April 23, 2013
In the previous posts in this mini-series, we’ve looked at how Alasdair MacIntyre’s approach to ethical questions can provide an interesting way of examining contemporary politics. Today I want to look at the political theory most influenced by MacIntyre: that of Ed Miliband’s One Nation.
MacIntyre advocates political communities bound together by a shared conception of the good and an understanding of the role of each individual within the effort to achieve that good. That understanding is learned through tradition and through story, and with it comes an understanding of what is owed to you for the successful fulfillment of that role. The latter is MacIntyre’s concept of ‘desert’, distinguished from other concepts as what is owed to you for playing a role in the community rather than what is owed to you for the value of your labour under current market conditions. Political narratives, in this sense, tell the story of the nation as the party would like to present it, and in doing so allocate roles for all its members – and what those members deserve as a consequence of playing them.
‘One Nation’ is the direct result of Miliband’s interest in Blue Labour. This is the brainchild of Maurice Glasman, who was inspired by MacIntyre’s work. Blue Labour strongly emphasises the importance of community to Labour’s traditional working-class voters, and portrays Labour as the party of the Common Good and the heir to British democratic traditions. In working-class communities, so the story goes, an understanding of one’s role and one’s place is provided – you are apprenticed into a position, work in it for the rest of your life, and receive a fair (or ‘living’) wage for what you do. It is not your role to be exposed to market forces, simply to work – and to be rewarded for that work.
It is worth noting at this point that the traditional role of women in these communities was child-rearing and domestic service, and that MacIntyre has little to say about the role of women. Indeed, Glasman has been accused of regarding women with something like a bemused contempt, although he has made efforts to avoid that accusation. It remains unclear, however, how any political theory that places such an important emphasis on defined roles within communities could avoid chauvinistic communities arising, as has historically been the case.
The connection between Blue Labour and MacIntyre should be obvious. What interests me today is the way in which Miliband has attempted to cash this political theory out into a political story, a story entitled One Nation. The language used in his speech on the subject is very MacIntyreian:
“Today I want to talk to you about the idea of One Nation. The idea of a country which we rebuild together, where everyone plays their part.”
The One Nation project is a vision of a Britain as a national community with roles for all to play and to receive what they deserve. This stands in contrast to the present:
“While a very few people at the top are doing well, so many people feel their prospects diminishing, their insecurity rising.[…] They believe the system is rigged against them.
They believe that the country isn’t working for them.”
Effectively, it is a call for the realignment of every role in the nation into a place wherein everyone receives what they deserve for participating in the life of the nation – if they do indeed participate. This is clearly radical, because it provides a very different understanding of the role of the ultra-rich than the Conservatives, for whom the role of the rich is to be world-striding leprechauns, liable to take away their pot of gold when startled by sudden tax rises. One Nation requires that the ultra-rich take roles in the nation, rather than supervening on it.
This is of course a radically leftist claim. So what does Miliband propose to do? Put in place capital controls to prevent the rich moving their money around? Prevent foreign ownership of key companies?
“We need a new deal for our small businesses who have been let down by the banks. We have to tackle short-termism in the City to enable companies to play their part to contribute to long-term wealth creation. We have to work with business radically to reform our apprenticeships and vocational education, so we use the talents of all young people, including the 50 per cent who don’t go to University.”
It’s pretty much identical to anything any politician from any party could sign up to. The only interesting thing is the language; talk of companies ‘playing their part’ and so on. The facade may be different, but the policy substance remains so much New Labour. While I commend Ed Miliband for having a coherent ideology (unlike others), the lack of radicalism in his proposals makes me believe that his policies may not fully cohere with his beliefs. A leader of a party who can’t propose policies he believes in a result of his own weakness is useful to no-one, and leads to the Labour Party’s current narrative:
- Britain is divided, poor and exploited by the super-rich
- The Coalition is making us poorer and increasing division
- Labour would love to forge us into a bold new coherent nation in which everyone can play their part, but doesn’t have the balls.
Of course, I’m grateful that liberalism’s opponents are so poor, but there’s nothing more frustrating than seeing someone have interesting ideas and then fail to try to implement them as a result of their own pusillanimity. About the only area in which they making some headway is immigration, which One Nation via MacIntyre perceives as destructive to personal identity. If you have a particular role in a community born of its traditions, and a sudden influx of outsiders with different traditions disrupts that community, what is your role now? Glasman’s call for all immigration to be halted is entirely coherent with his ideology, but his subsequent apology for saying something so upsetting is in line with Miliband’s lack of ability to pursue his own beliefs in the face of adversity.
None of this should be surprising to students of history. For fear of invoking Godwin, societies which attempt to allocate roles for people within them have something of a nasty reputation, and in the intellectual cowardice of Blue Labour’s proponents one can see fascists afraid of fascism.
April 19, 2013
Following on from my previous post, I want to discuss MacIntyre’s claim that stories and the roles that people play in them contribute something fundamental to personal identity. This is crucially important to modern politics, because storytelling – in the form of political narratives – is at the core of how parties present themselves and their ideas.
I first encountered the slightly arcane world of political messaging when I began working for the Liberal Democrats many years ago, back when they were cool. Over beers in a bar somewhere in deepest darkest Brighton, I was enthusiastically given the stripped-down story that constituted the Lib Dem narrative in all seats in which we fighting Labour:
- The Government isn’t delivering.
- Labour have let us down.
- Only the hard-working local Lib Dem candidate knows what you want.
This, of course, can be recapsulated around any particular issue, and it’s a useful starting point for this discussion because it’s a very clear statement of the narrative form:
- Setup (Disappointment in Government empathised with)
- Conflict (Traditional sources of hope for change no longer available)
- Resolution (Ergo, vote Lib Dem)
It is, however, fundamentally an impoverished story. The previous discussion covered how MacIntyre’s view of narrative as at the heart of personal identity leads to an interesting point: the tellers of stories shape the lives of those who opt for roles described by those stories. The only role accessible to the audience in this story is that of the disappointee; there is no scope for participation beyond that. There is the audience and the protagonists, and the protagonists are clearly distinguished from the audience. Even the emphasis on empathy and understanding and ‘local’ is insufficient to overcome the difference of roles.
This is significant, because other political narratives have expanded on the roles available to the audience in an interestingly prescriptive way. This week saw the funeral of Margaret Thatcher, whose political narrative can be summarised as:
- The country is in a shocking state
- Reactionary forces, such as unions, want to imprison economic enterprise in their grasp or that of the State
- I shall set you free to enjoy the rewards of your own industry and ingenuity
This narrative ascribes at least two roles to the audience: that of a reactionary force, and that of the industrious and entrepreneurial masses. This faces a very different impoverishment to that of the Lib Dems: that of non-exhaustive roles. The call is for the audience to become protagonists in the battle against the state of the nation, for which Government is an enabler. The audience can either be entrepreneurs or dinosaurs. No other course of action is available.
The roles permitted the audience are non-exhaustive in the sense that people could very well fall outside them; they are not simply the audience, they are active participants in the story. If they are unable to participate, then the story has nothing for them. It is clear that Thatcher believed her own story: the closure of the coal mines was supposed to lead to the of flowering a service economy driven by all the entrepreneurship pent up behind the floodgates of state ownership. One can see Thatcher’s legacy as a tremendous experiment into the fungibility of labour in a context in which there is no other source of wealth available. Unsurprisingly, the answer to the question of, “Can a labour force skilled for a particular profession based in a particular geographic area readily transfer those skills to new employment once the major source of local income is eliminated?” is “No”. The demand by other members of her Government that the newly redundant demonstrate their get up and go by getting on their bikes neglected the fact that bikes costs money. No Conservative government has ever argued for a bike allowance for the unemployed, a fact which must remain a mystery.
Without fungibility of labour, Thatcher’s narrative missed out great swathes of the population, who were left without a role. An interesting analogue of this problem affected the narrative of New Labour, which can be summarised like this:
- Public services you rely on are in a shocking state
- The Conservatives have failed to deliver better services even when times were good
- We will let capitalism rip and feast upon its proceeds in order to deliver better services
This is a an exhaustive narrative; the public are either capitalists or service recipients. The passivity of the latter raises an interesting comparison with the Lib Dem narrative above: one can trace political lineages through the stories they tell, and the shared passivity in both approaches indicates that the Lib Dem strategy was to be Labour, but better.
New Labour assigned a role to capitalists that in the end they could not play: that of a never-ending source of wealth. In this, they failed to define roles which matched reality, in much the same way as Thatcher. The assumption that the reality of people will match a politician’s story about them is all too common in politics.
We can see from the above three stories that impoverishment comes in many guises: that of an ill-fitting role that can just about extend to all, but fails to prescribe that role in an interesting fashion, that of an assumption about how far a role can extend, and that of an assumption about those who play a role which already exists. Political stories do not describe reality, but rather touch upon it lightly in ways which appeal to the politicians that tell them. However, it is easy to describe and condemn with the benefit of hindsight, so in my next post I shall examine Ed Miliband’s version of the One Nation narrative. As something directly inspired by MacIntyre’s work, it should be interesting.
April 16, 2013
I am reading Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue. I fundamentally disagree with this attempt to recast Marxism through Aristotle, but this book provides a very helpful prism through which to view contemporary political debate. It does so because of its resurrection of an ancient idea which is at the core of modern politics, albeit in a very different form: that of the telos of a life. This is a complicated idea which will take a while to unpack, so I ask you to bear with me while I do so.
After Virtue is a rejection of individualism, not simply in political terms but in methodological terms too. Contemporary philosophy in the Anglo-Saxon world typically involves the inspection of whether a particular statement is true, or whether a particular act is moral. This atomistic approach to reasoning, while giving philosophy some of the reductive qualities of science, may literally miss the point: a statement may be true in the context of a corpus of work, or an act may be moral in the context of a particular society. By shearing these items from their context, their instructive value is lost, and any philosophical theories based upon such an analysis may fundamentally fail.
Similarly, if we consider whether an individual leads a moral life without looking at the society in which they were born, raised and live, we may reach very different conclusions. The morality of a society can be considered as bound up in the stories it tells itself, not because they provide rules and regulations which an individual must obey, but rather provide exemplars that individuals who have particular roles in a society should aim to emulate. The Illiad and the Odyssey are epic poems in which particular qualities are manifested by heroes in particular roles, and those qualities are those that ancient Greek society required people in those roles to demonstrate. The aggregate of those exemplars contributes towards an understanding of what the ancient Greek city-states took to be the good for man, which each of those states was striving for in their own particular way.
It is important to note that there is no strong distinction between the qualities that make one a good person and the qualities that make one a good blacksmith; both are types of excellences necessary for a society that aims at the good for man. The qualities that one should manifest are those of the role the story one finds oneself within. MacIntyre contends that personal identity is bound up with a narrative or story-based understanding of one’s life, and from one’s role in the story flows all that one should do.
So far, so Paul Coelho, but this is a fascinating idea to contemplate, not least for the things it says about morality. While I can author my own story, I am much more likely to understand my role in society from the myths and stories it tells. This implies that moral agency, whether someone can be understood as responsible for their own actions, is two-tiered: the individual is responsible for developing the qualities necessary for their role, but storytellers are the authors of society. The inventors of stories ascribe qualities to roles which inform how those roles are to be delivered by their actors. Those actors are us, for whom acting is another word for being human; we can only be understood in terms of the telos of our role. There is no division between art and society, and attempts to claim that there is underestimate the influence of storytelling on our understanding of social roles even without the author intending to so.
If you think this sounds illiberal you would be correct. MacIntyre is explicitly reacting against atomistic individualist liberalism and indeed almost all the moral discourse that has taken place since the Enlightenment. However, MacIntyre’s approach is exceptionally helpful for understanding contemporary politics, not least because he influenced Maurice Glasman and hence Blue Labour, but because the dominant way in which political parties attempt to communicate with the public is through narrative. All the parties have recognised that the best way of getting their message across is through telling a story about what they’re trying to achieve and who they are. In my next post, I shall explain why these stories are impoverished, and why this presents a problem for all political parties.
I have been broadly uninterested in the interminable debate over the passing of Margaret Thatcher; arguments about whose disgust and loathing is better justified hold little appeal (that being said, there’s an interesting article here which ontology fans may enjoy). Even more tedious has been Twitter, which is now the domain of an intense competition over who can be the most meta in their outrage. The Daily Mail has joined in by promoting outrage over an outrageous attempt to demonstrate outrage over Thatcher’s legacy, culminating in the following amazing sentence about a song from a children’s musical:
“The BBC would not confirm exactly what part of the song would be aired tomorrow, but most of the lyrics contain the offensive phrase.”
The Conservative Party is at a loss to know what to do about an instance of free speech about which they happen to disagree, and in being so demonstrate why I will always find their political philosophy repellent.
I am in interested in politics because to be so is the natural outcome of an interest in philosophy and morality; one cannot really describe the morality of the individual without paying some regard to the society in which they find themselves. If one’s interest in politics springs primarily from philosophy, then the most important principle by which anyone’s politics can be judged is that of coherency. Regardless of how much I disagree with someone, if I can see the chain of reasoning behind their approach to politics I can, as a minimum, respect them. The death of Thatcher has revealed the incoherency of conservatism in the UK: at once opposed to taxpayers being hit by pay rises for public servants and then stinging us for a £10 million posthumous bonus for a public servant’s performance in office; at once opposed to restrictions on hate speech, and then clamoring for them when they are the subject of it.
It is a political philosophy that appeals to principle when convenient and emotive rhetoric when principle gets in the way. Moreover, it is a political philosophy that believes in using the State to enforce its incoherent worldview upon the nation: the use of taxpayers’ money to fund a celebration of the life of someone about whom the nation is bitterly divided is precisely that. I dislike it but simultaneously accept it: conservatism is not based on reason, but emotion, and as a liberal I cannot demand that everyone approaches politics in the same way I do. As a result, much like the poor, it will always be with us. It is likely that these two facts are related.
April 9, 2013
To be a liberal is to be in favour of individual liberty. You’d think this is a pretty clear statement, but like all political philosophies, so much depends on how you define the words that make it up. Today I’m interested in ‘individual’. What makes an individual an individual, in the political sense here highlighted? There are at least two popular definitions.
The first is that of the radically autonomous will, the rational maximiser of utility, Homo economicus. In this definition, the individual is a single unitary will that acts to bring about states of affairs which maximise its utility, a general term which covers whatever the individual’s objectives happen to be. They may be happiness, money, peace on earth or anything else besides. More popular amongst economists and right-leaning types, it has the advantage of making very few claims about human nature beyond that it is fundamentally goal-orientated.
The second is that of the embedded will. Under this definition, ‘individual’ as a term makes little sense, as any particular person is constructed by the society in which they happen to find themselves. They do not act as an individual, but rather in accordance with the social ‘class’ they happen to find themselves in, whatever the appearance to the contrary. The individual is therefore a lacuna of apparent decision-making which in reality is the reverse of what it appears to be: your decisions are made as a result of your position in society, and you merely think you’re making them as an individual. If you think this sounds like errant nonsense, I encourage you read Zizek. This approach is more popular on the left, and has the advantage of capturing the role that engagement with others has in informing thought. One can read Wittgenstein’s Private Language Argument as a partial endorsement of this definition; if language is something that must be social in order to have meaning, then our thought is at least in part constructed by the linguistic society in which we find ourselves.
The role both these definitions play in political thought should be clear, and which one you find most comfortable is a useful guide to your political intuitions. For example, I have always found the second definition unsatisfactory: it places society above individual reflection in its methodological approach, paradoxically meaning that determining whether it is correct through individual reflection is impossible. It can therefore only be asserted.
However, the first definition is also unsatisfactory, even though it informs much of my political creed. The radically autonomous will has much in common with the mind/body distinction of Descartes: much like the Cartesian mind, it is not necessarily embodied at all. It can apply to any entity that has goals and utility to be maximised. Gods, if they exist, would be rational utility maximisers. Souls too; economic models could be equally applied to the afterlife as well as this one. Such a broad definition misses something about the very particular experience of being a human on Earth, and more importantly, it is outdated.
Ever since Kant, we have known that the individual will is inextricable from the means by which it perceives the world. Our experiences and thoughts are structured in a particular fashion to which our will is bound; it makes little sense to talk about our experiences outside of the framework of space and time. This approach has been expanded on by a range of philosophers, including Heidegger, who points out that we encounter the world through a web of projects and goals, and that these are in many senses prior to rationality. We cannot encounter a hammer, say, without simultaneously encountering its use. If goals are part of the way in which we encounter the world, then they precede reason and are irrational in and of themselves. While we may make rational plans to achieve our goals, they remain necessarily irrational.
This means there is no reason to presume that we are capable of evaluating our differing goals and identifying which one we prefer in a rational manner. If we cannot do so, then the rational utility maximiser is not simply too broad, it is a fundamentally incorrect way of understanding humans qua individuals. Another way to consider this is to think of the ways in which a human could be teleologically divided: goals for genes, goals for the individual, goals for a society. There is not necessarily a rational way of deciding which of these types of goal to prefer and in some cases they will be incommensurable. I would therefore claim that this Cartesian conception of the individual is highly likely to be fundamentally incorrect.
There is another reason to reject the Cartesian individual, as a liberal: it provides for restrictions on freedom. If we give freedom to individuals qua rational utility maximisers, then in instances wherein they appear to not be rational (i.e. not maximising their utility) and we can identify ways in which their utility could be maximised through restricting their freedom, then we are not prevented from doing so by our conception of ‘individual’ freedom. It is this Cartesian liberalism which lies at the heart of movements like liberal paternalism and much contemporary left-wing thinking. It also informs, bizarrely, the more extreme forms of libertarianism that claim that the mind owns the body and so can sell it into slavery. The notion that the mind can own the body rests upon a separation between the two. The contemporary Conservative Party, much of which is a union between the Cameroonian ‘nudgers‘ and more hard-core libertarians is united in an antiquated understanding of the individual.
I propose that our politics is informed by a very different definition of ‘individual’ to the two above: that of the manifold will. There is no state of affairs for an individual that will necessarily maximise their utility, because they are a bundle of competing goals. Without a rational way to decide what’s best for a person from the outside, the only course for any political philosophy that aims to improve the human lot is to leave much of that improvement up to humans themselves.