Friday, March 31, 2006

Link Dump

Some people have been getting excited about Frank Ellis, the quite obviously foaming-at-the-mouth racist who got sacked by Leeds University for saying various foaming-at-the-mouth racist things, on the grounds of suppression of his freedom of speech. As I said here, he broke the terms of his employment contract, and so of course the university were entitled to sack him. Beyond that, I just wanted to say, there's a degree of irony in a lecturer in Russian and Slavonic studies attempting to resurrect the category of the untermenschen.

The Virtua Stoa has had up, for a while now, a set of questions Chris thinks might be interesting in light of Madeleine Bunting's much-commented on confusion about exactly what the Enlightenment is. They are interesting questions, but I think they actually miss the point somewhat, because they, like Bunting, don't distinguish fully between the Enlightenment, series of historical events, and the Enlightenment, touchstone of a particular set of values. By analogy, think about liberalism. When someone says, I am a liberal, we don't feel compelled to interrogate their agreement or otherwise with the pronouncements and projects of every major liberal thinker or movement in the canon, because they are referring to a set of ideas which have come to be called liberal, which might not necessarily have perfect correlation with every set of ideas which has ever been called liberal. Likewise, when someone says, I believe in the Enlightenment, it's not clear that they have to be in perfect agreement, were that even possible, with some original conception, were it to exist, of what the Enlightenment was. Which is not to say that asking what the Enlightenment was isn't interesting, or useful.

More briefly, Stumbling and Mumbling asks whether education is worth it, Indymedia claims the BBC is misrepresenting public views, Jonathan Wolff writes very sensibly about animal testing in the Grauniad, it would appear that the Herceptin story is being manipulated by drug companies, and apparently US Supreme Court Justices feel it's OK to tell reporters to 'go f*ck themselves', so long as it's in Italian.

Equality and Responsibility

Rochenko writes here about responsibility in the context of what in the trade gets called intergenerational justice, something I've written about before. What's interesting about it, understandably, is the issues it raises for establishing a criterion for responsibility and hence political obligation, particularly in terms of, to use another piece of perhaps deliberately obscurantist jargon, cosmopolitan justice. If, as I think most people do, you accept that people living now have obligations of some sort to future generations, as Rochenko suggests, you're probably going to have justify that on some kind of effects-based criterion. Because we do things now - where, of course, abstention from action can count as an act - which we are well aware will have effects in the future - make decisions about the use of various finite natural resources, the pursuit of various infrastructure projects, and so on - we have an obligation to take into consideration those effects. That's not to say that those effects necessarily ought to determine our decisions: there may be other considerations, equally or even more compelling. Still, they ought to be taken into account.

Once that criterion is admitted in the context of intergenerational justice though, it's hard to see why it shouldn't also be admitted in the context of cosmopolitan justice as well. Cosmopolitans, in this context, are those who think that our obligations of justice extend beyond our borders, that, for example, aid to the developing world is a moral obligation. Since our actions, again, including the act of doing something else, effect those outside our national borders, we have an obligation to take into consideration those effects. It also suggests something else about the nature of obligation though, that it is bounded by some kind of effects criterion. Whilst it is easy to see why Sub-Saharan Africans who suffer as a result of First World farm supports might have a just complaint against those farm supports, it is much harder, for example, to see why any putative intelligent lifeforms in serious distress on Mars might have a complaint against our failure to assist them, precisely because we cannot: we do not have any effect on the Martians.

Subscribing to the view that we do not have an obligation to assist such Martians, however, undermines a fairly common understanding of justice, that justice is a matter of equality, in some form or other. The Martians are, ex hypothesi, worse off, let us assume through no fault of their own - apart from anything else, they didn't choose to be born on Mars - so if we thought justice was a matter of equality, we would seem to have a justice-based obligation to make attempts to equalise our situation and that of the Martians. The effects-based criterion, whilst not excluding the possibility that justice is a matter of equality as well as of effect since it does not deny that we have an obligation to the Martians, by seeming to account for normal cases of justice - both inside and outside modern nation states - casts doubt on whether we need to take on the extra claim that justice is intimately involved in achieving equality, of whatever sort.

Of course, equality may remain a perfectly respectable political goal for instrumental reasons. Equal effects should, presumably, mandate equal consideration, for example, and so equal political rights, and freedom before the law and from material wants, goals which have been justified under a banner of equality, would mostly be untroubled. Giving up on equality as an intrinsic value, a thing which can somehow be embedded in states of affairs, however, would I think be to the advantage of the left. Most obviously, it would eliminate the levelling-down objection, that an egalitarian must prefer, in some respect at least, a situation where all have less to one with inequalities, a position which can lead, for example, to the endorsement, in some limited sense, of programmes of blinding so as to remove the unequal distribution of sight. Adopting the effects criterion would also make explicit the link between the programme of the left and freedom, by cashing out intervention in terms of mielorating the effects of actions of others over which we would otherwise have no control.


Blood and Treasure points out, here, that there are certain similarities of both style and substance between Blair, Berlusconi and Thaksin Shinawatra, the currently somewhat threatened Prime Minister of Thailand, which might be crudely summed up as populist neoliberalism. I tried to draw attention to my ex-supervisor's attempt to characterise New Labour as a bunch of One Nation Tories, which would give them certain ideologically similarities to an inegalitarian and hollowed-out populism, in response to Chris Brooke's exploration of the commonalities of New Labour and Petainism a while ago, so I feel I was ahead of the blogospheric wave here.

What's more interesting, in a way, is not the position that these parties have come to occupy, and the various trends in their membership and structure associated with that (re)position(ing), but rather the underlying social trends which provide the explanatory background against which these events occurred. I'm sure something needs to be said about falling party political identification, a trend identifiable since at least the seventies I think, but that then calls for a further explanation. The next gesture, I think, ought to be in the direction of a fragmenting and increasingly sophisticated class system, but that's not really conclusive, and also, even if it were, would not necessarily be particularly explanatory of itself, since a further explanation of the processes which caused that fragmentation would also seem to be required.

One of the reasons that it'd be interesting to understand the processes by which this kind of hollowed-out populism comes into being is that it would have some bearing on discussions about which, if any, conditions are pre-requisites of stable democracy, which is currently of not merely academic relevance. This is because one relatively popular theory of what it takes for a state to achieve democratic stability - by which I mean, non-collapse into either authoritarianism, serious and endemic political violence, or some other form of obvious and serious state failure, over a sustained period of time - claims that the basic precondition is that the state is made up of a society with one major, politically determining, cleavage - say a simple class system - with parties that reflect that cleavage. Britain after the Second World War is an excellent example of such a state, since although voting wasn't wholly along class lines - there was always a substanial working class Tory vote, for example - the political parties were, to all intents and purposes, class parties.

However, Britain now does not look like that, significantly because the heavily unionised manual working class which formed the bedrock of the support of the Labour Party is largely gone, Thatcher's crippling blow in the long winter of 1984 having been the end of a decline-induced series of public shows of strength. There is now not obviously any single class that identifies itself as such that a political party could hope to unite behind it to form the basis of a successful electoral coalition, which is, I would suggest, the underlying causal explanation for this phenomena of falling party membership and hence hollowed-out political ideologies. Whether this applies at all to the other two cases mentioned in the original article, I'm not sure. I don't know anything about the political sociology of Thailand at all, but it doesn't seem totally bizarre to think that the reshaping of Italian politics in the late eighties and early nineties which culminated in Tangentopoli and Mani Puliti could perhaps have represented the same sort of break with the post-war order that the winter of discontent and the triumph of Thatcherism did in Britain.

Still in Britain, the rise of populist neoliberalism seems to be associated with the end of (comparatively) simple class politics. Shuggy, commenting on criticisms of the indecisiveness of Israeli electoral system, argues that whilst the British system works well in a state with only one major political cleavage, it might not in states with series of cleavages which cut across each other, and says that "[t]he [electoral] system you should have... depends on what you want it to do". To take that as an injunction against all forms of 'voting system fundamentalism', of course, requires thinking that there are no or at least fairly minimal requirements for a voting system to fulfill, but equally, to reject it on grounds of 'voting system fundamentalism' would be to deny that there are political goods other than those directly related to electoral systems, both of which seem implausible. Perhaps then, despite its effects on those other political goods, the hollowing-out of British political parties and diffusion of class conflict has brought about something of a happy realignment elsewhere: no longer do we have to rely on political cranks to supply a conclusive moral argument for PR, as it now looks like it's actually what the country might need to give adequate representation to its increasingly sophisticated and cross-cutting political cleavages.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

I Am A Ball Of Matter And Infinite Gravity

From (pdf) one apparently in the know:

Linguists are like vacuum cleaners. Philosophers are rather like blackholes. Philosophers react to every theory by constructing arguments against it. Linguists react to every theory by taking it in and using it to explain some of their millions of examples.

Originally spotted by Rachele.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Chris Rea and Tony Blair, Munich and Pre-Emptive War, and Some Other Stuff

Not that I hate all MOR, or indeed everything about New Labour, but there is, as Backword Dave points out here, something quite appropriate about a major New Labour figure having been responsible for a load of MOR-ish tripe in the 1980s. The pandering, the refusal to see beyond existing preferences, the acceptance and even moralising of the status quo, of the all too common sense, the sense of the blindly satisfied or gratuituously aggreived: these don't just seem to be superficial similarities but approach the status of deep conceptual linkages. Once the history of popular music, initially in part a revolt against all these things, is added to the somewhat self-fulfilling myth of the Labour Party as a moral crusade, a pleasingly romantic, if doubtlessly misleading, narrative of corrupted ideals could perhaps even be constructed. That would probably be taking felicitious serendipities a little far though. However appealing the idea that the same kind of causal explanation be applied across the board might be, that more or less exactly the same kind of thing keeps happening over and over again, it doesn't really do justice to the complexity of the world.

Thinking of the idea that the same thing keeps happening, that despite having been warned, we do fail to learn the lessons of history and are consequently doomed to repeat them, I feel that not enough has been said about the reasonably common trope, repeated here, of equating resistance to neo-conservative demands for pre-emptive action against their enemy of the moment to Chamberlain's capitulation at Munich, or indeed the appeasement of the later thirties more generally. The point of this rhetorical move is to damn anyone who opposed the war in Iraq, or generally has quibbles about a doctrine of pre-emptive war, as morally equivalent to the Guilty Men. Since it has become a piece of conventional wisdom - which I won't question - that appeasement was wrong, it's fairly effective. Unfortunately, it's pretty much bullsh*t.

This is because, for very good two reasons, the analogy doesn't work. The first is that Chamberlain broke treaty obligations to Czechoslovakia at Munich, just as the Anschluss and the remilitarisation of the Rhineland were forbidden under Versailles, so there was a perfectly good case under the conventional just war theory neo-conservatives seek to overturn against appeasement. The second is that at least in the case of Munich, a war at the time would have been better than the war which was later launched: Czechoslovakia would have had Soviet support, probably could have defended itself, and in giving up the Skoda arms factories, contributed significantly to the German war machine, none of which was true of Poland. It remains to be shown that there were no better wars to be fought than the invasion of Iraq. Of course, opposing the second of these reasons effectively argues appeasement was the right course of action, that in this case a war delayed was the best outcome, since it denies that, consequentially, going to war over the Sudetenland was better than going to war over Poland.

This may seem like an odd thing to get exercised about, and in some ways it is. However, it's one of those things that gets repeated enough that it, like the judgement of appeasement, becomes a form of conventional wisdom and unquestionable. For example, there was an article in a recent edition of Philosophy and Public Affairs, one of the most prominent journals in Anglo-American political philosophy, repeated without questioning the claim that a war at Munich would have been pre-emptive, which is simply historically inaccurate. Particularly when the falsehood is obviously morally and emotionally manipulative, it seems to me best to attempt to squash these things as early as possible.

In other news, I am too lazy to attempt decent inter-item links, Daniel Davies' pieces at Comment is Free have been excellent, Matthew Yglesias confesses to something I think is either a lot less or a lot more absurd than he does and William Gibson rates V for Vendetta.

Updated for various stylistic infelicities on 30/03/06.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Attempts At Rehabilitation

There's been bits and pieces of commentary on this quite repulsive speech floating around for a while, I think, but I hadn't actually bothered to read it until coming across this at Bartlett's Bizarre Bazaar, whose claim that the author is engaged in an attempt to rehabilitate virulent, bloody and totalitarian racism is fairly accurate. The tropes, most obviously that of the stab in the back by deviant intellectuals back home and generalised smearing of modernity as treacherous, but also the generalisation from individual radicalised Muslims to all those from majority Muslim countries, are all present. The irony, therefore, of it explicitly evoking Nazism as the parallel for the civilisational threat Muslims now present, is rather pleasant, if undermined by its general hatefulness.

Continuing my own, rather more justified, projects of political rehabilitation, Crooked Timber has a link to some correspondence (the link is currently down, presumably because of the traffic it's getting) between Phillipe van Parijs and John Rawls on 'The Law of Peoples', which is not only interesting for those concerned with Rawls' views on global justice, but also has, as mentioned in the post, an indication of Rawls' obviously deeply-felt anti-capitalist sentiment.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Vesuvio Siamo Con Te

There is an Italian word which I am expressly forbidden from using within earshot of Rachele, even in jest. It is the derogratory term which Northern Italians, and in particular Northern separatists, use to refer to Southern Italians, and has various connotations of backwardness. Rachele quite happily describes the use of that word as racist, despite the fact that no-one could, by looking at skin pigmentation or other physical features, reliably distinguish Northern and Southern Italians. There is undoubtedly quite extensive prejudice towards Southerners amongst Northerners in Italy: car number plates, which identify where the number plate was issued, are apparently often changed by Southerners who move to the North because otherwise they risk having their car vandalised, and, even for football fans, the practice of urging on the volcano, which could kill tens of thousands, across the bay from Naples often seen amongst the followers of Northern visiting sides is particularly unpleasant. Southerners, it does have to be said, do reciprocate to some degree: they seem to regard Northerners, who are culturally less Mediterrenean, as not quite authentically Italian, and have a number of recurrent jokes, revolving around either their polenta eating or the fog in the Po Valley. So far as I am aware though, Naples fans don't go to Florence and habitually call for the Arno to flood the centre of the city again.

Having read Peter Bradshaw's review, I rather suspected that Crash (some spoilers) would be part of a sub-genre of apparently socially conscious films much of whose purpose seems to be the rehabilitation of prejudice under the guise of hard-eyed realism: a kind of replacement of alleged liberal pieties about all just getting along with a set of older claims, rather less holy, if no less sacrosanct to the true believers, about human nature. It's acually a bit better than that, if far from perfect: I think it sees itself as documenting the misunderstandings, the disconnects, that racial prejudice creates, rather than trying to vindicate one group rather than another, even if that even-handedness can look rather like a sin of omission at times. Don Cheadle's opening monologue, claiming that Angelinos, unable to bring themselves into contact with each other more gently, seek open confrontation with each other, certainly indicates that. Ironically, though, I think it itself suffers from a kind of disconnectedness: the encounters of the characters, who seem rather hollow and under-imagined, are too coincidental, didactic and melodramatic to seem naturalistic. Because the characters aren't fully fleshed out, their meetings too obviously manipulated, a sense of ahistoricality, of a lack of context, lingers over the whole film. In a piece which quite clearly trades on its ability to appear to be an accurate depiction of how life in LA actually is, that is damaging in a way it wouldn't be for a more metaphorically minded work.

Whether or not it deserved an Oscar is something I, having not seen any of the other nominations for best picture, am fairly unqualified to judge, although it was by no means the best new film I've seen over the past year- upping my pretentious arts student quotient a good few notches, The Beat My Heart Skipped wiped the floor with it, for example, and The Consequences of Love was equally, though quite differently, wonderful. The technical deficiency, the failure to fully connect the various intertwined narratives, though, does at times lead it to stray into territory which seems to seek to vindicate racial prejudice. Other than in one case, because of the ahistoricality of the characters, it never becomes clear why they hold the various prejudices they do, and so there is no discrimination amongst possible processes of belief formation. More damning is that the one case in which racism is explained is that of the white racist policeman, who, it turns out, resents affirmative action having put his father out of business. For all the pleasures of teasing at the scabs of liberal guilt, that is surely hardly the one to choose to pick clean off in a film mostly about the effects of racism. The way in which political compromises, in the morally damning sense, are entered into for the sake of black voters and not for any other groups also seems rather suspicious to me, and there is certainly something morally dubious about the implied comparison between the differential effects of Ryan Phillipe's unconscious prejudice and Matt Dillon's open racism.

Still, the deeper critique of Crash's disembeddedness, though, is its melodrama. Most cases of driving whilst black don't lead to sexual assault, and then later having to be talked down from shooting policemen or having to be hauled from a burning car by precisely the person who abused you. This is where the Southern Italian experience comes in, I think. Racial prejudice isn't generally as openly violent, openly discriminatory, as Crash implies it is: the mutual misunderstandings which leads to Ryan Phillipe shooting a black hitchhiker seem, to me at least, simply implausible, so transparently obvious, that no-one would fall victim to them. That is not to say it is less dangerous. In a way, it is more dangerous, because more difficult to unmask: the little obstacles, the extra increments of trust that have to gained, of suspicion that has to be allayed, can be difficult to recognise because they are not as openly brutal. That understanding of racism is also, in a way a much more comfortable thing for conventional liberals to deal with, because, for all the implication of Ryan Phillipe's killing, racism as depicted in Crash is not something whose temptations they fall victim to. That open exploitation and use of violence is abjured from, unacceptable precisely because of those features. But direct physical or sexual violence are not the marks of racism: an attitude which regards people of less worth simply because of some racial or cultural category they belong in is, roughly, the mark of racism. I'm not sure whether Northern Italian attitudes towards Southerners are racist, but whatever designator is properly applied to them, it strikes me that the difference from it and racism is probably a difference in degree, not in kind.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Sunday Evening Linking, Serious And Not So Serious

The less serious. First, lots of free Computer Games! For the times when The Phenomenology of Spirit just has nothing more to offer, obviously. Second, an amusing advert for condoms. Both via Rachele, the other half.

Now, more seriously. As long-term readers may remember - especially those who were kind and generous enough to give, presumably - Rachele has been trying to raise money to build a bridge in a remote village in northern Albania. The website is here, I wrote about it here, and there is now a Pledgebank pledge. Think of it as thanks for the links.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Grinding Axes

Milan recently complained about the role of theory in IR, a greivance which I have some sympathy with. Realism, with its black-box states and stubborn refusal to admit the motivations of actors into its explanatory framework, can seem rather divorced from the rather complex series of concrete historical events which any problem in IR is made up of. Even more so when lots of realist literature can seem like a rather transparent apologia for hyperpower realpolitik - the 'we had to destroy this village so as to avoid destroying all those other villages' logic of inexorable arms buildup and extension of threat. As an undergraduate, I became increasingly convinced that almost all of IR would be better done by historians, more comfortable with contingency and open systems and so much less vulnerable to the temptations of grand theorising, than the political scientists, strangely enamoured of Hobbes, who had created and colonised the discipline.

Indeed, the only decent thing I remember reading in the theory of IR was Hollis and Smith's 'Explaining and Understanding International Relations', which ends up more or less throwing its hands up at the prospect of thorough-going explanatory theory in International Relations, and by extension, Social Sciences more generally. The substanial part of Milan's complaint, though, is not the theoretical poverty of theory, which is what Hollis and Smith deal with, but its lack of practical engagement, its obsession with the theoretical poverty of other theory, and apparent utter disinterest in the empirics of the matters in hand. He sums up his complaints by saying

[T]heory is a matter of self-definition. It's about finding a framework that lets you do what you want to do, protected by walls of academic and intellectual respectability.

Malcolm Bull recently wrote a piece in the LRB on genocide. In it, he claimed that Rawls' 'Law of Peoples' could be used to justify, where committed by genuinely well-intentioned liberal 'crusader' states, genocide. I haven't read 'Law of Peoples', and it has been criticised for having an insufficiently cosmopolitan view of the scope of justice, but I would be very much surprised if Rawls, perhaps the pre-eminent English language follower of Kant in his generation, would have acquiesed in genocide. Rawls' theory is unquestionably a liberal individualistic one, and the idea that it would have condoned the sacrifice of the lives of some to bring benefits of noticeably lesser kind to others runs counter in about every way possible to that set of commitments.

Bull ends his piece with a snide side-swipe at liberal egalitarianism, implying that egalitarianism is at the root of all genocide with a series of examples that merely prove that, given enough imagination, you can impute anything you like to something you disapprove of sufficiently, and arguing that the contractarian liberal framework of rights and duties should be given up as unavoidably imbricated in exchange value, clearly convinced this net draws in all liberals. Without getting excessively theoretical, contractarianism is, in fact, a quite restricted part of the field liberalism, explicitly rejected by the liberal egalitarian par excellence Rawls when he said 'to each according to his threat advantage is not a principle of justice', because contractarianism relies on mutually beneficial exchange under conditions of uncertainty, thus permitting the judicious use of threats. Rawls, and most of his followers, are contractualists, in the tradition of Locke rather than Hobbes, with explicitly moralised conceptions of the social contract which exclude the bare marketisation of rights and duties Bull deplores.

So. Hardly earth-shattering news that critiques can sometimes misrepresent their targets. Sometimes it is intentional, and sometimes the result of genuine mistake. Even intentional misrepresentation might not be as much of a departure from the norms of reasonable argumentation as would appear immediately: pushing a thought to its logical extremes, or attempting to demonstrate the consequences of doing so, may well involve imputing to a disputant views they do not actually hold. Further, disputants may not realise the implications of all the views that they do hold. Rawls, for example, I think does allow for, in highly restricted circumstances, and after the exhaustion of other options, military intervention. On Bull's definition of genocide, such interventions could lead to genocide, and so, under very limited conditions, Rawls supports genocide. Bull enjoys the uncomfortableness of that conclusion - yet again, the liberal is damned by their own rhetoric of univeralism and human rights - and it is uncomfortable, because of the moral weight unavoidably attached the idea that anyone supports genocide. However, because of the way in which Bull uses genocide, which means that anyone who is not a pacifist could at times support genocide, it is hardly very informative. Still, it is a conclusion.

More worrying in a way is the characterisation of liberalism. A while ago, Ben posted a philosophical in-joke where two interlocutors mischaracterise each other's positions in attempt to discredit them. Imagine there is an issue, on which opinions can be scaled, left to right, from 1 to 20. First one of the two, let's call them A, characterises their view as 13, then the other, let's call them B, responds, characterising A's view 15, and offering 7 instead. A then accuses B of misrepresenting their view as 17, while critiquing B's view as if it were 5. The person who apparently told this joke, Gerry Cohen, runs a graduate course which I took whilst studying for my masters. At beginning of the course, he gives a spiel about how he thinks philosophy should be done. The bit I remember most vividly of the spiel is a caution against regarding any position as self-evident, as so obvious as not to require defence: despite all their endeavours, philosophers continue to display the capacity to disagree about more or less anything, and the chances are that, by now, any self-evident truths that were there to be exposed would have been.

The radical left has a general tendency to regard all liberals as bitter ideological opponents, who are automatically complicit in the manifestlyunjust bourgeois state through the provision of spurious justifications for the mechanisms through which it perpetrates its systematic abuses, primarily those of the market. It is as if, rather than going through the polite motions of gradual escalation, A started the debate by screaming '1! 1!' at B. More seriously, it also ignores Cohen's point about the absence of self-evident truths by assuming that liberals necessarily support, covertly or otherwise, the existing order. This is quite frustrating. I've argued before that Rawls, who is by no means the most radical of the liberal egalitarians of the past thirty or so years, was committed to regarding more or less every state in the world as fundamentally unjust, partly for reasons which more or less any Marxian would recognise.

To describe him as a centrist, as Perry Anderson does, is really quite misleading. After all, the normative distance between Nancy Fraser, whose most recent work on justice displays a marked respect for the traditionally liberal concern of state neutrality, and Rawls, whose claim about the social bases of self-respect being one of primary goods on which claims of justice are assessed leans towards accommodation of concerns of identity reproduction and imposition, is small. Fraser, though, is undoubtedly part of the radical left: she has published in the Anderson-edited New Left Review, for example. Susan Moller Okin's critique that Rawls ought not to have excluded the family from the basic structure of society, thus removing it from the scope of social justice, has been readily accepted. Anderson's treatment, again in 'Spectrum'. of Habermas, involving frankly bizarre confusions about the roles of facts and norms in Habermas' pragmatism, is if anything even stranger, given Habermas' clear Marxian heritage.

What makes Anderson's treatment even stranger is the way in which he seems perfectly happy, where the person involved has explicit Marxist commitments, to forgive what he clearly regards as enormous errors of judgement. His assessment of Hobsbawm, for example, is generally sympathetic despite seeing in Hobsbawm's work on twentieth century history and his political statements seriously skewed by an excessive and ideologically suspect commitment to the politics of the Popular Fronts of the thirties. In Anderson's judgement, this makes Hobsbawm an apologist for Stalinism, as well as the corruptions and evasions of the European centre-left, yet he ends his piece with this:

[t]he enormous patrimony Hobsbawm has left us should be approached in his own spirit, with warmth, passion, and acerbity.

This should be compared to the patronising dismissal at the end of the piece on Rawls:

[t]he needed sequel to his major work had another title - A Theory of Injustice.

The difference in tone hardly seems warranted, given the faults which Anderson claims each possesses. The tendency to stigmatise those with different methodological commitments does of course run both ways: Tom Nagel's insistence on an epistemology which leaves him with no resources to defend himself against any skepticism, for example, seems to be motivated wholly by the fear of lapsing into the alleged nihilism of Nietzsche and Foucault. However, a willingness to abandon the principle that one should approach an interlocutor's argument in good faith seems rather more widely spread on the radical left. John Pilger's attempts to set himself up the leader of a crusade of the marginalised and oppressed against monolithic American imperialism, ignoring the ways in which the system he decries has published and indeed given reasonable levels of prominence to his books and articles for forty-odd years, are perhaps typical of this attitude.

So, theory as ideology, in the vulgar Marxian sense. The reflexes of defence. Hardly very edifying. Not particularly surprising, either, maybe. Still, I wanted to express a sadness at it. It is, as the joke I mentioned earlier surely acknowledges, a giving-up on the Enlightenment belief in the amielorative, and possibly transcendental, effects of Reason. Perhaps that is not particularly surprising either. A pity, because when genuine engagement does occur, it tends to be fruitful, as the examples of Fraser and Moller Okin suggest. It is almost as if, behind the walls of theory, the position of trenchant critic, unafraid to speak the truth to power in all its guises, is rather difficult to give up, has attractions which lead to the insistence that it is a stance appropriate for all forms of critique. I wouldn't like to suggest such a thing. After all, we can all be guilty of it.

Postscript: Lenin here, involved in some internecine disagreement I don't pretend or particularly want to understand, epitomises this tendency. Whatever Zizek's crime is, he has become more liberal. What a marvellously capacious term, that it can encompass Slavoj Zizek and the Neo-Cons, right-Libertarians and John Rawls. One might almost think it retained some meaning.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Vindication, Bemusement and Housekeeping

A while ago, I perhaps unwisely called another blogger a 'snotty nosed little provincial oik', prompting him to launch into not only an extensive defence of the provinces but also the adoption of what I had taken as an insult as a badge of honour. But this morning, on the Today Programme, I heard trails for research which indicates what every Londoner knows in their hearts: that the provinces are in fact drab and petty wastelands, inhabited only by people not bright enough to either escape to the metropolis or see its obvious advantages. That said, I live in the provinces, which must make me either a masochist of enormous proportions, or so dimwitted as to have overcome inertia and left the only decent place in the country to live.

In other hand-waving attempts at blithe dismissal, Shuggy gets this Gary Younge article all wrong. I was actually going to link to it myself because I thought it was fairly sensible. Younge's main point seems to me to be that there is little admirable about being deliberately offensive to marginalised groups, especially when one is espousing what are widely held, really rather unjustified, and degrading, views, and further, that the fantasy that by doing so, you are an oppressed minority sticking it to The Man, is fairly transparently self-delusion. Shuggy, and his commenters for that matter, seem to read it as a personal attack. Because obviously the power exerted by the anti-war half of the Grauniad's commentariat crushes them daily beneath its jackboot, and Younge is a unashamed agent of islamofascist totalitarianism.

Finally, Jim Bliss has a new site here, and I've pruned the blogroll, removing a couple of defunct blogs, and adding a couple, including Jim's.

Monday, March 06, 2006

A Potent Brew

Pearsall's Books is, as I mentioned at the weekend, now sadly defunct. Quite apart from being my gateway drug to blogging, a perhaps dubious distinction, Pearsall wrote well and was consistently interesting. His selection of the best posts from the year or so of existence is here.

Continuing in the trend of passing on what has been inflicted on me by others, Henry Farrell has a piece (may soon be archived) which uses a discussion of China Mieville's New Crobuzon novels, which I heartily recommend, as a jumping-off point for the issuing of something of a manifesto for the writing of fantasy. Although I haven't read the review of 'Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell' that he uses to represent the "consolationist" camp, it strikes me that Clarke's novel is, in a quiet way, fairly politically radical itself: the wry distance of the narrator, gently satirising the absurdities of Georgian social heirarchies, the democratisation of magic that follows Strange and Norrell's disappearance, and even the magic itself - embedded in the land, an ancient, capricious master, a kind of counterpoint to the ironic amusement of the narrator.

Chuck Klosterman's "hilarious sociobiological explanation for Led Zeppelin", first mentioned by Ian Sansom in the latest LRB, then referenced by Chris Bertram, now exposed, via a commenter, here (if you scroll down a bit to the highlighted text). There's some truth to it, if exactly how it falls under the rubric sociobiological somewhat escapes me.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Che Palle...

Just in case anyone was inclined to forget whom exactly it is that Mr. Mills was helping to squirrel away his loot, or Tony chose to holiday with, Phil reminds us who former cruise ship crooner Silvio Berlusconi is relying upon to pass laws sanctifying, absolving and augmenting his various ill-gotten gains from decades of corruption. Let's think, corrupt business magnate in government with heirs of Mussolini, or magistrates who managed to smash, at no small risk to themselves, a cosy and incredibly lucrative alliance of political elites and organised crime which had systematically fleeced Italians for the previous forty years? It's apparently more difficult than you might think.

Snake Oil And Prudence

Briefly, when God is a British citizen, I'll feel that it is acceptable for British Prime Ministers to claim that they are accountable to Him. Until then, I am likely to see attempts to vindicate unpopular and morally questionable, to say the least, policies by reference to wholly private and almost certainly imaginary conversations, whoever sincere the profession of belief in the policy or the conversation, as an inappropriate use of the properly private in the cause of the regretably public. It is one of the things that I think a lot of people have always been rather uncomfortable about Blair with, his blurring of the line between personal and the public, the personalisation of his political struggles, the creation of the sense of ideological crusade by him and him alone. Backword Dave gets the unease right I think when he says that

if you're at all sincere in your religious beliefs, you don't flash them at everyone; you're confident about them, and, like your parents, they're just they're to fall back on. Blair uses his; Bush uses his. You don't have to be a genius to spot a phoney.

It is the privacy of the justification which makes the coincidence so suspicious, something which is only increased by the distance from a series of traditions, and so a public discourse of normativity, that Blair has marketed himself on the basis of. I think it is generally accepted that those at its head decided some time ago that the best way for the Labour Party to react to the decline of mass membership parties and of voter identification on the basis of class was to cleave to the respectable working class and lower middle class which were so successfully wooed by Thatcher's discourse of self-reliance and responsibility. Ross McKibbin summed up something like the conventional wisdom in 1999:

In its thinking New Labour is dependent primarily on one sociological premise: that the manual working class is no longer a reliable base for the Labour Party, simply because the working class has so declined in numbers and therefore in political potential. From this it follows that the predominant class, politically and numerically, is now the broad middle class and that electoral success can be achieved only if a political party has significant support within that class - which is what the Conservatives also believed. Mondeo man is thus the same as Essex man. Lurking nearby is a related premise: that each class has a particular ideological 'fit' and that what fitted the old working class (and thus Old Labour) does not fit the new middle class... Mondeo men and women do not like paying taxes, they are not very community-minded, they like the good life and 'freedom of choice'. They do not like trade unions. They admire businessmen. They are suspicious of the state, which is always thought to be on their backs. They might be induced to accept a more 'compassionate' social policy so long as it is introduced behind their backs.

McKibbin is skeptical of the sociological aspects of this rationale, and I am sure there are rather more sophisticated stories about the political sociology of contemporary Britain than the one which sees in the disappearance of one form of class-alignment the disappearance of all forms of electorally decisive class-alignment. Furthermore, of course, the rationale ignores the impact that the Labour movement has had on conceptualisations of class, an impact which has almost certainly been to its electoral advantage, while treating as a kind of sacred cow the socio-cultural currents made mainstream and politically decisive by Thatcherism.

These kinds of strategic decisions are not the subject, directly at least, of James Naughtie's 'The Rivals'. It is a journalist's political biography of the Blair-Brown relationship from their entries into Parliament up until about half way through the second term and thus, entirely unsurprisingly and not necessarily to its detriment, misses this kind of context for the politicking which it ably documents. The portraits it provides of Blair and Brown do offer insight into the individuals who shaped New Labour, presumably with the political marginalisation of the industrial working class, or at least its effects, providing them with the ends towards which the project was to be designed, though. Blair, Naughtie makes clear, has no political hinterland, no involvement in student, local or trades union politics, nothing like the immersion in a culture of political struggle which, whatever else one may think of Brown, his background certainly provides him with. There's nothing that mediates his engagement with the public: politics as the confessional, a peculiar kind of theatre where what is said matters only insofar as it allows the actor to force their self onto the audience, alternately bragging and pleading, desperate to extend their stay, to continue to bear a soul apparently constructed entirely around the principle of pandering.

Brown's not like that. He seems aware of the publicity, the mutuality, of political discourses, presents himself as part of a tradition even when he struggles against parts of it, rather than making appeals to necessarily internal and private emotions. While Blair uses the first-person singular when making an impassioned appeal, Brown seems happier with the first-person plural. There is a kind of often Scottish reserve, a recognition of the other people in the conversation and of the intrusions, the awkwardnesses, the things left unsaid, the ways in which exposure makes us all voyeurs. The private here undoubtedly flows into the political: the political becomes the parts of the private that are suitable for public consumption, the concerns that can be generalised, presented without toppling into denial of dignity through the demand for a sentimentalised empathy. Naughtie for example emphasises the way in which Brown's private life is consumed by politics, whereas Blair's, for all that his politics depend on revelation, seems bizarrely uninterested by politics in his private life, almost unaware of it. I find it difficult to believe, for example, that Brown would have ever taken up an offer of the use of Silvio Berlusconi's holiday home. He would have understood not only the ways in which it was an unjustified taking advantage of privilege but also a getting far too close to someone who has made the unjustified taking advantage of privilege an all-consuming mode of living. This is despite his somewhat reluctant defence of Jowell, whose husband is clearly a crook, if only by association with a man with a history of noteworthy political corruption stretching back decades in a country where it is a basic assumption that everyone has their head at the trough.

I don't want this to be a generalised defence of Brown. The timidness of the Blair governments on social and economic policy is to be laid at his door, and there is little reason, given the lack of even disguised dissent, to suppose that much of the War on Abstract Concepts would have been significantly differently waged by Brown. Still, I am more comfortable with Brown than Blair. I feel he is one of us, a sheep led astray, constrained by circumstance, not acting on a stage of his own choosing. Blair seems rootless, unplacable, lacking a compass for anything other than what will draw the most attention to himself - it is possible to image him as a Tory Prime Minister - whereas Brown is obviously a Scot, and obviously a member of the Labour Party. That constrains him in ways I both feel are politically beneficial and have a personal affinity with. That sense of having to constantly renegotiate a compromise, with the others you are in dialogue with, share some public spaces with, to decide, in a series of increments, how much and on what grounds you can afford to give up, the struggle to provide moral motivation for a modus vivendi, is something that members of the Labour Party have been familiar with for some time.

Gilded Splinters

Dr. John, whom Spiritualized recruited to add piano to the echoing, languorous rhythms of Cop Shoot Cop, is allegedly an ex-drug dealer and still has DEA buckshot embedded in his buttocks. This quasi-knowledge almost certainly adds substantively to my enjoyment of that track. There's a romance to it, a sense in which it grants an authenticity to the song's narrative of blissed-out resistance to The Man collapsing into chaos and then dragging itself back into comprehensibility, but also a kind of playfulness, a ridiculousness about the story, which dissolves its particularity, makes it universal because it lacks authenticity. It helps that not only does Dr. John have a long history of self-created myths and sly winks at subverted and subversive traditions, but Jason Pierce's lyrics have often had a knowing edge to them, an awareness of the jokes his various obsessions are playing on him and his complicity in them. The song, and indeed almost all of that album, seems to embrace myths that it simultaneously punctures, mocking their foolishnesses and transparent contingency as it celebrates them.

Gordon Brown for a while now has been talking about Britishness, trying to articulate a vaguely Whiggish story of reform and progress, a story which he then tries to link to and use to flesh out the activities of the current government and the promises of any government he would lead. The temptation is to see this as an attempt at a rhetorical move, and little more: it seeks to tie Little Englanders to a political party which has traditionally been seen as more internationalist in temperament, if not necessarily actions, and to a leader who is rather obviously Scottish at a time when the powers of Scottish MPs are likely to have their legitimacy questioned. This may be a little too quick. It is easy to disparage the claims of Britishness to any politically normative content, particularly when, as I suppose is the case with almost any nationality, it can tie those who fall under its rubric to some rather unpleasant historical episodes. Equally, it is not difficult to ridicule the idea that the British have some particular claim to liberty in virtue of a series of historical events which no Briton alive experienced which those from other states lack, have, despite the common humanity of them all, a lesser entitlement to.

The pragmatist's insight, as I've said before, is a kind of acknowledgement of the limits of reason. The pragmatist has come to see that there is no way to escape totally from the particularities, the corruptions and biases, of the subject and the semantic web in which they are entangled, and so understands that to regard that inability as a disqualification from epistemic warrant is to hold an impossibly high standard. Objectivity and subjectivity become matters of degree, not of absolutes, that they circle each other constantly, engaging in cross-fertilisations, rather than act as polar opposites, driven apart by quasi-magnetic repulsion: the opposition between them is to a significant degree collapsed. Because of the way that that particular dichotomy repeats itself across the conceptual universe, disguises itself as other, related, concepts, other, similar, dichotomies are similarly weakened. That between the universal and the particular, whose relationship to the objective and the subjective ought to be self-evident, is perhaps most relevant here. It becomes clear that the universal, at the extreme, is empty because by containing everything it picks out nothing, whilst the particular, at its greatest extent, becomes a fetishism of small differences, a reification of existing power differentials.

The point about the celebratory cynicism, the cheerful irony, of Ladies And Gentlemen is that it looks clear-eyedly at a myth and realises it cannot escape it, that its allure continues to exert force even when the sources of that allure are exposed. A pragmatist should well understand this. Early on in my career as a purveyor of quasi-philosophical musing on the interweb, I got involved in an exchange about nationality with the eponymous proprietor of the now sadly defunct Pearsall's Books. I think the substance of the disagreement probably turned on my refusal, as a matter of principle, to acquiesce in the reification of myths of self-creation. Rather than actually discuss what I saw as inevitably incomplete narratives of how certain groups of people came to be those groups of people, I wanted to stress the way in which not only sub-groups of those groups would emphasise particular aspects of their history but also the group itself, as it changed, would see its past differently. Such narratives do, after all, have normative force. They add provide an architecture of normativity which sits, in many cases uneasily, on top of or alongside other, what is in most cases a more foundational, sets of moral norms grounded not in the particularity of nationality but in the universalism of common humanity. The self-understanding that membership, whether mediated through conformity or opposition to the dominant norms in question, of a necessarily particularistic group provides is to some degree evaluative. More bluntly, there are times when 'this is the way we do things here' is a perfectly reasonable answer, as indeed a pragmatist, concerned with the practices of attribution we are embedded in, ought well to understand.

That is not to say that 'this is the way we do things here' is the end of the matter. Politics doesn't stop as the structure emerges from the ground, where the foundations end, and the spires, the ornament, begins, but rather flows through that distinction, circling around it, re-shaping it. That reflexivity, that mutual subversion is exactly the kind of thing that the sly nods and cautious embraces of Spiritualized and Dr. John are doing to the traditions that they have found themselves in. Democrats should be particularly concerned with the possibilities for that kind of reshaping, for democracy, if it is about anything, is surely about having the capacity to exercise control over the environment in which one lives, and that environment must surely include one's membership of various cultural groups. This is not to take a stand about the best place to locate the distinction between the political and the personal, and certainly not to take one about the best place for the distinction between the use of legal force and other forms of incentive. It may turn out that the normative resources which any concept of Britishness will offer are of no distinctively normative use in shaping a party-political project in contemporary Britain, that the temptation to see Gordon Brown's intervention as a purely strategic move is ultimately correct.

That is not to preclude the possibility, though, that they could be of some use in a party-political sense in some other context, and certainly not to preclude the wider claim that they could be of some use in a non-party political sense. Critical reflection on the lacunae that the myths of self-creation the British tell themselves, on the blind spots in the narrative, on the gaps that the normative resources do not somehow extend to, I think could well be of serious normative worth, not only in the sense that the thus reconstructured superstructure would better reflect the underlying claims of its normative base, but would itself be a more coherent, finer thing. This is despite the fact that it could well be the case that the superstructure itself could reflect back on the base, that the apparently more ephemeral demands that it makes might well be of moment for the seemingly solid bedrock of the universal claims grounded in discourses about our common humanity. We could yet be picking gilded splinters from our feet.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Missing The Point

I was given an IPod for Christmas a couple of years ago, and in a way one of the most satisfying things about it was the packaging design: sparse, uncluttered, oozing confidence in the simple excellence of the product, which is of course also quite beautiful, and so its ability to promote itself. This, therefore, is quite funny (via).