Tuesday, January 31, 2006

There's One Man, And He Votes

Crooked Timber has a discussion about the politics of Terry Pratchett here. It's a while since I read any Pratchett, so I don't really feel in a position to give some kind of extended analysis of the moral universe of the Discworld. I will say, however, that my memory of the Discworld novels is that they are motivated by a very strong sense of the absurd which works to undermine more or less anything as basically pretentious as conscious political posturing. That would kind of align with a sub-type of conservatism which is cynical about both the effects of accumulation of power and attempts to do anything about them, that looks at the world and says it is what it is, and trying to change it is at least as laughable as an apologia for it. As I say though, it's a long time since I read any Pratchett, so it's entirely possible I'm totally misremembering.

Monday, January 30, 2006

All To Be Held At Mere Discretion

I had forgotten about this, and would therefore like to thank A Few Words Before We Go for reminding me that all democrats should raise a glass tonight, if only to fortify themselves for the doubtlessly lengthy struggle ahead. Vive La Revolution!

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Compensating With Aspiration?

A number of people - Chris of Qwghlm here, for example - have pointed out that whilst Ian Blair may not have chosen the best case with which to make his point about levels of crime reporting reflecting the race of the victim, that doesn't prevent him from being on to something. As Chris points out, there are other factors apart from race that work to determine media interest in the victims of crime: their level of general innocence, as callibrated from a combination of their age, their gender, and the degree to which they fulfill expectations of the role which the Daily Mail assigns to them on the basis of those two variables, is the obvious one, but attractiveness and pertinence to readers also plays a role.

I, for example, have often thought that the middle market tabloid campaigning on behalf of Stephen Lawrence's family was motivated by the fact that both the victim and the family conformed to all the desires that such publications could have about anyone and how they lived their lives. It was as if they'd suddenly discovered that being black didn't automatically push you into the category of lumpenproletariat. The Lawrence family managed to escape the usual stereotypes by virtue of being quite respectable, so far as I can remember, and having a son who had the appropriately high-minded but ultimately bland and unthreatening ambition of becoming an architect. I thought at the time that this showed that actually, rather than race being the relevant causative factor in the injustice, class was: being black was a marker for being a member of the non-respectable working class. I'm fairly sure that it's not that simple now - there are tropes to do with the aggressiveness of young black men particularly which are distinct from more general class prejudice, for example - but I think it is worth thinking about how closely race and class are related. I remember there was a case of a bishop who was stopped for driving whilst black, fairly soon after the whole Lawrence thing broke, which was regarded as scandalous. What was scandalous about it was that it was a bishop who got stopped for driving whilst black, though, not that someone whom the police had no basis for suspecting of a crime other than the colour of his skin was stopped at all. His position and what that implied about his class took him out of the category of being black.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Here I Play The Blacksmith

When it was first published, Anderson reviewed John Rawls' 'Political Liberalism' in Dissent under the title 'Designing Consensus', and some version or other of that review is in his recent collection, Spectrum. Anderson's critique is a litany of disappointments. He seems to view Rawls' 'Theory of Justice' as, although unsatisfactory, a valuable contribution to normative political theory, and strikes the pose of a chastising and particularly contemptous teacher as he catalogues the ways in which Rawls has failed to live up to this early promise. So, as is inevitable, I'm going to struggle to avoid doing the same in attempting to analyse his errors.

There were, according to Anderson, four problems with 'Theory of Justice': the device of the original position was circular; the priority of liberty over material equality was unjustified; the difference principle is somewhat ambiguous; it has nothing to say about international relations. Although Anderson misses the mark somewhat with the third and fourth, since the point of Rawls' project at this point was to provide a set of principles to guide the construction of just regimes in states rather than define a just tax code or deal with issues of international justice, the first and second, it does have to be said, are staples of critiques of Rawls. According to Anderson, rather than attempt to learn from the criticism of his betters, Rawls petulantly decided that none of them were to be addressed in 'Political Liberalism', and that he would make his own choices about what he would do with his philosophical project. In this vein, Rawls structured 'Political Liberalism' around a retreat from the metaphysical into the political, a withdrawal which grounds itself in what he calls the 'public culture of a democracy', a strategy which Anderson passes this comment on:

What was a latent and subtle circularity in A Theory of Justice becomes a more gross and explicit one in Political Liberalism. For Rawls simultaneously appeals to the natural outlook of a democratic society to found his conception of the person, and to his conception of the person to found the basic structure of a democratic society... In a vicious circle, public arrangements are deduced from personal capacities defined as adapted to public arrangements.

Anderson is not actually totally alone in making something like this critique. The almost perverse misunderstandings of Rawls in Joseph Raz's 'The Morality of Freedom' spring most immediately to mind, but there are other culprits as well. The problem with it is that it quite fundamentally fails to grasp the thrust of Rawls' retreat into a much more restricted set of claims, a thrust which is both epistemological and ontological. This withdrawal is motivated by the success of critiques which focussed on the first of Anderson's four problems with 'Theory of Justice', the circularity of the device of the original position. It was felt that the assumptions which structured the original position were those of full-blown ethical liberals, and that this was objectionable, because Rawls made little attempt to vindicate those assumptions, meaning that those who weren't full-blown ethical liberals could legitimately object to them. Rawls' attempt to correct this, which I think he correctly sees as being the source of almost all the criticism of 'Theory of Justice' as a project - rather than of the set of principles generated by that project - is the retreat of 'Political Liberalism'.

The clue is in the title. The project of 'Political Liberalism' depends on an understanding of the political as a sphere with - at least as far as the Atlantic democracies are concerned, but perhaps elsewhere: Rawls' restriction implies no more than that, and certainly not an exclusion -distinctive epistemological requirements. This is liberalism applied to politics, and politics alone - more specifically, politics as construed in the idea of democracy. It is interested in the question of, as it itself puts it:

[how] is it possible that there may exist over time a stable and just society of free and equal citizens profoundly divided by reasonable though incompatible religious, philosophical and moral doctrines?

The centrality of disagreement to this question is key, I think, to Anderson's misunderstanding. He reads it as a historical coincidence, and pours scorn on Rawls' obsession with what is referred to as the 'fact of reasonable pluralism'. But the 'fact of reasonable pluralism' is central: it is what makes it a mistake to demand that those who do not share Rawls' liberal sympathies simply submit to the liberal assumptions of 'Theory of Justice'. They disagree, and in most cases they are reasonable to do so. Indeed, unless they disagreed, it would not be a problem to demand that they submitted, since they would do so voluntarily. Yet, if they did not disagree, the principles on which they should structure their society would be rather different, because the freedoms which Rawls continues to place at the centre of his theory would be unneccessary: those who do not disagree do not require the freedom to act differently from each, to deviate from the plan, which is, after all, in the total absence of disagreement, surely correct.

Rawls' references to the 'public culture of democracy' are references to this: unless people have a need to structure the rules which govern the institutions in which they live out their lives, the appeal of democracy becomes rather opaque. The fact of reasonable pluralism, by positing a situation in which genuine plurality exists, makes that need clear. What Anderson refers to as Rawls' conception of the person is grounded in this need, created by difference, since it is a conception of the person which will lead to reasonable disagreement. Unsurprisingly, that need, and the set of issues around it, then ought to structure the institutions under which they live. A democratic state will have to take into consideration why democracy matters when making decisions about how to live its collective life. The circle does not have to be vicious.

The ontological and epsitemological retreats that Rawls makes in the face of this understanding of what provides the moral force of democracy are precisely those which Anderson finds it so easy to misrepresent and then denigrate, specifically, an unwillingness to demand adherence to a comprehensive or metaphysical conception as a precondition of consent to the arrangements he suggests. Because the moral force of democracy depends on the existence of substantive difference, to make such a demand would run directly counter to its own moral motivation. Rawls has to abjure from the allegedly comprehensive doctrines of 'Theory of Justice', or risk undermining the motivation of his whole project, which of course explains the obsession with skirting round the issue of truth and the conditions of public reason.

Anderson, for whatever reasons, is unable to grasp this, despite Rawls' persistent worrying away at the problem of what might constitute conditions under which a state was neither doing too much nor too little to be said to be respecting people as free and equal in this sense throughout 'Political Liberalism'. But then, as we have already seen, Anderson regards liberal and social democracies as the site of oppression. How deep that hostility goes is not quite clear, although his apparently approving quotation of the admittedly rhetorically impressive, but essentially philosophically bankrupt, passage at the beginning of Alisdair MacIntyre's 'After Virtue', would suggest a basic failure to understand the distinction between politics and ethics. What Rawls understands, but Anderson seems not to, is that politics is a question of how we are to live together, whilst ethics is a question of how I should live. That the problem of politics refers to a we is decisive, since that we requires difference, and to avoid the collapse of the political into the ethical, that difference must be respected. We are brought back to the horseshoe: the question of whether or not one is prepared to pay that respect or not, after all, shapes it.

It Says Here

Just to prove that even strictly money and numbers games can provide interesting results from time to time, some snippets from today's Grauniad. First, Jonathan Steele on the results of the Palestinian elections:

Murdering a Palestinian politician by a long-range attack that is bound also to kill innocent civilians is morally and legally no better than a suicide bomb on a bus. Hamas's refusal to give formal recognition of Israel's right to exist should also not be seen by Europe as an urgent problem ... For decades Israel refused even to recognise the existence of the Palestinian people, just as Turkey did not recognise the Kurds. Until 15 years ago Palestinians had to be smuggled to international summits as part of Jordan's delegation. It is less than that since the Israeli government accepted the goal of a Palestinian state.

It does have to be said on the other hand that Henry McDonald really gets himself into all kinds of difficulty here, denying any analogy between Hamas and the Provos while providing ample evidence to ground one. Both are movements much of whose support derives from the perceived bankruptcy of moderates and the IRA, like Hamas did until beginning to participate in elections, once strove to achieve its ends through violence and violence alone. The denial of the analogy on the grounds that the IRA never used tactics of suicide bombings seems, in an analysis of the political situation, rather out of place. The British state never carried out a programme of targetted assassinations, although it probably colluded in slightly less deliberate loyalist schemes, or turned Northern Ireland into an inescapable ghetto, either, but apparently that's not so important.

Still, Steele is better than nothing, and Polly gets pleasingly excitable in the cause of social justice. Better than pictures of women in states of undress.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Embarrassment and My Usual Excuses

I'm just going to say, I told you so. Hubris. Look what happened to this lot. There is no way there will be serious national three party politics unless we get rid of first past the post, which of course we should.

Til Those Petrol Bombs Come Spinning Through The Air

Definitions are generally tricky, slippery things, liable to wriggle out of your hands and humiliate you as you clumsily try to recapture them. So there's an inherent danger in defining the political spectrum: the problems with the traditional left-right distinction, once issues of personal liberty or concern for the environment are added, ought to be familiar, and I am willing to accept that any attempt to structure the political spectrum - the political spectrum of all things, surely a social space particularly vulnerable to recreation according to the whims of its creators, to what seems pertinent to them as citizens - will come across the same sorts of difficulties. That's not to say that definitions aren't useful or illuminating things, merely a note of caution. They have a nasty habit of biting right back at you, of exposing, gleefully, the weak underbelly precisely at the point of greatest strength.

So. I've been reading a collection of Perry Anderson's essays, Spectrum: From Left to Right in the World of Ideas. Anderson writes well. He's an excellent polemicist. His judgement on Timothy Garton Ash's unwillingness to concede the centrality of American military power to the geostrategic situation in Europe, where Garton Ash describes those who trumpet the role of that extension of power as 'unhelpful', is, whatever the truth of the matter,wonderfully scathing:

The adjective speaks worlds: a euphemism to protect euphemisms.

Anderson's critiques of Garton Ash, as first suffering from a kind of Orientalism of the Balkans and then simply an inability to do more than fawn at the feet of power, aren't actually the topic here though. What I'm more interested in is Anderson's critique of Ferdinand Mount's Mind The Gap. I should say now that I've not read Mount's book, so am in no position to comment on the accuracy or otherwise of Anderson's presentation of the content of the book. Anderson interprets Mount as providing a narrative of working class decline, caused by an over-centralised, unresponsive and ennervating state which has gradually hollowed out any autonomous institutions the working class possessed. Not only is this an argument with a long history in British Conservatism, Mount's solutions of a return to voluntarism - now interestingly popular, even when coerced, of course - and to the land are equally familiar.

Anderson's response to this is to ask the question which he believes Mount can't - who did this? - and thereby expose that, since much of the construction of the welfare state was the result of men from precisely those institutions that the welfare state allegedly emptied of purpose, the welfare state should presumably be constructed around the same sorts of models and principles. If the welfare state was constructed around the same sorts of models and principles as these allegedly vital, responsive and empowering institutions that it so unfortunately replaced, Anderson argues, then surely that casts all kinds of doubts on the history Mount constructs, because the institutions replaced by the welfare state should have had the same character as the welfare state. Ancedotally, I think there's something to this. The aristocracy of labour was often both quite happy as an aristocracy, thank you very much, and quite aware that it was happy because it was an aristocracy, residing at the top of a heirarchy, which could tend to make it rather conservative. Indeed, that's quite possibly what attracts Mount to its institutions.

Either way, what I find particularly interesting about Anderson on Mount is the similarity between parts of their views. Although he pours scorn on Mount's nostalgia, Anderson doesn't really trouble himself with disputing Mount's claim that the welfare state is an ennervating and generally unsatisfactory institution. The centralised state and liberal or social democracy are, for both, sites of oppression. Of course, they disagree about the location of many of the other sites of oppression and about the solution, but they both essentially regard liberal and social democracies as frauds. Perhaps we'll be seeing them together on the barricades.

Anyway, to return to the point about definitions. Anderson presumably regards the quasi-Marxian framework he is operating in as providing a definition of the political spectrum - as the title of his book quite clearly suggests - in which he is on the left, and Mount is on the right. Yet his powerful analysis, which undoubtedly draws on that framework, of Mount's work brings to light an important commonality between them, a commonality which then of course casts doubt on the framework in which it was uncovered. In clutching at the definition, trying to gain control over it, to use it to divvy up the world, there's been a slip or a stumble, and now what was a line, lies on the ground, shaped something like a horseshoe. How revealing.

I Imagine You're Disappointed

This site is certified 38% EVIL by the Gematriculator

I promise to try harder (via).

49 Meme

One day, when all the world acknowledges, through the proper tributes of course, my genius, I will employ a subeditor. Until you will have to be content with crap post titles. Phil passed this to me. Blame him. None of these are in any particular order.

Seven Things To Do Before I Die:

1) Properly learn a foreign language
2) See Macchu Picchu
3) Actually master some physical skill or other
4) Tutor a child in the ways of righteousness
5) Give a well-recieved speech
6) Make something that both works and is useful
7) Go on a proper walking holiday

Seven Things I Cannot Do:

1) Touch the tip of my nose with my tongue
2) Leave an argument once it's started
3) Complicated mental arithmetic
4) Stop fiddling with my beard
5) Avoid the use of endless qualifying clauses
6) Drive
7) Speak a foreign language

Seven Things That Attract Me To... Other People
1) A sense of the absurd
2) Generosity
3) The capacity to enjoy life
4) Intelligence
5) A skill with words
6) A little bitterness
7) A sense of wonder

Seven Things I Say
1) "...in the sense that..."
2) "What I think you mean is that..."
3) "For f*ck's sake!"
4) "Amore..."*
5) "Che fai?"*
6) "and say, mother, I can never come home any more because I seem to have left an important part of my mind somewhere, somewhere, in a field in Hampshire, oh yeah"
7) "I'm not really bothered"

Seven Books That I Love
1) Perdido Street Station, China Mieville
2) The Use of Weapons, Iain M. Banks
3) If On A Winter's Night A Traveller, Italo Calvino
4) The Periodic Table, Primo Levi
5) Count Zero, William Gibson
6) Italian Neighbours/An Italian Education, Tim Parks**
7) The Cold Six Thousand, James Ellroy

Seven Films That I Love(d)
1) The Warriors
2) Buongiorno, Notte
3) Withnail and I
4) Amores Perros
5) The Incredibles
6) The Straight Story
7) Akira

I'm not tagging anyone else, because I'm lazy, but if anyone wants to blame me as I blame Phil, feel free.

* Lo so che c'e una lingua straniera, ma non posso parlare bene, e anche, certamente, questo e incorreto.

** The crappy WHSmith edition that I have for some reason is both of them.

Update: Upon consultation with those in the know, it turns out that, indeed, I can't write Italian for sh*t.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Extraordinary Rendition

Actually Existing has a relatively penetrative analysis of the memo advising Downing Street on extraordinary rendition leaked to the New Statesman. So far as I can see from having read the memo, it is, as Phil says, certain that at least one incident of rendition - that is, extra-judicial extradition - took place, and probable - "[t]he papers we have unearthed so far suggest there could be more such cases" - that there are more. Rendition, even in cases where torture is not involved, is usually illegal, simply because international treaties ban expelling people without due legal process. Cooperation with such actions would therefore usually be illegal. Although obviously rendition to a state which was likely to torture or otherwise ill-treat the person who had been rendered to it makes the practice much more obviously wrong, rendition of itself, even without torture, is still obviously wrong. It's kidnapping people.

Kidnapping people is, fairly unambiguously, wrong. Kidnapping people so as to send them where they will be tortured is certainly worse, but that doesn't make it acceptable to kidnap them. There are extradition procedures for a reason, just as there are bail hearings for a reason: to prevent people who have been convicted of no crime from suffering a loss of their liberty without good, publicly available, grounds. To bypass or subvert those procedures is to create a sphere of arbitrary power, where the conduct of the state does not have to be justified, is unaccountable. It is a violation of the rule of law. It is the introduction of a category of exception, of the excluded. Those whom the state claims present a threat to its citizens are no longer judged deserving of the protections which stand as a barrier against the possibility of the state itself becoming a threat to its citizens. The claims of order trump all. Neither, of course, may citizens themselves stand in judgement of those claims of order: they are reduced to ciphers, in whose name action is taken, but who at no time are to have the capacity to hold those who take the actions accountable. One might wonder what was it was that made it so important to secure order for these weak, stumbling automata, to make such efforts, such sacrifices.

Such a situation is, as Rochenko points out, rather dangerous. It panders to visions of unlimited power, a utopian sublimation of politics where those with the will to bear it will hold back and then turn the tides of darkness, prepared to do whatever it takes, stopping at nothing. Those, I fear, are always likely to be present in political discourse. What is more worrying is the normalisation of this as a discourse, as a political situation. Citizens are disempowered, deprived of information and oversight, unable to take the hard choices that are necessary for their security. Liberties are restricted, so as to give the powers to the state and its organs necessary to combat the existential threat, a threat which never seems to diminish, is endlessly fertile. Seem oddly familiar? I thought so.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

The Disadvantages Of Having Studied Philosophy

Those who know me personally probably know that I'm still unemployed. This mean I have to fill in job application forms. I don't like job application forms. The reason I don't like job application forms is that they ask questions, which, if you think about them for very long, it becomes clear are entirely stupid. This is one of the disadvantages of having studied philosophy, that because a lot of it is just teaching you to ask the right questions, it makes you aware just how many absolutely idiotic ones there are knocking about. For example:

Please provide an example which demonstrates your ability to recognise the impact of your own behaviour on others, including your use of interpersonal skills to build rapport with them. Your example should demonstrate that you value diversity and are able to take into account others' situations and concerns.

Pointing out that since I wasn't raised by wolves, I have experience of interacting with other human beings dating back as far as birth presumably wouldn't be a good idea here. Pointing out that that must mean that, unless I've got a rather long history of being the victim of violence and/or shunning, I can get on with them reasonably well presumably wouldn't be a good idea either. Pointing out that most people weren't raised by wolves, and are consequently pretty good at getting on with other people would also be entirely counterproductive, I fear. That's what I really want to do though. Really, really want to do.

It's not a radical idea, I think, that humans are more or less uniformly social animals. Neither is it a radical idea that in order to survive and prosper as a social animal, it's pretty necessary to be able to 'take into account others' situations and concerns' or to be able to 'recognise the impact of your own behaviour on others'. I don't know, maybe I'm being unreasonable, but those look like the kind of thing you need to be able to do just to function as a normal person. It looks like the thing which two year-old babies, notoriously self-obsessed, lack, but gain by the time they're three or four. So it would be an obviously valuable thing to ask questions about when assessing the suitability of adults for employment: let's see whether the adults have, in their progression through life, moved on beyond the developmental stage of a two year-old. That's a genuine attempt to find something out substantive about the candidate, clearly.

Another one:

Please provide an example that best demonstrates to communicate orally and in writing in a clear, concise and persuasive manner. Your example should demonstrate your ability to communicate your own viewpoint succinctly and to defend it appropriately when necessary.

The irony of this being one of a number of questions during an application form just had to be shared, I felt. Because we should ask people about their communication skills rather than just see whether or not, on the basis of their other answers, they can actually communicate. That would be simple, wouldn't it? That would make some kind of sense, and that would be a dangerous, dangerous step to talk. That might imply that there was supposed to be some kind of rationale behind the application process, and we wouldn't want anyone to assume that in case they were terribly, terribly disappointed.

Like I said, entirely stupid questions. I have come to regard recruitment consultants with the same kind of absolute disgust that Bill Hicks reserved for people who work in marketing, whom I'm actually fairly ambivalent about. But the recruitment consultants... The recruitment consultants better beware. Because of them, I'm still unemployed and consequently have rather a lot of time on my hands. What on earth could I be going to do to fill it?

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

More Albania Bridge Stuff

The Albania Bridge Project now has its own website up here. Although it's not quite finished, it has some photos of Ure e Shrentje and the beekeeping project which Oxfam is running there, as well as more details about the bridge itself. If you didn't read my original post on the Project, it's here. I should also thank those who gave, both through the Paypal button - which is still there by the way - and personally: it was very generous of you.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Two Quick Things

Morrissey's got a bit over-excited about people causing pain to and killing other animals again(via). Apparently, he believes that violence is justified against such people. I have two things to say, neither of which are actually about whether or not animals have rights, and if they do, what they might be: firstly, why aren't the animal rights protesters outside halal butchers; and secondly, have they thought hard about the consequences of removing animal slaughter and experimentation from the relatively heavily regulated Britain to elsewhere in the world. I'm actually fairly sympathetic to (some of) the philosophical claims of animal right protesters but they just piss me right off, the sanctimonious self-righteous pr*cks. That said, Morrissey is a bloody genuis.

Addendum: Majikthise's post on why people shouldn't eat octopus, but probably shouldn't have any serious worries about (organic) chicken roughly aligns with my views on the matter, just in case you care.

Chris Bertram, searching for the reasons Gordon Brown looked quite such an idiot when advocating American-style patriotism in the UK, has found some really quite accurate descriptions, on the basis of my experience, by De Tocqueville, of English and American patriotism. Frankly, although I think it wouldn't be totally unreasonable to describe me as somewhat reserved even by British standards, I'm happy with my calm enjoyment, such as it is, and am inclined to find anyone who is prepared to sing the praises of their country deeply, deeply suspicious. Not only are they rude, they would surely also either be trying to swindle you in some manner, a sociopathic xenophobe, or simply very deluded. It's interesting that De Tocqueville observed the same phenomena though.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Suffer The Little Children

Firstly, whilst I am not particularly surprised by either the moral panic which has been successfully whipped up or the uniformity of views expressed about this, it's far from clear to me that it is or should be a closed question. Indeed, I rather think that if it is decided, it should be decided in quite another direction. The man whose case initially sparked the controversy had admitted guilt, but not in a criminal trial. He has no conviction, as I understand the law, for child sex offences, and there are reasons quite separate from those of innocence or guilt for accepting a caution rather than going to trial, just as presumably the police had reasons for choosing to offer the alternative of a caution rather than going to trial. The question of his guilt does not thus seemed wholly settled to me.

Further, and more importantly, even if his guilt was a settled matter, the assumption that that guilt automatically rules him out from ever working with children seems to me obviously wrong. One drunk driving offence, an act which can negligently take the lives of others, surely a more serious wrong should it occur than looking at child pornography, does not prevent someone from ever using a car or drinking again. As a punishment for the offence, being barred from any employment which involved children seems to me disproportionate, because it denies the possibility of reform. To deny the possibility of reform is to deny the possibility of agency, of control over the direction of a life, and, close as much of the coverage of such cases does come to doing that, surely if paedophiles did totally lack agency, we would treat them quite differently, as one would treat dangerous animals or the criminally insane. Of course, it would incredibly careless not to make assessments of whether or not reform has occured, but since, one hopes, qualified professionals have judged that this man was neither criminally insane or a dangerous animal and did not pose a risk to his charges, maybe we should extend some trust to them and to him.

Postscript: Shuggy further demonstrates his clear and well-argued views on this matter here, and Aaronvitch Watch has two related pieces here and here.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Hubris

So Charles Kennedy has finally gone. It was clearly inevitable, I suppose, even before he announced that he'd been seeking treatment for drinking problems, although, as I've already said, the death by a thousand cuts of the palace coup against him was distinctly unedifying. What I think is rather more interesting is the quite probably false assumptions on which that coup was launched. Quite apart from the fact that none of the other significant figures in the Lib Dems have much to match the affable charisma of Kennedy, it seems to me that those who orchestrated the coup have profoundly underestimated the scale of the task facing them if they want to turn the proceeds of tactical and protest voting against the other two parties into a permanent and effective national political force, one which has the chance of holding the balance in Parliament.

First past the post electoral systems have a notedly centripetal effect, because they reward the ability to assemble winning coalitions across as many seats as possible, which of course reinforces itself because voters and parties are fully aware that it is difficult to win without holding the centre ground. Centrist parties do not do well in that kind of environment, simply because, in the absence of issues which are able to genuinely split the electorate along more than one axis - religious or national affiliations, usually - no party of the right or the left can afford to vacate the political centre for very long, and such parties will usually have larger hinterlands away from the centre, making them more capable of gaining power anyway. They can only flourish on a national scale in periods where, for some reason, one of the other two parties - and it is almost always two - falters, and they generally only ever make permanent any gains from such periods in the event that the faltering of others exposes a serious institutional weakness. This is because they always risk being outflanked on both fronts, unlike their right- or left-wing counterparts, making their policy positions and so support often of necessity unstable. It tends to be only in the event that one of the parties of the left or the right collapses, and in doing so sheds some significant part of its institutionalised support, or the electorate changes so that some part of it previously uncolonised by either left or right opens up, that third parties are able to achieve some degree of permanence on the national political scene.

These are only generalisations, and there are doubtless exceptions to them, but since the Second World War the British electoral system has been relatively stable, to no small degree because of the way in which it has been governed by them. Think of the changes which were necessary for the Labour Party to overturn the set of alignments which had more or less governed since the end of Palmerston in the mid to late nineteenth century: Taff Vale and the escalation and institutionalisation in trades unions of what could reasonably be called class conflict; the self-immolation of the Liberals under the pressure of the First World War and Lloyd George's ego; and the coming of manhood suffrage. I think it's plausible to say that without any of these developments, none of which were the doing of the Party itself, the Labour Party's history would be extremely different. Even with the help of the creation of a constituency, the self-destruction of the party which occupied much of the political space which it was sensible for Labour to stand in, and the enfranchisement of the un- or semi-skilled working class, in an overwhelmingly working class society it took a political generation, and another World War, for Labour to form a majority government.

Social and political changes of this kind of moment do not strike as occuring at the moment in Britain. The War on Terror is just not on anything like the scale of either of the World Wars, and Labour, rather than the Lib Dems, have benefited from the Tory loss of the middle ground after their assassination of Thatcher and apparent loss of economic competence, if that was comparable to Lloyd George's machinations against Asquith anyway. The Lib Dems are looking to exploit an opportunity which doesn't exist, and have rid themselves of two of their most valued political assets in doing so, a much-liked, if perhaps insufficiently ruthless, leader, and a reputation for fair play, all on the back of failures by the other two parties which could, and I suspect will, be relatively easily remedied. I think there's a Greek word for that.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

The Heart of Darkness

The Lancet tells us that not only is the incredibly nasty and brutal war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo the largest war in terms of casualities since World War Two, with the total currently running at somewhere around four million, but it's killing around 38,000 a month, about two-thirds through preventible illness and malnutrition. There's a temptation to just throw your hands up in the face of data like that, aggravated by the fact that it is being fought in what looks like it's an irreparably failed post-Colonial state, so easy to write off as the product of a primitive, inexplicable and somewhat sui generis African mentality. That temptation should be resisted. Whilst the DR Congo has undoubtedly been and perhaps still is a failed state, Cold War complicity in the venal and brutal Mobuto regime as well as the willingness of various mining concerns to continue that cooperation and support with various equally, if not more, disgusting local and national warlords must mean that, quite apart from the simple concern for fellow humans' suffering, the West - another convenient generalisation, of course - must be some of the responsibility and burden for the war and its effects since it help created and sustain the situation in which it began and could continue. Very few conflicts in the post-Colonial world are the products of solely of local conditions and decisions: the economies and societies of these states, as in the rest of the world, are significantly integrated into a global economy and have social and cultural relationships with the former metropolis and other more developed states. That integration and those relationships structure these societies and their direction of evolution just as they structure and direct the evolution of others, and insofar as the West has a greater degree of control over the terms on which that integration and those relationships take place on, and has not done so, it bears some of the responsibility for what has happened in those states. The myth of the Heart of Darkness - which I understand may misjudge the novel it takes its name from - can obscure that fact by presenting post-Colonial states as insulated, otherworldly, somehow in the grip of motives inexplicable to the more advanced, civilised world, out of touch.

Friday, January 06, 2006

How Not To Get Rid Of Your Leader

Whatever else you might think of the gradually escalating crisis in Charles Kennedy's leadership of the Lib Dems - and I have some sympathy both with the views of Nosemonkey and Andrew Bartlett here - it's not been an edifying sight. It's made the parliamentary party, from which the vast majority of the complaints have come, look both petty, cowardly and ineffective: they've focussed on a personal problem, rather than a policy difference, lacked the courage to admit to their desire to remove their leader, and then taken months and months to do so. Perhaps Kennedy's drinking was crippling his ability to take the party beyond a somewhat fortuitious accumulation of protest votes, both against Labour and the Tories, but the fact remains that the Lib Dems had their best ever general election results, and the best results for the third party since Lloyd George was a major political player. I don't know, and I doubt anyone else really does either, especially considering the relative lack of genuine political talent in the party.

The problem for the Lib Dems is, I would guess, that unlike both the Tories and Labour, they haven't yet reached the critical mass where they could cock something up utterly and yet avoid obliteration as a national political force, so they constantly have to exist on their wits, terrified that the next mistake will not only scupper them temporarily, but just let them slip quietly back into the obscurity of the fifties, sixties and seventies. That would explain both the increasingly strident behaviour of the Orange Book (neo-)Liberals in terms of policy, and the desperation with which they've tried to get rid of Kennedy, since both are motivated by a frantic desire to ensure that the surely partly temporary gains of the past ten years or so are solidified, either by a commitment to a clear ideological programme or by recruiting a leader slightly more statesman-like. Still, desperation's never pretty, and this hasn't been. I suspect it'll turn out to have been a bad idea.

The Albania Bridge Project

Albania, as most people probably know, is a small country, on the east coast of the Adriatic, about level with the boot-heel of Italy. It's dirt-poor, at least by the standards of Europe, having suffered first under a seemingly wilfully paranoid and xenophobic communist dictatorship during the Cold War, and through an often violent and destructive transition process after the fall of the Berlin Wall. First, as the communist regime gradually tettered towards collapse in 1990 and 1991, vandalism, theft and destruction of state property ballooned in what seems to have been an atmosphere of uncertainty and a degree of licentiousness, often destroying what little infrastructure there was, and second, a financial scandal, involving pyramid schemes, led to heavily-armed chaos, widespread violence and eventual collapse of the government in 1997. The privatisation of the large state-owned collective farms was also bungled, leaving ownership unclear, displacing large numbers of people, sending agricultural production into total free-fall and creating too many small and often uneconomic plots. Corruption and crime are serious problems, with a resurgent culture of blood feuds in the often clan-based society of the north in particular only recently coming under control and smuggling into Italy apparently as endemic as the practice of having relatives working illegally there.

The lack of adequate infrastructure within the country is a recurrent problem. It is quite mountainous, as indeed much of the Balkans is, and the quality of the roads is generally poor, whilst running water is often a dream outside of the cities and electricity erratic even within them. Having to spend several hours a day collecting drinking water, or gathering firewood, quite apart from being a fairly miserable thing to do in any conditions, let alone blazing heat or driving snow, is an obstacle to economic development: it uses up valuable time and energy, making it a drain on other, more productive, activities. Equally, a poor road network, which is vulnerable to the weather, can not only prevent individual attempts to get goods to market, but, by creating uncertainty, undermine the possibility of building stable and long-term relationships with possible customers. It can also, on occasion, cut people off from their land. Yet even the relatively small-scale infrastructural projects which would alleviate these conditions are often beyond the means of many Albanians: they don't always have the access to credit, the skills, or the materials. Likewise, the Albanian state, even when operating at its best, which it has not always done consitently, has extremely limited resources and a huge number of competing priorities in a society which has come close to something like total collapse twice in the past fifteen years.

My partner - sometimes also known as the other half - was in Albania in early September last year with Oxfam. Oxfam operates a programme where they send volunteers to go and visit some of their projects, paying their expenses and so on, in return for doing publicity work, on the basis of what they have seen, when they come back. Whilst she was there, she visited an Oxfam project in a village of around a thousand people, Ure e Shtrentje, in the north of the country which is divided by a gorge. The gorge used to have a relatively sturdy stone bridge over it, but this was washed away in an unusually high spring flood, and since then, an improvised structure involving, basically, a plank, has served as the only means of easily getting across the gorge. The project which Oxfam is running is a beehive cooperative, but the lack of an adequate crossing over the gorge cuts much of the village off not only from the beehives, but the road to Shkodra, the local commercial centre and nearest hospital, where ideally the honey would be sold, as well as the school and the other part of the village.

Obviously, sometimes the plank is enough, but when the weather gets poor, or the river is in flood, the impassability of the gorge adds several hours to the work-day and makes gaining a foothold in the market, thus leaving subsistence farming behind, difficult for the inhabitants. It also cuts them off from modern medical treatment, not only in the form of the hospital in Shkodra, but also the village nurse, who is on the other side of the gorge. The inhabitants could leave the village, but the flight from the land and from Albania itself has been one of the serious social problems which has afflicted the country since the fall of communism, associated with the rise of criminality, dependence on food aid, and the growth of slums around the capital Tirana. Ensuring that there is the genuine possibility of a decent life in rural Albania is an important part of creating a stable and prosperous future for the country as a whole, while providing Ure e Shtrentje with a proper, weather-proof bridge would be a small but helpful step towards that. The labour can be provided by the villagers themselves, but the materials need to be bought, at the cost of around £9000, which my partner is trying to raise, although once it has been raised, the project will be passed back over to Oxfam.

I am therefore soliciting for donations. There's a paypal button in the sidebar, and as soon as the website for the project is up and running, I'll link to that, where more details about the bridge and so on will be available. I'm also considering doing sponsored blogging, on more or less anything within reason. Anyone interested in that, contact me at robjubbATgmailDOTcom, and we can discuss the relevant details. Otherwise, please give generously using the paypal button.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Briefly...

Chris Brooke has immense fun with Anthony Browne's allegations of a wave of political correctness swamping traditional British common sense and straight speaking. The kind of traditional British common sense and straight speaking that Enoch Powell represents, presumably. Andrew Bartlett is exactly right on this: tirades against political correctness, which treat it as if it were enforced by some heavily-armed and secretive unit of the Commission for Racial Equality, with torture chambers under Millbank, seek to hide reactionary political goals in the rhetoric of liberal equality, and should be given all the respect which dissimulation in the cause of a fairly uniformly unpleasant ideology generally is.

On the subject of political correctness, Lenin has a piece on exactly the kind of thing which shows that considerable work on attitudes towards those of different skin pigmentation or religious practices is required.

Finally, whilst it's unlikely that the power vacuum created by Sharon's surely inevitable withdrawal from active politics will do the somewhat stagnating peace process any good, I'm waiting eagerly for the next time that the imminent disappearance of an ex-terrorist and sometime war criminal, who appears to have tried to deliberately provoke a bloody ethnic conflict for their own political ends, be greeted with apparent sadness across the western world.