Electoral Anger

April 19, 2011

An interesting post from Chris Dillow on Cameron’s ‘gut feelings’ around the AV referendum. Interesting indeed, because towards the end of the post he appears to be moving towards a similar ‘gut feeling’ about the lack of justice inherent in the power structures Cameron is seeking to defend.

He is right to do so; one of the features of this referendum has been the very clear dividing line between those who are seeking to defend our current structures of power and those who are seeking to overturn them, however slightly. At the gut level, liberalism is about power – not legalistic theories or shopping lists of rights. It’s about feeling – and I do mean feeling – that the concentration of power in the hands of any one individual or group is an abomination. If necessary, that power must be wrested from them and distributed as widely as possible.

AV accomplishes that in a minor way by permitting preferential voting, handing voters the power to express their democratic preferences outwith the framework of the main parties without simultaneously losing their influence. It is bad for the sort of American-style tribal politics which keeps the electorate locked up in two boxes, never allowing a diversity of opinion to flourish. To oppose it is revealing – it implies that you prefer to restrain public opinion, lest it become too diverse and your interests become threatened. It is this, therefore, which lies at the root of the opposition of rightwing libertarians; to them, freedom is only something that is acceptable inasmuch as it does not threaten the interests of capital. That is not liberalism, and is indeed a long way from it.

So therefore, my fellow campaigners, I would urge you to get angry. The polls aren’t looking good for us, and the only thing that might save the campaign right now is reaching out at the gut level to our latent supporters – who are everyone whose interests do not lie in the current structures of power.

Something’s bothering me about one of the arguments used by the NO2AV campaign:

1) AV benefits the least unpopular party

2) AV will benefit the Lib Dems

3) You should vote against AV because the Lib Dems are unpopular.

Bit of a big assumption there, wouldn’t you say?

The Enmeshed Self

April 12, 2011

I’ve often thought that the history of continental philosophy since Kant can be thought of as a fight between the Master and his Germanic successors, with occasional interventions from their European cousins. I’ve been reminded of this view after finally finishing Zizek’s The Sublime Object of Ideology, which has taken me quite  a while to plough through.

It’s taken so long because I’ve had to read every paragraph twice, once to think to myself, ‘This is nonsense’, and a second time to confirm that it was, indeed, nonsense. Zizek is the intellectual equivalent of those business ‘gurus’ who churn out book after book on the one business idea they’ve ever had; typically, this idea is plausible in its original context but stretches to breaking point when applied elsewhere. This is certainly true of Zizek’s pet theory, Lacanian psychoanalysis, which works in a limited number of cases (helpfully, all the ones that Zizek chooses to mention) but when pushed beyond its comfort zone generates the impression of philosophical cogs grinding out of synch in a desperate effort to insert a square peg into a round hole. I’m sure Zizek would have a lot to say about that metaphor, probably involving willies.

The book’s ostensible object is to provide a psychoanalytic theory of how ideologies can be understood and how it comes about that they change. ‘Ideology’ in this sense is a explanation of the world with accompanying prescriptive force that coalesces around a particular word, like ‘communism’. Implicit in this approach is the necessity of a person possessing an ideology that allows them to interpret the world, and that such a thing can only be damaged by a traumatic experience. This is so obviously stupid that I wouldn’t blame you for stopping reading now, but thankfully the main point of this piece has nothing to do with this. It is, however, a salutary lesson on trying to learn anything about the human condition from extremes of trauma, equivalent to trying to learn how a car works after it’s been wrapped around a lamppost.

What is interesting, however, is the way in which this ideological approach to human behaviour cashes out. It consists of the system of signifiers that Zizek would claim constitutes an individual’s relationship to society, signifiers which possess a prescriptive force. The best example is money. Money does not contain, as an essence, the value which it bears – a fiver does not contain five pounds in some essential sense, but we act as though it does, when it reality we know it doesn’t. It is part of our relationship to society; one could follow Hegel by saying that you are your money if you wanted to be pointlessly Hegelian about it (cf. Zizek).

We know that money isn’t in reality value – it’s merely its representative, its bearer. Value is something we determine ourselves. Not so, says Zizek: money is a real social relationship, because we act as though it were value itself. We’re back in obviously stupid territory, but the point I wish to bring out is that under this approach any social judgement or decision you make can be cashed out as referring to something real in which one is enmeshed as a consequence of one’s ideology. It is not enough to simply accept that money does not bear value as a real thing; by acting as though it did we remain bourgeois capitalist pigs or something similarly inflammatory.

You are bound to your ideology, regardless of what you think about it. Zizek’s main philosophical move to try to justify this is to claim that Kant’s transcendental self (the collection of categories that determine how we encounter the world) is necessarily historically situated in the midst of a network of social signifiers like ‘money’, and Kant’s discovery of the transcendental categories should be seen from this perspective. The ‘obviously stupid’ continues, with lashings of ‘obviously circular’.

However, Zizek has lots of fans on the left, and I’d like to highlight what this approach would mean for any particular theory of judgements – in other words, how a Zizekian would describe the process of bringing a particular item under the heading of a broader concept or principle, as we do when we’re making decisions. I’d like to distinguish between moral and pragmatic judgements – the latter carrying a prescriptive force not based upon one’s own determination of the best possible outcome of one’s decision-making.

If a judgement is necessarily social – as it would be for the Zizekian, being bound up in a web of social signifiers and having no place for individual action outwith that web – then it is necessarily moral. Acting in accordance with a particular ‘ideology’ implies accepting all of its moral tenets; a ‘liberal bourgeois’ act like, say, appreciating classical art makes you complicit in the exploitation of the proletariat. In contrast, a right-wing libertarian would distinguish between moral and pragmatic judgements; moral judgements are those which relate to the property of other people, while pragmatic judgements concern one’s own property. Acting pragmatically towards the property of others – say, appropriating their property if you judge your need to be greater than theirs – is forbidden.

On the latter viewpoint, the world is divided into people and things; to the Zizekian, there is no such division – everything has implications for people, and so is necessarily concerned with ‘ideology’. It’s worth noting at this point that to the sections of the left that hold this or a similar view, the cuts made by the Coalition Government are necessarily ideological; indeed, they cannot be otherwise. They are undertaken from a particular pattern of signifiers that determines their moral content. Therefore, this objection to the cuts is both accurate and trivial.

Finally, I’d like to sketch out the distinction between the brand of liberalism I advocate and the two positions outlined above. To me, there is no distinction between moral and pragmatic judgements, because all judgements are necessarily pragmatic. Please do not misunderstand this position – there is an implication of callousness in the word ‘pragmatic’ that fails to encapsulate my meaning. Your goals – whether they be to aid or hinder others – are determined by the relationship between your desires and the process of reflecting upon your judgements that leads to concept formation. The achievement of those goals is where the field of pragmatic judgements lies; one must be pragmatic inasmuch as one is deducing the best method for achieving what one considers to be the good.

I’m in Wales taking the role of an expert on windpower for a consultation by National Grid on grid extensions for new windfarms. You’ll probably be thinking, “Wow, thrilling stuff!”, and you’d be right to think that – especially if you live here.

This development will have a significant impact on the lives of people around it, and no-one is pretending otherwise. The purpose of the consultation is to minimise that impact via the feedback of local people. My role is to put the broader case for the expansion of windpower to give attendees an understanding as to why this work is being carried out.

During the course of this, I’ve noticed something interesting, something I would describe as a potential market failure. The biggest opposition to the proposals comes from a demographic labelled ‘white settlers’ – people who’ve moved out to rural areas, normally from England and normally after retirement.

They’ve bought property out here for various reasons, but the ones I hear cited most often are the quiet and scenery, both of which will be impacted by new pylons and the construction work around them. They say this will affect the price of their property.

The interesting thing – and what I’d describe as a market failure – is that if this does occur it’ll do so without impacting the actual bearer of that value – namely, their house. It will remain the same collection of bricks and mortar as it did when they bought it. The actual property right they bought – the right to their house – has nothing to do with the environment in which it is situated and yet the market behaves as if this is the case.

There are a collection of legal rights associated with living in a particular place, around noise and pollution and so in, but they are attached to persons, not to property, and so have a quite different status. You don’t buy the right to a quiet life by moving out to the country, but the market behaves as if you do.

While some may simply shrug and say ‘Caveat emptor’, that’s not an appropriate response – people feel genuinely betrayed that their purchase hasn’t entitled them to the environment they expected. Is there a possible solution?

I would argue that we need to separate out particular rights relating to amenity explicitly, and confer on them the status of a community right attached to a property. You would not be required to purchase that right if you bought a property, but you would then have no recourse if that right were transgressed by an external party. Developers could then purchase, say, the right to an average level of background noise as a consequence of a particular development, or lease it over a period of construction. This would offset the impact on property values that would otherwise occur, assuming a market rate were paid, and smooth the process of gaining consent for a development.

While it may be objected that such a system would be unbearably complicated, those objecting have clearly never encountered the planning system. We need a mechanism to ensure that the relationship between property rights and nearby development is transparent and equitable, and as a good liberal I’d say expanding the scope of property rights is the way to do it.

I’ve been watching 10 o’clock Live over the past few weeks, to see if Lauren Laverne will ever be trusted to talk about the news without being pre-recorded, to see if Jimmy Carr will finally catch on to the fact that one-liners don’t really work for satire, to see if David Mitchell will finally accept that he’s not John Humphreys, and to see the hunted look in Charlie Brooker’s eyes as he realises that if he wasn’t on the show he’d be taking the piss out of it. Mr Brooker has discovered too late that the way in which the British Establishment crushes dissent is by absorbing dissenters within it, like an extremely well-mannered amoeba.

To be fair, it’s got marginally better in recent weeks. Last night’s show wasn’t too bad, and it did have an interesting illustration of a conflation that’s doing the rounds of left-wing thought, which I’d like to bring out.

Each show has a panel discussion on a major topic of the day, this week focusing on the deficit as a consequence of Saturday’s protests. On the panel were Tory columnist Danny Finklestein (who was comprehensively beaten), socialist gnome Laurie Penny and an economist whose name I immediately forgot. This was intentional – she ruined her credibility by claiming that we didn’t need to deal with the deficit immediately because our debt was short-term, unlike that of Greece. This is simply wrong – over half of gilts in issue have redemption dates in 2019 and beyond. It’s also wrong in relation to her point – if there are years left before we need to refinance our debt, current interest rates are less important than long-term interest rates, so we have a little more breathing room before we need to deal with the deficit. In contrast, if our debt was short-term, we’d need to deal with it immediately. The former was an argument made by the left immediately after the election, but seems to have fallen out of favour lately – which is a shame, as it’s actually a good argument for a slight delay to the cuts.

While we can probably ignore any substantive point made by the economist on the basis that she made such a basic error, there was an interesting interplay between at least one of her points and the points made by Gnomegirl. The economist said that there was no need to tackle the deficit in the short term, as a strong investment in infrastructure like that undertaken by China and the US would help kick-start growth. As I pointed out the other day, the amount of growth this strategy would require is infeasible without also taking deficit-reduction actions. However, the economist’s point was immediately followed by Gnomegirl talking about the need to maintain spending on social issues. And herein lies the conflation.

It’s become an article of faith on the left that ‘spending’ itself can be maintained to kick-start the economy, and that this argument covers spending on social goods. It doesn’t. The economist was right to say that investment in infrastructure can stimulate demand – but this doesn’t apply to all spending on social goods.

Money spent on, say, looking after the mentally ill or the elderly is not an investment, it’s a cost to the wider economy, and it’s a cost we pay because it’s the right thing to do. Looking after people with behavioural problems or on helping disabled people into work also has a cost – an opportunity cost, as the money could be used more productively elsewhere. Nevertheless, we spend that money because everyone deserves a good chance at making the best of themselves that they can.

However, this is why cuts always hit the most vulnerable in society first – because they represent the biggest cost to the wider economy. This is something that’s not often said, but is true – and efforts by those on the left to disassociate themselves from this by asking ‘Why?’ are made in bad faith, because they know it too. Unless you think social spending should be maintained until bankruptcy, you have to accept that there’s a point when it has to be curtailed so that money can be spent on more productive activities. Attempting to conflate investment with social spending is an attempt to run away from this truth, which is why it’s so popular. But no-one who does it can be taken seriously, which is why Ed Milliband’s presence at Saturday’s rally was such a strategic mistake.

If you want to use investment to kick-start the economy and grow our way out of the deficit, you’ll need to cut social spending to pay for it. Whichever approach you take, the most vulnerable are going to suffer. The pathetic left-wing approach of hanging on and hoping for another alternative is a recipe for ensuring that the vulnerable suffer more in the longer term. In the dreadful calculus of human misery, I know which option I’d rather take.