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.

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It’s astonishingly easy, it seems, for people who have the privilege of writing in national newspapers to be very, very wrong about very simple things. This is relatively easy to explain: when you’re writing for a newspaper, you’re not writing with the intention of being right, but rather to make the people reading that newspaper feel righteous about themselves. That’s how you keep getting commissioned to write articles for that newspaper: by helping it sell copies.

It’s a privilege all columnists should examine, because it can lead to them being wrong en masse. That’s happened here. To recap, Louise Mensch wrote an article complaining that British feminists spend their time analysing categories of privilege rather than getting out there and making strides for the sisterhood. It’s not surprising that Louise thought this, because she’s a Tory and many contemporary feminist battles over equal pay take place within unions, far away from her ken. However, given that even Cosmo is running a campaign for equal pay, her research may have been limited – or perhaps, given that she’s wealthy, she doesn’t even consider the enormous bulk of the female workforce receiving the same pay for the same work an issue at all. Indeed, her call for a ‘power feminism’ in which women empower themselves by making lots of money and achieving office sounds more like a girly Nietzschianism than something about securing equal rights. There’s a lot of analysis she needs to carry out on her own position before critiquing others.

Painfully, Laurie Penny responded by being nearly right, but as is so typical of the private-school-educated girl she failed to set her argument out properly. ‘Check your privilege’, the three little words that have given birth to far too many other enormous words, simply means to her ‘consider how your privilege affects what you have just said or done.’ This relatively simple phrase is far too easy to misinterpret, as Dan Hodges has taken great glee in doing, because unfortunately one has to talk about about domains and categories before something that is simple really makes any sense to anyone not versed in it. In claiming that it’s simple I’m exemplifying my privilege of having read stuff about this before. However, to start us off easily:

  • CYP only applies to a limited domain of questions. It does not, for example, mean that only a disabled albino can be right about the distance between the Earth and the Moon.
  • CYP does not preclude the possibility of every black person everywhere being wrong about the effects of racism.
  • CYP does not stop well-educated white middle class people being right about most things on account of their education.

It only really refers to the domain of opinion about how people experience things. I can claim that something’s not racist but my only experience of racism is being called a ‘Gyardee Angreszch’ (‘stupid English’) on the streets of Jaipur. That’s an indication both of my privilege and my pomposity. How I analyse and understand the experience of people being racist to someone else is through that framework, which I cannot avoid. Therefore, when someone claims that an act is racist and my initial reaction is to say that it’s not, I should check whether the framework through which I’m analysing that act is adequate. I might dismiss something as a minor sleight, but to someone who’s spent their entire life being told they’re stupid because they’re black, that minor sleight may be yet another reinforcement of a society that’s holding them down. In this instance, they would be right.

Of course, there will be lots of instances when that same framework will work against them. I’ve lost count of the number of tribunals friends and colleagues have been to when they’re trying to get rid of a useless member of staff who’s screamed racism as soon as a P45 was wafted in their direction. Just because society is racist doesn’t mean you’re not rubbish. What this implies is that ‘privilege’ is the wrong word: even if you’re less privileged, you should be aware of you’ve become predisposed to interpret society. I’d prefer ‘Check your framework’ but that’s much less catchy. It’s a useful intellectual discipline for everyone.

What this means is that the villain of this minor commentariat vignette is Laurie Penny. Dan Hodges we can forgive; he doesn’t understand what CYP means and wants the Left to win ultimate victory through the creation of a race of non-reflective Spartan super-campaigners. Louise Mensch we can forgive; she doesn’t understand what CYP means and just wants all women to become world-bestriding Dagny Taggarts. But Laurie Penny does understand what it means and despite that decided to (a) use it in a context ill suited to it (‘What is racist? is a CYP issue, ‘What is an effective way of combatting racism?’ is a much more empirical question once you’ve sorted the first one out) and (b) bemoan having to use it. Learning that you’re wrong is wonderful, because you learn something. Analysing your own position to make sure it’s correct is also wonderful, because it gives you intellectual integrity. Despite this, she used her position as a national commentator to complain about having to learn. That’s a privilege she wants to get sorted out pronto.

I’m a man. I’m in crisis. At least, this is the contention of Diane Abbott and Laurie Penny, who claim I’m currently being oppressed by outdated gender stereotypes about my role in society, and that I feel under constant pressure to get out there and win some bread.

Obviously, they’re not referring to me personally, but to men in the abstract. This Abstracted Man doesn’t understand his place in the world now that women are in the workplace, because he’s been told that he’s got to get out there and earn money for his family while the little woman stays at home looking after the kids.

Who is it who’s saying this? Laurie Penny claims it’s a conglomerate of evil Tories and enigmatic Forces of Conservatism who push the idea that a woman’s place is in the home. Unfortunately for this argument, the forces of Conservatism are exceptionally bad at their job:

Percent Ag

Source: European Values Survey, GB Data

People think that women working doesn’t harm children and that both men and women should win bread. More significantly for the argument to hand, they see both men and women having the same responsibilities for homelife:

men should

Source: EVS Data. This question was only asked in the 08-10 wave.

But regardless. We men are suffering from these social changes, which is why we’re killing ourselves in greater numbers than ever before:

UK Suicide Rate

samaritans

Source: Samaritans

Clearly more men kill themselves than women. It is absolutely true that the suicide rate amongst males rose between 2011 and 2010. It’s also true that it rose amongst women as well. What’s not true is that we have a sudden onset crisis of masculinity that is just begging to be solved; men and women clearly kill themselves at different rates, and may always have done so.

What is a problem is the fact that gender roles continue to be reinforced. Take this example, from someone talking about encouraging employment amongst young men:

The decline of heavy industry and manufacturing jobs has left a lot of men in a position where they don’t feel the jobs on offer – particularly service jobs – are ones they feel comfortable with.[…] We need more advanced, rigorous vocational courses and a new focus on technical learning and skills”

Apparently men are only men if they bang bits of steel together. I’ve spent my entire life being told that men will lose out in the ‘new’ workplaces because we don’t have ‘soft skills’. Unaccountably this hasn’t happened; by and large, men still run the world. However, working class men – to whom the author of the quote was apparently referring – aren’t given the sort of ‘soft’ skills that the men who went to private school and now run the country were given. This is because people like the person who wrote the above, which was taken from Diane Abbott’s speech, keep reinforcing gender roles which require working class men to feel bad about taking service sector jobs. I can guarantee you that middle class men never have this problem.

An extremely limited understanding of the roles that men play in society – which for Diane Abbott is apparently either gang members in Hackney or traders in the City, with nary a fella in between – should disqualify you from pretending to say anything useful about issues relating to men. There are specific issues for working class men which are related to the impact of globalisation & immigration on unskilled labour, but those issues also apply to women with the same skill sets. If demand is increasing for employees in the service sector (which is a big ‘if’) our politicians need to stop banging on about how apprenticeships and big factories are what we need for our young men, and start saying that there’s nothing wrong with men being secretaries. If they don’t, we’re going to continue seeing people with limited viewpoints banging on about a crisis of masculinity year after year.

Shilling for Shale

September 26, 2011

Economic blogger Tim Worstall has been getting very excited about shale gas. Cuadrilla Energy, a company set up to explore for unconventional gas in the UK, are reporting the discovery of 200 trillion cubic feet of the stuff under Lancashire. Tim is positively cock-a-hoop at the prospect of sufficient reserves of fossil fuels to allow us to without ‘damn windmills’ entirely.

I read Tim’s blog on a regular basis, for its amusing deconstruction of left-wing economic tropes, and I am disappointed that Tim hasn’t applied his usual economic rigour here. Shale gas appears to have become something of a magic bullet for certain sections of the Right, but as Tim would normally be the first to say, if your magic bullet is made of platinum and a thousand regular bullets do the same job, it’s probably not worth bothering with.

Tim appears to be putting himself in a box with some rather mad fellow travellers, like James Delingpole and Christopher Booker, perhaps to get a similar Telegraph gig. Let me try to summarise this shared position:

  • Renewables are bad, because they require space in a countryside that must be locked into a sepia-tinted version of the 1950s for the rest of time, are very clearly associated with hippies and filthy left-wingers, and above all are expensive. Tim is currently only espousing the last of these points.
  • A far better way of securing our energy sources is to rely on unsubsidised fossil fuels, which human ingenuity will guarantee cheap and plentiful supplies of for the foreseeable future.

It’s this question of cost that’s at the heart of the current debate, and rightly so – we need to decarbonise our economy, but we need to do it in the most cost-effective way possible. The key question, therefore, is how much shale gas actually costs, rather than how much Tim, James and Christopher think it costs.

To do so we’ll look at some research carried out by the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies. The OIES is partly funded by those well-known opponents of the oil and gas industry, the oil and gas industry. The paper we’ll look at is called ‘Can Unconventional Gas be a Game Changer in European Gas Markets?by Florence Gény.

The paper can be summarised as ‘No, Europe is different, and it’s not clear that shale gas is as profitable and productive in the US as its advocates claim’. The section relevant to our question here is from Chapter 4:

“Although gas production has continued to increase in 2009 and 2010 despite lower prices than in the previous years, there is a big question mark about current well economics. Many public sources estimate that the average price required for shale gas wells to be economic is around $6/mcf. Averages are a very poor measure to use in the case of shale plays, as every play is different, and within plays, core areas and non-core areas yield very different results, but the fact that by late 2010, gas prices had not reached $6/mcf for two years suggests that the commercial viability of many wells drilled, and so the financial solidity of many independents, could be very weak. We believe it is only a question of time before costs drive up prices, or drilling slows downs significantly and production falls. However many independents get financial protection against low gas prices through hedging strategies, so the cash impact of non commercial drilling is mitigated.”

The reduction in the price of gas in the US appears to have been caused by a broader range of drivers, not least the economic downturn and a significant increase in the number of gas processing plants, which convert unprocessed gas into dry natural gas suitable for injection into the gas grid. It’s not clear that shale is the primary cause of lower gas prices – or indeed whether shale gas suppliers can make money out of it when gas prices are low. Certainly, one of the strongest advocates of shale gas production in the US, Chesapeake Energy, made a significant loss in 2009, although they appear to have since climbed out of the hole, primarily by selling off shale gas assets. Cuadrilla doesn’t appear to have ever made a profit, although as a start-up that’s not really a consideration.

What does this mean for ‘damn windmills’? We can plug the $6/mcf figure into the costings report produced by Mott Macdonald for DECC last year. It models a range of gas prices. $6/mcf translates to about 37p per therm. The lower boundary of prices in the Mott Macdonald report is 34p per therm. Looks good for shale, right?

Well, no. The prices in the Mott Macdonald report are ‘burner tip’ prices – i.e. the cost to generators per therm at combustion. The $6/mcf price is the wellhead price, which is typically around $1-2 below the wholesale price. Factoring in the need for shale gas suppliers to make a profit, the burner-tip price of shale gas is going to look a lot more like DECC’s medium case. Under this case, onshore wind turbines will be the cheapest source of electricity by the end of this decade, when the carbon cost of gas is factored in. The latter won’t be a consideration for those who find the very concept of science an affront to their all-knowing egos like Delingpole and Booker, but for Tim, who acknowledges science as a worthwhile field, it will be.

If Tim had written ‘damn tidal mills’ he would’ve been correct. Different types of renewable energy generators will become economically viable at different times. A combination of onshore wind and combined-cycle gas turbines will be the cheapest way of replacing the quarter of our electricity generators that are being shut down over the course of this decade. I don’t mind admitting that, as a fervent supporter of capitalism, I’ve put my money into this solution. I too believe in the power of human ingenuity to provide solutions to our energy problems; I just don’t think it only applies to fossil fuels.

I would also point out that because of the long lead-time on making new sources of energy economically viable, subsidies can be a sensible policy option. For example, in 1980, the US Government brought in ‘The Alternative Fuel Production Credit’ to provide incentives to invest in non-traditional sources of energy. One of those was shale gas.

David Cameron has decided that society is on the verge of a ‘moral collapse‘ following the riots. I find it difficult to envisage what a moral collapse would look like, unless it’s a nun tripping over a dildo; such a term appears to boil down to mere rhetoric. On closer inspection, the thrust of his argument appears to be that Cameron thinks far too few people agree with what he thinks right and wrong to be, and this has caused widespread looting:

“No, [the riots were] about behaviour. People showing indifference to right and wrong. People with a twisted moral code. People with a complete absence of self-restraint.”

Harsh words indeed. Revealed in this speech is the subtle difference between liberalism and Cameron’s one-nation Conservatism; to him, like Labour, the State is a moral agent:

“Government cannot legislate to change behaviour, but it is wrong to think the State is a bystander.”

Much of the speech is concerned with his efforts to use the State to reinforce a ‘better’ morality. This is something with which I will have no truck. It is not the job of the State to mandate morality; one’s moral judgements are one’s own, and having them imposed from an external source is tantamount to removing that most fundamental freedom.

However, there is a subtle distinction to be made. The freedom I believe to be the object of politics is the freedom of individual judgement; to make judgements on a sound basis about oneself, one’s work, one’s pleasures and one’s place in society. These judgements, when aggregated, form the way in which you encounter the world, and as such, can be shown to be incorrect. This freedom includes the freedom to be wrong, and to learn from one’s mistakes. It does not include the freedom to be wrong to the extent that you harm other people. It also does not include the freedom to be free from the judgements of others.

If I believe your decisions are wrong for you, I must be free to say so, in order that you may factor that information into your own judgement-making. Indeed, withholding that judgement is almost wrong in itself; in a society founded upon the development of judgement, withholding relevant information from a person is to impair their ability to develop their own decisions.

We can see that the rioters were not evil, but more bloody stupid. Their decisions have locked them into a shallow facsimile of a life, put without the structures of a society that offers so much. For example, I have argued that taking a position of responsibility with regard to one’s children is both fulfilling and economically worthwhile in terms of the skills it allows you to demonstrate. Feckless fathers are simply incorrect in their decisions, and should be told so.

But for someone to be incorrect, you must provide evidence as to why this is the case. Reaching for morality short-circuits this process by creating values based on nothing more than the prescription of particular activities, rather than developed judgement. It is the case that one can tell someone whether their activities are likely to lead to adverse consequences in terms of their own priorities – one can tell someone that they’re being daft. The State can tell its citizens when they’re being stupid. It cannot, however, tell them that they’re bad; morality is always something up to the individual.

So, go forth and tell the person playing their music too loudly on the bus that if they don’t turn it down other people will think they’re annoying. Judge the activities of your fellow citizens, based on what you think they should be doing. They don’t have to listen, but they should be told.

Why is marriage important?

August 12, 2011

As you might expect, multiple rightwing commentators are blaming London’s riots on the decline in traditional institutions, like marriage. They rail at the unwillingness of ‘liberals’ to condemn non-traditional family arrangements, and the feckless fathers who abandon their offspring. What unites these separate commentators is an inability to understand how their values can be promoted; the emphasis of the right-wing media has always been that things they disagree with are wrong and should be punished, condemned, and – if possible – made illegal.

Putting forward the positives of their values doesn’t really seem to be something they want to do. This is odd, but understandable; it doesn’t require much intellectual firepower to condemn something you don’t like, but putting forward a coherent case for the positive aspects of a way of life requires much more effort.

Or does it? I’d like to focus on the role that fathers play in the debate around marriage, which is really quite unusual. Let’s illustrate this with some talking points, none of which are actually true:

  • The outcomes for children born into two-parent families are better than those with one parent.
  • Single mothers are a massive drain upon the benefits system, and hence the taxpayer.
  • Absent fathers are individuals with no sense of responsibility and who are to blame for much of society’s ills (okay, this one is true in some cases).

The implication is that father should suck it up, knuckle down, pull themselves up by their bootstraps and take responsibility for their children. This is cast as a sacrifice that they’re making for the rest of society. Indeed, significant chunks of contemporary discourse appear to revolve around the sheer awfulness of the arrangement for men. Married men are cast – especially in adverts – as pitiful, unwanted creatures who are inexplicably hanging around after their sperm-donation duties are complete.

Why, then, would men consent to such a non-beneficial arrangement? Leaving love and romance to one side for a moment, marriage as construed above appears to involved the participation of men in an institution in which they are required to act in the public good, and don’t, according to Roger Stirling, even get sex out of.

Popular culture’s view of marriage and relationships is of course largely pointless, but it certainly falls under the heading of ‘messages we give our kids’. There’s a crucial part of the description of marriage which is missing here, and which needs to highlighted. It was summed up by a very wise friend, who got married and had kids at a relatively early age: “You see Adam, when you get settled down with a wife and children, it shows that you are a serious man”.

There used to be a very strong social convention that marriage was something you needed to do to get ahead. It has too easily been discarded as a relic of a bygone age, but there are elements of truth that can be brought out of it. A successful marriage, or indeed a successful long-term relationship, requires a number of skills that are economically relevant, including the ability to form a relationship with another human being based on trust, the ability to share the management of a substantial project – like household management or bringing up children, and the ability to keep your promises. A married man can demonstrate that he has these virtues; it is more difficult for a single man to do so. Moreover, marriage provides the opportunity to constantly exercise them.

By abandoning their offspring, feckless fathers are not simply turning their back on a difficult commitment, but on a social signifier which is economically useful. Various estimates are out there for the size of the premium on lifetime wages this brings, but all research points to it having a significant positive impact. Of course, there are multiple reasons for this impact, not least wanting to work harder to look after your children, but I would not be surprised if the skills aspect of it was not amongst them. This has implications for gay marriage – while it’s illiberal to not allow all sexualities access to the same institutions, it’s downright evil to deny the economic advantage those institutions can bring.

If the Right really wants to promote this particular social value, it needs to get out there into the communities rioters come from and tell these young fathers that if they stand by their offspring they’re much more likely to earn more money. Putting forward a positive case is much more powerful than deriding them as ‘feckless’. As liberals, we don’t want the Government to endorse any particular family structure, but we certainly don’t want to stop people from telling others what their relationships say about their employability.

A Tale of Many Cities

August 10, 2011

I, like many Londoners, am today welcoming the fact that overwhelming force works. Whether one night of calm is enough to put a halt to the riots for an appreciable period of time remains to be seen, but now seems a good time to pause and look at how the story of the riots has unfolded, and what it can tell us about our society.

London has been revealed as not one city, but many cities. In my area, everyone uses the same public transport, the same shops, and the same healthcare services – but even in my relatively small area of London the experience of the city varies enormously from person to person, and from family to family. It’s as though we simply ignore the fact that the other people on the bus are from variously the sort of tightly-knit genuine communities like the Sikhs and Turks who came out to defend their neighbourhoods, from transient foreigners briefly attending London to work, from estate communities propped up by middle-aged women, and many more besides. These groups socialise in different places, get different types of services from the State, and have a whole panoply of different rituals and traditions, both formal and informal.

London can be seen as place of multiple overlapping networks of people, which only cross in a few shared spaces. The metaphor underlying this was brilliantly brought out by China Mieville’s work The City & the City, in which two cities exist in the same place but the inhabitants of both are forbidden from admitting that they see each other. The experience of the Sikhs is not the same as the experience of the underclass responsible for the riots, just as much as the experience of the Turks is not the same as the experience of the greater bourgeois meta-culture of which I am a proud member.

The latter comprises a significant number of sub-groups, ranging from the hipsters of Shoreditch, the young professional families of Richmond, the Boat People of the canals, to the community of political apparatchiks of the Westminster Bubble. The tenuous threads that bind them are an appreciable level of prosperity and education as well as varying degrees of support for the institutions that comprise public life, including Parliament in the sense of the mechanism of Government, the rule of law and the volition of the individual. Their political positions range across the spectrum, but their actual stance is unimportant for the purposes of this classification, as in real terms they are the ‘public’ that ‘debates’.

The riots have brought this out in an unexpected way. The left has been arguing for more understanding, the right has been arguing for more punishment, but both have taken as read that the fate of the rioters and the city they represent lies in our hands. No-one has suggested that the rioters should take responsibility for their own destiny – not in the moral sense of their immediate action in the riot, but in the broader sense of determining their own relationship with society. Instead, it is to be our meta-culture which determines what we do with them.

Whether you’re calling for more youth services or the return of caning, you are part of this – as am I, by writing this blog post. I have never heard anyone ask what we should ‘do’ about the Shoreditch hipsters, who befoul our streets with their ridiculous clothes, or what we should ‘do’ about professionals pushing up the house prices out of the reach of ordinary folk. These people are not within our power to command, and rightly so.

Why then, do we do it for the underclass? The answer is that they are in our command, from decade upon decade of institution-building designed to contain them. Labour had thirteen years in which they tried all manner of ideas around dealing with the underclass, including ASBOs and the expansion of ‘youth services’. They gave people enormous opportunities to ‘care’ about the fate of the underclass, and to work to ensure that they got better lives. They permitted the police to heavy-handedly contain its more troublesome elements. I think it’s pretty safe to say that they failed. If they had genuinely succeeded in fostering resilient communities, they wouldn’t riot as soon as someone threatened to take the institutions that helped them away.

It’s been pointed out that the riots had more in common with prison riots than traditional civil disputes. The institutionalisation of the underclass is a clear reason as to why this is the case. The panoply of support services on offer reduces the children they are set up for to numbers moving through a system of people whose job it is to tick boxes against each of their names. Remember the complaints from social workers about the managerialisation of their profession, which they argued led to the death of Baby P? The same cause is at work here; a surfeit of high-level care which removes the scope for individual judgement from both the service provider and the individual engaged in the system.

This managerialism converted London into a vast open-air prison for the underclass, a place in which they could be assured of being fed, clothed and housed, but could not join our meta-culture, because the individual volition necessary to do so had been systematically removed. Even in this environment, as in a prison, the underclass desperately longed to set up their own institutions, which would belong to them in the same way that Parliament belongs to us. Hence, postcode gangs, a bizarre phenomenon parasitic on an arbitrary bureaucratic method of dividing geographical areas. This is another city which sat along side us on the bus, and we ignored.

Calls for the restoration of youth services – a de facto reward for rioting – will only continue this divide. What we need to do instead is to bring them into our city, rather than leaving them in a city we run as a fiefdom. I’m confident that they want this, as their first move upon breaking their restraints was to engage in a grotesque imitation of a bourgeois shopping spree.

Unfortunately, they’ve just burned down the bits of the city we could’ve used to do this. No-one is going to invest in Tottenham now – even if they wanted to, I suspect the insurance premiums for all the affected areas are going to skyrocket.

Regardless, we still need to develop a framework in which this transition can be made. It cannot be run by the Government, as more institutionalisation is not what is required right now. We need to give these communities space, and access to the institutions to which we hold dear. We need to give them the freedom to realise that their judgements in our social context can lead to success.

However, first of all we need to lock a large number of them up for quite a long time. The key to being part of our city is to understand that if you break the law, there are consequences.

Death, and its fan club

August 1, 2011

This is Anders Breivik:

He believes that someone – specifically him – has the right to kill other people.

This is Paul Staines:

He believes that someone – specifically, a state-appointed murderer – has the right to kill other people.

Equating people you disagree with to murderous child-killers is a churlish argumentative technique, I would normally aver. Even in this more exceptional case, it still feels somewhat distasteful. The reason I have used it is that Staines’ campaign to re-instate the State’s right to kill child murderers (like Breivik) and cop killers throws the question of what death is – and whether it constitutes a suitable punishment for anything – into harsh relief.

The nature of death is not widely discussed in our society, beyond the witterings of teenage Goths. The rest of this post will therefore most likely resemble bad teenage angst poetry, because it’s very difficult to talk about death without lapsing into cliche.

Death represents the end of consciousness; the end of the means by which we have access to the material world, and the end of any possibility of altering one’s fate. It is the end of all experience. As such, it’s something I’d quite like to avoid if at all possible, being a fan of my continued experiencing of the world. However, inevitably, one day I shall die and my consciousness will end. I will cease to be in a sense which is fundamentally unimaginable; one cannot even conceptualise the absence of imagination, thought or conscious awareness, for they are the means by which anything is conceptualised. It is ultimately unknowable, the boundary of knowledge and the limit of understanding. It’s pretty bad.

What it is not, however, is punishment. Everyone dies, eventually. The death penalty simply means bringing this date forward. Breivik’s victims were not punished by their murder. My grandmother was not punished by dying. Punishment is an adverse outcome for a particular crime or transgression, but death is the end of any possible outcome, the termination of potential adversity. Certainly, death is a bad thing, as we cherish continued existence, but not all bad things are punishments. Being threatened with death, or being on death row, is a punishment, because you’re there to experience you not wanting to die. But as soon as you’re killed that want vanishes and it no longer makes sense to say that you’re being punished. How could you be? You’re dead. I am glad that the Moors murderers have spent decades in confinement, rather than being granted a swift death after they were judged, as that is far more punishing than a simple death could ever be.

Killing is not a punishment. Rather, it is an elimination – a removal of a potential threat to our existence. That is why we mandate the State to kill on our behalf in war. That is why we grant the right to kill in extreme self defence. If we kill child murderers and cop killers, we portray them as threats to our society, to our existence. To do so is a very dangerous thing, because it allows politicians to claim that they are defending our society by killing people who are not genuinely a threat to it (click for big):

Sources: National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund & Death Penalty Information Centre

In the US, executing more people doesn’t reduce the number of cops who are killed – if anything, the correlation works the other way round. All it provides is another tool for politicians to use to satisfy a primal lust for revenge on criminals, rather than a real tool to reduce the number of policemen killed in the line of duty. I don’t need to tell you about the uses to which politicians have put tools of the former sort in the past.

Both Breivik and Staines believe murder a suitable fate for people they despise. These fans of death both seek to open the door to the worst sort of politician. In the end, their endeavours may lead to deaths – albeit, not the ones they hoped for.

The Data Protection Act makes provision for anyone to access information held on them by a given organisation. However, it has several exemptions from this, including:

Personal data which are processed only for the special purposes are exempt [if] the processing is undertaken with a view to the publication by any person of any journalistic, literary or artistic material.

You don’t have a right to find out what information newspapers have on you. In other words, if a newspaper has hacked your phone, you don’t have the right to find that out.

I don’t think journalists can be trusted with that exemption. I think it’s time for it to be removed.

 

The News Must Flow

July 8, 2011

By far the most amusing incident of yesterday’s spontaneous combustion of the News of the World was Charlie Brooker’s pithy Tweet:

It instantly captured how much of the Left perceives its role in this saga; as a collection of plucky rebels facing down an evil corporate empire. However, this is entirely the wrong sci-fi-franchise-prism through which to view these events, not least because it presents the disturbing image of Tom Watson finding out that Rebekah Brooks is his mother in the sequel.

Rather, the best analogy for these events is Frank Herbert’s Dune. For those not familiar with the franchise, the Dune universe revolves around the control of a mysterious substance called ‘spice’ or ‘melange’. ‘Spice’ unlocks various mental abilities, as well as extended life, and is the key to interstellar travel. The only source of the spice is the planet Arrakis, a desert world inhabited by the Fedayeen. The novel is largely a sci-fi re-imagining of Lawrence of Arabia’s exploits in the First World War in securing Middle Eastern oil supplies for the Allies by encouraging the Arabs to revolt.

The reason why I present it as an analogy is that it makes very clear the link between control of the production of a given resource and control in the wider sense. If you control the resource someone requires to travel, then you control their capacity to travel. This is summed up in the novel by the phrase, “He who controls the Spice, controls the universe!”

Why is this relevant? It’s relevant because what’s at stake in the News of the World saga is not control over something as manifest as oil, but rather control over modes of accessing reality. People buy newspapers not to be informed about the world, but to be informed about the world in a particular way. When you buy a newspaper you buy into a worldview. As a result, newspapers tailor their modes of presentation to be line with what they assume their readers want. Over time, this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: people base their attitude to the world on the information presented to them, and if this information is repeatedly presented in a given mode, people will take up that mode to inform their own attitude and judgements.

Clearly, control over the modes by which people access information is control – or at least strong influence – over their decision-making. And here we come to the heart of the analogy.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with people tailoring a product to their consumers in order to sell more of that product, that’s how the free market operates. There is something wrong when control over a product becomes more important than selling that product. The contest in Dune for control over Arrakis between House Atreides and House Harkonnen, while ostensibly about profit, is in fact about that power. The Guardian, in the role of House Atreides, has always presented itself as a campaigning newspaper with little interest in profit. For News of the World, twinned with House Harkonnen and its red-headed Baron, they have always been a profit-seeking tabloid.

Baron Harkonnen Rebekah Brooks

No longer. The closure of the best-selling English language tabloid is not a move informed by mere avarice, but by cold political calculation. This decision will cost Murdoch money; the NotW, unlike much of the press, made a profit. It would’ve made a profit again in a couple of months when advertisers started crawling back. High-profile brands are remarkably resilient. People would once again buy it because they enjoyed gutter-tales of celebrity gossip and the angst of parents of murdered children. Its customer base still exists.

But to not make such a nakedly line-drawing move would have eliminated Murdoch’s influence with the political class. It would have handed politicians an ongoing stick to beat him with. His profits would remain, but his influence, and the scope of his newspapers to set the political agenda, would’ve been decreased. As it is, there will be reform, but it will be mitigated by the knowledge that its main target no longer exists. Murdoch has surrendered profit for political power, and in doing so has let the curtain fall back. No longer will it be possible to pretend that much of the press is truly only responding to its readers, rather than the agenda of its masters. As the profit margins of the press continue to decrease, and they are maintained as personal lobbying facilities by moguls, it will be increasingly difficult to see how their continued unregulated existence can be justified.

After all, he who controls the news about the universe, controls the universe. How can anyone have that power?