Friday, September 30, 2005

A Little Bit Of Linking

Clearly, it's not really worth my while saying or yours reading anything much more on the heckling and subsequent explusion at the Labour Party Conference, especially since it was already two days ago. So, I'm going to ask a couple of relatively quick questions - would we have heard about this as much or even at all, if it hadn't been a pensioner who is effectively morally unimpeachable by virtue of having fled from the Nazis and long-standing membership of the Party, and if we wouldn't have, what does that say about the meeja in this country, and does it mean that this has happened before, or even happens regularly? - point you in the general direction of Actually Existing for discussion of and comment on both the legislation apparently used to detain Mr. Wolfgang and his expulsion, and invite praise to be showered on KC Gordon of Llanllechid, Gwynedd, who managed on the Grauniad's letters page to find a way of connecting one famous heckling incident with another.

In related linking, Chicken Yoghurt's analysis of the Dear Leader's exercise in seeing how many sentences without verbs or an ounce of moral integrity in them can be strung together before some kind of combined syntactic and normative singularity opens up and swallows him whole a) is excellent and b) references - I think - an excellent Billy Bragg song.

In unrelated linking, Chris Brooke discovers that someone else noticed, in 1754, that Locke can't, on pain of inconsistency, have had a self-ownership theory of property rights, because if he did, all property would be theft from that which is held in common, since mixing my labour with something that someone else has rights too wouldn't give me a right to it, and all land is originally held in common. As long as we have a right to some minimum level of subsistence, then it seems likely that any self-ownership based claim for property will fail or be superfluous for these kinds of reasons, until that minimum level of subsistence is provided for all. This is because either the property being justified will be over the level of subsistence, and therefore could be redirected to provide the level of subsistence for those who lack it, meaning that the self-ownership claim is invalid because the person never had a right to it in the first place, or it will be exactly at or below the level of subsistence, in which case it is justified by the right to subsistence. I think it's plausible that we have a right to subsistence, therefore any self-ownership justification for property fails or is superfluous.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Other Things

First, this, via here (which will be added to the blogroll forthwith). It might be interesting, if only to the extent that it might provoke the kind of debate the Radio 4 thing about the greatest philosopher did when Marx won (see here for my take on this momentous event)

Also, just in case hearing the Labour leader spout the kind of sh*t Thatcher didn't try to foist on us for fear that we'd lynch her didn't have you spitting blood, a gentle reminder from the ever-excellent Chicken Yoghurt.

Also, anyone who a) thinks they know much about social science, and b) thinks that that knowledge might be of some use to other people who don't have access to university libraries, should do this.

Finally, the LRB just sent me my renewal malarkies, and I can send one other deserving person a subscription, free for a year, in what is a quite transparent desperate marketing ploy. Apart from the excellent articles, for the lovelorn, there are personal ads of a type previously unknown to humankind. I would heartily recomend it. Email me at robjubb AT gmail DOT com if you'd like it: everyone I can think of off the top of my head who'd like it appears to already get it.

That is all.

Drowning Out The Most Heavenly Ecstacies Of Religious Fervour, Of Chivalrous Enthusiasm, Of Philistine Sentimentalism...

Russell Arben Fox has two posts up, here and here, both of which are of the usual high standard of thoughtfulness, on, slightly indirectly, consumerism, the grounds on which it can be critiqued and the alternatives. I disagree with Russell on two separate grounds, I think. The first is that I think, unlike Russell, that liberalism's concern, dating back at least as far as the aristocratic liberalism of Mill and De Tocqueville, with conformity and the suppression of individuality, seen through the lens of an understanding of how aggregate decisions can raise the cost of choices, provides plenty of grounds for finding consumerism, in some of its forms, reprehensible. As I put it in the comments to the post in question - I was pleased with this phrase, I confess - 'liberal understandings of freedom don't have to be limited to bad stereotypes of Isaiah Berlin'.

Secondly, whilst I wouldn't be so unneccessary as to accuse Russell of the same kind of blindnesses that I accused a variety of people of here, very early on in my internet ramblings - for one thing, much as I would like to believe otherwise, I think he is fully aware of the various authoritarian structures which typically support the kinds of communities he extols - I think the critiques applied to consumerism by liberalism cut directly back at Russell's communitarianism. Just as consumerism tends to create wants whose satisfaction will sustain it, and thus stifles experimentation by raising its social and economic costs, tightly-knit, conservative communities restrict, either deliberately or by an institutionally-maintained lack of demand, access to anything which might upset their careful arrangements of dominance.

I am not blind to what's lost with the (partial) collapse of such social systems - I can bore for England, as people have on occasion pointed out to me, on the various serious social problems of the small Scotish fishing town my mother grew up in, the demise of the solidaristic forms of fishing boat ownership being perhaps the most obvious - but neither should we eulogise such communities. Russell mentions the Amish, and for all the nostalgia of cultural artefacts like Witness, we should not forget that they form closed, incredibly patriarchal communities, which they deliberately make exit from prohibitively difficult. He also makes a comparison between the attitudes of such groups and those of modernity, pointing to in particular the stance of hope and that of a belief in progress or improvement. What it strikes me as being marked as the difference between these two attitudes is that hope is a kind of fatalism, an attitude of subservience, of passivity, typical of quasi-religious world-abnegation, while a belief in progress is active, embedded in the world, more confident of its own ability to shape the world to its purposes. While that kind of attitude can obviously be taken too far, the quiesence of hope is ennervating and, to the extent that politics is about creating the institutions under which we live, apolitical.

That can hardly be the correct way to think about either how we should live collectively or individually: it throws its hands up in the face of every obstacle it faces, does not even attempt to overcome them, sees them as fixed, unalterable and eternal. It is precisely the kind of attitude which sustains injustice by refusing to accept that there could be other ways of arranging our institutions, and to the extent that it is part of the habitus of the closed communities which Russell is such an enthusiast for, it is complicit in the injustice and unfreedom which mark them. We should remember that much of the Communist Manifesto is a paean to the emancipatory effects of capitalism, and while there will be a loss if and when these quasi-feudal communities disappear, I for one will not be amongst the mourners.

Monday, September 26, 2005

God's Playground And The Importance Of Political Economy

One of the things I've been occupying my time with now I have moved from being a soap-dodging, scrounging student to a work-shy, scrounging member of the unemployed, apart from reading the jobs section of every paper imaginable most days, is reading things that aren't academic political theory or novels. Once whoever's got it out gets round to returning them, for example, I will be trying to get my teeth in some of Jared Diamond's dauntingly thick tomes. The most recent thing I worked my way through was the first volume of Norman Davies' history of Poland, 'God's Playground', which runs up to the third partition in 1795. It's quite good, although I think it suffers a little from the decision to structure it with the thematic chapters - economy, social structure, political institutions, religious belief, foreign affairs and so on - before the actual chronology, since, unless you know the history of Poland in some detail, it can be a little difficult to grasp exactly what's going on.

Davies is quite big on the unanticipated consequences of individual decisions, citing a mid-seventeenth century decision by the Poles to give up, believing they could fairly easily regain it, the Ukraine east of the Dneiper to the Muscovites. They then, rather than trying to get it back, chose to concentrate their efforts on protecting Christendom from the Turks, including rescuing one of their major regional adversaries, Austro-Hungary, by routing the Sultan's forces at the walls of Vienna and embarking on a rather ill-fated expedition to present-day Romania. The Poles never did regain the left bank of the Ukraine, and the loss of population and economic resources proved crucial in their subsequent military collapse, not least because it handed those resources to the Muscovites, who, by absorbing much of the Ukraine, genuinely became an Empire of all the Russias.

However, what really comes across strongly from his history is the importance of political and social institutions. Poland had, until its eventual absorption by Russia, Prussia - which had been a vassal state but a hundred years previously - and Austro-Hungary in 1795, been an elective monarchy with an immensely, within Poland at least, powerful nobility. Not only did the nobles elect the King, allow for widespread foreign influence, but he was, to a significant degree, merely an executive officer of their parliament, which, for around four hundred years, had a rule of unanimity, creating what in retrospect is entirely predictable political chaos. When the King was a strong individual, he was able to mobilise Polish forces for successful military campaigns - John Sobieski was a hero across Christendom for a reason - if little else, but when he was weak, the magnates did entirely as they pleased, which was often to ally with neighbouring states or ravage the countryside in legalised rebellions known as Confederacies. One of the factors behind the decision to give up left bank Ukraine was that the King's army, under the command of Sobieski, had just been defeated by one such rising, headed by Jerzy Lubomirski, which had been provoked by the threat of withdrawal of noble privileges, for example.

This total absence of institutionalised central power meant that, in the late eighteenth century when Poland was substanially larger and more populous than Prussia - Poland had much the same population as France, which within the next fifty years would achieve near-total continental dominance, even after the first partition - yet was consistently bullied by it. It was also poor, and poor, Davies argues, because both of the political dominance of a parasitic class of robber barons with little interest in maintaining that dominance and earlier dependence on markets for grain which had since collapsed, partly as a result of the emergence of competitors, but also because of the failure to recreate them after early to mid seventeenth century disruptions. Not enough grain was grown to send much to market in the aftermath of the wars, and then fewer traders came for it, and so it became more difficult to support expanding grain production the next year in the absence of funds, starting a vicious downward spiral which saw overall production collapse totally. The collapse of cities and so the possibility of economic diversification, after the same disruptions - a series of foreign invasions and civil wars, to be fair - was equally never remedied, because of the lack of interest in doing so on the part of nobles to whom they would have been challengers for political authority.

There seem to me to be one major lesson to be learned from the story of Poland's decline from being the largest and one of the wealthiest states in Europe in the sixteenth century - from sea to shining sea as the Lithuanian half of the Commonwealth proclaimed, meaning from their homeland on the Baltic, to the Crimea - to the frankly pathetic and crisis-ridden entity of barely a hundred and fifty years later, that political and economic structures matter. Poland's unique system of Noble Democracy created forces of such centripetal strength that, in a way, the miracle is it lasted as long as it did, while the dependence on the export of grain for wealth, a commodity which could easily be controlled by the large landowners, left Poland incredibly vulnerable to shifts in demand - almost all the major European countries experienced endemic violence during the early Modern period, yet few other economies collapsed as spectacularly as Poland's.

The obvious parallel here is oil. I am not enough of an economist to know whether the forces tying global capitalism to oil are as strong as those that prevented Poland from centralising or dealing with its dependence on grain, or whether the difficulties that would await such economies if starved of oil are as significant as those posed for Poland by Russia's relentless expansionism, but it is worth bearing in mind that Poles, even as they were happily auctioning their independence to the highest bidder, mocked those who argued that their system of government was unjust, inefficient and weak, pointing, interestingly, to their freedom. They clearly underestimated the difficulties their political and economic system created and in actively opposing reform, did nothing to tackle or even amielorate them. Human nature does not change much, and the attractions of self-deception remain. Let us hope we are not falling victim to them.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Two Notices

Firstly, I am going to be away until Sunday as of tomorrow morning, so again, for my dedicated readers - I won't list you by name, it would embarrass me more than you - there will be no blogging until Monday evening at the earliest I'd have thought.

Secondly, and much more importantly, if the BBC's 'This Week' ever, and I mean ever, makes jokes about the weirdly touchy-feely relationship that Diane Abbott, ostensibly left-wing but really rather empty headed political opportunist extraodinaire, and Michael Howard, the man too unctuous to be a used car salesman, have again, I shall be forced into drastic action.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Spooks and Democracy

Having not had a telly for some time, what with living in university halls, and then being disorganisied, and then not seeing last week's installment due to being dog-tired and generally in a foul mood after work, I'd not seen Spooks until tonight. I have to say that I was rather impressed with it: it was better than the identi-kit, Ronseal - it does what it says on the tin - intelligence drama I thought it probably would be, topical, well-scripted, well-acted and not noticeably low budget. I should caveat that, since what I was impressed with was it as a piece of production. I actually found parts of it rather disturbing.

Nick Barlow said at the Sharpener of the dual-episode series-opener last week that it presented the security services we’d like to see... MI-5 agents who don’t want extra powers from the Government, only ever bend the rules rather than break them and get to be heroes rather than the villains they might be elsewhere. I disagree. The plot of this week's episode, which involved the subversion and eventual destruction of a far-right political party bearing a quite obvious similarity to the BNP, seemed to me to display a quite worryingly anti-democratic tendency, because it was a clear contextual assumption of the plot that the British public is quite wholly incapable of recognising racist f*ckwits as such, and that the only way that said f*ckwits can be defeated, as they quite obviously should be, by systematic deception of the voting public.

That seems to me quite profoundly morally and - unless MI-5 has been considerably more active in recent history than I think is the case, which I suppose is always possible - factually wrong. It is factually wrong because, unless I am being horribly niave, for all Enoch Powell's threats of rivers running crimson, the British public has not, for all that Britain has been and in some ways remains an individually and institutionally racist country, ever elected an openly racist candidate, who campaigned solely on their racism, to significant political office, and because they seem to largely disapprove of such candidates. Admittedly, that disapproval often seems linked to a rather British embarassment at the stridency of such candidates more than absolute rejection of their views, but that's better than nothing.

It's morally wrong because it is so profoundly anti-democratic. It assigns the security services, by their nature hardly the most accountable part of government and the Establishment, a role in upholding democratic institutions which necessarily excludes any participation of the demos in those institutions, totally dismissing the possibility that the people at large have any role in their own governance by virtue of their vulnerability to populist demagougery. No-one can be consenting to institutions which they have no control over and are systematically mis-informed about, and since the point of democracy must be that people live under rules that they make and consent to, that is profoundly anti-democratic.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

More Manic Linkage

As has now become customary after lengthy absences from blogging, I will now link to and comment on things which most people who will read this will have seen weeks ago in what is probably a wholly useless exercise.

First things first. Some people who are far too prickly for their own good have decided that actually, terrorising someone to the extent of threatening to get them sacked is an entirely appropriate response to jokes. I would not have made the choices which Shot By Both Sides did, but I think it's fairly safe to say that making comedy references to the Holocaust, whilst undoubtedly in incredibly bad taste, is not something which deserves to carry the penalty of potential penury. John will be missed, and I only hope that the Sharpener allows him to maintain the impressively high standard of managing to piss everyone off. Other people say similar things here, here and a variety of other places. Incidentally, Rob Jubb is my real name, but I'm currently unemployed, so threatening me with words to my non-existent boss is fairly futile.

Crooked Timber discovers that someone who is apparently a prominent member of Forza Italia, the political party of Mr. Banana Republic, Silvio Berlusconi, wasn't aware that just because the Daily Mail publicised something, it doesn't mean it's true. I would say expect re-issues of the Zinoviev letter any time now, except that's been the Right's stock in trade since, well, the beginning of time. Crooked Timber also does a fairly good summary of the Lancet report on the casuality rate in Iraq, post-invasion, here, whilst Kieran Healy gets involved in a debate with Timothy Burke about what's going on in a New York Times article about high-powered women giving it all up for the kids here and here. As far as my tuppence worth goes, it's that the choices which the NYT describes are choices available to a fairly restricted set of people, restricted both by economic circumstance and by gender, and I find the acceptance of that as perfectly normal which the article appears to display repugnant on both those grounds.

Fistful of Euros finds this set of links to various publications of various think-tanks, and the Sharpener points out this opportunity to rant and rave about the state of British democracy, which at least allow you to vent the spleen inevitably derived from reading the out-pourings of policy wonks.

Fistful of Euros also notices that the current Iraqi government is claiming that the previous Iraqi government was made up of a bunch of thieving, mendacious bastards, as do a bunch of Americans I can't be bothered to round up. The LRB had a good piece on this sort of thing here in July, and, frankly, anyone who expected the Bush administration to run anything other than a kleptocracy in their new, oil-rich, colony is either so naive as to be dangerous to let out on their own or so wilfully blind as to think that the Nazis were much misunderstood.

On a vaguely related topic, Matt Yglesias has some quite interesting things to say about the Bush administration's presentational skills and the attractions of quasi-apocalyptic conflict here and here. I think he's right about the lack of class, but then I'm not American, let alone a red-state Bible-basher - I mean, I think it's perfectly normal to baptise male children in a gown, which I have on good report is so no red-blooded American male would countenance for his soon-to-be gun-totting and beer-swilling offspring - so what do I know? It may be that the Americans, with their history of millenarian Protestantism, are particularly vulnerable to this kind of thing, but then Billy Bragg declaring that 'it's hard to explain to a crying child/ why her daddy won't go back/ well, the family suffers, but it hurts me more/ to hear a scab say 'sod you jack'' gets me by the balls every time, so it could be a political outlook thing.

Pearsall does a fair job of debunking the idea that the Palestinians are the victims of genocide here. Clearly, the Israeli state is not systematically killing Palestinians or preventing their social reproduction with the aim of destroying the Palestinians as a group. However, I think there's a decent case to be made for the Israeli state, insofar as it supports the settlers in the West Bank, as being involved in attempted ethnic cleansing, since support for the settlers effectively makes the West Bank uninhabitable, in any decent sense, for Palestinians, where it does not simply require their forcible removal.

Also in vaguely colonially goings-on, Bartlett's Bizarre Bazaar has a viewpoint on the recent shenigans in Basra which is both rather rare and persuasive. Since the idea that British forces of law and order are somehow above the rules which they are supposed to be upholding has been alarming prevalent recently, I feel it's appropriate to draw attention to this skewering of that sentiment. On the subject of mocking those with power who demonstrate a total lack of awareness of the appropriate boundaries of its use, Backword Dave quotes extensively from a rather entertaining Onion article.

Finally, in an item which is becoming almost as regular as approval of Fafblog, I disagree with Stumbling and Mumbling about this. No, not that it's ridiculous to criminalise glorification of terrorism - see my previously stated views on Charlie Boy's attempts to turn the UK into a police state here - but the connection between managerialism, whatever that is anyway, and postmodernism, and empiricism and liberalism. There is no more intimate connection between an empiricist philosophy and liberalism than there is between alleged managerialism and post-modernism or between post-modernism and a denigration of freedom. Post-modernism, much as I dislike much of it, is almost universally a development of the Marxian idea that freedom is severly limited, if not impossible, in late capitalism, and so depends for the force of its critique on the value of freedom. Equally, co-opting those who launched critiques of the first Gulf War on the basis that it systematically falsified reality as supporters of the so-often transparently ideologically driven Third Way is simply bizarre. As for empiricism and liberalism, I have one word for you: utilitarianism.

Work-Life Balance Restored

As the total absence of anything new on here for nearly two weeks may suggest, I've been a little busy recently. I had been working over the summer, mostly helping to organise a conference, and the conference was last week, which meant I was rather tired when I finally got home in the evening, and so not really up for anything more cerebral than prime-time television. Then I was at home in London over the weekend, and then yesterday and today I have been somewhat preoccupied with the problem that, since the conference has been and gone, I am now unemployed. On the plus side, there is likely to be more blogging than over the past couple of months. On the minus side, there is likely to be more blogging than over the past couple of months. Also, a pittance as it was, my wage over the summer was more than the dole. Expect promises to work for food soon, and then, after that, the money for the LRB subscription.

Friday, September 09, 2005


Crooked Timber casts a skeptical eye over the numbers of people going into higher education. I agree. Too many people go to university who gain very little from doing so, bar a pass saying 'I am potential management' and a good time at the expense of their parents and the tax-payer. It is a waste, and also a form of prisoners' dilemma, since everyone wants a pass saying 'I am potential management'.

Lenin discovers that some wealthy Americans now consider floods a particularly cheap form of slum clearance.

The Sharpener has a piece up on flat taxes. All I have to say is, most of that which is to be said in favour of flat taxes arises from the possibility of raising the tax-free allowance, so, why give up the perfectly justified idea that people who can already provide for all their needs don't need their money as much, and so can pay more of it, proportionally, in tax, when all we need to do is raise the tax-free allowance within a progressive system of taxation?

Values and Maintaining Polities

A lot has been written recently on the importance or otherwise of values for sustaining a political community, given the prominence of the government’s and the Tories playing to the tabloid-filled gallery measures demanding obeisance to alleged British values. Understandably, given the obviousness of the political – in a derogatory sense – games being played, much of the debate has focused on the rather more theoretical question of exactly to what extent adherence to a set of values is necessary to sustain a polity. In a way though, this is a mistake: the difference between liberals and conservatives on this issue does not lie in how far they think that belief in a set of values of some sort is required to sustain a polity. Anyone can see that a world full of genuine Hobbesian individuals is not going to be full of flourishing states: the bonds of trust and solidarity that are necessary to avoid descent into perpetual prisoners’ dilemmas could not even come into being, let alone last, in such a world.

The question is not really how much commitment to some thick ethical values are necessary, but what the thick ethical values are, of how it is that a polity should treat those who live under the rules it makes and fails to make. There may also be another, related, question, about how good it is to live in a community which has certain publicly affirmed values, rather than whether it is necessary. It seems to me, though, that the two shade into each other, for the kinds of values one believes are necessary are also the ones which one prefers: again, rather than being a question of whether values are important, it is a question of which values.

Conservatives, almost definitionally, I think, believe that the thick ethical values that sustain a polity should be particular to the community which makes up the polity in question, whereas liberals believe that, again, almost definitionally I think, that they are values which are at least potentially universal. To put it another way, conservatives believe that it would be wrong for the French political system to be based on and embody in its structure and content the same values as the British political system, whereas liberals believe that there is no intrinsic reason for the two systems to differ – whilst there may be differences following from different political problems, there is nothing to prevent the foundational values of the two political systems being identical.

The reason that liberals do not want the values which are embodied by a given political system to be particular to the community which makes up that polity is that they believe that it is wrong to apply legal coercive pressure, including for example denying the benefits of citizenship, in order to force someone to alter their form of life, as long as that form of life does not violate the rights of anyone else. Because the values which liberals seek to construct their polities around are universal in their scope – whether or not everyone does in fact find them to be genuine values, they are at least supposed to be universal, and liberals would be committed to altering them, were they to find something particularistic about them – no-one has any legitimate disagreement with them: they cannot object that they have been unreasonably coerced, because they were being unreasonable in refusing to acknowledge the burdens which those values placed on them. Thus, in principle at least, no-one is excluded: there is nothing that someone could not at a cost which was reasonable come to agree with.

Conservatives, on the other hand, believe that polities are inherently exclusionary: if you are unprepared to make the sacrifices necessary to come to find yourself part of a community which adheres to values with which we might reasonably disagree, then you properly lose your full rights as part of that polity. Now, as a liberal I find that repulsive. The idea that adhering values that I am not reasonably compelled, in the abstract, to believe could be a condition of being a full citizen, that I could justly be coerced by laws and social institutions which it would be reasonable for me to refuse to consent to, is so profoundly anti-democratic that I find it difficult to give it credence: it binds people to rules that they do not and have no reason to conscience, as if they had no right to consideration or a say in the construction of a polity, in the limits put on their freedom.

Conservatives disagree: they are skeptical about the existence of putatively universal values. Blimpish is doubtless amusing himself some how at my invocation of the value of reasonableness right now, for example. I think I can defend, naturalistically, even, a liberal ethic – I attempted to do something like that here, amongst other things – and liberals need to be aware that commitments to universal values may manifest themselves in particular ways - I suppose that's what's going on in my attempts to defend a liberal account of British history - but neither of those are really the point: the important thing is that the disagreement between conservatives and liberals is not over whether values are important, it’s over which values are to be important.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Some Katrina Links

Fafblog reaches the parts other blogs can't. You KNOW they would if they could.

What was that, you semi-human incompetent racist venal pr*cks? Tell us again...

Anything that a third world country can do, surely the US can do better... Apparently not

Just remember, they knew it could happen, they did nothing before, they did nothing for days after, and then, they patronised and slandered the people who, even without the incompetence and the negligence they displayed, would have been the hardest-hit, because of the maldistribution endemic to political, social and economic system they think is dangerously liberal.

A Challenge Partially Met

Jarndyce of Fair Vote Watch raises this, by Chris of Stumbling and Mumbling. He has a reasonably fair point. Jarndyce's own suggestions are here. I haven't given it much thought, but, a few quick things for starters:

Get rid of our totally bloody ridiculous allegedly independent nuclear deterent. Who are we deterring? No-one, since we're only going to nuke with the Americans permission, which means nuking much the same things as the Americans, and the Americans have plenty of their own nukes - enough to destroy the planet several times over, or something equally absolutely f*cking terrifying - so I don't think they'll be desperately needing ours any time soon. Even if we are deterring anyone, is it worth billions of pounds? No. Get rid of it.

In good, old-fashioned Labour style, like Tony - this one, not that one - said, 'destroy every f*cking grammar school in the country'. And the private schools too, for good measure. All selection condemns those it excludes to going secondary moderns and educational research indicates that good pupils improve the performance of the less able without suffering themselves, so large numbers gain and no-one loses.

Stop providing financial incentives for the middle-class to win in a battle for credentials by dint by greater resources by increasing support for the poorest and charging the wealthiest the full economic cost of university tuition fees. Also, create scholarships for the genuinely academically able, regardless of income, so as to make it clear that the point of going to university should not just be to acquire a qualification that gets you one step further up the ladder at initial recruitment, but to expand your mind.

Increase rates of income tax on the very wealthy, while fining any who leave in order to avoid paying as much tax through confiscation of assets. They are violating a moral duty to ensure that all have enough to live a decent life, and as such, are criminal in exactly the same as anyone else who deprives others of the means to a decent life. The same applies to corporations. Use the excess to decrease marginal tax-rates on the poor.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

New Orleans and Depressingly Predictable Complaints

Blog coverage of the continuing disaster that is New Orleans has been excellent, and so I've not felt that I should say anything about it, especially since it's not my city or even a city in my country that's full of filthy water, starving people, predominantly of a certain skin pigmentation, bloated corpses and f*ck-all else. However, there are a couple of things worth having a look at, I think.

Firstly, Lenin's Tomb has been running a series of posts entitled 'the politics of weather', which detail the myriad ways in which human actions created the situation in which a natural disaster like Katrina could destroy a city. Unsurprisingly for an administration which it would appear went to war in Iraq just so that it could drop lots of bombs on lots of oil installations, both of which would have to be replaced, usually by Halliburton, the in question actions reach a level of grubbiness and venality which is simply disgusting.

Secondly, Billmon reminds his readers that this is not the first time that, as if by accident, it's black people who suffer the most when a natural disaster hits, and finds some reasons for thinking that not only is it not an accident that they suffer most, it's not an accident that they get the least help either. Relatedly, Juan Cole explores the reaction of the Bush administration to various outbreaks of looting, and points to a fact that it would have been useful if more Americans has realised earlier: Bush only cares about the property of rich white men, and if you're not a rich white man, he's going to shaft you so that rich white men can get richer at your expense. I mean, I realise that a significant core of conservativism in the belief in the importance of a shared heritage in and belonging to a particular community, it'd just slipped my mind for a while how exclusive those communities could be, how they could require that the interests of some simply slip out of any consideration. That may be worth bearing in mind when considering the next round of crack-brained idiocy from our One Nation Tory leaders.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

British Values

As a liberal, I'm inherently suspicious both of the claimed necessity of a thick shared political heritage for lasting states, and of the value of one, because thick shared political heritages have to be imposed on people who don't quite see things that way, usually coercively imposed, which is hardly a tactic with a unchequered record on the peace, love, milk and honey provision stakes, an obvious way of excluding some from full citizenship, and a violation of people's freedom of conscience. So any wailing for the heady days on nuns on tricycles coming over the crest of the Watford bypass, struggling through the tangle of undergrowth with their machetes towards the Holy Grail of the wife-beater next door, or whatever tendentious but pleasant-sounding claptrap that earnest reactionaries come up with next to cover up the fact that they're actually reactionary and tendentious, doesn't go down well with me.

The other thing is, whenever they actually get pressed on what they want done to inculcate this thick shared political heritage, in Britain at least, it ends up being boringly liberal anyway, exactly the sort of thing that there's no need for a thick shared political heritage to sustain: respect for the rule of law is hardly a particularly distinctive British value, as it is essential for any democracy anywhere. I think there are two reasons for this: one is that the British are actually pretty liberal, and the other is that they know that anything thicker, more demanding, more particularistic, would be unacceptable, at least in part because the British are pretty liberal. I think I disagree, for example, with Blimpish, when, as an afterthought in a piece on George Monbiot, he claim that the British working class is predominantly conservative or reactionary, which is perhaps hardly surprising. It certainly is in ways: the trade union movement is, I understand, incredibly patriarchal, for example. However, there is a fine tradition of British working class protest against authority which stretches back at least as far as Wat Tyler, encompasses the Levellers and various other quasi-Millenarian radical Protestants, the Jacobins, like Tom Paine, around the end of the eighteenth century and the beginnings of the nineteenth, the Chartists and the early Trades Unionists. All of these movements were essentially liberal, featuring strongly a distrust of authority and the demand to not be interfered with, which to my mind speaks of a powerful current of suspicion towards claims that someone else should be able to force an identity on you as a condition of remaining a full-fledged citizen. Perhaps the reason we haven't been subjected to such impositions so far is precisely because the best things to force on anyone tell us that there is nothing to be forced.


Liz Anderson's series on the meaning of freedom continues here and here, talking about the importance of the rule of law and the need to assess parts of bundles of freedom against the freedoms that they would deny others, both in terms of the freedom as non-domination account she prefers. I can be quite skeptical about the usefulness of the freedom as non-domination account, because it's central claim is that the fact of living under the arbitrary will of another, regardless of whether that will is exercised at all, makes people unfree, and I find the idea that that bare fact makes people unfree a little implausible. To use one of Anderson's examples, a state which possessed but never used the power to confiscate property at will, and which had plausibly promised never to use it, would not be making it's citizens any more unfree than those of an otherwise identical state, which lacked this power. To put in more familiar terms, it doesn't strike me that the procedural powers of the British Monarchy, which, although extensive, have not been used for the better part of a century, make their subjects - as we all are, in law - any less free than the citizens of other polities with similar concentrations of political power. I have used the idea of non-domination to explain the normativity of democracy, but when taken to imply that the possession of powers or capacities, even when there are cast-iron guarantees of them not being used, it becomes at least dubious, because it seems to violate the strongly held intuition that something must interfere for freedom to be lost: either a power must be used, or the possibility of its use should cast a shadow over the plans of those who are subject to it. Anderson's usage of the account does not directly imply the 'there need be no interference for freedom to be lost' claim, but it comes close, I think.

This is not to say that I don't sympathise with either of the policies she claims freedom in this sense supports, or the manner in which she does it. The value of the rule of law in terms of freedom is very well explained by reference to the dominating effect of arbitrary power, of how it makes planning impossible because of unpredictability, how it distorts choices because of having passed the power of deciding the costs and benefits of any choice to however possesses the arbitrary power, and of course, how at times it deprives people of things they have rights to. Her championing of the idea that we must not forget the way that the exercise of one liberty often removes or minimises another when picking our prefered bundles of liberties is also pleasing, especially for getting a few not-even-particularly sly digs in at Nozick. I've made this point before, but Nozick just conveniently slides by the fact that poverty or dependence is an obvious form of unfreedom, and in light of that, there is little to be said in favour of the idea that a scheme of unrestricted property rights maximises freedom, because of the poverty and dependence-generating inequalities that would arise from such a scheme.

Thursday, September 01, 2005


Henry Farrell's post at Crooked Timber, touching on a certain right-wing attitude towards science, which expresses skepticism about limits placed on human capacities, on the possibility of serious blockages in scientific and particularly technological progress, is interesting. I think this hostility to the idea that there are problems which cannot be defeated with the application of a simple combination ingenuity and practical-mindedness is peculiarly American, related to the rugged individualism of Manifest Destiny, the myth of a country of infinite horizons, both physical and social.

Lenin does a fairly good job accounting for the causal commonalities in which suicide bombings tend to occur here, concluding, perhaps predictably, that the single obvious commonality is personal experience of significant injustice. He is, as a Marxist, understandably keen to connect the motivational features of suicide bombers to structural features of late capitalism, if not directly, in the sense of recognising them as structural features of late capitalism, then indirectly, through its inevitable brutalities. I, however, think that suicide bombing inherently has something otherworldly, postponed about it, and not in the relatively straightforward sense that any sacrifice, because it often does not see its own success, but in the more profound sense that it has no hope of seeing its own success, and this in two senses. Firstly, that the end it aims at is usually totally beyond it, alone, as a means to it, and secondly, that the end is somehow intrinsically unworldly: most obviously, anyone seriously aiming at the destruction of Israel as a state, but also, I think, Marxists. I think that otherworldliness is perhaps essential to the suicide bomber.

Finally, one quick thing about the Blimpish piece from the Sharpener I linked to last time. He's writing on that topic much beloved of conservatives, the need for a moral community, substantially created by reference to tradition, to sustain a polity, and makes the claim that the Hindu caste system disproves ethical universalism, because Hindus don't believe that all human life, qua human life, is worth an equal amount. This only matters if the Hindus are right: the fact that some people believe ethical universalism is false does not disprove ethical universalism, just as the fact that some people believe the world is not round does not disprove the world being round. Broadly, if ethical universalism is true, then what people think about its truth doesn't have that much bearing (I mean that broadly: it's complicated).