The left has gone a little bit mad over the IFS briefing note that claims Osborne’s June was regressive, rather than progressive as he claimed. To be fair, so has the right. They’re both engaging in the traditional political game of yelling ‘But!’ when the other says ‘Ha!’. Impartial commentators (which, as a Lib Dem, I am clearly not) might like to point out that any budget involving reducing state expenditure isn’t ‘progressive’, in the debased ethical sense of the term rather than the fiscal one. This is a simple consequence of the math of power: the relative ability of a poor person to influence society is significantly less than the rich. The impact of one’s vote on society is directly proportional to the power of the state, so reducing the influence of the state reduces the influence of the less well off on society relative to the rich. As a consequence, I have never claimed that the Coalition’s acts have been progressive, although I have claimed that they were necessary.
The missing factor in this discussion is, of course, the alternative to Osborne’s budget, which one can clearly infer would be a Labour one – the ‘cuts deeper than Thatcher’ line uttered by Darling rather implies that Labour budget wouldn’t be progressive either. Indeed, if we look at this statement on Labour’s deficit reduction plans we find that they too planned to cut benefit spending, alongside other cuts. We don’t know which part of the benefit system they’d take the knife to – but given they’d already looked at cutting housing benefit, it seems likely Labour would’ve cut that too.
We’re back in a situation in which the left is mindlessly jumping up and down without presenting any real alternatives, and the Conservatives are probably wondering why they bother. This is mindless oppositional politics without any constructive engagement, as I’ve said before.
August 25, 2010
Part 14 of blogging my way through my first reading of Atlas Shrugged. You can find the first part here.
Chapter 14: The Sanction of the Victim
The title of this chapter refers to Rand’s argument that socialism functions by fostering a moral climate in which the successful feel guilty for their success and so accede to having their wealth removed from them. This moral climate is, to Rand, a mechanism of control over the productive. The inverse argument, which is that Rand’s own morality functions as a mechanism of control over the less productive, doesn’t seem to have occurred to her.
The argument is illustrated by Rearden’s appearance in court in this chapter over the matter of his illegal dealings with Kenneth Danagger. Rearden and Danagger had traded amounts of the commodities they produced in excess of the limits imposed by the Government, because otherwise both of them would’ve found it very difficult to continue trading – Rearden needed coal for his furnaces, and Danagger required metal supports to shore up his mines. This particular law is a ridiculous conceit dreamt up by Rand to illustrate how appalling socialists are – constraining successful individuals because they can’t achieve that much themselves. This violation of reality would be more acceptable if Rand hadn’t decided to ignore how US law actually works in order to make Rearden the hero of the courtroom.
Rearden refuses to co-operate with the trial, refusing to enter a plea and refusing to offer a defence. He does this because he wants the ‘real face’ of the court to be seen – i.e. force to be used to control him. Unfortunately for Rand, under US law a plea is submitted on the defendant’s behalf by the judge, and refusing to defend yourself normally means you simply lose. Consent is not required; sanction is not sought. The law is backed by force; the idea that men would quibble over its use is a conceit only found in the mind of Rand.
I have, previously in this blog, talked about Rand’s bizarre attitude towards sex and how it entails a man wanting to despoil a woman and that women should be happy to surrender to that. This chapter adds another facet to that women-hating concept, courtesy of Mr d’Anconia, claiming that real men only want women who are difficult to conquer and in possession of purity. Yes, for Rand, sexual purity is a virtue women should possess. It doesn’t matter what other virtues you possess, if you’re a slut then Rand doesn’t think you’re worthwhile woman. Good going on the sexual liberation front, there!
This does work both ways, to a certain extent. Rand’s male Mary Sue (Marty Sid?) Francisco d’Anconia who in previous chapters has been portrayed as a playboy, is revealed to have only slept with one woman ever and to have worked to make up his reputation. So that’s alright then; despite Rand’s attestations to the pleasures of the flesh, she doesn’t really believe in actually doing it.
Part 15 is here.
August 18, 2010
The Guardian today put up a piece asking ‘What is Cameronism?‘, and offering up answers from a wide variety of ‘worthies’ including David Milliband, that well-known scholar of the Tory party. These answers range from the moronically vituperative (“I doubt he has a seriously ideological bone in his body”) to the slavish (“It is a belief in enterprise and aspiration”). None of them use the expression “One Nation Conservatism“, which is a pity, since it appears to be what Cameron himself thinks he believes.
This is the philosophy of Government that puts in the state in the role of a benevolent stand-offish parent; only intervening when you’ve messed up or done something particularly naughty. It is designed to counter growing divisions in society by providing everyone with the tools they need to achieve the goals they seek; it aims at unity and solidarity across class barriers. This is the root of Cameron’s concept of the Big Society: the notion that everyone in the country will share responsibility for delivering morally worthwhile goods. It stands in contrast to the emphasis on social divisions implicit in both Thatcherite and Old Labour models of thinking; where the poor are labelled as unworthy and workshy, and the rich are cast as vicious and uncaring.
Cuts in benefits should be seen in this context – they are aimed at reducing the social division caused by the existence of long-term unemployment funded by the State’s largesse, which creates a clear ‘Other’ in the minds of the middle classes. Claiming that the Tories are picking on the poor only makes sense if you believe the Tories have a clear determination to earmark particular social classes for particular opprobrium; under this philosophy, they do not.
This philosophy is, in many ways, superficially similar to liberalism, which is why the coalition has taken. However, the key contrast between it and a more classically liberal approach to government is that a liberal does not believe it is the role of the state to promote a particular type of living that’s conducive to unity across classes – witness the debate over the marriage tax rebate, for example. This implicit recourse to moralism is one of the many reasons I would never consider voting for the Conservatives.
One nation conservatism has been Cameron’s intuitive philosophy for years – his Broken Britain rhetoric referred not to e.g. sink estates themselves, but to the lack of unity and social divisions they engendered. Labour – and the Guardian – does not understand this, and are likely to continue portraying the cuts as the rich attacking the poor. The nature of these cuts will give the lie to this claim, ensuring that Labour have many years in the wilderness ahead of them.
August 16, 2010
While I still think of myself as nominally left-wing (although my despair at the insanities perpetrated by both sides of the political spectrum is pushing me into being an avowed centrist), I am nonetheless taken aback by the sheer scale of the vitriol that has been visited on the coalition government by the likes of the Guardian. It reminds me of nothing other than the petty little madmen who haunt the comment threads of Daily Mail articles, spewing venom about the dreadful things those foreigners are doing to our green and pleasant land. There’s something particularly pathetic about the intellectual laziness of simply opposing that which you don’t like while offering nothing positive by way of exchange.
That’s why Sunny Hundal’s decision to join the Labour Party came as something of a disappointment. I’d always rather liked the standard of debate on LibCon, and went so far as to submit an article of my own to it last weekend. The project of providing a proper alternative to neoliberalism – a real contribution to the national debate – is one that’s close to my heart. Instead, Sunny has decided to oppose, giving opposition to the coalition as the prima facie reason for joining the Reds. This visceral opposition has been playing out across the pages of the Guardian since the election, and thus far has done nothing but attempt to downplay any achievement (witness the BBC’s description of falling unemployment as ‘unemployment has so far failed to rise) and hypothesise awful futures based on nothing more than that opposition.
This is not the left. Like many young people, I viewed myself as left-wing because I believed it referred to a politics of constant change, constant revolution – not vicious reaction against it. The left puts forward ideas, the right opposes on the grounds of their love of stasis. This is what I believed the political wings represented. This is clearly no longer the case.
I choose to remain radical. I choose to remain for, not against. I choose to remain a Liberal Democrat.
August 9, 2010
Part 2: Either-Or
Yes, we’ve reached the second part of this mighty tome! The title is a little odd: it’s either a bizarre reference to Kierkegaard’s work of the same name, or a poncey reference to Rand’s Manichean approach to individuals – they’re either worthwhile or they’re not.
Chapter 11: The Man who Belonged on Earth
I’ve realised, following my reading of annajaneclare’s blogging of The Fountainhead, that I haven’t been sharing with you much of Rand’s writing – which is a shame, as it’s through metaphors as brazen as the Sun that she constantly reinforces her narrative. For example, at the start of this chapter Dr Stadler is pacing his office…
‘Spring had been late in coming. Beyond the window, the dead gray of the hills looked like the smeared transition from the soiled white of the sky to the leaden black of the river. Once in a while, a distant patch of hillside flared into a silver-yellow that was almost green, then vanished. The clouds kept cracking for the width of a single sunray, then oozing close again.’
Wow. In AtlasWorld, even the seasons respond to the economic climate, as though socialism causes global cooling. Wyatt’s patch of green grass has been snuffed out. You know, in case somehow the metaphor passed you by. Perhaps you’ve been struck temporarily dead.
Stadler is raging against a pamphlet produced by Dr Ferris, the lobbyist for the State Science Institute. The pamphlet is a collection of aphorisms that Rand seems to believe count as socialist wisdom:
‘Thought is a primitive superstition. Reason is an irrational idea. The childish notion that we are able to think has been mankind’s costliest error.’
‘That gray matter you’re so proud of is like a mirror in an amusement park which transmits to you nothing but distorted signals from a reality forever beyond your grasp.’
‘So you think you’re sure of your opinions? You cannot be sure of anything. Are you going to endanger the harmony of your community, your fellowship with your neighbours, your standing, reputation, good name and financial security – for the sake of an illusion? For the sake of the mirage of thinking that you think? Are you going to run risks and court disasters – at a precarious time like ours – by opposing the existing social order in the name of those imaginary notions of yours which you call you convictions? You say that you’re sure you’re right? Nobody is right, or ever can be. You feel that the world around is wrong? You have no means to know it. Everything is wrong in human eyes – so why fight it? Don’t argue. Accept. Adjust yourself. Obey’
The ‘reality forever beyond your grasp’ bit is particularly irksome to me, because of who it’s a reference to. Rand hated Kant. Really, really hated Kant. She dubbed him a ‘monster’ and ‘the most evil man in history’. This is something of an achievement for a chap who never left Konigsberg.
However, as anyone who knows me knows, Kant is my favourite philosopher by a long stretch. Rand is here referring to Kant’s distinction between noumena and phenomena, between the object in itself and the object as perceived. We can never know the noumena fully, as we can only access it via the modes of our senses. Rand railed against this distinction as denying one’s ability to access the objective world, thus reducing its importance. To Rand, material acquisition is everything, and denial of one’s knowledge of one’s acquisition is tantamount to labelling it meaningless.
Unfortunately for Rand, she’d radically misunderstood Kant, and placing an aphorism associated with his work alongside others proclaiming the impossibility of reason is an insult so grievous that I’m half-tempted to say that anyone who follows her philosophy should be made to suffer for it. Rand didn’t realise that saying one couldn’t know a thing in itself is not equivalent to saying that one cannot know the thing. Kant merely claimed that we can only interpret objects via the modes we use to interpret the world – you cannot consider anything without placing them into the categories of time and space, for example. You can never know an object spacelessly and timelessly. But this doesn’t mean that everything you receive from your senses is rendered meaningless – far from it. Rather, we combine information about an object to synthesise new concepts about it. Direct access is impossible, but conceptual access is available to the rational.
My little Kant rant (ooh, rhymey) over, let’s get back to the pacing Stadler. He’s waiting for Dr. Ferris, with the intention of berating him. Ferris is late, because everything’s stopping working in the absence of motive force – i.e. Rand’s aristocracy of talent. Stadler finds himself befuddled by Ferris, mostly because Stadler finds himself unable to demand that Ferris stop behaving like a little shit. Ferris acknowledges that the book is worthless tripe, but claims that it’s useful as an agent of social control.
Dagny summons the pathetic Stadler to New York, to help her figure out her magic static engine. Stadler claims that the chap who designed it ‘discarded our standard assumptions’ and ‘formulated his own premise’ – i.e. did magic.
This is not how science works. You can’t convert a lower level of energy into a higher level of energy without inputting additional work, or tearing a hole in the universe. Maybe I’m being too hard on Rand’s engine; for the rest of my readthrough I shall assume the magic engine rips the universe a new one to make itself work.
Stadler is portrayed as seeking Dagny’s approval in a bizarre way, much like the Government operative who comes to Rearden’s office to demand his sells 10,000 tonnes of Rearden Metal to the Government for something called ‘Project X’.
In Rand’s defence here, this was the 1950s and Project X was still a serious name, rather than a porno channel.
Rearden makes short work of the lackey, refusing to sell the Metal and daring him to use force. The lackey refuses, still seeking Rearden’s consent.
So non-titans need the consent of titans to take their stuff. Why?In the real world, people just take things when they have more guns than the other chap.
Dagny and Rearden spent some time enjoying themselves with the trappings of wealth – actually enjoying them mind, not like those playboys who are meant to be enjoying them.
Rearden is again a teenager, this time discovering alcohol and clubbing for the first time – ‘My enjoyment is special, because I’m awesome!’
More weird consent stuff. More insults to proper philosophers. More pathetic teenage egotism. I’m not a fan of this chapter. Can you tell?
Part 12 is here.