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.

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.

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:

  1. The Government isn’t delivering.
  2. Labour have let us down.
  3. 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:

  1. Setup (Disappointment in Government empathised with)
  2. Conflict (Traditional sources of hope for change no longer available)
  3. 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:

  1. The country is in a shocking state
  2. Reactionary forces, such as unions, want to imprison economic enterprise in their grasp or that of the State
  3. 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:

  1. Public services you rely on are in a shocking state
  2. The Conservatives have failed to deliver better services even when times were good
  3. 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.

Supply-Side Shock and Awe

September 3, 2012

There are at least three levels of rhetoric which one can use to justify a policy: the historical, the ideological, and the pragmatic. When it comes to markets versus central planning, the first is eminently preferable: as Timmy is fond of telling us, the 20th century can be viewed as a great experiment about the relative merits of both systems in terms of delivering growth, with markets defeating central planning under the Nazis and the Soviets in turn. It is clear that, if one wishes to deliver growth, markets are on average the tool for the job.

However, from an ideological perspective, this argument doesn’t wash. If I am a great believer in economic freedoms, then whether those freedoms deliver growth is a moot point: I want them regardless, and making them contingent upon delivering growth is to devalue them. Freedom has value in and of itself, and while the historical context may have value when trying to sway non-believers, it should not form the justification for that belief.

On pragmatic grounds, neither of the arguments above work. Economics is fundamentally about trade-offs: a particular form of freedom may impose costs upon others, and the adjudication of which costs are heavier may come in the form of market forces or of public policy. Let us say that we forbade employers from requiring a notice period from their employees, while still requiring that an employer provided a notice period before letting someone go. Employees are free to change jobs at will, assuming someone else will take them on, while employers still find it difficult to get rid of a difficult employee quickly. This increases the economic freedom of employees in our present context, in which almost all desirable jobs require a notice period before departure, while decreasing that of employers.  While we can argue about the particulars, simply demanding increased economic freedom on ideological or historical grounds does not necessarily lead to a particular set of policies. Pragmatically speaking, we have to weigh up which and whose freedoms are more important.

I bring up the above because of a regrettable tendency among the Right to reach for supply-side reforms as an answer to our current economic problems seemingly as a result of an ideological position, and only then going into pragmatic reasons why such reforms are appropriate. Handily, today David Davis has provided an example par excellence of this kind of thinking, which I shall analyse.

His speech meshes the historical, the ideological and the pragmatic into a melange of recommendations. Consider the following selected passages:

“Let us take Switzerland as an example. Its economic dependence on banking was a third greater than ours, and its exports are predominantly to its Euro zone neighbours. Yet, while our economy struggles, Switzerland’s is back up and running. So Britain’s problem cannot simply be attributed to bad banks at home and collapsing export markets abroad.”

“[We] must liberate individuals and companies from the impediments that are undermining their confidence and limiting their freedom of action.”

“The virtue of small businesses is they create jobs and wealth. […] Jump starting the economy will above all else involve liberating this sector to do what it does best, create jobs and wealth.”

“Our Business Secretary congratulates himself that we have one of the most lightly regulated labour markets in the developed world. Perhaps, from the point of view of a large company we do, but not according to the real job creators – small and medium sized businesses.”

“When the German government launched its growth strategy in 2003, the labour market
was the centre of the reform program. Special exemptions from employment law for small companies, easing of laws governing dismissals and redundancies, protection of companies from vexatious employee lawsuits, were combined with reform of the welfare system to improve incentives to work. And it worked.”

On historical grounds, because Switzerland shows our current economic difficulties are not related to our banking sector or exports, we should liberalise our employment market. On ideological grounds, because small business have virtues that must be freed to flourish, we should liberalise our employment market. On pragmatic grounds, because it worked for Germany and Switzerland, we should liberalise our employment market. This would seem to be a coherent argument.

Unfortunately, if you mash differing lines of thought together to create an argument, you leave it open to being picked apart. For example, our employment protections were amongst the lowest in the OECD (below Germany and Switzerland) going into the economic crisis, and I’m fairly sure they haven’t suddenly gone up since then. Germany’s reforms to their labour market were put in place because they were in relative decline compared to their competitor nations with more liberalised employment policies (e.g. the UK); right now, the UK is actually doing worse than countries with more rigorous employment protection (e.g. France). One is left with the ideological argument, which does have merit, but is devalued by all the other arguments around it being incorrect.

There are genuine pragmatic arguments for supply-side reform, and indeed Mr Davis makes one – it should be easier to set up banks, and banks should be more exposed to competition. It’s fairly clear that our banking sector suffered during the economic crisis, and a good dose of marketisation should help it return to health. Unfortunately, the fact that Mr Davis makes it after claiming that woes with our banks aren’t the cause of our current woes again devalues it – but Mr Davis needs to make that claim to justify all his other supply-side recommendations.

If you start from a position of ideology and then reach for arguments of pragmatism and historicity, you devalue your own position. If you’re in favour of freedom, then argue for freedom. If you’re in favour of growth regardless of how it’s achieved, then argue for that. But mashing the two together results in ridiculous situations like Mr Davis objecting to support for green energy, when it’s one of the few examples of the UK actually generating wealth in the current climate, if you’ll pardon the pun.

Yesterday was fun. While I do enjoy the writings of Johann Hari, there’s no denying that he’s frequently sanctimonious and pompous, and the sight of hundreds of people gently mocking his erstwhile practice of replacing quotes from his interviewees with quotes from their other public outpourings was, quite frankly, hilarious.

Hari appears to have taken it all in good, albeit pompous, spirit. This is much more than can be said for Guido, who took this example of Hari’s pretentiousness and decided to run a politically motivated attack piece. This spoiling of the joke allowed other pompous blowhards on the left to rush to Hari’s defence. Guido then had the nerve to ask if those blowhards would’ve defended him in a similar situation. A more pertinent question would be if Guido would demand that a right-wing journalist be stripped of their awards for systemic deception. Somehow, I doubt it, otherwise he’d do little else.

However, this whole saga raises an interesting point. It’s clear that the public have different expectations of journalists than journalists do of themselves. Many of Hari’s defenders seemed to think that an ‘unstylish‘ peccadillo like this was not something worth mocking Hari over. Moreover, his defenders in what you could call the celebrity twitterati seemed to resent the fact that their friends were as open to public mocking as the likes of Jan Moir. Twitter provides a near-instant expression of popular opinion on a given subject, and in this instance it appears that a significant number of tweeters were of the opinion that any transgression of journalistic integrity was worth, if not condemning, at least worth mocking.

With this in mind, it’s not surprising that journalists now want to draw a line under this episode, and move on. The Hari issue will go away. However, it’s clear that the issue of accountability in journalism will not. The market provides an inadequate method of assuring journalistic integrity, because people who buy news products do not necessarily do so on the basis of the accuracy of that product, but on to what extent that product coheres with and confirms their worldview. The columnists of the Daily Mail are not held to high standards because their product is so effective at appealing to their audiences’ worldview that purchasers of the Mail do not stop buying it when their inaccuracies are (repeatedly) revealed. We need another mechanism for insuring such integrity, in the interests of having the sort of properly informed public debate necessary for a liberal society to work. The Press Complaints Commission, chaired as it is by Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre, does not constitute such a mechanism. The crowd-sourced mocking of Twitter might point the way towards something that does.

The Schismatic ‘We’

March 18, 2011

Consider the following two sentences:

“First, the tax that is avoided through loopholes in tax law, could be collected. This, quite extraordinarily, is the easiest solution to the problem we face.”

“The corporation tax burden is borne by workers and owners. We should tax those owners in a consistent way and not in an arbitrary way.”

The first is from a report called ‘The Great Tax Parachute’ by the Green New Deal Group of prominent lefties, while the second is from a report called ‘UK Uncut Unravelled’ by notorious rightey Tim Worstall. What I want to highlight in this post is the way in which both sentences apparently use ‘we’ in exactly the same way while coming to very different conclusions.

To begin the discussion, let me tell you a little story. Once upon a time I went for a job with a prominent charity, which shall remain nameless. I was asked the question – the quite notorious interview question – ‘What does teamwork mean to you?’ I responded, ‘Teamwork to me means ensuring that everyone’s role on the team is well understood, and ensuring that everyone has a part to play in achieving our shared objectives.’

I didn’t get the job. I called up for feedback, and was told, ‘We felt that you weren’t a team player. You should’ve put greater emphasis on helping out your colleagues when they needed support.’

I was somewhat flabbergasted. For me, working as a team meant working with people towards a shared goal, rather than providing mutual support. I assumed that my colleagues would be competent enough at what they did to not require any support from myself. Later, as I moved between organisations and started working in teams that did in fact consist of highly competent people, I understood that teamwork required mutual support – but not because of someone elses’ weakness, but because in practical terms some priorities will require more hands than others at different times, and everyone on a team has to be ready to pitch in.

This sort of distinction – between unconditional support and support founded upon a recognition of the competence of others – is what I’d like to highlight. In both of the sentences above, the word ‘we’ is used to refer to society, and the recommendations made are made in the understanding that they will be taken as recommendations for how we move society forward. They both implicitly assume that the reader is engaged with society; that they do not stand outside it, looking in at an internal struggle. They assume that society refers to the social and legal structures that comprise the United Kingdom. Even with this apparently identical use of ‘we’, they come to opposing conclusions.

Why should this be the case? Surely, given that both sides possess the same understanding of society, they should move towards the same conclusions? After all, UK Uncut is not claiming that the likes of Vodafone are outwith society; quite the opposite, that they are within society and are not paying their dues to it. What’s implied with this division of ‘we’ is a division in their conceptions of the individuals who comprise that society.

The following sentence:

“We’re all in this together.”

has come into common use, especially in relation to the cuts. The differing ways in which it is used are telling, because it’s impossible for the ‘we’ in that sentence to be ambivalent in the  same way as those in the sentences above. Its rejection by some points to it referring to a conception of individuals within society which is unacceptable. What is that conception?

It seems clear that, to those who reject the sentence, individuals within a society are not simply autonomous; rather they have a duty to support others within that society as a condition of membership. It is that failure to provide support that leads to the moral rejection of the actions of Vodafone; their actions have sent them on a path to their ejection from society, and it is in this sense that the UKUncut protests are understood by their activists. They are protesting a social transgression, rather than an illegality. However, social transgressions and illegality are easily conflated, which is why the protests have used language indicative of illegality when referring to Vodafone. In doing so, they have run into conflict with people who hold a quite different conception of individuals within a society.

As discussed above, I have always conceived my colleagues as autonomous individuals responsible for their own wellbeing and for their own area of work. I recognise competence rather than fulfilment of duty. In this sense, I am a member of a society composed of individuals whose responsibility is to their work, rather than to each other. To me, ‘We’re all in this together’ means that all our work will be impacted – bankers will be fined, less efficient staff will be fired, and less important projects will be cut. In this sense, an individual transgresses against society if they fail to work while being able to do so and so require others to provide for them; this is the area in which duty is applied. Other matters are handled via the legal system; via the series of social conventions around democracy and debate that go towards determining the formal rules of society.

It is therefore clear that under the latter sense of ‘we’, tax avoidance is largely irrelevant in terms of duty; there is no shirking of work involved. However, under the former there is a question of duty – duty to contribute to society beyond productive work. This distinction in the uses of ‘we’ is why, when engaging with opponents, it is vital to ensure what they’re actually saying rather than what you think they’re saying. Much as I enjoy Tim Worstall’s blog, his report for the IEA is going to make no difference to those who don’t use ‘we’ like he does. Similarly, the man to which Tim is Nemesis, Richard Murphy, might as well not bother responding to Tim unless he’s going to shift his ‘we’ onto his turf. Until both sides are talking the same language, debate cannot take place.

I remember the joy of student protesting; possessing an ineffable ‘ironic’ righteousness against systems which transparently (at least as far as I could see at the time) wasn’t working in the way it should. It was only later on, when I’d had the chance to understand the position my proto-opinions took in the great sweep of argument that is our nation’s political discourse; that those notions were informed not wholly by my own judgement but by the aggregate of opinion within that discourse along with my own economic position.

It is that positioning within the greater narrative which has relevance here today. The condemnation of Barclays for their minimal tax rate is the product of a particular worldview from which most lefties would instinctively recoil: that of New Labour.

I have previously written about how New Labour was based upon a subtle moral repositioning, away from the notion of all working for the common good which is the foundation of socialism, and towards a worldview in which capitalism is virtuous inasmuch as it produces profits which can be put to use for that same common good. Capitalism is moral inasmuch as it services that common good, and is immoral if not.

This moral distinction lies at the heart of the Tax Justice movement – at the heart of the work of people like Richard Murphy, UKuncut, and elements of the New Economics Foundation. I’m sure they believe that they are at the vanguard of an exciting movement for social change, when in reality they are the end product of a shift in the discourse of the Left effected by the progenitors of the New Labour project.

Somewhere, Tony Blair is laughing at people who profess to despise him while simultaneously doing his bidding.

The Balance of Rage

November 22, 2010

Since the election, two interrelated phenomena have been simultaneously rising and falling. They’re two sides of the same coin, if it were possible to forge a coin out of undistilled rage and loathing. They’re the relative levels of anger on both the left and the right at the course the country is taking.

The anger of the Right appears to be abating. This was noted by the Guardian, who cleverly spotted that the anger of Mr Eugenides had come to a halt, amongst similar outbreaks of calm by other libertarian and/or right-wing bloggers. Even the original swearblogger, the Devil himself, has shut up shop, at least temporarily.

Guido, of course, endures, in much the same way that the Sun and the Mirror are now features of our national landscape. But Guido has always been less political than the adult version of the irksome pupil who runs to tell teacher that the big boys are smoking behind the bicycle sheds.

At the same time as the rage of the Right subsides, that of the Left is on the rise. Not necessarily in the terribly formal collective left-wing blogs, of course, but rather in comments on CiF and in a thousand and one personal blogs across the internet. CiF’s comments are an interesting case; there, the difference was clear almost immediately after the election. To take a random example, look at the comments on these two Jackie Ashley articles, and compare the relative rage. For me, I normally interpret the relative anger of the person writing the post by the level of hyperbole they choose to incorporate within it. This is a strong indication that the person felt so strongly about the subject that they felt no desire to check their facts, and that their urge to say something outweighed their concern for how they would look saying it.

That charge could be levelled at the old libertarian blogosphere, which often appeared more concerned with being angry over dreadful lefties infringing their property rights than anything approaching reality. Similarly, the Left now appears enraged by the Right’s besmirching of their moral code too, resulting in some ridiculous paranoia (witness the comments thread on this post on this blog in which the lefty claims that the Coalition will dismantle the welfare state. Really. I stopped responding after that).

We can therefore witness an interesting seesaw of rage that determines the scope and the borderlines of British political discourse. This rage typically has a strong moral quality; the enraged typically accuse their opponents of being immoral, giving that as just cause for their anger. It is very clearly directed at what is perceived as the transgressions of the governing party (or parties), which is interesting in itself – in a democracy, the source of power is the electorate – i.e. other people. But you’ll very rarely hear anyone actually attack the majority of the electorate if they’re on the losing side – rather, they’ll go straight for their representatives.

This implies that the angry don’t want to believe that the majority could possibly disagree with them, and instead focus their anger on politicians instead. Given that our two main political parties have traditionally focused on economic identity as constitutive of their core vote, research which indicates that people tend to see themselves as economically average would point to this being a question of cognitive dissonance. If people believe themselves to be an average earner – i.e. representative of the majority of the population – information that indicates otherwise would dispute this interpretation. It’s difficult to imagine a more brutal example of why you’re not average if the party that represents your economic interest group is voted down.

Poor people will blame the Tories for cuts to benefits, rather than the middle-class people who voted for them. It’s almost as though voting is taken as a somehow morally blameless exercise in which you’re not accountable for your choices – only the people who you voted in are. This is completely irrational, and can only be explained if there’s a strong irrational driver pushing the other way. The above self-perception phenomenon would appear to cover that.

I therefore make the claim that our political discourse is driven in part by this irrational reaction to majoritarianism. People feel angry as a result of the cognitive dissonance that arises from believing themselves to be average while in an economic minority. They therefore seek out reasons why they’re right and their opponents wrong, to aid in restructuring the world in such a way as to make it clear that their worldview is correct. They then promote those reasons as the truth, to avoid dealing with reality. This sort of post-hoc justification is familiar to anyone who’s ever encountered NIMBYs, creationists, climate sceptics/hawks, old-style communists, religious literalists, libertarians, racists – indeed, practically any form of belief. The only check against it is what one could call intellectual integrity, or constantly re-examining one’s beliefs in the light of new evidence. In this sense, the post-hoccers provide a useful function: they are the ones who feverishly uncover new facts to suit their agenda, and while those facts may or may not be accurate they must be engaged with every single time to ensure that one’s own ideas are correct.

Engagement in this sense is engagement in good faith; not pre-judging the outcome of any given argument. I have frequently found that post-hoccers do come up with facts that challenge one’s beliefs – for example, I have accepted that wind turbines do have an impact on bats (although not birds) as a consequence of skirmishes with NIMBYs. Rage, therefore, while describing the outer edges of our discourse nonetheless has a crucial role in holding power to account.