Friday, April 29, 2005

I Want MP3s! I Want Them Now!

Jarvis Cocker was on Desert Island Discs this morning. I would link to the MP3 of the programme, but for some reason the Beeb doesn't give out MP3s of Desert Island Discs. I demand that they do, now! Minions, email them! Bombard them with your demands! Overload their servers with your faithful expressions of my will! Now!

The Ricin Trial

The archly mocking deconstruction of the alleged ricin plotters trial and of the moral panic which accompanied it, written by Duncan Campbell for the Guardian, has disappeared from their website. In keeping with the suggestion of Chicken Yoghurt and Backword David Weeden, I am reprinting the entire thing here.

The ricin ring that never was

Yesterday's trial collapse has exposed the deception behind attempts to link al-Qaida to a 'poison attack' on London Duncan CampbellThursday April 14, 2005 The Guardian

Colin Powell does not need more humiliation over the manifold errors in his February 2003 presentation to the UN. But yesterday a London jury brought down another section of the case he made for war - that Iraq and Osama bin Laden were supporting and directing terrorist poison cells throughout Europe, including a London ricin ring.

Yesterday's verdicts on five defendants and the dropping of charges against four others make clear there was no ricin ring. Nor did the "ricin ring" make or have ricin. Not that the government shared that news with us. Until today, the public record for the past three fear-inducing years has been that ricin was found in the Wood Green flat occupied by some of yesterday's acquitted defendants. It wasn't.

The third plank of the al-Qaida-Iraq poison theory was the link between what Powell labelled the "UK poison cell" and training camps in Afghanistan. The evidence the government wanted to use to connect the defendants to Afghanistan and al-Qaida was never put to the jury. That was because last autumn a trial within a trial was secretly taking place. This was a private contest between a group of scientists from the Porton Down military research centre and myself. The issue was: where had the information on poisons and chemicals come from?

The information - five pages in Arabic, containing amateur instructions for making ricin, cyanide and botulinum, and a list of chemicals used in explosives - was at the heart of the case. The notes had been made by Kamel Bourgass, the sole convicted defendant. His co-defendants believed that he had copied the information from the internet. The prosecution claimed it had come from Afghanistan.I was asked to look for the original source on the internet. This meant exploring Islamist websites that publish Bin Laden and his sympathisers, and plumbing the most prolific source of information on how to do harm: the writings of the American survivalist right and the gun lobby.

The experience of being an expert witness on these issues has made me feel a great deal safer on the streets of London. These were the internal documents of the supposed al-Qaida cell planning the "big one" in Britain. But the recipes were untested and unoriginal, borrowed from US sources. Moreover, ricin is not a weapon of mass destruction. It is a poison which has only ever been used for one-on-one killings and attempted killings.

If this was the measure of the destructive wrath that Bin Laden's followers were about to wreak on London, it was impotent. Yet it was the discovery of a copy of Bourgass's notes in Thetford in 2002 that inspired the wave of horror stories and government announcements and preparations for poison gas attacks.

It is true that when the team from Porton Down entered the Wood Green flat in January 2003, their field equipment registered the presence of ricin. But these were high sensitivity field detectors, for use where a false negative result could be fatal. A few days later in the lab, Dr Martin Pearce, head of the Biological Weapons Identification Group, found that there was no ricin. But when this result was passed to London, the message reportedly said the opposite.

The planned government case on links to Afghanistan was based only on papers that a freelance journalist working for the Times had scooped up after the US invasion of Kabul. Some were in Arabic, some in Russian. They were far more detailed than Bourgass's notes. Nevertheless, claimed Porton Down chemistry chief Dr Chris Timperley, they showed a "common origin and progression" in the methods, thus linking the London group of north Africans to Afghanistan and Bin Laden.

The weakness of Timperley's case was that neither he nor the intelligence services had examined any other documents that could have been the source. We were told Porton Down and its intelligence advisers had never previously heard of the "Mujahideen Poisons Handbook, containing recipes for ricin and much more". The document, written by veterans of the 1980s Afghan war, has been on the net since 1998.

All the information roads led west, not to Kabul but to California and the US midwest. The recipes for ricin now seen on the internet were invented 20 years ago by survivalist Kurt Saxon. He advertises videos and books on the internet. Before the ricin ring trial started, I phoned him in Arizona. For $110, he sent me a fistful of CDs and videos on how to make bombs, missiles, booby traps - and ricin. We handed a copy of the ricin video to the police.

When, in October, I showed that the chemical lists found in London were an exact copy of pages on an internet site in Palo Alto, California, the prosecution gave up on the Kabul and al-Qaida link claims. But it seems this information was not shared with the then home secretary, David Blunkett, who was still whipping up fear two weeks later. "Al-Qaida and the international network is seen to be, and will be demonstrated through the courts over months to come, actually on our doorstep and threatening our lives," he said on November 14.

The most ironic twist was an attempt to introduce an "al-Qaida manual" into the case. The manual - called the Manual of the Afghan Jihad - had been found on a raid in Manchester in 2000. It was given to the FBI to produce in the 2001 New York trial for the first attack on the World Trade Centre. But it wasn't an al-Qaida manual. The name was invented by the US department of justice in 2001, and the contents were rushed on to the net to aid a presentation to the Senate by the then attorney general, John Ashcroft, supporting the US Patriot Act.

To show that the Jihad manual was written in the 1980s and the period of the US-supported war against the Soviet occupation was easy. The ricin recipe it contained was a direct translation from a 1988 US book called the Poisoner's Handbook, by Maxwell Hutchkinson.We have all been victims of this mass deception. I do not doubt that Bourgass would have contemplated causing harm if he was competent to do so. But he was an Islamist yobbo on his own, not an Al Qaida-trained superterrorist. An Asbo might be appropriate.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Some Links

As I have already said, I have finals in about seven weeks, so I will not be posting so much in the immediate future. However, a couple of links and a little comment doesn't distract too much from revision, so...

The Law West of Ealing Broadway has a post up on some reasons why apparent crimes rates may have risen. Most of them are a) eminently sensible and b) rather undermine the constant right-wing scaremongering refrain that criminals are running amok through our green and pleasant land. Thus it is good.

There has been some discussion of the new Pope's denunciation of relativism, samples of which are here, here, and here. David Velleman at Left2Right is particularly good. I would just like to point out that relativism is not a) pluralism, either in the sense that there are goods which are irreducible to each other, or in the sense that there is a single good which manifests itself in a number of ways or b) the view that whilst we need some rules with which to regulate social interaction, it does not matter that much what they are, because this view is committed to, at root, the view that rule-governed social interaction is a good (not that the view is justified: it's not, because there are some sets of rules which are downright awful, some which are acceptable but far from perfect, and some which are good, which a view committed to the idea that it does not much matter what they are cannot admit).

Billmon also has a piece on Leo Strauss, the philosophical capo di tutti capi of the neo-cons. If what he says is right, Strauss makes the same fundamental mistake that both Conservatives and post-modernists are guilty of, that the lack of an absolutely pure reason, free of context and circumstance, leads straight to a kind of Nietzscheian nihilism. The mistake lies in assuming that the lack of the foundation that could be provided by that kind of reason deprives us of all foundations - for post-modernists - or that the lack of the foundation that could be provided by that kind of reason means we should abjure from any sort of reason at all - for Conservatives. The problem with both these positions is that they assume the standpoint which could only be gained by the very kind of reason they insist does not exist in evaluating the possibility of foundations: an absolutely pure, de-contextualized external perspective which would provide absolute foundations is the only perspective from which one could demand those kinds of foundations. However, if that perspective does not and cannot exist, then criticizing its lack through the apparent use of it is not only rather nugatory, but involves a performative contradiction.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Friday, April 22, 2005

Linkage

Stumbling and Mumbling has a piece up on the changes he'd like to see made to the electoral system. I don't think what he's suggesting is a very good idea, but it's interesting anyway. Also, I want to plug some of my fellow students' work on lotteries as a selection method for democratic institutions, which I mention in the comments.

A number of people link to this BBC piece about celebrity endorsements of the main political parties in Britain. Harry's Place highlights this quote from Noel Gallagher on what might happen if the Tories get in:

"Phil Collins is threatening to come back and live here. And let's face it, none of us want that".

Now, I've pointed out (or at least, linked to people pointing this out) that the Tories are very unlikely to get back in, seeing as how the electoral system is vastly stacked against them, but if we're going to be running around threatening people that an outcome which is really unlikely will happen, at least let's make the threats vaguely farcical. So I like this particular threat.

Also, John Band does a bit of basic investigative journalism on a piece by apparently lovable upper-class twit Boris Johnson, and finds that it's a load of crap.

Finally, there may be increasingly less blogging going on here over the next couple of months, as I have finals in about eight weeks.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Just In Case You Were Wondering...

John Band continues in a fine tradition of not mincing his words:

We have a new pope. And he's a fucking mentalist.

Indeed.

A Couple Of Links

Majikthise has the new(ish) Carnival of the Un-Capitalists up, focusing on healthcare.

Ezra Klein is running a series of posts comparing various OECD medical systems. So far, Britain (not, as he claims in the title to the post, England: little Scots ancestry rankle) and France have been looked at.

I Am Not An Egalitarian (In Any Important Sense)

This post, at Crooked Timber, I think, reveals something quite interesting about appeals to equality. A conservative academic has apparently argued in favour of Bush's estate tax reforms, saying that because they apply equally to all, they are a form of equal treatment and egalitarian. This strikes me as true, but not in any interesting sense. All laws, which are non-arbitrarily applied, are egalitarian in the sense that they are applied equally to all. Indeed, all principles, which are non-arbitrarily applied, are egalitarian in this sense. What's interesting is what this might indicate about appeals to equality more generally, particularly, whether there is any sense in which an appeal to equality can be construed as anything more than a demand that laws and principles are applied non-arbitrarily, that like cases are treated alike, without the appeal becoming patently false. I don't think there is.

Consider the case of the poor. If at least part of what matters to us is equality, at least part of what is wrong with people being poor is that they are relatively badly off. To put it another way, what is morally offensive about people being poor is merely the fact that other people are rich. But this cannot be in the sense that the poor are deprived of something, because that would focus not on the relation of the poor to the rich, but on the status of the poor as poor, as not having enough. However, I am not sure in what other sense one might worry about the poor: surely what is morally offensive about people being poor is that they are poor, that they do not have enough to live well. This moral offence would be lessened in a society in which it would be less easy to rectify this situation, a society in which there were not rich people, whose goods could be partially redistributed to the poor in order to make them better off, but this merely shows that, to some extent, ought implies can: the wrong is, as it were, doubled in a society with rich people, because not only do the poor suffer, but, although something could be done, nothing is.

This kind of view may well lead to rough equality of outcome - because everyone has roughly similar generic human needs and purposes, everyone ought to recieve roughly the same amount of material resources, opportunities and so on - but it does not lead to equality of outcome because it in any interesting or important sense is an egalitarian view: although it treats like cases alike - the simple requirement of consistent and non-arbitrary treatment - it does not take equality, of itself, to a proper moral goal. This is because not only can we account for what most people take as egalitarian goals without invoking a value of equality, but invoking a value of equality leads to some deeply unpalatable conclusions. For example, even if equality is not our only goal, a world in which we are all totally blind is in some way better than a world in which 99% of people have perfect sight and 1% have partial sight, simply because it is more equal than a world in which everyone is better off, and the vast majority substanially better off. This 'levelling down objection' makes egalitarianism simply implausible.

Joseph Raz has also written rather well on the kinds of goods that go well with egalitarian distributive principles. Obviously, an egalitarian distributive principle has to have some set, and ranking of the members of that set, of goods over which it ranges, or else it would have to state that each and every unequal distribution was of equal moral concern, and the idea that my immense hoard of sand is as morally troubling, in non-bizarre situations, as my immense hoard of food, or political power, is frankly stupid. Raz argues that egalitarian distributive principles go with goods which are non-diminishing and insatiable - meaning that the goods in question are, regardless of how much one has, still a good, and regardless of how much one has, still a good to the same extent - because goods which are diminshing and satiable, by virtue of being diminishing and satiable, provide their own reasons for distribution.

For example, food is a diminshing and satiable good, because there comes a point at which more food is not a good: we are full, and eating more would make us ill. Equally, the hungry should be fed not because others have more food than them, but because they are hungry. It would make no sense to distribute food according to an egalitarian principle of distribution, because beyond a certain point, it is unnecessary and perhaps even wrong to give people more food, and below that point, people's desire and/or need for food provides us with reasons quite extraneous to how much food others have to give them food. The question then becomes whether there are any goods which are non-diminishing and insatiable. Raz argues there aren't, because goods which were truly non-diminishing and insatiable would have to be goods which themselves provided no reasons for their distribution: sand, for example, would be a non-diminishing and insatiable good, because it does not matter for whether any more is of any use to me how much sand I have. Unfortunately, this is because sand is not, intrinsically at least, a good at all. Indeed, it seems plausible that any good which did not, of itself, provide reasons for favouring one pattern of distribution over another, a good which was non-diminishing and insatiable, is not a true good at all.

All this, I think, makes any appeal to egalitarianism either pointless - what is being called for is equal treatment, which is simply a requirement of consistent and non-arbitrary application of principles or rules - or invalid - because egalitarian principles of distribution are not appropriate for any true goods. This does not lead to any substantive difference - other than on the levelling down cases - between my views and those of genuine egalitarians, but it is an important point, because one should be able to justify the policy position one takes, and if I am right, egalitarians cannot: either they are making the utterly banal point that whatever rules say, they should be applied, or they are making untenable claims.

Postscript: those interested enough to read academic literature about this should probably start with Frankfurt's 'Equality as a moral ideal' in his 'The importance of what we care about' - which also contains the essay on bullshit recently republished - Raz's 'Morality of Freedom', particularly chapter 9, and Parfit's 'Equality and priority', which was originally a Lindley Lecture, and also appears in the journal Ratio. There is also an unpublished article by Casal, 'Why sufficiency is not enough', attempting to defend egalitarianism.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

I'm Thinking, All Too Tempting...

Just in case you a) own some paint b) hate the Tories and c) don't mind a little vandalism, get some ideas for a little creative re-interpretation of the truly nasty Tory campaign posters here.

Friday, April 15, 2005

Lord Acton's Dictum

This post by Jim Bliss is really good. Although I don't agree with everything he says - and not just the quibble I mention in the comments, but other stuff, mostly environmental issues, which I'm happy to confess I don't really know enough about to argue with him with (which does not mean I should automatically concede any dispute) - it is generally well-written and excellently argued. The one thing which it does which slightly troubles me is the adoption of Lord Acton's dictum, "power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely". Now, call me an idealist, call me a naive fool (go on, I dare you) but I'm not really sure that progressives should be uncritically adopting as a universal generalization something said by a late nineteenth century conservative in defence of robber-baron capitalism style limited government. A while ago, Pearsall (this gets very meta-, for which I apologize) wrote a piece, responding to a piece which I had written about why we should remember the Communist regimes of the last century with regret, at least in some sense, rather than the kind of visceral disgust reserved for the Nazi regimes of the same period. He basically argued that rather than remembering these regimes with regret, they ought to stand as reminders of the insanity that follows from attempts, however well-intentioned, to remake society according to some utopian vision. The two attitudes are linked, it seems to me: both are a form of pessimism in the face of the mendacity, grubby self-interest, corruption and narrow focus of much of politics, a pessimism which is generalized to all possible politics, and which thus can (I'm not saying Jim or Pearsall actually do this, but it seems they come close to it) leave us stymied by the unacceptable face of the world as it is, unwilling to try and change it because change will only make it worse. They are kinds of forms of conservatism, of resistance to the idea that, however complex the human world is, it is of our making, and we can, with the correct knowledge, carefully applied by people of good-will, make it better. I'm not a marxist and don't have a utopia lined up, waiting for me to sell it to you, and I am aware that an awful lot of what goes on in politics is essentially pork-barrelling, but that doesn't mean that we should give up on all hope of change (I hope).

Jim Bliss, as he mentions in the comments, has a kind of response up here. I feel that I should say that, if anything, the 'I'm doing my best ostrich impression, me' attitude he contrasts his own view to is the kind of conservatism that Lord Acton's dictum - whatever it's origins - is a symptom of.

Mmm! Lovely Burning Napalm!

Terry Jones's rather amusing little absurdist screeds satirizing the Iraq invasion have been floating around the internet for some time: the one where he wrote to Bush, asking whether, given that some of his neighbours looked a bit funny, and he was the only person on the street with an automatic weapon, he ought to murder them, was particularly good. I hadn't seen this one, but it's also rather good.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

I'm Thinking You're Not Thinking At All

This, well, there are probably better ways to spend your time, but the potential for mockery of rightwing lies and idiocy is large, and satisfying.

Hat-tip to Where There Were No Doors (apologies for title theft)

Dogwhistle, Anyone?

I hadn't thought of this like this, but maybe...

Who Should You Vote For?

A diverting little internet election thingy tells me I should be voting for the Lib Dems. This does not surprise me greatly, although being closer to UKIP than the Tories does, slightly.

Hat-tip to Shot By Both Sides

(Some) Libertarians Assume Everyone Else Shares Their Foundational Premise

Will Wilkinson has a piece up on possible justifications of property rights, particularly the justification by reference to support of social institutions which enable a market to function properly, which made me think about the self-ownership justification of property rights, of which the argument Will looks at seems to be a sub-category (Initially, I thought that Will was making the self-ownership justifies property rights argument, a view which this post reflected, but, as he has pointed out in the comments, if anything he is criticizing it, and so the post has been altered).

Perhaps the hardest-line version of the self-ownership argument I have seen is the one provided by one of Nozick's critiques of Rawls in Anarchy, State And Utopia, where he claims that one of the things wrong with Rawls's Original Position - a thought experiment which derives a set of just social, political and economic institutions by asking us to consider which we would rules endorse for these institutions if we did not know the social stratification of society or our place in any social stratification which would follow the implementation of these rules - is that it treats all property as communal, because it takes it that we can distribute it as we please. Infamously, Nozick says that Rawls treats all property as if it were manna from heaven, which miracously appeared and to which no-one had any prior claims. It is true that Rawls's device does treat property as if no-one had any prior claims to it, but since it is supposed to give us the rules for a just set of social, political and economic institutions, of which property rights are indisputably one, this is totally unsurprising and perfectly justified, for how are we supposed to decide what a just set of property rights might look like if we assume from the beginning that some property rights already exist and are inviolable?

If absolute property rights of the sort Nozick favours emerged from the thought experiment, then we could assume that they were justified, but since they don't, in the absence of an argument that the thought experiment is badly set up, we can assume they are not. To point out that a device for thinking about what a just set of social institutions looks like does not arrive at your favoured conclusion, and thus condemning it, without providing any argument against the device itself, is simply sloppy argumentation: it's analogous to a sadist saying, 'the original position doesn't allow me to grab people off the street and torture them to my hearts content, so it must be wrong'. All arguments, notoriously, if they are logically valid, must assume their conclusion in their premises, but there is a difference between just assuming your conclusion, and actually providing an argument (for example, I can say: 'luck egalitarianism is false, ergo, luck egalitarianism is false' or I can say 'luck egalitarians are compelled to say that any outcome which is chosen is just; if adultery was punishable by death, luck egalitarians would have to say that any executions of adulterers would be just; such a conclusion is ridiculous; any moral theory which produces ridiculous conclusions is pro tanto false; luck egalitarianism is pro tanto false').

Guardian Columnist Makes Piss-Awful Jokes

Mike Selvey, the Guardian's cricket writer, has a piece on the forthcoming cricket season which is generally good, but begins with a series of truly wince-inducing puns:

The thousands intending to flock to Glastonbury this year already know that they will have to get through Garbage before arriving at Coldplay and White Stripes. Not unlike this coming cricket season, in fact, for with the county season proper beginning today (cold play to open here, according to the forecast), it is hard not to get the feeling that we will be kicking our heels for the next three months waiting for the main event. At Glastonbury they get Ash; cricket lovers get the Ashes.

Please, please, noooo....

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Thursday, April 07, 2005

The Chain

Stumbling and Mumbling has passed this on to me, and been unnecessarily and probably incorrectly - as proved below - generous about my literary accomplishments, for which, thanks.

You're stuck inside Fahrenheit 451; which book do you want to be?
This is awkward, because I've got an awful memory, so it'd have to be short, ruling out a lot of philosophical works (A Theory of Justice is definitely out, for example, not that I'd have wanted it anyway) and of novels (the idea that I might be able to remember all of Ondjaate's The English Patient's transcendent prose is laughable, unfortunately). I was going to make myself seem like an infantile nostalgist, and say Rosemary Sutcliffe's Bonnie Dundee - which is a relatively short, wonderfully understated and human, historical novel for children - but I'm going to go with Donald Davidson's Essays On Actions and Events, which, although it is relatively dense, contains what is probably my favourite philosophical paper ever, Mental Events, and in its quiet way, is a manifesto for political and social change.

Have you ever had a crush on a fictional character?
I don't think it really qualifies as a crush - I've always been prone to hero-worship than crushes, which presumably implies something about my sexual preferences - but I've always found Iain M. Banks's major female characters quite sexy, particularly the ones in Against A Dark Background and The Use Of Weapons (whose names I forget, and can't look up, because I don't have the books with me). Also Molly, with the inset sunglasses and retractable blades under her red-painted fingernails, in various William Gibson novels. This probably also says something perhaps better not said about my sexual preferences as well.

What are you currently reading?
Julian Barnes's England, England and the first volume of John Plamenatz's Man and Society, the first for fun, and because I liked The History of The World In 10 and 1/2 Chapters and the second because I have an exam on Political Thought From Machiavelli To Burke in a couple of months (and cos it's interesting, but less that than the pressing need of exams).

The last book you bought is:
England, England and A Fine Balance, by Rohinton Mistry (at the same time, you see).

The last book you read is:
A Fine Balance, which is less impressive than everyone else seems to think - the prose isn't very good, and there's something rather unsatisfactory about the end - and A History of Modern Political Thought, by Iain Hampsher-Monk, for the same reasons as the Plamenatz.

Five books you would take to a desert island:
I'm not going to assume an abandoned stock of the classics, because I think that's cheating: it makes the other choices easier. I'd like a decent historical atlas (I've got the collins one, which is fine, but maybe there are better ones), because they're endlessly interesting; a subscription to the LRB, because, again, it's usually interesting and provocative, if that's not cheating (and if it is, the Bible, not a vuglarized modern version, but the flowing prose of the King James version: plenty of reading there); a copy of the collected works of Kant, because... well, he's Kant, and I was always too lazy to read him properly, if at all, when an undergraduate; the collected works of Bernard Williams, which ought to be coming out fairly soon, as he's dead, and if not that, then Ethics And The Limits Of Philosophy, because it's so damn good (and well written - or maybe Scanlon's magnum opus, What We Owe To Each Other, which has exactly the same virtues - arggh, too much choice: coin-flipping may be called for); and finally, a decent annotated version of all of Shakespeare - all of humanity is contained within.

Who are you going to pass this stick to, and why?
Pearsall of his books, because I'm intrigued to see what he'll say on a personal level as well as a general one, Cirdan, of A Philosophical Commonplace Book and The Shipwright Returns, because he seems interesting, and Chris Brooke, because hopefully his choices'll be a decent guide to reading on Marx and Rousseau, both of whom I know less about than I should (not that that should constrain him).

WTF?

All I can say is that I hope that I don't misunderstand American politics as much as Ezra Klein misunderstands British politics...

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Exploitation And The Labour Theory Of Value

Brad De Long has, in response to an email, written a what he thinks is a little take-down of a marxist notion of exploitation. Basically, his argument is that when capital investment, the resources for which are provided by hard work and scrimping and saving, increases the resources for all, albeit differentially, so that workers, while not as well-off in resource terms as the capitalists, are better off than they were before the capitalists existed, no exploitation exists because a) the workers are better off and b) the capitalists worked to get what the advantages they have. I don't think this is very convincing, because the question asked by inquiring whether the workers are exploited is not whether they are better off than they otherwise would be, but whether they are getting their full entitlements. Since Marx assumes that we are entitled to the products of our labour, a claim De Long makes no effort to attack, the workers are exploited: even though they are better off, because they are not recieving the full product of their labour, they are being exploited by the capitalist, who is creaming part of it off.

Now, I don't find the claim that we are entitled to all the products of our labour very convincing at all, because it implies that anyone who does not work is exploiting those who do, including the elderly, children, the disabled and the sick, as well as making it justifying the existence of vast income differentials because of the differentials in market value of products (I know that Marxian economics posits the labour theory of value as the true value of goods, but that is simply implausible: are two identical chairs of different value simply because one took twice as long to make?). What is objectionable about the market is that it does not take into account the basic moral requirements imposed on our treatment of our fellow human beings simply in virtue of being fellow human beings, but rather hovers around an equilibrium where no further trades are advantageous, which may leave some incredibly wealthy and others in miserable poverty. We need to think rather about whether the distribution of costs and benefits as it stands justifiable to all those upon whom those costs and benefits fall. This seems to be something like what Matt Yglesias, despite his (hack, spit!) utilitarian tendencies, is saying.

Postal Vote Fraud Stuff

As most of you are probably aware, a judge in Birmingham yesterday found guilty a number of labour councillors of perpetrating postal vote fraud on a scale "that would disgrace a banana republic". Since I voted at the last general election by postal vote, intend to vote at the coming general election by postal vote, and have already personally perpetrated what must be some kind of electoral fraud, if not with malice aforethought, by voting twice at the last European elections - by postal vote in London, and in person in Oxford - I am, I fear, not qualified to comment on this.

Although given how I voted twice, I may be uniquely well-qualified to comment on the safeguards surrounding the postal vote system, which were criticized by the judge, if only by implication from ancedote. What seems to have happened is that no-one told anyone else that I had voted by post in London, so I remained on the electoral roll for the European elections in Oxford, allowing me to vote twice. When I mentioned this to the workers in the polling station, they were non-plussed and gave me a European election ballot card regardless, so I voted again. Anyway, there is a round-up of blog discussion here though, so if you are interested...

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Gmail Invites

I still have a load of gmail invites, so if anyone who hasn't for some reason got one leaves a comment here, I will send them one.

Update: Er, obviously, I need your email address to do this. Probably better if you email me. My email should be in my blogger profile - I think.

Carnival Of The Un-Capitalists

The Carnival of the Un-Capitalists is here.

The C-un-C will be hosted each week by a different blog, and bring you a selection of the past weeks most interesting blogs that are writing on issues related to globalization, international trade, neoliberalism, poverty and income disparity, corporate malfeasance and abuse of the environment, labor issues, international solidarity movements, the excesses of capitalism, and so on.The C-un-C does not represent a single ideological or political framework, but will bring you a wide range of posts from moderate liberals to Marxist and Left Libertarians. It is our hope that the C-un-C will facilitate a dialogue among bloggers with a variety of left perspectives

Sounds like a good idea.

What Did You Say, Dr. Freud?

At the end of this piece about class, Lenin of the Tomb quotes Woody Allen saying

[w]hen I left school, I went to work at my father's store. And I unionised the workers. And we struck, and drove him out of business

I don't think he's read this quite right if he thinks it's an exhortation to the workers of the world to unite.

Monday, April 04, 2005

The Pope, Slavoj Zizek, And Anti-Communism

Pearsall has noted my quoting of Terry Eagleton's criticism of Polish Catholicism as, amongst other things, particularly anti-Communist, and expresses dismay that anyone would regard Pope John-Paul II's role in the overthrow of the Communist regimes in Eastern Europe as anything but a crowning glory of his Papacy. Undoubtedly, John-Paul II did play a relatively significant role in the eventual withdrawal of Soviet support for the Warsaw Pact regimes, by organizing peaceful Catholic resistance to those regimes, and supporting other forms of resistance, most notably Solidarity. I didn't mean to condemn that: the regimes in question were fairly reprehensible, and it is a good thing that they have fallen, even if that goodness is slightly mitigated by the less-than-ideal successor regimes in some cases. Anti-Communism potentially has a wider scope as a description than picking out these acts, though, and the content of that wider description, I think, can be used as a criticism of John-Paul II.

Understood in the context of the kinds of views the Pope held about desirable social, political and economic arrangements and in the context of an increasingly reheated Cold War in the Eighties, anti-Communism becomes the criticism of any proposal for progressive social change, other than the social change of the removal of Communist regimes. It is a kind of Reds-under-the-beds mania, which extends not just to an entirely proper criticism of oppressive Eastern European regimes, but to a denial that Liberation theology picked up on any legitimate concerns of the Latin American poor by associating it with those regimes. This is, I think, what Eagleton means to criticize when he describes the Polish Catholic Church as "ferociously anti-Communist". Anyone who shows any sympathy for vaguely Marxian ideas - of the structural necessity of injustice in a capitalist economy, of class struggle, of the base and the superstructure - is at least a fellow-traveller and crypto-Communist, if not a full-blown supporter of the gulags, show trials, mass starvations and deportations of the USSR in the thirties when one is 'ferociously anti-Communist'.

In a way, my willingness to read this criticism this way, to see it picking out more than merely the criticism of the Stalinist regimes of Eastern Europe, casts doubt on an argument Slavoj Zizek has made in the LRB, which John Holbo has been criticizing for some time, as part of what seems to be a general campaign against Slavoj Zizek. Zizek argued that liberals - as is often typical of post-modernists, it is far from clear exactly what this is supposed to pick out at all - cannot see an important difference between Fascism and Stalinism, and so tend to regard Stalinism as worse. Zizek's own argument that Stalinism is not as bad as Fascism turns, I think - it is quite hard to tell what he is arguing a lot of the time - on a premise that historical materialism is true when he says that "[c]lass antagonism, unlike racial difference and conflict, is absolutely inherent to and constitutive of the social field; Fascism displaces this essential antagonism". Consequently, liberals, who typically do not believe that 'class antagonism is constitutive of the social field', are unlikely to accept his argument: it begs the question against them, in a quite obvious way.

However, I do think there is an important sense, which is particularly relevant what Zizek is writing about, the remembrance of these regimes, in which Stalinism was less bad than Fascism, in that Stalinism, for all its horror, at least held out the prospect of a progressive emancipation, an achievement of freedom, whereas Fascism is inherently backwards-looking, a true blood and soil ideology, whose end is the subsumption of humans into their ethnicities. Communism is a progressive and utopian system of political thought, and that utopia, were it reached, would be a genuine utopia, whereas Fascism is a form of radical nationalism, steeped in myths of bloody confrontation and martial glory leading only to further bloody confrontation. Insofar as Stalinism is a failed form of Communism, however morally disgusting and grotesque it was, there should be a tinge of regret in our assessments of it because of the emancipatory promise of Communism: there is a sense in which it is sad that Communism is not true, because, were it true, there would be the possibility of achieving the kind of utopia it describes. Fascism utterly lacks this kind of regret, because it has no vision of an end-point, a justification for its horrors, that any right-thinking person could want to embrace. Our collective memory of the two sets of regimes should embrace that difference in regret, I think.

I think that it is also this kind of emancipatory vision which links other left-leaning movements and Communists in anti-Communist's minds: they share the belief in the possibility of a radically better world, often to be achieved by overthrowing or removing existing social, political and economic structures, sometimes by violence but sometimes not. So anti-Communism is, if one thinks that the world could be made better by the removal of some social, political and economic structures, however incrementally and carefully that removal should be done, and if my earlier analysis is correct, a series of claims of which one ought to disapprove: it stands as a criticism of the Pope, I think.

Postscript: John Holbo is having another go at all these obsfucating lit-theory types, specifically at their ill-explained use of the term 'liberalism'.

Postscript II: Pearsall has an interesting take on the 'Communism tinged with regret' line.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

Robbie Coltrane He Ain't

Billmon has a generally positive post up about the Catholic Church, and the current, if not for much longer, Pope. In a grand old tradition of getting your retaliation in first, before the predictable wave of popular beatification starts, I'd like to draw your attention to this Terry Eagleton piece from the LRB, and these general points he makes.

The Pope is authoritarian and cannot tolerate dissent:

Not for nothing was the priest who taught him theology in Rome known as ‘The Rigid’. As a Polish bishop newly arrived in the city to take part in Pope John XXIII’s Second Vatican Council, he was appalled by the sight of his fellow bishops quarrelling, lobbying and criticising. This was not the custom of the traditionalist Polish hierarchy, assured in their monopoly of absolute truth.

The Polish Catholic Church was one of the most conservative institutions on the planet, awash with maudlin Mariolatry and ferociously anti-Communist. A pope from this embattled neck of the woods would soon put paid to pluralism, moral relativism, way-out Masses with Coke and hamburgers, and Catholic fellow-travelling with the far left.

He undermined internal Church democracy and centralized power, creating a cult of personality:

As the 1980s wore on, John Paul rolled back one Vatican Council agenda after another. To do so, however, he needed to smash the Council doctrine of collegiality, which in impeccably orthodox fashion saw the Church as governed by the bishops as a whole, with the bishop of Rome taking priority among them. ‘The bishops with the pope’, rather like ‘the queen in Parliament’, was the vital brake on autocracy.

[he] has scuppered collegiality even further by encouraging the growth of maverick groups, among them unsavoury outfits like Opus Dei, which operate outside episcopal structures and declare allegiance directly to himself.

[he has] a taste for statuesque postures and grandiloquent bardic monologues ... [and] ... it is not surprising that he should have become the pope of public spectaculars, a kind of spiritual rock star.

A Polish journalist has remarked that only Stalin had more public statues erected to him in his lifetime than John Paul.

He has lied about contraception:

Probably the greatest crime of John Paul’s papacy is his insistence that condoms are inherently evil even when used to forestall fatal infection – a position which, as Cornwell bravely acknowledges, has condemned untold numbers of Catholics to almost certain death. In what must surely count as one of the most grotesque ironies of the age, John Paul has called condoms part of a ‘culture of death’. In any case, so some of his advisers solemnly assert, they cannot prevent infection.

He is socially reactionary:

The pope has shut his ears to pleas for a married clergy, and treated priests who have left the ministry to get married with a brutal lack of charity. Astonishingly, the Vatican has declared his ban on women priests to be ‘of the deposit of faith’ (code for infallible), though he is said to have been argued out of making his condemnation of contraception an infallible pronouncement as well. Men and women who get divorced thereby treat their former spouse as a ‘thing’.

[He has] preserved bits of the scaffolding of the progressive-minded theology he inherited, while resolutely demolishing the bricks and mortar beneath. Edward Schillebeeckx, one of the Council’s most eminent theologians, was summoned to Rome to be cross-examined no less than three times in the first year of the new papacy. Hans Küng, Vatican 2’s other great luminary, had his teaching licence revoked.

Freedom was for the pope’s compatriots in Soviet Poland ... but not for the oppressed Latinos who had taken to liberation theology in their struggle against CIA-sponsored murder. In a notorious encounter with Ernesto Cardenal, poet, priest and Sandinista, John Paul shook an angry finger at him and gave him a public tongue-lashing. It was one’s Christian duty to love the poor, not to take steps that might radically transform their conditions. The pope canonised Josemaría Escrivá, the founder of Opus Dei, at least nine of whose members sat in Franco’s cabinet; but he did not canonise Archbishop Oscar Romero, champion of the El Salvador poor, who was gunned down by soldiers while saying Mass.

And none of this is to say anything about his policies towards the child abuse scandals which have dogged the Catholic Church, particularly in the US, recently.

Eagleton does have some good things to say about the Pope: he is anti-capitalist, in a Tory way, spoke against communism, has not opposed legal equality for women, and has spoken against quasi-imperialist adventures abroad. But his conclusion is that

[i]n the most enduring global institution in history, the high hopes of the Vatican Council – the Catholic version of 1960s social euphoria – have given way to a brutal right-wing backlash. As John Paul came into power, so too did Margaret Thatcher, who when asked what the New Testament meant to her, replied ‘freedom of choice’. There are many acolytes of John Paul who would reply ‘chastity, abstinence and obedience’.

Postscript: Body and Soul has the best obituary type thing I've seen so far, which makes some of the same kinds of critiques about the centralization of authority and intolerance of dissent that Eagleton raises.

Friday, April 01, 2005

The Philosophical Manifesto And Child Benefits

Crooked Timber has got a guest-poster, Kimberley Morgan, who has been writing interestingly on the welfare state, and in particular, what in the jargon are called work-life balance issues, although having said that, I'm about to criticize the way she framed one of the issues she's posted on. Writing about child benefit, Morgan argued that children are public goods, an economic term of art meaning that they provide benefits which are non-rivalrous and non-excludable in the sense that they don't get used up when one person utilizes them and we cannot(easily) exclude people from utilizing the benefits. Clean air would be an obvious case of a public good: everyone breathes it, it doesn't make any difference how many other people have breated it, and we can't, without violating various fundamental rights, easily prevent people from breathing it. Children, she argues, are public goods because they provide a future workforce which will fund our retirements, and thus, because public goods, because it is difficult to assign property rights for them and hence get trades towards an equilibrium, are not best distributed through a market mechanism, child benefit makes sense: we are subsidizing production of children to the level which is socially optimal.

This may well be true: given state-funded old age pensions, someone needs to be earning a taxable income to fund our retirements, and even in their absence, if we don't want the economy to collapse due to lack of labour when we retire, children are probably needed. However, it misses the point of child benefits completely. The question is rather whether we could justify the costs that would appear in the absence of a system of child benefits to those who would bear them, and the costs of having such a system to those who would bear them: whether parents and children would have a legitimate complaint about a distribution of economic goods which did not include state-guaranteed child benefits, and whether those who would pay for those benefits would have a legitimate complaint about the costs paying for them imposed on them. Talking about them in terms of public goods is quasi-utilitarian: rather than optimizing across society, as talk of public goods does, because of its focus on the equilibrium across the aggregate, we should be thinking in terms of whether any particular set of individuals, considered as individuals, have any good reason to reject the policy in question and the sacrifices it demands of them.

A public good, if it is a true public good, will be to the benefit of all, and state intervention in a market to correct the market's failure to allocate it efficiently - because of the problems of applying property rights to it - should theoretically force the market to allocate as it would do were it able to work efficiently: the cost of the provision of the last unit of the good should equal the benefit of the provision of the last unit of the good to whoever benefits from it. Thus, if children are being considered as public goods by virtue of their capacity to provide for our retirement, it should be the case that we should fund their production until the costs of doing so are, at the margins, equal to the benefits to us, at the margins, of having them there to fund our retirements. I have absolutely no idea at what level this might be: it would depend on the structure and efficiency of capital markets, which determine the effectiveness of saving, and on the structure and efficiency of labour markets, which would determine the level of income at which it would be efficient to tax these children when they are working. It is also incredibly vulnerable to the retort that, for the childless and wealthy, children are much less of a public good than for the poor: these people do not need the next generation to provide for their retirement, since they were able to save enough for themselves, and so the public good falls back solely on the effects of having a next generation to form a labour force at all, which requires fewer people, and so less child benefit, since fewer children need to be produced.

Instead of attempting to use a quasi-moral economic framework to justify public policy, we should be asking, is what is given up by those who fund child benefit more or less than what is given up by those who recieve it, were they not to recieve it, in general terms. It seems fairly clear to me that generally it is less: ensuring that children do not grow up in poverty by taxing income at the margin over a certain, comfortable, level, does not seem to me to grant a benefit to those children smaller than the cost imposed on those who pay for it. Equally, legislation to ensure that parents can get time off work, and return to their jobs relatively easily afterwards, when they have small children, seems to impose a cost on businesses, and through them, their shareholders and perhaps the economy at large, but, at a sensible level, this costs are reasonable to impose to avoid impose a cost of seriously damaging your career, or your relationship with your children, should you have children.

Neither is this vulnerable to the kind of retort mentioned above: it is immaterial whether or not one individual in particular bears costs that they do not - in financial terms at least - recieve back at some point, because the question is whether, given the benefits recieved by the beneficiaries, the cost imposed on them is justifiable. These costs should not be thought of in financial terms, where a loss of a couple of thousand pounds for a stock-broker is equivalent to the gain for a working parent on a much lower income. The costs should be thought of in terms of what Scanlon calls 'generic reasons', the reasons we all, generically, have: wanting to live in a pleasant environment, to have some control over our lives, to be able to have a little fun in our lives, to be able to form and sustain lasting relationships with others, and so on, many of which are significantly determined by our access to financial resources. The benefit to the poor of transfers from the wealthy to the poor in terms of these purposes is significantly greater, generically, than their costs, because money, generically, has decreasing marginal returns to these purposes beyond a certain point. Hence they are justified.

Nor is it vulnerable to the libertarian 'it's mine, and you can't take it' retort: the question of the extent of property rights is to be decided by exactly the same procedure. Property rights are a social institution like any other, and require justification. Patently, absolute property rights, to the exclusion of all taxation, are utterly unjustified: they tend to become concentrated, and those left with few or none, tend to do very badly. No millionaire can justify to the starving poor on the street the couple of hundred thousand that allows them to employ an extra maid, and add another wing to their mansion: the benefits to them of that particular bit of their income are, in moral terms, vastly outweighed by the benefits that others could reap from it. This is not to say that the efficiency of particular policies does not need to be considered: there certainly are tax rates at which, even though the beneificaries of the redistribution do gain more than those who pay for it lose, the disincentive effects to society as a whole make up for the difference. This is included in the moral reasoning though: the policy is unjustifiable because everyone suffers as a result of it.

I recently wrote a piece arguing that Stumbling and Mumbling's use of positivist economics seemed a little odd, given their use of the usually anti-market managerialist critique of post-Enlightenment moral and political philosophy. Whatever else one might think of Stumbling and Mumbling, this is a classic example of what I take it that the managerialist critique is supposed to skewer: efficiency, in the sense given above, as a given and unquestioned end of public policy, effectively morally contentless, working to justify public policy (I'm not saying that markets must be like this: Nozick's is a moral theory, even if it is wrong, and Dworkin's envy-free auction is supposed to give everyone equal entrance into a market, which then justifies itself, because the cost to each of forgoing what they do not have is matched by the benefit to each to having what they do have, which justifies itself precisely because the costs and benefits are equal, because of the initial envy-free distribution, although it's wrong as well).

Giuliana Sgrena Update

Naomi Klein recently interviewed Guiliana Sgrena, and the it-was-all-an-unfortunate-if-indicative-of-general-f*ckup-f*ckup version of the story seems to be wearing a bit thin, if Naomi Klein and a journalist working for a communist-affiliated newspaper are to be believed. Sgrena was being driven along a secure road, which the access to is through checkpoints, and the car was fired on from behind by a tank, which is why she and Calipari, the secret service agent, sitting in the back, and not the driver, sitting in the front, were hit: hardly some shit-scared grunts, terrified of potential car-bombs, whose trigger-fingers got a little too itchy. Body and Soul has some photos of the car which might indicate it was fired on from behind, and links to the interview. Exactly why kidnapped journalists and the secret service of their allies were being deliberately fired upon by the US military is unclear, I think, but as various people have been pointing out for some time, journalists have had this creepy record of just, you know, accidentally, getting caught in cross-fires, being in buildings which get bombed, or being mistaken for terrorists, in Iraq.

Via the Sideshow