February 25, 2010
There’s been an enormous amount of right-wing empire wank sprayed over the comment pages over the last couple of weeks. The proximate cause has been the revival of the Argentinian’s claims over the Falklands in the wake of drilling operations commencing in the North Falklands Basin. This has taken the form of things that don’t cost anything to do, which is useful for a nation with no money. The Argies have made diplomatic representations to the UK, which perhaps cost as much as a phone call. They’ve convinced other nations with little money to issue a joint communique, for which perhaps they had to buy a pen. They’ve applied to the UN for a review of their sovereignty claims, which maybe needed a stamp.
What they haven’t done is make any form of military threat, which is because they can’t. Argentina spends 0.8% of its measly GDP on its military, in comparison to 2.4% spent by the UK. They’ve failed to fully replenish their airforce following the Falklands war, and in 2005 most of its high command was sacked for their involvement in a drug scandal. Their most notable achievement in recent history was converting a ground attack jet to using biofuel. They’re an army of druggies and hippies. They constitute no credible threat to the self-determination of the Falkland Islanders.
Despite this, much of the right-wing commentariat are indulging themselves in post-imperial fantasies of fighting off Johnny Foreigner and Keeping The Falklands British, ignoring the fact that it’s not actually an issue. This is a concern, inasmuch as it implies a future Tory government may not be able to provide proper strategic analysis of situations like this, over the sound of war drums inside their head.
The only way to respond to such a move which was made for blatant internal political reasons (remember, this is the president who forced her chief banker to resign when he objected to her further shafting the economy for political reasons) is to mock the Argies. Moon them when you’re flying over Buenos Aires. Giggle at their efforts to make like they actually matter. Blow raspberries at their embassy. Demonstrate very clearly that you don’t take them seriously. This will subvert their presidents’ intentions, by contributing towards making her look ridiculous on the world stage, and neutralising any potential political gain she might make. Hopefully she’ll be replaced by someone who’ll not try something so stupid in the future.
However, there is one part of this series of events which is serious, and does deserve further attention. That’s the fact that the Americans have refused to take our side on a territorial dispute. That’s a pretty fucking basic part of an alliance. Would they be on our side in the extremely unlikely event that France laid claim to Guernsey? Would they support our holding onto Ascencion Isle? Would they side with us over Gibraltar? Without certainty on fundamental issues like this, it should be impossible for us to continue to support their military adventures.
February 19, 2010
Reams and reams and reams and reams of words representing thoughts have been spewed out onto the internet and the print media over the last month on the subject of climate change, the IPCC, and how scientists have been simply dreadful. Talking about that would be fairly pointless, as everything I could possibly say has been covered elsewhere by people far more knowledgeable than I am. So if you’re hoping to be able to respond with a carefully reasoned synopsis of something you read on wattsupwiththat, you’ll only make yourself look stupid. Well, stupider than normal.
Naturally, the last sentence is rather pejorative and clearly reveals my leanings. But what I think about the subject is rather incidental to the point of this post, which will only be revealed through a series of over-elaborate metaphors designed to make it look like I can actually write and also make it look like I really understand complex philosophical arguments. None of this may actually be the case, which is a sentence which should be inserted before almost every single post on this subject.
Why is what I think incidental to the debate? Firstly, calling it a debate is questionable; it implies this can be resolved with rational argument. Moreover, to do so gives credence to the notion that this is something new, rather than a rehash of an ancient theme which has, to a large degree, dominated philosophical discourse for the last two and a half millenia.
It’s the conflict between episteme and doxa; the conflict between knowledge based on reason and opinion based on unanalysed experience. Of course, in the current age there’s no such thing as unanalysed experience; rather we have knowledge based on different structures of reason, some of which are much closer to the ground than others.
What we’re seeing in the climate change debate is something simultaneously wonderful and terrifying. We’re seeing the once lonesome shining tower of science being gradually surrounded by millions of individual structures of knowledge, rapidly pushing their way into the sky. This has been enabled by the rapid expansion of access to information that the internet has permitted; while once the requirements of accessing scientific information prevented the layman accessing knowledge on their own terms, it’s now available to everyone with a computer, a phone line, and a sense of curiousity.
In itself, this is glorious. It’s the triumph of the demos; the freedom of every individual to learn as much as they will about the world, and to be able to draw their own conclusions from it. It must never be stopped, and attempts to do so by, for example, attempting to circumvent FoI legislation as the researchers at the CRU appear to have done are deeply immoral.
Problems creep in, however, when we examine the structures of knowledge that arise from this new freedom. The original shining tower of science is in reality a teeming mass of competing individual towers all arising from the same foundation: that of the scientific method. The scientific method is a particular way of structuring knowledge, and provides the validity for everything that arises from it. All the individual structures of knowledge erected by researchers are built on this bedrock, and each tower they construct is only safe to stand upon inasmuch as it is firmly secured to it.
However, many of the people arguing against the climate change consensus have done something different. They’ve taken pieces of science, but from further up the collective tower. They’ve taken the rickety edifices built out over the edge of the foundation (but nonetheless purporting to be supported by it) and placed them on the ground, as the foundations of their own personal structures of knowledge. Functionally, it’s equivalent to building a house out of roofs; certainly you can do it, but it wouldn’t be able to do all the things a house can.
This is a necessary feature of liberalism: anyone who has the power to tell you what does and what does not constitute knowledge has power over you, and therefore must be held to account lest they use it to harm you. The individual is therefore forced to be the arbiter of knowledge, and the climate change controversy is proof of how far this individualist theory of knowledge has spread. A liberal society requires every individual to believe his or her personal structure of knowledge is taller than anyone elses’, in order that they may be sure they are not subject to harm. The problem is that this may not be the case, and the bits and pieces of scientific knowledge that comprise the structures of climate change deniers may not necessarily be put together to form a stable tower. The same cannot (I am happy to use absolutes here, as long as one interprets absolute truth as necessarily being intersubjective rather than objective) be true of the edifice of science. Where it is well-grounded, it is necessarily true. And given the weight of the evidence in favour of climate change, that is necessarily true.
But this does not contradict the fundamental point above. The individual must remain the arbiter of knowledge for themselves; this is what freedom entails. They must be free to hold all the doxa they wish, and reject episteme as the efforts of a scientific elite to curb their lifestyle. And this is what is happening, right now – doxa and episteme are in conflict to determine which will dominate our politics for the next decade or so. This is part of a wider movement including the upsurge in religious feeling in America and in Islamic states, and the broader historical movement that rejected enlightenment and scientific values as they led to the gas chambers and similar horrors of industrial war.
The environmental movement cannot appeal to science alone – the individuals who reject it have not founded their structures of knowledge upon it. Rather, if they wish prevent climate change, they must present them with a vision of a world which is desirable, not claim they haven’t understood how tree rings work. In a liberal society, debates aren’t settled by what’s actually true, rather what seems more advantageous.
February 11, 2010
There’s little I can add to the revelations around MI5’s complicity in torture, other than a curious incident that occurred when I went for a job interview at an anonymous MI6 office in South London.
The interviewer, a bearded chap, asked me this question: “Say we’ve caught a team of suspected Islamic terrorists attempting to enter the UK from Pakistan. We know from other evidence that at least one other team made it to Britain. Our contact in the Pakistani security service, the ISI, contacts us and asks us to leave the prisoners in their ‘care’ for the night, and by the morning they’ll be able to supply us with the location and targets of the other team. What do you do?”
I considered my response for a little while, and decided to go for the Boy’s Own angle:
“I would deny his request. Britain’s policy is to not accept information on torture under any circumstances, both because of our ethics, and because information obtained under torture is unreliable.”
Bearded chap smiled, and said, “That’s right. MI6 would never agree to torture as a means of procuring information, under any circumstances.”
Later on I was told I didn’t get the job because I didn’t appear confident enough, which I accepted as being fairly reasonable given that I’d been nervous during the interview. Nervous spies are dead spies. However, given today’s revelations, I can’t help but wonder whether it was because of the answer I gave to the torture question.
The other possibility, of course, is that it’s entirely true that MI6’s policy is to not accept information obtained under torture. It’s interesting that it was an MI5 agent who engaged in handing a British citizen over to torturers in a foreign country – one would’ve assumed MI6 should have taken responsibility for a foreign operation. When Jean Charles de Menezes was shot, a friend of mind who worked in the MI5 office at the time was appalled that the rest of their office stood up and applauded on hearing the news. They no longer work for MI5.
It’s important to remember that the level of paranoia the Government and their accomplices in the media have been pushing onto the rest of us as an excuse for curbing our civil liberties is ultimately derived from the warnings of the intelligence services. Consider, for a moment, what happens if those same intelligence services are so convinced by their own assessments that they themselves become paranoid.
February 10, 2010
For some time now I’ve been querying my own liberalism; attempting to reconcile it with climate change and my own suspicions of the limits of the market within various avenues of life. This questioning has crystallised around the notion of property rights. I find phrases like “…you want a society in which people are forced—under threat of fines, and imprisonment, and bankruptcy, and worse—to pay for your personal moral convictions…” oddly beguiling; they have the appearance of an argument from the Harm Principle – namely, that choosing to impose one’s will on others in the form of tax constitutes harm to those others – and yet, I cannot accept their force.
This stands apart from the climate change issue – clearly, a polluter whose emissions constitute future harm to me is someone I am morally entitled to act against. The decision to help the vulnerable via the state does not fall under the heading of preventing future harm, as the argument that the absence of preventative action on the part of the taxed constitutes harm is a difficult one to make.
I could cash out my instinctive rejection of the ‘Taxation for moral action is harm’ argument using a kind of utility of choice theory; taxing the rich to aid the poor is justified as money has diminishing returns in terms of choice. The choice borne, say, of being able to afford curtains to keep the heat in is a greater choice than what kind of curtains one purchases. But this is a tricky position to hold, as it requires that choices are commensurable across the whole spectrum of human experience, which is difficult to demonstrate.
I therefore come to property rights. Their place as the guarantor of freedom is enshrined in much right-wing thought; consider David Friedman’s maxim that ‘Property is a central economic institution of any society, and private property is the central institution of a free society.’ or Ludwig von Mises’ statement that ‘If history could teach us anything, it would be that private property is inextricably linked with civilization.’ Given their role here, it’s clear that for the Right the infringement of property rights constituted by taxation results in direct harm to the freedom of the individual. Therefore, under the Harm Principle, taxation is always unjustified. But I find myself unable to maintain that infringement of property rights necessarily constitutes harm to the individual.
Why is that? When it comes to freedom, and the philosophy of action that determines the conceptual limits of such, I am very much a Humean; any particular action we take can only be aimed at satisfying a desire. Moreover, desire is therefore something we cannot disconnect from the way in which we encounter the world. We encounter the world through a matrix of desire, and any object we encounter within it is presented to us in terms of our desires and its potential thereof. For example, we cannot disconnect from our impression of a ripe apple the knowledge that eating it will satisfy hunger once we have learned that fact. It appears to us in terms of its graspability, its ease of being picked up, and perhaps its aesthetic value.
This inextricability is vital in understanding this philosophy of action. Freedom can only be understood in terms of our potential scope to satisfy our desires; our ability to act to achieve them. This may seem, perhaps, necessarily hedonistic and even solipsistic, but such impressions are given by a far narrower definition of desire than the one being used here. You possess (perhaps) the desire to do good – the experience of encountering a pregnant woman on the bus is now bound up with the knowledge that one will satisfy one’s good-desire by offering her your seat. The Humean position is that even motivations that appear to be rational are ultimately sourced from our desires, as in this case.
We can now move onto property rights. It is clear that, while one can need tools & objects to satisfy one’s desires, those tools themselves constitute a limit on the scope to which one can satisfy them. We are limited in terms of how much we can achieve by the property we possess at present, and more fundamentally by the nature of the world we encounter.
Ought not then property rights be at the core of any conception of freedom? Do we not need our own resources to, say, drive to the supermarket to pick up the shopping? Does not our possession of a car or not determine how far we can travel?
No. All that matters in terms of the way freedom is explained by this particular philosophy of action is that we have access to the means of satisfying our desires – not any particular object. Private property rights are the right to exclusive use of a certain set of objects, rather than the right of access to objects capable of satisfying our desires. On this approach, it does not affect your freedom in any way if the Government replaces every single object you own with ones capable of performing exactly the same function (taking efficiency and aesthetics as factors here, of course). It seems intuitively correct to me that noumena cannot be factors in our freedom.
However, there is one desire that particular objects can satisfy, and that is the desire to possess the means of satisfaction of one’s desires. This is crucial for our civilisation – on the above characterisation of this philosophy of action, a chimp trying to crack open a coconut will not have a rock be rendered salient to it as a possible means unless it possesses the desire to find those means. Private property rights are therefore the means by which we are able to satisfy this particular desire without interference from others’ use of what we regard as our property.
This, however, makes them only a small part of our overall freedom; an aspect of our potential actions which is rendered important dependent on the strength of this desire in the individual. There is nothing necessary about the strength of a particular desire within this philosophy; it is contingent on the person. It will therefore mean that private property has different levels of importance for different people, and that infringements upon it will constitute varying levels of harm depending on its strength in those subject to them. This would appear to explain my earlier intuition regarding taxation as a violation of the harm principle.
We have thus arrived at a rather obvious conclusion: private property rights have different values to different people, depending on what they want. This may seem rather trite. However, factoring in our philosophy of action, we can arrive at a much more interesting conclusion: private property is percieved differently by different people, so that when these rights are discussed between the right and the left, they’re incapable of talking about the same thing. Encountering private property differently renders any discourse on it functionally impossible if two people’s viewpoints are too far apart; the language they use can never encompass the different shades of meaning they attach to it.
We thus arrive at the point where this post finally says something that falls under its purported mission. Political language is frequently used to try to minimise this sort of incongruity of salience, in order to win people over by identifying the values that they share, rather than the ones that drive them apart. Freedom is a shared value, but its expressions vary so wildly its use in discourse is likely futile.