Tuesday, March 29, 2011

I Said I Reach For My Revolver

Apparently, the AHRC, to whom I have obediently genuflected as funders of my doctorate in various publications, has taken it upon itself to lead a programme across the research councils to fund academic research on the basis of its contribution to "Connected Communities". This became clear to me because the Observer claimed that they'd been forced to incorporate the Big Society into their funding priorities at the weekend, an allegation they strongly deny, although not, as they claim, refute. What they deny, though, is that they have coerced into including empty government buzzwords in their funding priorities, not that empty government buzzwords are included in their funding priorities. This is craven toadying, and made worse by the fact that it is craven toadying on the back of what was already craven toadying; the Connected Communities programme, which depoliticises struggles within them through a meaningless rhetoric of wellbeing in exactly the way you'd imagine something that could contribute to Big Society would, predates the current government. I would not, however, sign the petition urging the AHRC to remove the Big Society from its six strategic funding areas, as so far as I can see the AHRC does not have six strategic funding areas and so the request is ill-formed.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

It's Hard To Explain To A Crying Child

In keeping with being on strike, I've been reading bits of G. A. Cohen's posthumously published corpus today - and also bits of Mike Davis' Buda's Wagon, although the methods of applying political pressure it provides a history of are obviously rather further than I am prepared to go. As well as the text of the talk How To Do Political Philosophy he gave at the beginning of my MPhil class in Contemporary Political Philosophy, collected in On The Currency of Egalitarian Justice, I looked through Why Not Socialism? I don't think I'd realised the extent to which taking that class had shaped not just my research interests, including interests in what we should expect from political philosophy, but also how I do, in the most basic sense possible, political philosophy. For example, one of the major points Cohen's instructions on how to do political philosophy make is that disagreement over political principles is endemic, at least amongst political philosophers, not because of bad faith but because there are typically conflicts between various desiderata all of which cannot be satisfied at once. He lists 8 such sets of desiderata as examples, pointing out how different theorists have rejected different desiderata. One of the points I try, doubtlessly imperfectly, to impress on students is to see that there is almost always something to said for an opponent's position and in rejecting it, you are rejecting something it would be attractive to believe. That, I think, is substantially a legacy of Cohen, as is the fetish for trying to be clear about how what you're saying relates to things any opponents you might have believe.

Cohen's focus on cutting through obscurity and exposing the deep conflicts underlying disputes between political philosophers I think sometimes had its costs though. I remain unconvinced that he ever really understood what was going on in Rawls, and particularly in the appeal to the basic structure as the subject of justice, although he's hardly alone in that. His work on Nozick and libertarianism generally is I think considerably more penetrating precisely because he encountered someone there who, although less disciplined, thought in a similar way. One way that this comes out is in the way he uses the value of community in Why Not Socialism. Community here is contrasted to the instrumentalising way which the twin motives of greed and fear structure market relations. It involves serving others and being served alike instead of only providing others with goods when and because it is to your benefit and is undoubtedly a considerably more moral attractive ideal of how to interact with one's fellows. The immediately obvious problem is the contrast with market relations. Even excluding the kinds of care and assistance that Cohen readily admits are not provided on the basis of greed and fear despite being provided through the labour market, it seems that many more market relations have basic features quite absent from this understanding. For one thing, the property rights around which markets are structured are very rarely maintained directly by greed or fear. I do not abstaining from robbing my fellow citizens from greed or fear; I do it for a whole host of more or less explicitly moralised reasons, some of which seem rather close to the sort of reciprocity Cohen invokes. The clarity he sought could, I think, too often encourage the drawing of too sharp distinctions and so obscure insights which required a more subtle appreciation. None of that, of course, diminishes my debt or my gratitude to him, both personally and in terms of the corpus of work he produced.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Which Side Are You On?

I'll be going on strike tomorrow for the first time in my admittedly relatively short professional life. UCU has called for a series of strikes in defence of pensions and pay first in the four nations of the UK, starting in Scotland last Thursday and moving across Wales and Northern Ireland before ending in England tomorrow, and then across the country as a whole on Thursday. I have my reservations about the structure of university education in the UK, and particularly the roles that graduate students and more junior members of staff play within it, but employers are seeking to both impose substantial salary cuts in real terms (pdf) and undermine pension rights (pdf). This is exactly the sort of situation in which collective action is appropriate, and I am glad to see that UCLU supports the strike action.

Saturday, March 19, 2011


Two quotes, the first from J. D. Mackie's A History of Scotland's description of the Reformation in Scotland and the second a self-description reported in a forthcoming biographical memior of Brian Barry published by the British Academy. Make of them, their possible implications in terms of contemporary political events, and my opinions on those events, what you will.

Practical politicians and calculating economists do not identify themselves with causes of uncertain value.

Barry once wrote that he could not remember a time when he was 'anything other than an atheist with a soft spot for the Church of England, a socialist exasperated by all sections of the Labour Party, and a sympathizer with the tribal vision of England a la Orwell ("a family with the wrong members in control") slightly suffocated by the reality of it'.

Not Crying But Laughing

Someone, somewhere, is always taking the piss. Apologies both to Italians and the Japanese.