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.

Imagine, if you can bear it, that you’re Ed Milliband. You inherited a party that had reclaimed its sense of moral purpose, however misguided, in opposition to cuts to a managerial state that it had spent thirteen years building, a state that provided many benefits and services to a population grown accustomed to its largesse. The economy was foundering in the wake of international money market pandemonium, and appeared to be being made worse by the muddled policies of a Chancellor of aristocratic descent. Opinion polls put you in the lead by a country mile.

And yet somehow you’ve found yourself in conflict with your most significant source of funding and are on course to voluntarily allow your opponents to outspend you at the next election. You’ve allowed the source of your party’s traditional strength to become a weakness, to allow organisations representing the working public to be vilified by a party made up of self-interested millionaires. You’re frantically trying to manage over-mighty bosses that should be coming to you in supplication for a hint of power, and are on course to somehow lose the next election.

In short, you’ve managed to ruin your own party, your election prospects, and any hope for class identity the British left may once have had. You’re literally your own worst enemy, and the bosom ally of the Conservatives. You’ve made this Liberal Democrat feel that even his party isn’t quite so bad in comparison. How did you come to this?

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.

Today’s announcement by Nick Clegg of measures to facilitate more employee share ownership has been leapt on by Labour media darling Chuka Umunna as an endorsement of Ed Milliband’s ‘Responsible capitalism’ idea. Leaving aside the somewhat audacious claim that Ed Milliband came up with the John Lewis model of business, Umunna’s response demonstrates that Labour have failed to understand the intellectual direction of this Government – and the implications of that for the Labour Party.

I have previously written about how the parties of the Coalition are expressly aiming to use Government to overhaul the way in which the public perceives the private sector, by putting the burden of demonstrating the ethical worth of private enterprise squarely on its shoulders. A drive for greater employee ownership must be seen in this context – co-operatives and mutuals have always been perceived as more ethically sound than models of ownership which concentrate more shares in fewer hands. It puts the cost of an ethical stance on the company, rather than enforcing ethics through legislation. In doing so, it reduces the scope for dissatisfaction with capitalism, limiting the political space open to the likes of the Occupy protestors. It overcomes a very specific challenge: if wages represent a falling share of GDP compared to returns on capital, then the way to overcome this is not simply through higher wages, but the redistribution of capital itself. The share of GDP accorded to wages becomes an insignificant issue.

British liberalism has always recognised that the condition for a free society is the consent of all its members. By moving towards a model which places the burden of securing that consent upon business, Clegg is diminishing the space available for a Labour Party that would seek to secure that consent via the State. Labour’s complicity in this may yet be their undoing.

I read with some amusement and no few chortles of recognition Paul Sagar’s piece for Liberal Conspiracy on why he’s not renewing his Labour membership. His argument is, broadly, that he doesn’t actually enjoy the experience of grassroots political campaigning – the squirming on the doorstep, the often cretinous colleagues, and the naked tribalism. All of this is simultaneously an absolutely fair representation of grassroots campaigning and a colossal missing of the point.

The interesting part of his argument comes towards the end, when he points out that in order to succeed you actually have to enjoy ‘propagandising, disseminating and tub-thumping for [your] chosen tribe’. This produces politicians whose aim is to play the game; MPs for whom winning is more important than the prize itself.

Anyone involved in politics knows these people. They tend to be ferociously ambitious without having a reason to be so. They’re the sort of people about whom you ask, ‘What are they in politics to achieve?’. They’re also the answer to why lobbying is so successful and so influential.

Say you are one of these ambitious, amoral go-getting types, and that your only real objective is to get elected regardless of what happens afterwards. You want to become an MP, or a councillor, purely for the prestige and not for any particular burning political passion. Your relentless focus on your ambition means that you eventually find yourself in Westminster. What do you do when you’re there? Do you spinelessly toe the party line in hope of sliding into a ministerial position? Of course you do. But what else do you do? Being snivelling toady can’t take up all your time. And, all of a sudden, all these other important people want to meet with you and talk about an issue dear to their hearts – and about which, in your newly elevated state, you can make a difference. So, you do so, and get a celebratory slap on the back and an invite to lavish annual dinner. You haven’t taken any bribes, but you’ve certainly been paid in prestige. That’s why you got into politics, after all.

The ambitious are perfect targets for lobbyists, whose goal is to tickle the self-esteem part of their brain with the intention of getting something out of it. They’re in every party (yes, even the Lib Dems) and they, more than anything else, are the cancer at the heart of our politics. They are the Empty Politicians; those waiting to be filled up with ideas not of their own design by people with money to spend. They are the enemy. They are why you campaign at a grassroots level, to secure the election not simply of your party but of those you actively want to be elected.

Non-politicians often make the mistake of assuming that politicians are all the same. They’re not. And it’s the job of footsoldiers such as Sagar latterly was to work to winnow out the Empty from amongst them.

A Sickening Taste

December 11, 2010

It is a stomach-churning time to be a Liberal Democrat. I’m sure that none of us, while pushing our Focuses through rusty letterboxes, ever considered the possibility that our party would be legislating to the accompaniment of pounding hooves and breaking bones.

Whatever one’s opinion of the tuition fees policy, it’s clear that its implementation has been as far away from politically astute as one can get. This was always an issue that was going to cause divisions within the party, and the ironically uncompromising attitude of the leadership towards it has not helped. However, it’s possible that the latter is a feature of this Government.

One can divide British governments based on the ways in which the centre controls the implementation of policy. The Blair Government aimed to control policy through control of the messages around it; the Brown Government aimed to control policy via spite and back-biting. The Coalition seems to aim to control policy through decisiveness; the loss of the old levers of Number 10 in terms of an extensive network of special advisors has pushed it onto a path where the speed by which decisions are taken aims to wrong-foot opposition, both within the Coalition parties and in the Civil Service. This has been a complaint since the election – the rapidity of the Strategic Defence Review and the speed of the Spending Review have given rise to grumblings across the political spectrum.

While decisiveness can be a virtue, as a political tactic it has its limits. These have been clearly demonstrated by the way in which the fees policy has been passed. The Browne Review was published on October 12th. Just under two months passed until the Coalition’s policy on fees was put into law. In that time, relatively little effort was put into consultation with the people most impacted by the change – future students. The Coalition should have made a point of holding full consultation sessions at universities and colleges across the country, presenting them with the range of options available, including uncapped fees, the current solution and the Browne review. Instead, a single option has been imposed on a demographic well able to make its resentment felt.

The whole point of pluralism is that power is shared, and compromise is achieved. Our leadership appears to have forgotten that this doesn’t just apply to political parties, but to everyone impacted by the exercise of that power.

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.”

Labour (or someone who looks really, really like them) have quickly whipped up a campaign website at http://www.noto55.com/ in opposition to the coalition government’s move to remove the power to dissolve parliament from the Prime Minister and change it to require a vote of 55% of parliament. Initially, the site claimed that the 55% rule referred to a vote of no confidence, but has since been amended to reflect reality slightly more accurately:

“This campaign originally stated that the government planned to introduce a 55% threshold on votes of no confidence. This was incorrect, but the effect of introducing this ‘dissolution vote’ is the same: that a successful vote of no confidence in the government would no longer lead to the dissolution of Parliament.”

Let’s go through the reasons why this is stupid. Before this move, only the Prime Minister had the power to call an election by going to the palace and asking the Queen to dissolve parliament. The PM could do this whenever they chose, but was required to do so after a maximum of five years following the previous election. A vote of no confidence is a vote in the House of Commons in which the ruling party (or parties, natch) is defeated on the Queen’s Speech, the Budget or a specific early day motion. Convention then usually requires the PM to go to the palace to ask for a dissolution.

That’s right, convention. Even if a government has lost the confidence of the house (and cannot therefore get through any legislation), it can still legally remain in office. However, under the LibCon proposals, it cannot do so any longer if 55% of parliament vote for a dissolution. This is obviously 5% more than the 50%+1 required for a vote of no confidence, but Labour’s claims that it represents a danger to democracy are rather rendered stupid when one remembers that the devolved governments they set up in Scotland and Wales both require 66% of their respective representatives to vote in favour of dissolution. This is because the systems used to elect those representatives are much more proportional than that used for Westminster, and hence much more likely to be unstable with a low threshold for confidence votes – c.f. the Weimar Republic. This is because it allows small parties to bring down a government without simultaneously ensuring they have enough support to form a government themselves.

We are now in an era of coalition government, and with the advent of a marginally improved electoral system in AV, are much more likely to see this continue for the forseeable future. People in favour of voting reform should look at examples of how PR works in Europe before assuming this is as anti-democratic as Labour would have you believe, while simultaneously reminding themselves that Labour don’t really believe it’s anti-democratic otherwise they wouldn’t have put it in place themselves.

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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