On Politics and Language

September 13, 2013

This will be the last post for the foreseeable future on this blog, as I have accepted a politically restricted position and will be ceasing partisan comment. Given this, I’ve decided to actually explain the blog’s title, which – alongside people pointing out its obvious pretension – is something that has apparently caused some confusion.

Logos (pronounced low-goss), from the subheading given above, refers to a rational principle. It is an ancient Greek word, and has taken on many meanings for a range of different authors, differing even from Plato to Aristotle. It is Plato’s meaning which is relevant here: the logos is the means by which we access the eidos, the Forms. For those not familiar with this theory, a coarse form of Plato’s argument is as follows. We can recognise a unity across differing objects – for example, we can see a red car and say that it is red, see a red brick and say that it is red, and see a red bucket and say that it is red. How do we recognise red, when there is not one red in one form, but various in many? There must be an exemplar that we call upon in order to recognise such abstract concepts, such unities. This exemplar is a Form, an eidos.

We can have Forms of any abstract concept: the Form of a horse, say, is a perfect exemplar of Horsiness. All particular examples of any abstraction approach the perfection of a form, but do not fully achieve it, but it is in their proximity to the ideal that we are able to recognise them. We gain knowledge of the Forms through a logos, which is a way of expressing the content of a Form. The classical example is that of shape: Socrates says in the Meno, when asked how one would explain shape to someone with no understanding of it, that shape is the limit of a solid. This latter clause is the logos of the eidos of shape. It looks rather like a definition, and indeed one could claim that Plato holds a theory of meaning that states that a word has a fixed meaning given by a fixed definition, and that definition can be uncovered through philosophy, which allows one to identify the logos of a particular Form, or the rational principle by which one accesses it. This is a very primitive statement of his argument, but it will suffice for the point I wish to make.

This understanding of meaning as fixed is one that is perennially popular in philosophy, even to this day when at least one famous academic has made his career from taking as the starting point of his argument: “We want words to have a fixed meaning. What needs to be the case for this to work?” However, it is almost trivially untrue, as even the most cursory reader of Wittgenstein will be aware. Instead, words take part in games of meaning, in which participants in a particular game may assign a meaning to a word while other games assign a different meaning. Meaning is thus fluid and only given in how the word is used. However, it remains crucially important, even without the fixed points of eidos: only with a shared logos can we successfully communicate.

What does any of this philosophical abstraction have to do with politics in the real world, you might be asking? The answer is a great deal, because our main political parties have all been complicit in activities which subvert the logos for their own ends, and in doing so have created a situation in which we are governed by groups of people who in a very meaningful way no longer speak the same language as the public.

The first example of this – indeed, the example that directly inspired the title of this blog – is a phrase used extensively by the Liberal Democrats: ‘local campaigner’. Typically, this phrase is used in the Party’s public-facing literature to describe candidates at both local and parliamentary levels. It seems innocuous – the overwhelming majority of Lib Dem candidates do campaign on local issues, and do so genuinely. My objection to it is not based on dislike of candidates, but rather on the way in which its use in this context changes its meaning. The habitual use by Liberal Democrats of this phrase to refer exclusively to their candidates in their literature and not people who campaign for their local area without political aspiration adds to their logos for this phrase, while the public spirit inherent in campaigning lends the phrase an air of altruism when interpreted by the public. These logoi are as below:

libdem

While it may seem unusual to think of Lib Dems as seeking power, it is clear that the use of this phrase packs in a great deal of utility: the leftmost logos presents an inducement to vote for the candidate.The Lib Dems are not lying when they use this phrase to describe their candidates – in my experience, politicians rarely lie – but instead they have bastardised the meaning of a phrase for political gain.

Of course, the public is not quite so easily deceived as I paint here, but we have two options for their response: either they accept the Lib Dems’ use of ‘Local Campaigner’ as being equivalent to their use (and thus the Lib Dems are not really communicating with them as they are in two different language games) or they recognise that the Lib Dems are using the phrase differently and that actual communication is not happening. Either way, the use of this phrase with its Lib Dem logos erects a barrier to genuine conversation between politicians and the public. It is the case, however, that they are not necessarily aware that this could be in any way considered untoward, which I shall consider later.

The second example I want to pick up on was used by Ed Milliband in his speech to the TUC conference. In it, he claimed that he was presenting a ‘fundamentally different vision of our economy’. In practice, this means a greater emphasis on apprenticeships and potentially something like Germany’s KfW running alongside the existing Green Investment Bank, with perhaps a greater reluctance to deregulate employment thrown in. ‘Fundamentally different’ is, as a result, an exaggeration at best. However, it is highly likely that Milliband believes that he is presenting something very different, because of a feature of political trench warfare: all differences are magnified by competition. Thus, we have two logoi that are even further apart:

labour

Nonetheless, this use of the phrase retains its utility, as it prompts party supporters to believe that Labour is genuinely pushing for real change. However, the sheer disconnect on show here means that such supporters will necessarily be disaffected as time passes, because they are literally incapable of communicating with their leadership using phrases like this.

To maintain parity, the last phrase I want to consider is the current form of the perennial political favourite ‘hard working families’, the slogan of the Conservative Party: ‘For Hard Working People’. This phrase is interesting, as bound up with its positive tone is its negative: it is against people who don’t work hard. It is also deceptive, functioning like ‘local campaigner’ by providing the implication that it will support all hard-working people, even if they fall foul of another more capricious hard-working person who employs them. We therefore have:

tories

Again, communication is hampered by meanings that differ; meanings that have been subverted in the name of political utility. The practice of assessing messages against both polling and focus groups is done with the explicit intention of finding a package of words that delivers support regardless of what those words mean to the person saying them.

The end result is a political class that is incapable of communicating with the general public, and more troublingly, with each other: all three parties have their own language games, and debate between relies upon the protagonists being sufficiently intellectually adept to move between games at will. It is hardly surprising that the public is increasingly disaffected with a political class that does not speak the same language as them – not, in its normal usage, because they use big words and overblown rhetoric, but because they do not share a common logos. UKIP does at present, which partly explains its rise, but the temptation of the sheer utility of abusing meaning in this way will overcome them in the end.

People working in politics will doubtless find this very odd, overly abstract and unimportant compared with the big issues of the day. What does it matter that they distort the meaning of a few words in order to save the NHS, for example? To answer this, I’d like to use an analogy with the foreign exchange market. At every moment, large computers are comparing prices for currency in all the markets around the world, and where they find a momentary opportunity for arbitrage, conducting hundreds of trades a second. The profit on each trade is typically in fractions of a penny, but the sheer volume of these trades makes the practice very lucrative indeed. The same applies to the abuse of the logos: each time a politician says something using a meaning with which they privately disagree, they commit a fractional sin. When they do it hundreds of times a day, they commit a much bigger sin. Even worse, by sheer repetition the sin is normalised, to the point that most political types reading this will respond with ‘Well, that’s just how it is’.

It cannot continue. Without a genuine effort to communicate with the public using meanings that we all share, our political system is left at risk of even greater disaffection and the dangers of a public growing disenchanted with democracy. Without bravery from our politicians, the logos will continue to decline.

A senior Tory has allegedly stated a belief commonly held amongst central party managers everywhere: that their activists are ‘swivel-eyed loons’.  ‘Loon’, of course, is ultimate derived from ‘lunar’; the traditional belief that madness was more common during full moons. If we assume that voting Conservative is a form of madness, we can check whether a full moon does in fact impact upon the Tory vote by cross-referencing it with daily polls:

Loony ToriesSource: Polling undertaken on the UTC date of a full moon since beginning of 2012 when YouGov started recording UKIP separately.

There is a small but noticeable impact on both the Conservative and UKIP voting intention, with the former impact significant at the 5% level*. This is the inverse of what people who would also be happy to dub UKIP nutters would expect, and presents a danger for Mr Cameron. The first Thursday in May 2015 is the day after a full moon. The motion of our nearest celestial partner may yet cost the Conservatives the next election.

*This relationship attenuates as the data set grows, precisely as a non-crazy person would expect. From 2010 to the present day it’s practically insignificant. One could attribute the short-term effect to science being right or Nigel Farage being a werewolf.

A rival to liberalism

May 17, 2012

Flip Chart Fairy Tales has put up an interesting post entitled ‘A post-liberal future‘. In it, they argue that economic and social liberalism has been the dominant force in our politics for the last quarter century, exemplified in both Thatcher and Blair. Both of the large parties have represented an alliance between liberal and illiberal political objectives, with the liberal objectives of both parties winning out over the illiberal. FCFT summarises this thusly:

“As it reached out to the increasingly powerful middle classes, the old Tory Party of army, church and king adopted economic liberalism to appeal to business interests. The Labour Party fused middle-class radical liberalism with working class socialism and trade unionism, attracting prominent radicals, like the Foots and Benns, away from the old Liberal Party.”

FCFT then covers the reasons why this dominance may be coming to an end with the resurgence of anti-individualism in our politics. Certainly, one can see this at opposite ends of the traditional political spectrum – Blue Labour was in essence a call for the privileging of the working-class community over the success of the individual, while Conservative back benchers with a focus on pro-marriage legislation and law and order have a similar bent. It is in essence a debate over what society should prioritise: individual freedom or social capital, John Stuart Mill versus Karl Polanyi.

It is, however, still a debate which is hopelessly confused. UKIP, a party that takes most of its votes from tradition-bound Tories, is lead by a libertarian. The new economics foundation, a thinktank that focuses on bringing in Polanyi-esque solutions to social problems, has a workstream focusing on providing the individual with tools to participate in democratic decision-making. The majority of the UK’s political discourse still focuses on the question of the distribution of economic resources, rather than the moral focus of society.

However, this has not always been the case. The resurgence of social capital in our political discourse is not new, but rather an old thing come again. The political division at the start of the last century between Liberals and Conservatives encapsulated that distinction. For liberalism to no longer become the dominant political ideology would require a realignment along the same lines as the one which originally led to the ‘strange death of liberal England’. To put this in graphic form, it would require a shift of political alliances from this:

To this:

Such a dramatic realignment of our politics seems unlikely. However, there are signs that it is happening. One of the most noteworthy aspects of the No2AV campaign was the willingness of Old Labour and the more regressive Conservatives to sit down together in order to secure the existing voting system. Indeed, we saw Cameron share a platform with John Reid, something almost unprecedented. John Cruddas, one of the architects of Blue Labour, is rumoured to be in favour of an in-out referendum on Europe – something which would put him in bed with the Tory backbenches.

A real political realignment would not be an overnight affair, judging by the experience of the old Liberal Party. Rather, it would involve coalitions, insurgent new parties, and a willingness shown by parliamentarians to hop the benches to a place that suits their political goals more effectively. The first two are taking place. We have yet to see any significant evidence of the third.

Grayling plays the long game

February 27, 2012

Over the weekend, the employment minister Chris Grayling ‘revealed’ to the Telegraph and their right-wing media buddies that the Socialist Workers’ Party was behind the high-profile opposition to the Government’s workfare proposals. Quite frankly, I think the Government subsidising free workers for business is wrong; they should at least be paying the market rate for labour they procure through the scheme, even if that rate is below the minimum wage and requires top-ups to reach even the level of Job Seekers’ Allowance. But that’s by the by. What’s interesting is the choice by Grayling and his motley crew of Red-bashers to paint the SWP as the prime movers behind the anti-workfare campaign. They’re not; plenty of people have played a part, even the relatively mainstream Liberal Conspiracy.

So why focus on the SWP? Simply to frighten the horsey people who read the Telegraph? While there’s some short-term political gain from doing so, one has to look at this tactic in a broader context.

The anti-workfare campaign has been surprisingly successful; pushing the likes of Tesco to take public issue with some unpalatable elements of the scheme, and helping push the much-loathed chair of A4e out of employment. Someone has to take responsibility for that success, and the rewards it attracts in terms of increased support and funding. Labour’s almost invisible response to the issue has been telling, which is hardly surprising given that it stands in a continuum with their policies implemented in Government. Labour have been attracting an increased level of support on the back of anti-coalition feeling, but are still tainted with their Government record. Far better, if you do not wish to see another Labour Government, to see some of that support – particularly the activists support that actually knocks on doors and delivers leaflets – to be diverted to another party.

The coverage of the SWP over the weekend has given them a higher profile than they’ve perhaps had for decades; they’ve been presented as achieving a Big Win over the Evil Tories. This attracts a certain sort of person; the kind of soft Left intellectual who’s still put off by Labour killing lots of foreigners and being in favour of those awful market things. Labour will need those people if it’s to win again, and diverting them away to hilarious fringe groups like the SWP helps those of us who don’t want Labour to win again.

I’m not claiming that this was Grayling’s intent, but it’s always preferable to assume cunning rather than stupidity. It’ll be interesting to see what else gets blamed on far-left extremists, and the extent to which that blame ends up on the front pages of the Daily Mail.

The Balance of Rage

November 22, 2010

Since the election, two interrelated phenomena have been simultaneously rising and falling. They’re two sides of the same coin, if it were possible to forge a coin out of undistilled rage and loathing. They’re the relative levels of anger on both the left and the right at the course the country is taking.

The anger of the Right appears to be abating. This was noted by the Guardian, who cleverly spotted that the anger of Mr Eugenides had come to a halt, amongst similar outbreaks of calm by other libertarian and/or right-wing bloggers. Even the original swearblogger, the Devil himself, has shut up shop, at least temporarily.

Guido, of course, endures, in much the same way that the Sun and the Mirror are now features of our national landscape. But Guido has always been less political than the adult version of the irksome pupil who runs to tell teacher that the big boys are smoking behind the bicycle sheds.

At the same time as the rage of the Right subsides, that of the Left is on the rise. Not necessarily in the terribly formal collective left-wing blogs, of course, but rather in comments on CiF and in a thousand and one personal blogs across the internet. CiF’s comments are an interesting case; there, the difference was clear almost immediately after the election. To take a random example, look at the comments on these two Jackie Ashley articles, and compare the relative rage. For me, I normally interpret the relative anger of the person writing the post by the level of hyperbole they choose to incorporate within it. This is a strong indication that the person felt so strongly about the subject that they felt no desire to check their facts, and that their urge to say something outweighed their concern for how they would look saying it.

That charge could be levelled at the old libertarian blogosphere, which often appeared more concerned with being angry over dreadful lefties infringing their property rights than anything approaching reality. Similarly, the Left now appears enraged by the Right’s besmirching of their moral code too, resulting in some ridiculous paranoia (witness the comments thread on this post on this blog in which the lefty claims that the Coalition will dismantle the welfare state. Really. I stopped responding after that).

We can therefore witness an interesting seesaw of rage that determines the scope and the borderlines of British political discourse. This rage typically has a strong moral quality; the enraged typically accuse their opponents of being immoral, giving that as just cause for their anger. It is very clearly directed at what is perceived as the transgressions of the governing party (or parties), which is interesting in itself – in a democracy, the source of power is the electorate – i.e. other people. But you’ll very rarely hear anyone actually attack the majority of the electorate if they’re on the losing side – rather, they’ll go straight for their representatives.

This implies that the angry don’t want to believe that the majority could possibly disagree with them, and instead focus their anger on politicians instead. Given that our two main political parties have traditionally focused on economic identity as constitutive of their core vote, research which indicates that people tend to see themselves as economically average would point to this being a question of cognitive dissonance. If people believe themselves to be an average earner – i.e. representative of the majority of the population – information that indicates otherwise would dispute this interpretation. It’s difficult to imagine a more brutal example of why you’re not average if the party that represents your economic interest group is voted down.

Poor people will blame the Tories for cuts to benefits, rather than the middle-class people who voted for them. It’s almost as though voting is taken as a somehow morally blameless exercise in which you’re not accountable for your choices – only the people who you voted in are. This is completely irrational, and can only be explained if there’s a strong irrational driver pushing the other way. The above self-perception phenomenon would appear to cover that.

I therefore make the claim that our political discourse is driven in part by this irrational reaction to majoritarianism. People feel angry as a result of the cognitive dissonance that arises from believing themselves to be average while in an economic minority. They therefore seek out reasons why they’re right and their opponents wrong, to aid in restructuring the world in such a way as to make it clear that their worldview is correct. They then promote those reasons as the truth, to avoid dealing with reality. This sort of post-hoc justification is familiar to anyone who’s ever encountered NIMBYs, creationists, climate sceptics/hawks, old-style communists, religious literalists, libertarians, racists – indeed, practically any form of belief. The only check against it is what one could call intellectual integrity, or constantly re-examining one’s beliefs in the light of new evidence. In this sense, the post-hoccers provide a useful function: they are the ones who feverishly uncover new facts to suit their agenda, and while those facts may or may not be accurate they must be engaged with every single time to ensure that one’s own ideas are correct.

Engagement in this sense is engagement in good faith; not pre-judging the outcome of any given argument. I have frequently found that post-hoccers do come up with facts that challenge one’s beliefs – for example, I have accepted that wind turbines do have an impact on bats (although not birds) as a consequence of skirmishes with NIMBYs. Rage, therefore, while describing the outer edges of our discourse nonetheless has a crucial role in holding power to account.

Referring to The Art of War may seem rather pretentious, but there’s some ancient wisdom in there that has bearing on the TUC’s position today:

“All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near. Hold out baits to entice the enemy. Feign disorder, and crush him.”

What is the most advantageous grounds on which the Tories could position political debate? Assuming that, as their opponents would claim, their real aim is always to maintain the privileged position of the rich ruling classes, on what grounds would you want contemporary political debate to be held?

You certainly wouldn’t want to talk about how the proceeds of economic growth have been increasingly distributed entirely unfairly, with the overwhelming majority going to the better off. That might give people crazy ideas about a fairer distribution of wealth within society, or that perhaps economic growth per se only seems to work out well for a minority of the population. You certainly wouldn’t want to talk about Labour’s greatest failure, which was simulating rising living standards for the less well off by making it easier for them to access credit, rather than actually raising their wages.

Instead, you’d want to create a battle about something most of the public agree with you about. You’d want your greatest ideological adversaries to waste their strength and their support in opposing your gamble on cutting public spending, ensuring that in the event private demand doesn’t pick up, you’ll have someone to blame. You’d want, in fact, to use your opponent’s strength and inclinations against them.

I’ll leave you with another quote from the ancient master:

“Now, when your weapons are dulled, your ardor damped, your strength exhausted and your treasure spent, other chieftains will spring up to take advantage of your extremity. Then no man, however wise, will be able to avert the consequences that must ensue.”

Go and read the comments appended to this article in the Guardian. Go on, go and read them. Do you get the impression that millions of poor aspiring people are about to be pushed out onto the streets? That’s fascinating. It appears from those comments that Cameron’s plan to require every new tenancy to be review every five years will push people out onto the street, and cause a massive breakdown in social cohesion (whatever that means).

Let’s now have a look at some statistics. This report from the National Centre for Social Research demonstrates that only about 22% of the people who live in social housing and/or rent from the Council are actually working full time – the rest are retired, unemployed (3-4% of the total, for those who think social housing is essential to catch people in economic need), working part-time (13%) or economically inactive in some other way. Only 22% of current social renters are likely – at the outside – to even have the chance of losing a tenancy (Edit: Grant Shapps has confirmed that this would only apply to new tenants – so that’s 22% of new tenants, then). To do that, they’d need to get a better job. This does constitute a deterrent to social mobility, so I can only hope that IDS’s proposals will include some form of housing benefit reform to compensate for this.

Now, this report from the House of Commons Library demonstrates that the percentage of people in social housing & local authority housing has been decreasing since the 1980s. Surely this is a good thing, and evidence of social mobility. However, it also demonstrates that housing stock construction has slowed to around 150,000 per year since the 80s too. During this period, the population has increased by about 5 million. This is relatively high historically speaking, matched only during the 60s – which experienced significantly higher levels of house construction.

If supply and demand were working effectively, house building should be on the increase – rather than the decrease. This would lower house prices, and make it more affordable for people to leave social housing. It’s not. Why not?

There are multiple factors here, but perhaps the most significant is planning legislation. Since 1947, if you owned land you couldn’t simply build on it – you had to seek permission from the local authority. The reforms to this legislation by the Thatcher government in 1990 made building housing significantly more costly, and consequently raised house prices. Demand for higher-priced housing is of course lower, resulting in lower levels of construction.

More than anything else, it’s the housing market that’s causing the pressure on social housing. In order to reduce house prices, you need planning reform. The Tories are proposing planning reform – but reform that may yet make building houses more difficult. Cameron’s attempts to reduce the demand for social housing by shifting out people who can afford it is actually good thing, but it’s not the real story – the Tories need to reconsider their planning policy if we’re going to resolve the housing crisis. I look forward to the Guardian’s campaign against green belts.
Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

While the outcome today is still in flux (and I snatch a brief moment in between dispatching activists), remember this one fact. Whoever wins this election will be required to make the most swingeing cuts in a generation. Those cuts will almost inevitably be across the board, and they will inevitably lead to misery. And not just misery – the Tories know that refusing to back the pledge for a one-week wait for cancer tests will inevitably lead to more adverse clinical outcomes, which with cancer can mean an increased death rate. The next government will make cuts that will lead – perhaps indirectly - to the death of some of its citizens. I say this not in a prejudical way, for any party that gets in will be forced to make cuts that will have this impact.

They will be forced to make choices that will mean people who otherwise would’ve lived longer will die sooner. They will be exercising power at its most brutal.

To do so, I argue, they require a mandate. That mandate cannot come from a minority of our population whose interests would be best served by the necessary cuts. Rather, they must demonstrate that they have the support of at least half those who vote in this election. They must be able to demonstrate that these cuts are truly the will of the country, and not of an economic interest group.

Otherwise, the cuts to come will constitute the tyrannical imposition of that group’s wishes upon the majority; the savings we must make must be filtered through the nexus of at least two parties sufficient in popular vote share to truly claim to represent a majority of the country. How can a party that gets less than that possibly have a moral right to govern in times such as these?

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