

Postscript: Stumbling and Mumbling infers, from the content of some of Blair's speeches, an admiration for the Tory-Liberal Imperialist governments of the late nineteenth century. Interesting in this context, perhaps...

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Blogging Problems

As some of you are probably aware, for most of today there have been three more or less identical posts up here. This is because last night I tried to post the post several times and each time got error messages, and then this morning, I couldn't get into the blog to edit it. I'm not sure whether this is mostly blogger's fault or mine, but it was really irritating, so apologies. If anyone can shed any light on what went on, I'd be grateful, so that if it was because of things I did, I can avoid them in the future.

A Philosophical Manifesto

Earlier today I updated the post from last week on, tangentially, the Schiavo case, pointing out a piece on Body and Soul on the collaboration between the Catholic Church and various Protestant sects on various issues to do with what has become, in a deeply misleading way, a “culture of life”, saying that I might write something about how pieces of explicitly Catholic political thought survive in Lockean liberalism. I was thinking in particular of the idea of justification through works rather than through faith, seen in the justification of property rights in Locke, and of a reasonable, rather than capricious, God, seen in the idea that rather than rulers being integral parts of the divine plan, to be unthinkingly accepted, they can, under certain conditions, be overthrown. Rather than that though, partly because such a discussion is going to draw me into roughly those issues anyway, and partly because I think it’s interesting all by itself, I’m going to write on what I think the proper moral and ethical foundations of a state are.

This is an abstract question: although the answer, whatever it is, to it ought to frame our discussions of concrete political issues, I do not think it necessarily determines them, because, understood in the way I understand them, the question and its answer are not simply not concrete enough to every and all political issue that could become relevant. It is also to some extent an ahistorical question: although what humans are capable of, what societies look like, may determine specific parts of the answer, they do not set its grounds, at least in the sense in which these things have changed over historical time. The grounds of the answer to the question, the foundations on which an answer draws, are foundations which I believe are provided by distinctive features of humans qua humans, rather historical circumstance, or indeed any other facts about the world at all.

I do not think, as some post-modernist and most conservative thinkers do, that this is a hubristic reaching beyond what it is possible for humans to understand. Indeed, I think that this is a recognition of the limits of human knowledge: what matters is what humans qua humans think of humans qua humans, not, as conservative believe, the wisdom of our forefathers, nor, as post-modernists believe, a requirement for a perfectly impartial spectator. To my mind, the Quinean recognition of our inability to impose absolutely necessary truths on the world is a recognition of our limits, but also a kind of freedom: whilst we cannot reach the certain and the necessary, precisely because of that, we have the freedom to shape our world, to some degree, as we please, a freedom we would lack if there were truths which were as they were, and could not be otherwise.

The specific feature of humans that I believe is important is our capacity for rationality, in thick sense of anomalous monism, rather than the thin sense of economics or rational choice theory. Humans are rational, purposive agents, bounded but also freed by language, able to construct their worlds for themselves and their fellows, to alter how they understand their environment and to alter that environment by doing so, to form projects, to reconceptualize their relationships. All these features are given to them by their capacity for language, to manipulate concepts, to communicate and to be changed by that communication, but changed on terms they partly dictate. The holist requirement of coherence amongst beliefs requires this ability to alter the result of communication on terms that we partly dictate: Quine’s argument for holism depends on the possibility of choosing which belief to alter in the face of recalcitrant evidence, for example.

Given this capacity for language, for altering our beliefs on terms we partly dictate, justification plays an important role in human life. That which cannot be justified should not be done, regardless of whether we are talking about which beliefs to hold or which act to do, because we have chosen, in some sense, to hold those beliefs or do those acts. We are responsible, because of this capacity for language, for what we do, because we control, in some sense, through language, what we do. This is not a claim in conflict with determinism, at least determinism about the physical world, because the whole vocabulary which we apply to the description of human acts, and without which those acts would not be human, is incompatible with a physicalist vocabulary: revising our belief set so that all of our descriptions of our acts accorded with some physicalist vocabulary would require such massive alterations for no obvious gain that, for any holist, it is implausible to suppose it would ever occur.

This does make me an ethical naturalist of a sort. It is a set of facts, in some sense – their capacity for rational, purposive action, to reconceptualize and alter their environment, to engage in justification – about humans that grounds ethics. However, that set of facts, insofar as they are facts, is irretrievably normative: the very way that language describes these features of humans is loaded with normative significance. Think of the predicate ‘rude’. There are a set of relatively simple descriptive conditions which warrant the application of the predicate ‘rude’: spitting inside is rude, for example. Yet calling something or someone rude is to make a normative judgement about that act or that person. Moral judgements can then be derived from facts: if Hume did indeed claim that an ought could not be derived from an is, he was wrong.

Being an ethical naturalist sharpens the distinction between the view of ethics I hold and those of most post-modernists. Post-modernists believe that the malleability of language, the shifting descriptions of the world which language provides us with, mean that claims to knowledge, of any sort, but particularly of ethical knowledge, are groundless, because contingent. I think this represents a fundamental mistake about the linguistic turn in philosophy: the point of the linguistic turn is that to reach beyond the tools that language provides for us to attempt to understand the world is to fail to understand the limits of those tools, the tools which enable us to ask meaningful questions about the world at all. To ask a question which requires more of language than it is possible for language to grant is to ask a question which makes no sense, yet this is what the post-modernist demand for non-contingent knowledge is. Language is malleable and contingent and we will never have the totally impartial view that would provide the kind of universal truths that the post-modernist critique of knowledge claims as contingent requires for justified knowledge claims.

Being an ethical naturalist also undermines conservative critiques of post-Enlightenment philosophy, which have focussed on the difficulties of abstract reason delivering foundations for knowledge. The managerial critique mentioned a while ago is part and parcel of this: in the absence of thick ethical notions, as a result of the failure of abstract reason, public policy reverts to the creation and enforcement of disenchanted rules, aiming for efficiency, or some similarly non-normative goal. Because I believe that facts can have normative significance, because I am not relying on a sharp, positivist fact-value distinction, and, further, because these epistemological moves are available, and indeed recommended, to all post-Enlightenment philosophers, this critique has no purchase. Whether or not this critique has any purchase on post-Enlightenment political practice is another matter, one for historians and sociologists of ideas.

To return to the topic, because of the freedom that an appropriate description of our capacity as rational purposive agents gives us, and consequently the role that justification plays, justification of social arrangements is vital. If a social arrangement cannot be justified to those who are subject to it, then it is wrong, and it ought to be changed. Generally, when we act, if we cannot justify the norm by which we act to those whom that act effects, then that act is wrong. Social arrangements are subject to this rule writ large, as it were: they are human creations, parts of which it is within our power to alter, and if we cannot justify the ways in which they treat people, the ways in which they create and divide costs and benefits to those subject to them, they are unjustified and should be changed. This further distinguishes me from true conservatives, including now market fundamentalists: no truly social institutions are natural, in the sense of unalterable, and should be taken for granted, even if there may be costs attached to their removal.

If it were not the case, generally, that social institutions required justification, then the existence of any social institution would have been sufficient for its justification. Slavery would be acceptable, where there was slavery, simply because it existed. Yet a simple fact about the world is not of itself justificatory: the fact of my possession of a gun does not legitimate my demand for your possessions, however prudent it may be to hand them over in the face of my threats. Equally, the fact that a particular set of social institutions grants me the power to set the costs accruing to the various options open to you does nothing to justify the costs I choose to impose on you or the power I have. We should say with Rawls that ‘to each according to his threat advantage is not a principle of justice’. Yet social institutions distribute power, and the means to it: no distribution of power is justified by reference to itself, so no social institution is justified by reference to itself.

Existing social norms, including religions, fall under this restriction: the fact that some group thinks some other group is racially inferior, or damned, does not legitimate different treatment of that group, unless it can be shown that the other group is indeed subhuman, or despised by God. I take it that neither of these things can be shown: both are empirical claims, respectively relating to their status as rational, purposive agents and to the views of a supernatural being, should it exist, have of them, empirical claims which there is no ground for, and if empirical claims have no ground, they are unjustified.

We must be wary however, of utterly discarding our moral beliefs. The best layman’s explanation of holism about beliefs is to think of a boat, which must be rebuilt while at sea. It cannot be wholly dismantled, because it would sink, and drown those aboard it, if it were, so the planks must be removed one by one, tested for their fit with the others, and then replaced. This dictum applies equally to our moral beliefs as any other beliefs: they are supported by the network of beliefs in which they are embedded, without which we would have nothing left at all, and their suitability, their appropriateness, their justification, can only be in light of these other beliefs. In this light, it is important that religious belief and some social norms conflict with the best empirical evidence, provided by the sciences, we have available: it is precisely because they conflict with that evidence that they are unjustified. Other moral beliefs do not make the same kind of empirical claims about the capacities of some humans relative to other humans or about the existence of supernatural entities: indeed, they are much less dependent on simple empirical claims in the same way.

There endeth the lesson. As ever, I am more than willing to elaborate further on what I have said here in the comments. This is, in a way, the subject of my MPhil thesis, so anyone particularly interested in what I have said here is more than welcome to have a look at it, if they email me, or say so in the comments. Comments on it, seeing as it due in about three weeks, are also welcome. On anomalous monism, Donald Davidson’s ‘Mental Events’, in the collection 'Essays on Actions and Events' is seminal, while Jurgen Habermas has made a career, amongst other things, of elaborating on the idea of a requirement of justification, and Tim Scanlon’s ‘What We Owe To Each Other' is very good on what that implies. Also, I may well endeavour to explain the links with Locke, and Catholic ideas of justification through works, at some later point.

Update: there is a review of Scanlon's book by Nagel, who is also generally good, from the LRB here

Friday, March 25, 2005

The Drug Laws

This isn't going to be a polemical post - I do have views on the drug laws, which you can probably guess - because that's not what has interested me. What's interested me is that The Law West Of Ealing Broadway, the anonymous blog of a magistrate, has one of their periodical posts up inviting readers to speculate about the sentences for a variety of crimes, this time on some drug smuggling offences. In particular, the punishments for the two people convicted of smuggling cannabis - and people's speculations about what they'd get - interested me (not just because I guessed right, although I did, more or less).

What shocked me was the absolute ignorance of some of the people commenting about what an amount of cannabis might be, in terms of what it's likely going to be used for, and so the penalties the law might apply to it. The two cases of cannabis - the other three were all coke - were of £300 of hash, and 1.3kg of weed. As I understand the law, neither of those are remotely close to being personal use for legal purposes, and probably rightly so, granting that the law as it stands makes sense. £300 of hash is, I'd guess, about six ounces, or about 180g (say the street price of an ounce is about £80-£100, and you're going to get bulk discount). Bearing in mind that you'd look to get at least four or five joints out of two grams of hash, that's about three hundred and thirty joints. Grant that a single joint, unless you are smoking an awful lot, is going to make you high for a fair while if you smoke it to yourself. If we found someone coming back through customs with, say, a barrel containing a hundred litres of wine - which seems about equivalent to me, in terms of its potential effects - we'd think it was pretty odd to say that it was just for personal use.

I can, though, just about conceive of people buying that much hash purely for personal consumption, though, because people don't generally smoke by themselves but have their mates round and all get stoned, which I think kind of counts as personal use (if you're not making a profit from it, and/or you're not selling it on to people you don't know other than to sell drugs to, it's not quite dealing: think of it like this - if I offer to go to the off-licence on the way round to yours to buy some beers, or whatever, and ask to split the cost, that's not selling alcohol on, but reimbursing myself) and because hash keeps. Weed, though, doesn't: as anyone who smokes tobacco will know, an opened packet of tobacco starts to go all dry and crumbly after a couple of days. Weed is pretty much like that too: unless you've got some fairly sophisticated storage equipment, it'll begin to deteriorate fairly quickly.

Also, the amount involved is about seven times as much as in the hash case in the weed case: even if you were smoking all day, every day, like people smoke cigarettes, (and that'd be a very expensive habit: the weed'd be worth roughly four grand, and a lot more than that if you were prepared to break it up to sell), that much weed would take you several months to get through. This is to say nothing of the sheer physical size of amount: weed is a lot less dense than tobacco, and 25g of tobacco is one of those £5 packs in the newsagent. This would have been forty of those: it would have filled, at least, a couple of carrier bags. The idea that anyone who wasn't going to make a profit out of it would try and bring back a couple of carrier bags of pungent (an ounce or so will stink out a ruckstack in a couple of hours, if it's good, even through sealed bags) weed through customs seems bizarre to me: you just wouldn't take that risk to avoid going to your vaguely dodgy local drug dealer, since, after all, you'd been spending, if you were caught, a fair amount of time locked up with a whole load of really dodgy people.

In fact, as I understand it, depending on whether it's broken up into smaller amounts or not (which indicates you're selling it: otherwise, why would you have broken it up?), at the moment, anything more than about half an ounce is assumed to be dealing. I don't think that makes sense, because of the way I would revise the law (assuming it's sensible to have it at all) to change what counts as dealing, but there is no way you could consistently regard 1.3 kilos, eighty times that amount, as generally for personal use.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Protestantism And A Culture Of Life

Russell Arben Fox has a post up on the Terry Schiavo case, which in his typically thoughtful way discusses the content of a religiously-motivated culture of life. Lots of liberal bloggers have become rightly exercised about federal intervention in this case, which seems to have been adopted by the leader of the Republican majority in the House of Representatives to distract from an ongoing parliamentary ethics scandal, and is advocating a position apparently in contradiction with that of a law Dubya signed as governor of Texas (go to any liberal American blog, and there will be details). There are cheap political points to be scored here, undoubtedly, but Russell is much more interested in what the American reaction to the publicization and politicization of the case, and what it says about the religious right in the States, at a philosophical-sociological level.

What he has to say reminds me of the discussion I had with Pearsall about national identities, because the kind of highly individualistic (De Tocqueville might well say atomised), almost manichean, religious world-view that Russell describes - a culture of life which is concerned only about the rights of the unborn and the terminally ill, and not with poverty or misery amongst the rest of us - seems to have been a mostly American (sometimes Anglo-Saxon - Thatcher embodied a kind of it particularly well, I think) phenomenon, with its roots in millenarian, spiritually egalitarian, radical Protestantism. That kind of radical Protestantism, the punitive, socially conservative, Augustinian Protestantism of Luther and Calvin rather than the liberal, perhaps Thomist, Protestantism of Locke, for example, has played a particularly important role in shaping the way in which Americans think of themselves: the visions of the New Jerusalem, carved out, pure and industrious, from the wilderness in a land of opportunity, far from the inquity and corruption of the Old World.

Although Protestantism has shaped other national identities - undeniably the British, which has recurrent tropes, perhaps being seen again now in the opposition to the EU, about the links between Catholicism, Absolutism, and the Continent - I don't think it's quite the same version of Protestantism: we've had Christian Socialist Prime Ministers (Attlee cut his political teeth working in Church missions to the poor in the East End), and Labour was able to co-opt the image of a New Jerusalem to propagandize successfully for the welfare state, both unimaginable in the US, although undoubtedly not solely because of the form Evangelical Protestantism takes there. That is not to say, unfortunately, that Britain does not have tropes leaning towards the kind of manichean individualism so prominent in a lot of American political discourse: witness Thatcher's combination of anti-Establishment views, social conservativism and (heartless) hard-nosed individualism, and, more importantly, its success.

What may be troubling Russell is that he is trying to understand these kinds of views - insofar as they are religiously motivated, an outgrowth of radical Protestantism - through a Catholic framework. He approvingly quotes a long section of Pope John-Paul II's Ecclesia in America, which lays out what seems to me like a kind of One-Nation Tory agenda, socially conservative but economically progressive (that's a broad brush: the Pope is not Disraeli, but they bear certain rough family resemblances; in Freeden's metaphor, they arrange the furniture more or less the same way). Catholic political parties, at least in Western Europe, where they have been separated from feudal landowners, have tended to be like this, the Christian Democrats of Italy and Germany being a case in point (I know the German CD is not solely Catholic, but it is Catholic-influenced: the Bavarian Catholic party inevitably co-operates with it in government).

Protestants, particularly the radical Protestants - yes, the Church of England is Disraeli's Tory party at prayer - just don't think like this: because of the emphasis in such Protestantism on the individual's relationship with God, not needing the mediation of a Church and its traditions, the concern for society as a community, the whole greater than the sum of its parts, simply doesn't exist (this can be seen both in Locke and the strands of American political discourse Russell is discussing). So, in a sense, whilst I think Russell is right - a culture of life which doesn't care about the suffering of the poor and disadvantaged is no culture of life at all - I think he misses the point, because the kind of Protestantism which is motivating the religious right in the States simply doesn't think in those terms: because individuals have a direct relationship with God, they and they alone are responsible for their behaviour.

Update: Matt Yglesias has been posting on a number of thought experiments about personal identity, with reference to the Schiavo case, which are themselves quite interesting.

Further update: Body and Soul has a nice discussion of the cooperation of the Catholic Church in the States with evangelical Protestantism. I'm thinking, I should add, about writing a post on the legacy of explicitly Catholic political thought in Lockean liberalism, but that'll have to wait.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Shock: Dracula Lies!

Roy Hattersley has a little rant against Michael Howard in today's Grauniad, using Tory billboards which attack early prisoner release schemes as the evidence for a more general argument that Howard is systematically dishonest, both about the problems which beset public policy and the solutions which might be applied. His main lines of attack on the specifics of parole seem to be that in the absence of parole, there is little incentive to reform, and expanding the prison population would be incredibly costly and unlikely to reduce recidivism, both which seem sensible to me. However, Hattersley is a little late to the party. Howard has been playing on what Hattersley correctly identifies as a mendacious politics of fear since he was elected leader of the Tories.

In the aftermath of the release of the last set of Home Office crime figures, Howard went on a little hang-em, flog-em brigade appeasing rant, specifically claiming that the Home Office's willingness to use a victimization survey rather than police figures systematically underestimated the level of crime. The point of doing this is obvious: to make the government seem weak on what is traditionally a strong Tory issue. Having spent two months three summers ago working for Nacro, a month of which was spent preparing an internal document on international comparisons of crime rates (the long and the short of it: it's quite difficult to do them in a reasonably accurate way, even for what might seem like quite simple comparisons), I know a little about official statistics on crime. Probably less than any self-respecting former Home Secretary, but enough to know the problems of using them and roughly how to interpret them, and when I heard Howard claiming this on the radio, I was nigh-on apopletic with rage.

Anyone who knows anything about the collection of crime statistics, as a former Home Secretary should, knows that victimization surveys are better indicators of the level of crime that police statistics, for the simple reasons that a) not all crime is reported to the police and b) not all crime reported to the police is recorded by them. They are also much better indicators of trends in crime, because they are based on the same questions every year, whereas police recording practices change, and the laws change, meaning that the variables which are being measured are unstable across time (and until recently, across space) and so can't give an accurate picture of anything, because the same questions aren't being asked.

Howard also made vague attacks on the survey because it didn't record murders or drug crime. Presumably, murders are usually reported to and recorded by the police, so a victimization wouldn't give us a better picture than police figures anyway, and, further, asking whether people whether they'd been murdered might not give the most accurate picture of murder possible, seeing as how only people who are alive can answer questions. Drug crime on the other hand, doesn't actually produce victims - at least in the sense of people who suffer a loss as a direct result of the act - so, again, asking people if they have been the victims of drug crime, since there aren't any (in the sense above), might be a bit futile. It might also indicate that there's something wrong with the country's drug laws, but that's a different debate.

Basically, Howard made a deeply misleading attack on a set of statistics to allege that the level of crime was much higher than anyone had any reason to believe (because, if the police figures were taken as definitive, due to recording practice changes and various high-profile anti-violent crime campaigns, it looked like violent crime had risen, when the victimization survey looked like it had stayed more or less constant). It would be bad enough if any elected politician was this mendacious, but the fact that Howard, a former Home Secretary, made these attacks means that either he is utterly mendacious and unprincipled in the pursuit of power, or that he was so incompetent as a government minister that he could not understand the single most important set of statistics produced by his department in a year.

The fact that right-wing politicians - and their cronies in the tabloid press - are prepared to make these kind of attacks, to my mind, prevents a more productive debate in this country about what to do about crime, because every single time anything remotely liberal is proposed, there is a baseless moral panic about levels of crime which returns the debate to the middle ages. It just makes me incredibly cross, because it's so hypocritical. Regardless, neither is this the only time Howard has lied and dragged political debate into the gutter. Bartlett's Bizarre Bazaar has a number of letters (links in the post) Andrew Bartlett has written to Howard, asking him to correct factual errors he has made - none of which have been answered, of course - which point out exactly how low Howard is prepared to stoop. So, Hatterley's right, but we really ought not to need anyone to point this out to us, because he's been doing it for f*cking ages.

Disclaimer: this post should not be taken to imply anything about the relative probity of any British political parties.

Saturday, March 19, 2005


Stumbling and Mumbling, which is generally quite good, has a recurrent trope about managerialism in contemporary politics, where what is meant by managerialism is a kind of Weberian rationalization, a giving up on asking big, important moral questions in favour of a bureaucratic concern with ensuring efficiency. This kind of critique of a demystified modernity, in some form, has been a recurrent feature of conservative-inclined attacks on the Enlightenment since Hegel, and while I'm skeptical about it as a blanket statement, it certainly has a long and intellectually respectable history.

What's interesting is that in the forms in which I have come across it, most notably in Alasdair MacIntyre's 'After Virtue', but also in Hegel, Arendt and to some extent Weber, is that one of the prime targets of the managerialist critique is positive social science, and economics in particular, which, the critique alleges, reduces all actions to a lowest common denominator of bare preference, and seeks to organize social interactions to maximize efficiency. To resort to pop culture reference, as Radiohead put it, it 'talks in maths and buzzes like a fridge': economics, like the utilitarianism which breeds it - the same reduction to bare preference and concern with satisfaction, after all - is morally empty. MacIntyre, for example, assails modernity's managerialist tendencies by launching into a critique of positive social science, a critique which I have no little sympathy for, which most definitely targets economics.

The irony here is that the author of Stumbling and Mumbling is an economist, who advocates using strongly positivist economic models as a more or less sole basis for public policy, which must be one of the ultimate managerial sins. For example, in their critique of a New Scientist piece by the government's chief scientific advisor, the references to the absence of incentives and to the free market as the only possible basis for economic growth (and presumably, an unquestionned assumption that economic growth is a necessary good) seem to me to be classically managerial, in the critical sense of the anti-Enlightenment theorists mentioned. Weber in particular talks about the ossification of rules, either in social science or bureaucratic institutions, as both the first symptom and the most serious problem of the rationalization of the world and its subsequent lapse into managerialism, yet the free market is one of the most rule-bound, in the sense of exception-less generalizations, institutions imaginable: inviolable property rights, the relations between them becoming inreasingly the only public mode of interaction, the invisible hand driving inexorably towards equilibrium and so on. So, a question: is the free market managerial in this sense, and if so, why not?

Postscript: Stumbling and Mumbling has a reply here

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Torture And Capital Punishment

Eugene Volokh, a blogging American law professor, has this post up, arguing that in some cases, capital punishment should take the form of of what I would call torture. This is simply insane. I willing to concede that there is at least an argument to be had about whether capital punishment is justified, and the infamous ticking bomb case does genuinely trouble me, even if it has no bearing on whether or not we should, in fact, legalize torture, because of the bizarre nature of the hypothetical. By all means, there are proper moral arguments involved in both cases seen separately, but once they are co-joined, the results are simply morally repugnant.

If capital punishment is ever justified, surely, surely, in order to retain any of the moral high ground, to avoid committing exactly the same wrong as a punishment for which someone is being killed, it must be done as humanely and decently as possible. It is bad enough to make an awful lot of people think we shouldn't do it that the law kills someone, but compounding that badness by inflicting additional pain and suffering on someone, pain and suffering that are not necessary for the end in hand, must be wrong. The only kinds of cases in which capital punishment could be justified, it seems to me, are cases of utterly disgusting barbarity, of multiple murders where the murder is compounded by torture, where the justification for capital punishment, if it exists, rests on the fact that having done such things to another human being, done these things for pleasure, seems to indicate a basic lack of humanity, and thus to exclude the person in question from the some of the basic moral considerations we extend to other human beings. Yet to torture someone to death would precisely be to fail to respect the humanity of someone else ourselves: we would be guilty of exactly the same crime we think is wrong enough to justify torturing someone to death.

Likewise, if torture is ever justified, it could only be in cases where the deliberate infliction of pain and the subjugation of another to one's will through that pain was utterly necessary, where no more than what was absolutely needed was done. Inflicting excess pain, suffering and humiliation on someone could never be justified, pain, suffering and humiliation which was not needed to prevent whatever horrendous outcome justified the torture. Yet Eugene Volokh is advocating torture for no reason other than to slake a vengeful bloodlust, for no reason other than to satisfy exactly the same kinds of desires that the person being tortured was satisfying when they committed whatever horrible crime it is he believes justifies their torture. This is nothing like a ticking bomb case: there, the lives of innumerable innocents are being saved, but here, relatives get to assauge their grief by committing crimes of a magnitude not dissimilar to those that led to their grief. It is disgusting.

Via Crooked Timber (the thread itself may be worth looking at).

Postscript: a number of other bloggers have expressed similar amazement at Eugene Volokh's views. Body and Soul has a number of links. I'm just going to say that I think that Matt Yglesias is on dangerous ground here, founding his criticism on utilitarian grounds, because it is at least possible that the felific calculus might come out in favour of grotesque public torturing to death, because of the satisfaction gained by those who saw such events, and because of the disincentive effect it could well have, whereas to my mind, there is nothing that could justify such things, which, incidentally, I take as a refutation of utilitarianism.

Postscript II: Mark Kleinman gets this wrong as well. We do not not torture people because they might not be guilty, or because we shouldn't let individuals exact revenge for crimes they have suffered as a result of, but because it would be obviously utterly hypocritical: if what a criminal has done is wrong enough to justify torturing them, stripping them of any basic humanity, aren't we, by torturing them, committing exactly the same wrong? There is no need to make the move to the appeal to the consequences of allowing such a thing, either in the form of the punishment of the innocent, or in the form of adverse effects that would flow from public torture, because there is an obvious and irrefutable case for the obvious wrongness of the action which exists quite without these consequences, that no consideration of desert could ever justify the coercive infliction of such dehumanization, because any consideration of desert would immediately condemn us equally.

Postcript III: Mark Kleinman posts on this again. I still think that the focus on the institutional effects of state-sanctioned torture as punishment is dangerous as a sole basis, which it seems it is in his post, for opposing it. However, he does have a very good discussion of the three separate ideas at work in the idea of retribution: 'just deserts', referring to what as a result of their transgression, is owed to the offender; vindication, referring to what the victim would like done to the offender; and the expression of disapproval by the community as a whole of the act. I am skeptical about the existence of vindication reasons separate from the other two as anything more than a tie-breaker between otherwise acceptable options. The fact that someone wants something, which would otherwise be illegitimate, to happen to someone else I don't think serves to legitimate doing it, no matter what their relationship. For example, it would be odd to think that because relatives of someone murdered did not want the murderer punished, we should not do it (I'm using this as an example, rather than the case of the victims - or their surrogates - wanting excessive punishment, because that would seem to be question-begging). It seems to me that executions involving torture have to be based on these sorts of reasons, because it is hard to believe that such executions could be any one's desert or that disapproval of an act is best expressed by committing such a terrible act.

Postscript IV: Eugene Volokh has retracted, which is very unusual for a blogger, and to be applauded. Not on the grounds I would have liked, but still: admitting you were wrong is not easy, and yet it's something we all have to prepared to do sometimes if we're not just to shout past each other.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

All That Really Needs To Be Said

This is excellent, absolutely excellent, and I'm only sorry I didn't see it first time around.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

There Will Be Nothing Of The Night

Actually Existing has a post up about how, given the size of their majorities in most of their seats, it is nigh-on impossible for the Labour Party to lose the general election that is surely coming soon. Given this, the repeated insinuation that a vote for anyone but Labour is a vote for something of the night is not only an insult to the idea that MPs represent, in any sense, their constituents who voted for them, but also a lie. So, go ahead, where your sitting Labour MP, if you have a sitting Labour MP, is a useless bastard, vote against them: reclaim the Labour Party by the only means its leadership seem to respect. Via Europhobia.

I Love Fafblog Pt III

I really ought to stop doing this, because maybe now it reeks of stalking and also I only do it late at night when I have been drinking, which might cast doubt on its wisdom, but this is a piece of genius. I know I'm all for debate and being reasonable, but somtimes you have to draw the line, and just be, you are disgusting, and I will ridicule you until everyone points and crosses the street to get away from you. Fafblog provides that ridicule in a way no one else can.

Monday, March 14, 2005

John Gray Is An Idiot

Brian Leiter has up a post laying into John Gray for continual and basic misunderstandings in his article in the New Statesman on Nietzsche. From my fairly limited reading of Nietzsche, Leiter seems right. What's more important, though, is that this seems to be a pattern in Gray's public, rather than academic, pronouncements. I was forced to conclude, on the basis of reading the first half or so of 'Straw Dogs' before giving up in disgust at the continual bad argumentation and misrepresentation, that Gray is either so stupid as to be a shocking indictment of the processes one is required to go through to obtain a professorship in Britain, or a devious liar, not that those alternatives should be taken as mutually exclusive. Arguing that Wittgenstein claimed that the world was constructed for humans, rather than that humans must interact with the world on the basis of the language games they play, is just ridiculous, for example. I have to admit that I have not read anything else by Gray, so maybe his more academic writings are better, but 'Straw Dogs' is truly awful, as it would appear this New Statesman article is, which I'm not going to bother to read, on the basis of what I've just said. It's also a bit rich for Gray to have a go at Nietzsche when he adopted his style - although obviously without much of the panache - wholesale for 'Straw Dogs'.

Um, If It's So Obvious, Why Can't You Prove It In A Court Of Law, Pt. II

As I am sure everyone is aware, after some rather lengthy parliamentary shenigans and some vaguely mitigating amendments involving a promise to review the legislation after a year – oh so likely, of course, that the promise will be kept – and granting the courts the power to grant the orders – without seeing intercept evidence, though, on which much of the case will inevitably be based - the British government's plans for the house arrest have passed through parliament. I think my position on the whole bloody mess has already been made rather clear, so I'll restrict myself to pointing out a few things I think are worth being aware of.

Firstly, the wrath of the righteous can often be a wondrous thing to behold, so Nick Barlow's comparison of Tony Blair to first a spoilt child and then an abusive husband should be read by all those who feel a righteous wrath boiling up in them.

Secondly, just in case you don't feel that righteous wrath, there’s a rather interesting piece in this fortnight's LRB, by Conor Gearty, in which he argues that intercept evidence is not used in court because it would a) expose the illegal use of surveillance by the security services and b) it’s fairly unreliable anyway. Yet courts are being asked to take the security service’s word for granted on the granting of these orders. Wonderful. Notwithstanding these points, Gearty's account of the then head of MI5 Stella Rimington's Dimblebey Lecture in 1994 ought to concentrate the mind a little further.

"Boasting of MI5's successes, she talked of the large number of 'terrorists' that had been apprehended and were awaiting trial. Not 'suspected terrorists': just 'terrorists'. The intelligence services have never understood the need for a criminal process: their ideal world would be one in which official suspicions led straight to incarceration."

So now we have organisations which take suspicion as equivalent to guilt passing recommendations to a government which obviously couldn't care less about a presumption of innocence which has the power to confine people to their homes without the courts being able to see a substantial part of the evidence that these people are dangerous, evidence which is likely to be highly unreliable. This is of course to say nothing of further policy based on the word of these organisations. Absolutely bloody marvellous.

Friday, March 11, 2005

LGF - Little Green Footballs Or Late German Fascists?

Seeing Pearsall's comment on my earlier post about Giulana Sgrena, mentioning LGF, made me think of this. I wish I could remember where I found it, but it is absolutely f*cking priceless. There are a number of reasons any right-thinking person regards a lot of the American right-wing blogs as utterly insane, and this illustrates at least one of them fairly well.

Postscript: found via Bartlett's Bizarre Bazaar, which is generally rather good and will go on my blogroll, once I get round to adding to it.

Consequentialism, The Justified Torture Objection And Christ

Over at Fake Barn Country, the weblog of the Brown University Philosophy Department, Jonathan has a post up about what a utilitarian has said about the problem of sacrificing some innocent in order to provide pleasure to a huge number. It's a typical objection to utilitarianism, and I take it that it's an objection to consequentialism more generally: the vast majority of the population get pleasure from the mistreatment of some small minority, so we are obliged to mistreat the small minority. I'm not even particularly interested in Jonathan's discussion of this utilitarian's defence against the objection, which seems to be the claim that utilitarianism is not true across all possible worlds, specifically, it might not be true in this particular possible world, which does seem to cast some doubt on their commitment to utilitarianism.

What's really interesting is what Tony Marmo has had to say about the problem in the comments: that it looks very similar to Christ's sacrifice of Himself to save humanity from sin. The ultimate innocent is crucified, dies and is sent to hell in order to redeem humanity. Looks pretty much like the justified torture case to me, although I can think of a few ways in which it might differ, mostly to do with voluntariness and the equivalence of the sacrifice with what is gained by each of those for whom the sacrifice is made. Still, though, it's a bit discomforting for those, like me, who want to claim that these kinds of cases show that consequentialism must be false.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Um, Lovely Smegma

This is the funniest bit of science I have ever seen. Hat-tip to Majikthise.

I Offer Him Embarrassment And My Usual Excuses

Being preternaturally concerned with politics, a sizeable chunk of the music I like is rather politically engaged: I own several Billy Bragg albums, for example, and that's to say nothing of The Gang Of Four, Primal Scream in their crazy shouty leftist techno phase, The Clash, Bob Dylan, The Jam, Sonic Youth and even Godspeed You Black Emperor! It'd be fair to say I'm a sucker for a protest song. Anyway, I was noticing that some bloggers periodically make lists of things. I find making lists a bit arbitrary, which probably reflects badly on my ability to make my mind up definitively up anything at all - typical librul flipflopping - so this isn't a list in any definitive sense, just some good old-fashioned, this-machine-kills-fascists protest songs I really bloody like right now, and maybe might not like so much later.

Billy Bragg's 'Waiting For The Great Leap Forwards' - for the line giving the title of the post, and making it seem like being on the left is fairly futile, a little bit ridiculous, fun and absolutely necessary, ALL AT THE SAME TIME. If you've got a blacklist, I want to be on it.

Mos Def's 'Mathematics' - people with degrees like rappers saying "You wanna know how to rhyme, you better learn how to add". Clever, maybe wrong, but very very angry and precise with it.

The Jam's 'Smithers-Jones' - for the priceless disgust as Weller spits out the lines "It's time to relax now you've worked your arse off/ but the only one smiling is the suntanned boss/ work and work and work till you die/ Cos there's plenty more fish in the sea to fry". Take that, wage slavery!

Sonic Youth's 'Trilogy' - a three way, modernist dissection of the state of Reagan's America, all distorted, at first plaintive, guitar noise and initial eliptical references to poverty, degradation and violence, building up into a screaming rage. Genius.

Bob Dylan's 'God On Our Side' - from the first lines - "My name, it ain't nothing/ my age it means less/ the country I come from/ is called the midwest/ I was taught and brought up there/ the laws to abide/ and that the land that I live in/ has God on its side" - on, the deceptively simple yet wonderful corruscating story of someone driven to ask whether Judas Iscariot had God on his side.

I suppose the question is, what are your current favourite good old-fashioned this-machine-kills-fascists protest songs? I've deliberately restricted myself to five, or else I could go on all night, and I refrained from mentioning the same person twice, but that doesn't mean anyone else should. Also, I wonder whether the right has anything like the same tradition of genuine protest songs, as opposed to the librul baiting I understand goes on, whether it's kind of a necessarily left-wing thing to have this tradition of puncturing hypocrisies (I'm willing to admit that I might find it a little difficult to see right-wing protest songs as puncturing hypocrisies, for fairly obvious reasons, but still: baiting and puncturing are not quite the same thing).

Democratic Peace Theory And The Neo-Cons

Timothy Burke has a post up arguing, amongst other things, that various cheerleaders - Christopher Hitchens is perhaps the most familiar - for the neo-con's foreign policy experiments in the Middle East fail to address the genuine problems with their theory that appear even if you take what they say at face value. I don't think, personally, that all the stuff about democracy is much more than a figleaf for installing client regimes wherever they can get their grubby little mitts on, but even assuming that they do really mean it, they have some serious problems, most of which Burke skewers fairly accurately. For example, neo-cons have been known, I understand, to cite democratic peace theory as support for the supposed project of democratization, because, it is claimed, democratic peace theory shows that a more democratic world will be a more peaceful world.

Democratic peace theory generalizes from the fact that no two (fully-fledged, parliamentary) democracies have ever gone to war to a thesis that no two democracies will ever go to war, or at least that democracies are much less likely to war with each other than any other sorts of states are. As I remember from doing a paper in international relations as an undergraduate, you have to be fairly robust in your definition of democracy to get the empirical claim, and then, because the numbers of democracies are so low, and often so far apart, the idea that it is democracy rather than not having anything to fight about that prevents these states from fighting starts to collapse. For example, it hardly particularly surprising that Australia and Swizterland have not ever gone to war, because they are simply so far apart. Equally, since it has, until the last hundred or so years, been fairly rare for states which do not have a land border to go to war, so that the United States, the oldest democracy, has not gone to war with any other democracies, since most of them have, historically, been in Europe, separated by at least three thousand miles of water.

There is, though, it seems to me, something to the idea that democracies are much less likely to go to war with each other. The ideas that democracy encourages compromise and negotiation rather than resort to violence, that it is particularly responsive to the wishes of those who are likely to die in wars, rather than the wishes of those who are likely to gain prestige and wealth from wars, that democracies tend to be more open societies, with more links to other states, and so on, do seem to argue that democracies are less likely to go to war, at least with other democracies (actually, the historical record indicates that democracies are in fact more likely to go to war with non-democracies than other non-democracies are: this is probably because democracies often have interests in liberalizing non-democracies - opening them up to foreign trade, for example - and the conflict-resolution stratgeies of both tend to clash - crudely, if I am used to resolving disputes by trials of strength, I will look upon attempts at compromise and negotiation as an invitation to agression).

All that said, it is worth noting that whatever truth the democratic peace theory has, it has as a result of stable patterns of democratic decision-making and the dominance of commercial interests in democratic societies. Installing, from above, a set of democratic structures, unless and until those structures are supported by the population, will not provide the benefits, because the characteristics from which the benefits flow do not yet exist. In fact, states which have recently changed system of government, and democratizing states in particular, appear to be more likely to go to war than any other states. It is easy to understand why stability in domestic political arrangements might in general lead to less violent foreign policy: a stable domestic political arrangement is likely to lead to a stable foreign policy, because the interests of those ruling the state are unlikely to change particularly quickly, and a stable foreign policy tends to be more peaceful, because going to war is usually essentially a mistake, where one side has underestimated the strength of the other, a mistake which is less likely to be made if everyone has reasonably accurate expectations of each other's behaviour.

What's particularly interesting is that democratizing states are particularly likely to go to war, that their foreign policy is particularly aggressive and unstable. Again, if we think about the domestic political structures, this makes sense. Democratizing societies are characterized, generally, by aristocratic or autocratic groups attempting to cling onto power by mobilising support from other groups whose interests run counter to those of the mass of the new enfranchised population: heavy industry, perhaps the urban middle class. Yet shackling together largely commercial and largely military or agricultural interests does not make for stable policy prescriptions, especially when there is an attempt to capture a working-class nationalist vote. Unless a democratizing polity is utterly monolithic, then it will be characterized by groups which have political power utterly disproportionate to their electoral strength, who realise that power is ebbing, and will attempt to create coalitions which they can dominate in order to hold onto it. This will lead to increasingly incompatible policy prescriptions as the coalition becomes more and more disparate. Thus, an unstable and often aggressive foreign policy.

But if democratization leads to increased amounts of war, then even if the democratic peace theory is correct, it would not necessarily be a good idea to attempt to use it as the theoretical basis for democratizing societies, as these societies are likely to become more violent before they become less, if they ever become less. It might be possible, of course, to skip the stage of democratization and go straight into being a fully fledged democracy: I can only assume that this is what the neo-cons assume will happen. But that just shows an ignorance of political sociology. Democracies tend to exist, where they do exist, as the result of a process of gradual historical development, where the polity becomes more democratic as the society does, distributing political power increasingly equally, becoming more and more habituated to democratic modes of political practice. In the absence of that process, and the favourable historical conditions which tend to allow it, democracies tend to collapse back into a more or less autocratic system. Perhaps those historical conditions do exist in the Middle East now, and so that process will occur. It seems unlikely to me, and even if it does, it's likely to lead to more violence at first.

This is the kind of genuine intellectual challenge to the neo-cons, which takes their professed belief in democracy seriously, and wonders about the wisdom of their policy, which their cheerleaders utterly fail to address. Shouting ' you're an apologist for mass murder' does not address the point that democracy requires social support, which may well not be forthcoming if it is imposed by external force, and that the period of habituation to democratic norms may in fact lead to further violence. I think it's quite interesting in a way that some many once on the hard left are now supporters of the foreign policy of the Bush government, since both share the Manichean tendency to paint any disagreement as collusion with an unutterably evil enemy. The utopianism of both is probably the root of this, and one of the things which substanially distinguishes them from liberals, who realise only too well that there are genuine moral costs to most actions, and that the ends do not necessarily justify the means.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Euthansia And The Doctrine Of Double Effect

I've been going to a series of seminars for graduate lawyers taking the jurisprudence paper this term called 'topics in legal and political philosophy' run by John Finnis and Joseph Raz. Finnis and Raz are both fairly impressive, although, predictably given my political preferences, I found Raz more impressive. This week the topic was euthansia, about which Raz spoke well, defending a right to choose how to die, on the basis of a general view of autonomy as a significant, and perhaps supreme, value. What I was wondering about was a defence of the doctrine of double effect which Finnis gave, where he imagined two mountaineers tied together on a mountain, and where one cuts the rope connecting him and the other as the other has fallen, and his weight is dragging him to his almost certain death. Finnis, rightly I think, wants to say that the fact here that the mountaineer who cuts the rope, sending his companion to his almost certain death, does not intend his companion's death - if he could save his companion, he would - means that he is not morally culpable for the death, excluding negligence on his part. However, Finnis also wants to be able to say that killing someone who is terminally ill, in great pain and wants to die is wrong. If though, we think that the aim of that killing would be the end of the pain, surely the doctrine of double effect would defend us: if we could end the pain other than by killing, we would. The death is, as it were, accidental to the intention of ending suffering.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Giuliana Sgrena

Understandably, given that she's Italian, my better half is not entirely happy about the shooting at an impromptu checkpoint of the car taking erstwhile hostage Giuliana Sgrena from her captors to the airport in Iraq, and the death of the Italian secret service agent, Nicola Calipari, in that shooting. She's also not happy about the American reaction: see here for a particularly egregious example. I'm reminded of Hannah Arendt's observation that you can't make an omelette without breaking eggs, but you can break a lot of eggs without making an omelette. Anyway, in the absence of any firm evidence of an actual conspiracy, rather than just routine f*ck-up, I think this is probably the most eloquent thing to be said about the whole incident (again, general internet incompetence prevents actually putting the picture in the post).

Postscript: Brad De Long has an interesting little addendum to the whole discussion...

Monday, March 07, 2005


I'm not usually a big fan of desert-based theories of justice, of theories of justice that distributed goods and bads according to what people deserve. They're vague and rather dependent on pre-existing patterns and methods of distribution, when what we should be questioning is precisely those patterns and methods of distribution. However, I do think that desert plays a role in a proper account of justice. When people treat other people badly, they deserve bad things to happen to them. When someone provokes me to write this,

Position Vacant: MCR Executive Member

Thick-skinned gullible person wanted for series of thankless tasks, to be performed in addition to getting a degree, a workload which will unfortunately squeeze out any attempt to engage in any social activity by choice. The position will not be paid, except in abuse from a spiteful body, collectively known as the MCR, for whom the executive member is charged with providing constant attention to their every need. The person wishing to take this position should be very aware that the MCR is unfortunately unable to do anything for itself, owing to the fact that it is bone-idle and unimaginative – except in forming insults – and so will have to be led like a small child everywhere. There is the possibility of attempting to get individual MCR members to assist in the performance of the executive’s functions, but owing to their systematic ungratefulness and unwillingness to lift a finger to help themselves, any members who have promised to provide assistance will use every excuse in the book to weasel its way out of doing any work, perform any tasks they agree to do at most semi-competently, and then complain bitterly that they didn’t feel sufficiently involved in the process. Communication with the MCR will be restricted by the apathy and inability to use email, telephones or even speak, other than at termly meetings, of the MCR, to termly meetings, where utter ignorance of anything that has been done by the person holding the position will be used as a basis for ritualised scorn. Applications to the xxxx students, care of xxxxx xxxx, xx xxxxxxxxxxx College

I'm angry, and I think they ought to suffer for what they've done. I don't claim that people ought to be ashamed of themselves, and that I am glad that I am leaving the corporate body of which they are members, as I did in a more reasonable but no less disgusted response to last night's behaviour, particularly lightly. People make genuine mistakes, and they ought to be forgiven for them, but an hour and a half of sustained abuse of people who have given up time and effort for your benefit is not a mistake. It is the deliberate and calculated injury of people to whom you owe gratitude. That is despicable. Despicable acts ought to have consequences for those who commit them. At the MCR meeting I attend last night, acts which were, by this account, despicable, were committed, and I hope, I really, really want - oh please God, let me get what I want - appropriate consequences to find their way to those who committed them. I might even go so far as to say that I will actively strive for such consequences to find their way to those upon whom they should fall. I should add, I'm not even a member of the executive committee of the MCR.

Disclaimer: I wrote this when I was pissed, on both senses of the word. So it should be taken with a pinch of salt. But still...

Saturday, March 05, 2005

History And National Identity

A while ago, I wrote a response to a number of posts at Pearsall's Books on national identities, which Pearsall has now written a response to. My initial disagreement with Pearsall, as he correctly identifies, was that I thought he was conceding too much a generally essentialist account of national identity. I argued that saying "[t]he borders between the European nation-states as they stood in the aftermath of World War II were essentially boundaries between highly homogenous ethno-lingual societies" conceded "half the ground to the anti-immigration nuts, by allowing them to legitimate their construction of a national identity which is substantially ethnically based". Pearsall says in response to this that "national identity is not a fixed concept, that it is respondent to historical change" but that "while I see these identities as things that change over time, I think that they move more sluggishly than reality", and that because European nation states were relatively ethnically homogenous, at least after World War II, there are lingering quasi-tribal ideas of national identity at work in most European states.

This is undoubtedly true: the way in which anti-immigration politicians have been able to whip up a moral panic, aided and abetted by large sections of the press, about a rising tide of funny-coloured people scrounging off our generous welfare system, spreading disease, committing crime and just being a bit weird would not be possible without such an idea. I think I may have actually slightly misrepresented my disagreement with Pearsall, because, insofar as this is what he is claiming, I don't disagree with him. What I disagree with, I think, is the failure to challenge these ideas, the acceptance of dubious historical claims that they rest on and, because of that, the granting of a right to make moral claims about who is and is not entitled to be a member of a state.

For example, in my original post, I talked about a basically non-ethnic process of formation of a British national indentity, stretching back roughly to the Glorious Revolution. What I was trying to get at was that the attempt to impose, in Britain and thus a fortiori in most other European states, even an ethnically based account of the formation of national identities - that even if the explicitly essentialist parts of an ethnic account were dropped - was simply historically inaccurate. Ethnic differences, certainly in an overtly racialist sense, but also in linguistic-cultural sense, simply played a fairly minimal role in the processes of the formation of national identity. For such differences to have played a genuinely important role, they would have to have been prior to the processes to which they were an input to: there would have had to have been some people who were French, or German, or whatever, who constituted a nation before there was a state to go with that nation. Unless that's the case, then it looks like what constitutes a sense of national identity is the sense of shared history, embedded in linguistic and cultural tropes, substanially created by the experience of living in a state together, of living in a social and political system the experience of which is more or less the same across a large territory. The formation of nations is significantly the same process as the formation of nation-states.

We can see this if we think about the Cote D'Azur. A lot of the French Riveria was part of the kingdom of Piedmont - itself a French, not Italian, name - which stretched over what is now north-west Italy and parts of south-eastern France. In the 1860s, when Italy was being unified by the kingdom of Piedmont, in return for French military support, the king of Piedmont seceded western parts of his kingdom to France. Nice and the area surrounding it, which had been part of Piedmont, where people spoke a wierd pidgin of French and Italian, became part of France. If you go to the old centre of Nice now, you can still see street signs written in this pidgin. Yet presumably the vast majority of the indigenous inhabitants of Nice would quite happily describe themselves as French, even though less than a hundred and fifty years ago, they were apparently members of another nation, the Piedmontese, and spoke a quite different language.

The same point could be made about Alsace-Lorraine. Dogs, presumably originally from Alsace, are also called German shepherd dogs, but the people all speak French and presumably think of themselves as French. Although Pearsall correctly points to a number of occasions on which serious intra-state violence has been committed by one ethnic group against another in Europe, the fact is that the majority of the time, after the violence about which state the territory belongs to dies down, ethnic groups have tended to be integrated into the nation the state has created. I don't know whether this is true or not, but it seems likely that excluding the break-up of the USSR, the sixty years after 1945 have seen the fewest changes in European borders since the beginning of there being anything like decided borders between political authorities. If there have been all these changes in which political authority groups were subject to, then there must be some successful processes by which they have been integrated, given that most of Western Europe is not riven by ethnic divides. The social, economic and legal pressures to learn a common language, a national educational system and so on created by the largely nineteenth century creation of nation-states seem plausible candidates.

The same thing of course applies the large numbers of intra-European immigrants, particularly those in the huge migration from the Mediterranean to the North that went on between the mid-nineteenth century and the mid-twentieth, with a break between the wars. But if this is true, that nation-states create nations, the acquiescing to the idea that there is some absolute existential threat from immigration makes no sense, except at the extreme margins. Europea nations might have quite tribal senses of identity, but those senses can change, adapt, and we have no reason to believe that they will not do so in such a way as to integrate current flows of immigrants unless we allow them to. Obviously, the common culture of Christianity and the fact of relatively similar skin colour have made integrating the groups that have arrived so far comparatively easy. There is a genuine problem, but it is far from being insoluble.

Assuming that it is is a bit like making the mistake that I think Russell Arben Fox made a while ago when writing on Rousseau. Creating a group to live under some collective arrangement is not prior to the legitimation of that collective arrangement, both because collective arrangements create groups, and because legitimation is a matter of whether the collective arrangement treats those subject to it adequately. Nationalists, as distinct from patriots, don't understand that. Rather than pandering to them, we should be pointing it out.

A coda: I've just been thinking, looking at the comments on Pearsall's post, that part of the disagreement might actually stem from ideas of national identity. Perhaps, because part of American national identity is the escape from the corrupt, tradition- and history-bound old world - all the city on the hill stuff - the explicit role that history does play in European national identities seems rather worrying for Americans. Equally, for some Europeans, because of the way in which they see their national identity bounded by contingency, by historical accident, and so see national identities as malleable, changing things, the certainty of American national identity, what can seem like a blindness to its historical roots, makes it seem very odd. Maybe. I might have been captivated solely by the rather pleasing symmetry of the idea, but...

Friday, March 04, 2005

I Love Fafblog Pt II

As I have said before, I love Fafblog. When you feel disheartened by the apparently continual forward march of, well, just about everything a decent progressive ought to hate, it pours the kind of scorn you need to apply in triplicate to get hold of over the ridiculous moral pretensions of cheerleaders for corporate greed, relentless grubby individualism, and misguided foreign interventionism, making you feel a whole lot better about, well, just about everything a decent progressive ought to hold dear. This is a case in point.

Thursday, March 03, 2005


If you have ever wanted to inflict your policy preferences on a whole nation of hapless subjects, now you can. Since I always have wanted to do this, I am. All glory be to the Serene Republic of Claham!

Hat-tip to Shot By Both Sides

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

A Couple Of Links

Pearsall has a post about chavs (the link should be fixed now, except see the comment by Pearsall below), which I've been commenting on. In a way, what's really interesting about the whole phenomenon is whether or not the moral decline that I think the scorn points to actually has occurred. It might just be a case of each generation thinking its moral panic is uniquely terrifying. But it might not. I don't know. Answers on a postcard to...

John Holbo, following from a frighteningly long comment in an earlier post about Disraeli, has a discussion of conservatism and value pluralism, in which he bashes the idea that conservatives might better be able to accommodate genuine value pluralism than anyone else. The idea is that because conservatives don't have some commitment to a kind of master value, they are better able to make decisions based on the competing considerations generated by genuine value pluralism. But, hey, if anyone has a master value, its conservatives: after all, they want to conserve stuff.

Also, I got the most recent edition of the LRB over the weekend. It has a piece by Ross McKibbin on gambling in it, which I think is basically sensible, but has a really confused account of state neutrality (I haven't linked to it because I'm not sure about the copyright issues). If I manage to get the rewrite of my thesis done relatively quickly, I might say something about it.