April 24, 2012
This is Jon Stewart:
He is a funny man. He is also an influential man; in 2010 he was ranked as the most influential man in America.
This is Jimmy Carr:
He is a less funny man. He also is much less influential; 10 O’Clock Live is intended as a British version of Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show, but the plummeting ratings the first series experienced indicates that the accolade of Britain’s most influential man remains well outside his grasp.
The reason behind 10 O’Clock Live’s relative lack of success has been discussed multiple times, and rightly so. If comedy can have political influence – and clearly it does across the pond – then anyone interested in politics has an interest in understanding how and why that influence comes about.
The answer lies in a picture of a stuffed dog holding a sign:
This is part of David Shrigley’s Brain Activity exhibition at the Hayward, which I strongly recommend to anyone who enjoys darkly whimsical art. It also provides an interesting way of understanding how Jon Stewart’s brand of satire is judged to be more influential than that of Jimmy Carr’s.
To explain this, the above artwork is not a joke about dogs, dead or otherwise. The humour of the piece is given when one attempts to combine the concepts within; concepts which sit at odds with one another (a dog announcing its own state of deadness). The juxtaposition of these concepts causes the person attempting to organise them to be amused; humour is produced from engagement with the art, rather than something that is a feature of the piece in and of itself.
It may seem trivially obvious that something can only be funny if you engage with it on some level, but there is a subtle distinction to made: the humour of the above is wholly given within the confines of the art, and does not require the provision of a surprising additional concept from outwith it to make it humorous. The continuum between the artworld and comedy that Shrigley’s work represents allows us to consider how aesthetics can apply to humour. For example, consider Kant’s theory of aesthetics: that which is art is that which provides us with concepts with an impression of purposiveness when considered together, but does not contain purposiveness within itself. It is through our engagement and our organisation of those disjunctive concepts within our judgement – or our recognition of our inability to organise them – that we can derive pleasure from art.
Compare and contrast this with Jimmy Carr’s opening salvo in the video above:
“Andy Coulson resigned this work. Some people have questioned what qualified him to the chief Tory spindoctor in the first place. And the answer is B – he’s a sneaky little shit.”
And Jon Stewart’s response to a video of noted madman Glenn Beck:
“I’m not saying that believing that there should be a minimum standard for how much lead should be in our paint might lead to the Government having the right to sterilise and kill Jews, I’m not saying that might be the case. I’m saying that’s the case.”
In the first quote, Jimmy Carr provides us with a question which he resolves for us in an amusing fashion. In the second quote, Jon Stewart draws our attention to an absurdity and invites us to consider its our absurdity for ourselves. The second quote requires engagement on behalf of the audience, the first does not.
Jimmy Carr’s style is to provide us with his opinions in an amusing fashion on issues of the day. Jon Stewart’s style is to draw our attention to the absurdity of a given situation and allow us to derive our own opinion from it. The first meets the disjunctive criterion of humour and art on the basis of a described situation and a surprisingly presented opinion, the second meets the criterion based on a description of the situation itself.
It is not at all surprising that satire aimed at encouraging the audience to engage with a political situation on their own terms is more successful with liberals, in both the American and British senses of the word. Deriving one’s own opinion is a pleasure, if one values the process of questioning and deliberating in itself. If, on the other hand, one derives more value from having one’s opinion confirmed, then one will prefer a presentation of opinion that takes that opinion very seriously. The implication of this is that American television has succeeded in delivering political programming that appeals to both sides of the divide: opinion-affirmation on a plate for the conservatives, and pleasurable engagement with issues for the liberals. 10 O’Clock Live appears to be attempting to straddle this divide, which I can only conclude is unlikely to be a successful strategy.
February 23, 2012
I had meant to follow up my earlier post in this series with an analysis of the praxeological approach taken by the Austrian school, but have yet to have the time to properly read Mises. While On Human Action is on my bookshelf awaiting attention, it seems unfair to criticise praxeology without full familiarity with it.
However, Crooked Timber ran a series of posts on David Graeber’s Debt yesterday, and there is much there to consider – and much to leave to one side, such as Graeber’s bizarre insistence the entire international monetary system only exists thanks to the backing of state force. What I’d like to pick up on is, again, his illustration of different models of economic interaction and how they relate to contemporary debate.
Graeber distinguishes between diffuse reciprocity (or as he calls it, ‘communism’), hierarchy, and market exchange. The latter we know and love to a greater or lesser extent, the middle is simply being told what to do with your resources, and the latter is a ‘fuzzier’ version of exchange, in which you don’t exchange anything with anyone for a particular value, but rather distribute your resources to society in expectation that you may, at some point, have your needs looked after in a manner which does not necessarily equate to the value you gave up.
At this point Graeber normally points to primitive tribes to illustrate this model, but I’d like to use an example of something much closer to home with which most people will be familiar. On Wednesday, I brought a box of chocolates into the office for my colleagues, because it had been my birthday two days before. It’s a tradition in the office that the person whose birthday it is supplies the chocolate or cake, which works in reverse to the standard tradition of presents for the birthday-haver.
Now, my action would be seen as irrational from a market-exchange point of view. I do not receive anything directly in exchange for my submission of chocolates to the office society, nor do I guarantee that the chocolates that others purchase for their birthdays will be of the same quantity or quality as the chocolates I buy. I do not even guarantee that others will buy chocolates; I do not have access to information about my colleagues’ birthdays, and so do not know who is shirking their chocolate-buying responsibilities. However, I am content to enter into this fuzzy exchange, which is not with any one of my colleagues, but rather with all of them. On the Austrian view, this is irrational.
You could go down the Polanyi route and say this is because I’m embedded in social networks, but this is tantamount to saying that social networks make one into a non-rational exchanger. You could talk about game theory, but that rather presumes that there’s a hell of a lot of processing going on inside my head that I don’t have access to, which is something you’d have to prove. Instead, I want to outline why this is a problem for the Austrians, one based on the understanding that Man is rational, and that so is a person, but a human is not.
It is irrational for me to buy chocolates for my colleagues, but it is not irrational for a species to share resources; in doing so it avoids substantial risk. However, describing a species as rational seems odd. Or does it? Is there some process whereby individuals can be selected for the contribution they make to the survival of the species, rather than just the propagation of their own particular genes? We could perhaps call this process ‘evolution’. Such a process would need to include some way to ensure that any one individual was not being short-changed by this sharing of burdens, which we could call a sense of unfairness. You could certainly apply game theory to it, which would perhaps allow us to describe it as ‘rational’ for a very narrow definition of the word.
Therefore, our genes and their expressions in emotion and instinct can be seen as rational if one assumes their goals are the continuation of the species, rather than a particular individual, although one should of course be careful to avoid teleology when talking about such things. However, this presents a problem: the goals of our genes which relate to the survival of the broader species may not relate to our particular goals as an individual. They are expressed to our consciousness as emotion and instinct, and our rational pursuit of our individual goals may come into conflict with the evolutionary goals to which they point. So while we can be rational about our own goals, and our genes as expressed in instincts like reciprocity could be construed as rational from the perspective of the species or society, the package that is our mind and our emotions together – i.e. our entire self – is not.
This is a problem for Austrians, because they assume that man as a rational being will always have a single prioritised goal. But we are not simply individuals, but expressions of a species too, meaning that we are incapable of having that single goal. This is not a conflict of instinct and reason, but of competing rationalities, bound together in a single form. And so, I buy chocolates on my birthday, having been assured by my instincts and similar instincts in my colleagues that this is a good thing to do.
August 30, 2011
If there’s one thing I despise, it’s religious morality. Not religion; I have no problem with people believing in whatever macro-scale pixy they wish. However, any conception of morality that provides a ready-made package of quick answers to complex issues is not simply incorrect, it’s positively dehumanising.
The most fundamental freedom imaginable is the freedom to understand the world on your own terms; to make judgements about the best course of action using your own reason and the advice of those you have chosen to respect. Anything that tries to short-circuit this process – as religious morality does, by providing a set of answers divorced from all human experience – necessarily diminishes that freedom. This does not encompass those religions, like Sufi Islam, Buddhism and gnostic versions of Christianity, which steer towards promoting an ethical system rather than a prescriptive set of moral rules. ‘Always act with compassion’ provides a lot more for scope for determining your own principles (not in the least, whatever compassion is) than ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery’. The approach adopted by Nadine Dorries and her ilk leaves little room for wisdom.
More than that, as a conception of morality it is positively perverse. The twin notions of heaven and hell appear to be positively designed to subvert an understanding of the Good based on the Good-in-and-of-itself; rather, acts are to be judged in terms of their impact upon your afterlife prospects. This eliminates any prospect of their adherents living good lives – if at the back of your head is a little voice calculating the impact of a particular act on the state of your immortal soul, you will never be able to act without one eye on your self-interest.
This brings us to the issue of the day. Nadine Dorries wants to restrict the right of abortion providers to also provide counselling services to those women considering having abortions, on the grounds of a conflict of interest. This, at the outset, nearly seems reasonable if one is willing to forget the regulatory framework governing these matters and the professional integrity of those delivering the counselling.
But, in seeking this outcome, does Dorries not have one eye upon her immortal soul? If one looks at the Biblical scripture used by anti-abortionists to justify their stance, it seems to proclaim that opposing abortion is something God wants them to do. There’s a logical gap between that and using the machinery of the State to enforce what they think God wants them to do, but that is incidental: this is about the status of their soul in the eyes of God.
I want to introduce a new notion into our legislative lexicon: that of eschatological advantage. This is advantage that an individual expects to accrue to them with regard to their afterlife as a consequence of a particular action. I propose that this advantage is taken into account in exactly the same way as Dorries proposes we take the financial interest of abortion-providers into account when determining who can provide counselling to women considering abortion. After all, we accept that someone who expects to see an improvement in their standard of living from another person making a particular choice is not funded by the State to advise that person on that choice. Why do we not think the same about someone who expects to see an improvement in their standard of afterliving?
July 25, 2011
One of the striking features of the banking crisis was the way in which the Left utterly failed to capitalise upon it. A casual observer would’ve thought that worldwide financial calamity brought on by the mismanagement by the private sector of the planet’s finances would provide the perfect prop to those demanding more state intervention. But this failed to happen – across Europe, right-wing parties cemented their grip on power, in the US a tidal wave of populist anti-statism arose, and in South America the previously leftist governments reached their high water mark.
The populace of the West did not demand revolutionary change. In the Anglo-Saxon world, the ideals of Thatcher and Reagan remained dominant, and libertarianism – the belief in the moral worthiness of the unrestrained entrepreneur – rose in prominence. The reason for this may simply be the absence of an alternate model; with the failure of socialism, what remains? The Left remains mired in a quagmire between infeasible socialism and an economic model – the Third Way – that shackles social concerns to the cyclical nature of capitalism.
There are signs that this may change, however. The third of the UK’s Transparency Crises, the hacking scandal, has reinforced a point that was not made opaquely in the first two. The banking crisis revolved in part around the mis-selling of financial products complex to the point of opacity. An information failure in the banking system – the inability to know whether the people borrowing money were able to pay it back – led to the freezing up of credit. The MPs’ expenses scandal involved the revelation that the complex mechanisms by which MPs were paid for ‘expenses’ were in fact de facto wage hikes concealed in paperwork. The hacking scandal has demonstrated that individuals in possession of a great deal of power and influence are apt to abuse it.
For this is a crisis not just of the relationship between media and Government, but of individualism itself. Markets perform inadequately when their participants have insufficient information. If the power structures of a given market lead to the concealment of information, then that market fails to perform effectively. The post-Thatcher society of individuals maximising their net worth lends itself to the creation of these power structures, as we have seen. If individuals cannot be trusted, then a political and economic system based on that requirement is cast into doubt.
It is notable that the first response of Government to this latest crisis has been to reach for the regulatory toolbox, which stands in contrast to the way in which regulation was only dragged out of the Government in the previous two crises. There is an implicit recognition that individualism has failed, and some form of collective regulation is necessary. Even The Telegraph begins to accept this.
This is a tremendous challenge to libertarians. Socialism failed not because it was perceived as immoral, as they would have you believe, but because it failed to deliver sufficient benefit to those living within it. It failed because individuals are selfish, and best motivated by that. But if that selfishness is so extreme as to necessarily subvert the restricted power structures endorsed by libertarians with ones born of money, then libertarianism fails for the same reason. Morality doesn’t come into it; practicality trumps all.
Chris argues that this failure of individualism requires that some mechanism is set up by the left to prevent capitalists capturing the state in the way in which the hacking scandal has illustrated. I would disagree. These are transparency crises, and the way to overcome transparency crises is to provide more information. I would argue instead for a General Right of Information, giving any member public the right to see any document held by any corporation or similarly legally constituted entity, as well as the public sector. As a liberal, one would think this challenge to individualism is a challenge to my political beliefs. Not a bit of it. At the centre of liberalism has always been the understanding that education – information provision – is necessary for the effective state. It is now our task to extend it.
June 29, 2011
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.
May 31, 2011
I’m not a poshist; some of my friends are posh. And what good chaps they are, even though some of them are girls; in an earlier age they’d be referred to as the officer class and be the first into battle, no matter the odds. However, I am greatly amused by the rearguard action currently being perpetrated by people who describe themselves as posh, even if they are manifestly ghastly little oiks.
This ‘debate’ came about following an argument on Radio 4 involving a ‘gentleman’ (one presumes) called Lord Fellowes, who made the following gloriously absurd statement:
“There was an era when people wanted to be governed by great kings, then they wanted to be governed by great nobles who would keep the king in his place. Now they want to be governed by great friends. They want to know these people — whether or not they like toffee ice cream — and my natural pull is more towards the statesmen era.”
Quite apart from the obvious rejoinder of people not being free to choose their king or their nobles, what’s missing from Fellowes’ statement is the fact that Fellowes too wants his rulers to be great friends – or rather, to be more like his friends. Wanting rulers to be like your friends doesn’t suddenly become acceptable when your friends are immensely rich members of the Cousinhood. It doesn’t become acceptable when you live in a nice semi-detached house in Wolverhampton either; selecting your rulers on the basis of chumminess is irrational in the modern era, even if it has shadows of the ancient urge to be pals with the chief and get the best cuts of mammoth meat.
Fellowes claims that Cameron’s determination to be ‘one of the guys’ is a reflection of people’s dislike of his Etonian origin, and that this dislike is unwarranted. It’s this ‘prejudice’ at which Delingpole and his stablemate Brendan O’Neill take aim, being seemingly upset that everyone doesn’t recognise them for being the immensely talented lives of the national party they so manifestly are.
As I said, I’ve got posh friends. Individually, they’re great. But individuals are not the same as a type. ‘Poshness’ refers to a set of of qualities which are present to a greater or lesser degree, including accent, etiquette, behaviour and upbringing. Some of those it would be pointless to dislike, such as accent. Some of them it is absolutely fine to dislike, particularly any qualities which relate to inequality of opportunity. This doesn’t just cover extra access to educational resources, but also to modes of behaviour which are seen as social signifiers. This includes a whole suite of references to literature and culture to which the children of the better-off have easy access, but to which the children of the less well-off only have access via bastardised ‘accessible’ versions of Shakespeare and the like. People tend to employ people who are like them, for the irrational reasons given above, and if you can’t evidence familiarity with the culture of the ruling classes you’ll never get into them.
It is for this reason – evidence of an inequality in our society not born of individual choice – that it’s fine to dislike posh people in the round. It is also for this reason that it’s not okay to dislike Boris Johnson for being posh – after all, he wants poor kids to learn Latin too.
January 27, 2011
An interesting debate amongst the intellectual arm of the left-wing blogosphere was kick-started on Norman Geras’ blog on January 1st, in reaction to some Guardian stupidity. It concerned democracy, what that term represents, and the relative capacity of voters to engage with it.
I’d like to stick my oar in briefly on the latter subject, because quite apart from ‘democracy’ being banded about a bit too much, ‘rational’ has to be one of the most abused words in the philosophical lexicon. The assumptions hidden in the phrase ‘the rational approach’ can be alternatively used to bemoan commoners’ inability to understand what libertarians think is obviously the best way of arranging things, and justify the repression of individual irrationality that constitutes socialism.
I don’t want to dive into that arena, but I would like to make a small point about rationality. Typically, we would define some acting irrationally as acting against their best interests. The example given in the democracy debate is of people changing their vote to the incumbent if their football team wins; the extra support this gives to the status quo in the mind of the football fan being enough to determine their democratic choice. This admits of no analysis of policy or character to determine which representative would best suit their interests. This would appear, at the outset, to be irrational.
However, there’s a hidden assumption when making such a judgement about rational choices, which is that thought – analysis, calculation, learning and so on – is free. It has no cost. That it’s always the right option to spend thought on determining the best possible outcome for oneself of a given range of options.
The problem is – and here I suspect a natural bias of very clever people comes into play – is that thought is not free. It costs time, and it costs energy. And it will cost more of both of those if your brain happens to be relatively inefficient at whatever task you set it. I’m sure the extremely clever amongst us barely notice the picocalories they burn while thinking, but those of who have to drag up each and every notion from the Stygian abyss of the limbic system most certainly do.
There are goods associated with voting that are not dependent on your choice, including demonstrating your social responsibility, taking part in the community, and indicating that you care about the outcome of an election affecting your nation. It is not irrational to want to receive those goods while not being willing to spend the resources necessary to determine the best outcome for oneself. In order to make one’s decision in those circumstances one could rely on proxy factors which require less effort to access, including the suitability of the status quo for oneself. The latter would be influenced by the outcome of a football game, even though that outcome is incidental to the election. To do so would not be irrational, but rather a sensible use of resources – assuming the range of outcomes for that election was such that failure to select the best course had relatively little impact.
Democracy, therefore, does not produce the best government per se, but the best government for a given expenditure of resource against a given range of outcomes. Therefore, I can quite confidently predict that as the differences between the main parties narrow, you’ll get progressively worse government, because (a) less is at stake, and (b) as a result it becomes less worthwhile to analyse the outcome when determining your voting choice. This doesn’t mean that democracy itself is at fault, merely that our establishment is rather letting us down.
October 8, 2010
I’ve been doing my best to give myself an education in economics recently by reading anything I can on the subject, and am currently ploughing my way through Schumpeter’s Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, although ‘ploughing’ implies faster progress than has actually been the case. One of Schumpeter’s arguments – or, perhaps, talking points – about democracy focuses around the relative mental effort expended by the demos on those things over which they have little influence, and hence little responsibility.
This is broadly accurate, as anyone who’s ever tried organising anything by committee can tell you. People expend far less effort on anything for which responsibility is shared. The best way of making sure that something is done is by making it someone’s responsibility; depending on the reliability of that person, of course. Schumpeter seems to claim that something similar applies to democracy: because the relative responsibility of the individual with regard to society is very low, the individual spends relatively little of their mental energies on learning about politics and politicians, allowing themselves to be guided far more by emotion and intuition than in other areas of life. This is an astonishing insight, given that the psychological research that actually proved this point didn’t happen for another 60 years.
Schumpeter provides an explanatory framework for those results – one which is intuitively plausible. We can cash this out as the proposition that the greater the responsibility one has for a given outcome, the greater the level of mental effort one is likely to expend on affecting it.
It should be relatively obvious as to how this relates to electoral reform, but I’ll map it out with an example just in case. I’ll use the 2010 result from Islington South & Finsbury:
|Liberal Democrat||Bridget Fox||14,838|
|English Democrats||John Dodds||301|
|Animals Count||Richard Deboo||149|
It’s clear that there were only two parties whose results are relevant; other votes had no chance to affect the outcome. The total votes cast were 43,555. Of these, 33,245 were ‘relevant’ in this sense. If someone had voted at random in this election, it would’ve had a 0.763 chance of affecting the outcome. Or, a 0.237 chance of being irrelevant.
It’s a bit presumptuous to assume that everyone voting under AV will use all their preferences when they vote. To be conservative about this, let’s assume that only half the voters for each eliminated candidate did so, and distribute them evenly between the two candidates.
Animals Count (149) eliminated. Lab 18444, LD 14875.
English Democrats (301) eliminated. Lab 18519, LD 14950.
UKIP eliminated (701). Lab 18694, LD 15125.
Greens eliminated (710). Lab 18871, LD 15302.
Conservatives eliminated (8449). Lab 20893, LD 17414. Lab wins.
In this version of the contest, 38307 votes were ‘relevant’, meaning that a person voting randomly would’ve had a 0.88 chance of affecting the outcome – an increase of 0.117. Even under very conservative assumptions, AV produced an increase in the probability of any given individual voter affecting the outcome of 12%. This is a direct increase of the influence of an individual over the outcome of the election; in essence, increasing their power over the process of electing a representative.
And, as Peter Parker nearly knows, with greater power comes greater responsibility. AV will produce an increase in political engagement across the population, because it will give everyone greater responsibility for the outcome. This increase will be probabilistic in nature and is based on the assumptions given above, but nonetheless is intuitively plausible. It takes a (slightly) greater mental effort to rank candidates in order than it does to put a cross in a box.
April 15, 2010
Post-mortems there will be aplenty in the coming weeks; it seems to be a near certainty that regardless of the outcome on May 6th the present Labour Government will not continue in its present form. Even if Brown somehow defies predictions and Labour remains the largest party following the election, it seems near-impossible on present showing that they will end up with anything like a workable majority. I would therefore like to anticipate this and launch into a pre-mortem study of the impact of Labour upon our society over the last thirteen years. I will then argue that this impact makes it impossible for any Liberal (with a big ‘L’) to consider an electoral pact with Labour, and that claims that the Lib Dems are closer to Labour than the Tories are false.
I wish to argue that there has been a clear theme running throughout much of Labour’s legislation, which can be interpreted via the work of the philosopher Michel Foucault. The headline of this piece is a reference to the role that Jeremy Bentham’s model prison plays in Foucault’s 1975 work Discipline & Punish. The Panopticon is a prison in which a warden may observe every prisoner without that prisoner being aware of whether they are being watched. The intent is to instil a forced obedience; an obedience based on the constant fear of observation. A prisoner will be punished if they transgress, but naturally that punishment is predicated upon being observed in the act of transgression. The knowledge that they may be being observed at any time forces the prisoner to internalise their obedience – they must act as though they were being observed, regardless as to whether they are.
Now, it may appear that I am making a rather obvious point about the surveillance society Labour has engendered; the level of control lent to the state by the expansion of CCTV, the parameters of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, the centralised ID database and ID cards themselves all point to a clear policy agenda of curtailing civil liberties in the name of security and public order. It is certainly true that each one represents a new avenue by which the Government may observe the lives of its citizens, opening up entirely new ways in which a law-breaker may be caught. But this is a familiar point; while the seriousness of the above policies in terms of our freedoms is not to be underestimated, the arguments around these new rules and regulations have been bandied around for years.
I am arguing for a stronger conclusion: that the philosophical approach to government taken by Labour is entirely antithetical to the Liberal stance. That philosophy may be summed up in a single sentence: the individual is not to be trusted. This attitude, I will demonstrate, lies behind much of the major legislation and public sector management practices Labour have implemented, which can be demonstrated to be constructed on the Foucaultian lines given above.
The most clear-cut examples of this approach that are not derived from legislation are the ever-multiplying targets Labour has imposed on the public sector. These constitute the ‘discipline’ aspect of Labour’s approach to management; they are designed to determine the behaviour of public sector workers in the absence of observation. The reporting requirements laid upon each constitute, in this sense, observation. The bureaucratic requirement of reporting progress towards a target after every effort to reach it produces this form of being observed: the individual charged with achieving the target is unaware when their performance may be assessed by someone higher in the hierarchy. It therefore has the impact of changing their behaviour to focus on achieving the target rather than achieving the ostensible objective of their organisation.
To give an example: one of the targets placed upon the Ambulance Service is to reach all Category A cases (i.e. having a heart attack/similar risk of imminent death) within eight minutes. The reasoning behind the target is that survival rates dramatically decrease following the eight-minute limit. This would, on the outside, appear fair enough. However, this approach has been criticised for the very obvious reason that it matters little to the ambulance service whether the patient reaches hospital alive under this target, only that they reached them within eight minutes. The data presented by the DoH to justify this target involves, bizarrely, assuming that it saves lives and then estimating the number of lives it has saved based on services reaching their targets. And this is not the only controversial target.
This discipline distorts the way in which individuals act; instead of setting trusts a general objective (i.e. ‘Respond to 999 calls and get people to hospital alive and well’) and allowing them to determine how they achieve it, these specific targets (and the monitoring associated with them) produces very specific patterns of behaviour. This, of course, is the intent, but that intent itself is based on a lack of trust in the individuals employed to provide public services. It is fair to say that Labour has implemented the principles of the Panopticon in the public sector, as well as for the members of the public affected by their curtailment of civil liberties.
But we need to go deeper than that. Labour has fostered a society based on radical mistrust of the individual, in which only the collective can be seen as a moral authority. But to assume that the collective refers to the state in this philosophy is to misinterpret how deeply this approach is embedded in Labour’s attitude to the role of the individual in making moral judgements. This approach is again demonstrated by one of the darlings of Liberal policy, the Freedom of Information Act.
The ostensible intent of FoI is to hand citizens the power to know how their money is being spent, about actions the state is carrying out of their behalf and to ensure that the ultimate arbiter of the worthiness of state action is public opinion. This is all fine and Liberal; it is clear that those to whom we entrust our taxes to provide services for us should be accountable to us. We must know whether our interests are harmed by the state. But the mechanism by which we do so is equivalent to the one presented above; it is through observation, its consequences, and the constant possibility thereof that the public now holds the state to account. We no longer trust our public sector workers to provide our services unless we can see exactly how they do so. Non-transparency is a dirty word, and trust in the state is at a low ebb.
How can, you may be asking, this be something a Labour government might want? How can a Labour government want a constant air of suspicion to hover over the public sector? You may as well ask why Labour implemented FoI legislation in the retrospective knowledge that it would inevitably lead to the expenses scandal (even without the leak to the Telegraph, the content of MP’s expense returns would have eventually been prised from the House of Commons under FoI). It all leads to the same conclusion: the individual is not to be trusted. The individual, be they a member of the public, a doctor, a civil servant or even an MP cannot be trusted to behave unless they are observed to do so. This is an inversion and a culmination of the Panopticon: the guard watches the prisoners, and each prisoner in turn watches the guard to ensure that he is watching their fellow prisoners.
It is telling that one of the key proposals of the Walker Review – Labour’s effort to improve banks’ corporate governance – is of increased transparency in the banking sector, both to the public and to shareholders. Stronger regulatory measures are available to Labour, but instead Labour have worked to bring banking within the Panopticon, to counter the lack of trust in bankers by putting their actions before the public.
The end point of Labour’s impact on our society is a nation that is radically non-hierarchal; made of interest groups that exercise control over one another through observation and discipline. The public watches the state and the media. The media watch the public, and the state. The state watches the public. More recently, bloggers now watch the media, the state, and each other. This is a generalisation of the array of interest groups in operation, but it serves to illustrate my point: in a society in which no one individual can be trusted wholly, hierarchies are impossible. The authority to give commands rests upon a trust in that person’s ability to give the correct commands. If that trust does not exist, then someone claiming an entitlement to rule or command cannot be taken seriously. Only the aggregate of the interest groups, what might perhaps be called society or public opinion, can be a source of authority. In Britain today, only the collective has power, not the person.
Labour’s lack of trust in the individual and its expression in legislation has led to a country in which traditional Tories can never achieve power again. There can be no such thing as a ‘natural party of government’, or deference to the well-bred and well-educated. This is their aggregate achievement: a country in which without paying due heed to the common interest the Conservatives cannot achieve power. Much as the consequences of Thatcher’s policies forced Labour to accept the effectiveness of the market in the 90s, Labour has now forced the Tories to accept that the common interest, the Public Good, should be a factor in their policy-making.
Why should this be a factor for the Lib Dems? Surely a non-hierarchal society is a liberal society, one in which the arbiter of that society’s values is no one person or interest group, but rather the sum of all debate and discussion within it. This would be true, but for one important proviso: the only arbiter of an individual’s opinions and morality where they do not impact upon others should be that individual. This is not the case in a Panopticon society: it is the aggregate of social opinion that determines the individual’s internal morality – their internal discipline – rather than that individual.
A clear-cut example of this took place yesterday. Chris Mounsey, the leader of the Libertarian Party UK, appeared on the Daily Politics as part of their election focus on minor parties. Although I think the more extreme policies espoused by LPUK are largely insane and in some cases deeply immoral, in a truly liberal society only those policies would be the subject of debate. Instead, Andrew Neil rather took his personal blog to pieces, resulting in Chris pulling it entirely and offering his resignation as leader. Here, observation by the media has led directly to a change in Chris’s own approach to discourse, and consequently his own internal discipline. The formerly wonderfully sweary blog at Devil’s Kitchen is no more, because it came under the observation of a broader sector of society. And no-one compelled Chris to do it. They didn’t need to.
Internal discipline – morality, if you will – is not something which should be determined by anyone other than the self. But if it is possible for all to see your actions, and your life is lived in the full and certain knowledge that your actions may be examined at any point by any one, then it cannot be claimed that knowledge will have no impact on how you choose to conduct your life. Partly this is the impact of the internet, but Labour’s governing philosophy lies full behind this societal shift.
For our society to be considered truly liberal, we must restore trust in the individual. We must re-evaluate the relationship between an individual’s personal morality and the capacity of the rest of the world to observe and judge it. Labour have demonstrated repeatedly over the last thirteen years that their philosophy will always be antithetical to this position. As liberals, we should not consider ourselves close to a party that does not celebrate individuals, for otherwise how can we possibly claim to be the guardians of liberty?
Disclaimer: Mentioning particular pieces of legislation within this piece does not mean that I am opposed to them, rather that they are useful illustrations of the argument given herein.
February 19, 2010
Reams and reams and reams and reams of words representing thoughts have been spewed out onto the internet and the print media over the last month on the subject of climate change, the IPCC, and how scientists have been simply dreadful. Talking about that would be fairly pointless, as everything I could possibly say has been covered elsewhere by people far more knowledgeable than I am. So if you’re hoping to be able to respond with a carefully reasoned synopsis of something you read on wattsupwiththat, you’ll only make yourself look stupid. Well, stupider than normal.
Naturally, the last sentence is rather pejorative and clearly reveals my leanings. But what I think about the subject is rather incidental to the point of this post, which will only be revealed through a series of over-elaborate metaphors designed to make it look like I can actually write and also make it look like I really understand complex philosophical arguments. None of this may actually be the case, which is a sentence which should be inserted before almost every single post on this subject.
Why is what I think incidental to the debate? Firstly, calling it a debate is questionable; it implies this can be resolved with rational argument. Moreover, to do so gives credence to the notion that this is something new, rather than a rehash of an ancient theme which has, to a large degree, dominated philosophical discourse for the last two and a half millenia.
It’s the conflict between episteme and doxa; the conflict between knowledge based on reason and opinion based on unanalysed experience. Of course, in the current age there’s no such thing as unanalysed experience; rather we have knowledge based on different structures of reason, some of which are much closer to the ground than others.
What we’re seeing in the climate change debate is something simultaneously wonderful and terrifying. We’re seeing the once lonesome shining tower of science being gradually surrounded by millions of individual structures of knowledge, rapidly pushing their way into the sky. This has been enabled by the rapid expansion of access to information that the internet has permitted; while once the requirements of accessing scientific information prevented the layman accessing knowledge on their own terms, it’s now available to everyone with a computer, a phone line, and a sense of curiousity.
In itself, this is glorious. It’s the triumph of the demos; the freedom of every individual to learn as much as they will about the world, and to be able to draw their own conclusions from it. It must never be stopped, and attempts to do so by, for example, attempting to circumvent FoI legislation as the researchers at the CRU appear to have done are deeply immoral.
Problems creep in, however, when we examine the structures of knowledge that arise from this new freedom. The original shining tower of science is in reality a teeming mass of competing individual towers all arising from the same foundation: that of the scientific method. The scientific method is a particular way of structuring knowledge, and provides the validity for everything that arises from it. All the individual structures of knowledge erected by researchers are built on this bedrock, and each tower they construct is only safe to stand upon inasmuch as it is firmly secured to it.
However, many of the people arguing against the climate change consensus have done something different. They’ve taken pieces of science, but from further up the collective tower. They’ve taken the rickety edifices built out over the edge of the foundation (but nonetheless purporting to be supported by it) and placed them on the ground, as the foundations of their own personal structures of knowledge. Functionally, it’s equivalent to building a house out of roofs; certainly you can do it, but it wouldn’t be able to do all the things a house can.
This is a necessary feature of liberalism: anyone who has the power to tell you what does and what does not constitute knowledge has power over you, and therefore must be held to account lest they use it to harm you. The individual is therefore forced to be the arbiter of knowledge, and the climate change controversy is proof of how far this individualist theory of knowledge has spread. A liberal society requires every individual to believe his or her personal structure of knowledge is taller than anyone elses’, in order that they may be sure they are not subject to harm. The problem is that this may not be the case, and the bits and pieces of scientific knowledge that comprise the structures of climate change deniers may not necessarily be put together to form a stable tower. The same cannot (I am happy to use absolutes here, as long as one interprets absolute truth as necessarily being intersubjective rather than objective) be true of the edifice of science. Where it is well-grounded, it is necessarily true. And given the weight of the evidence in favour of climate change, that is necessarily true.
But this does not contradict the fundamental point above. The individual must remain the arbiter of knowledge for themselves; this is what freedom entails. They must be free to hold all the doxa they wish, and reject episteme as the efforts of a scientific elite to curb their lifestyle. And this is what is happening, right now – doxa and episteme are in conflict to determine which will dominate our politics for the next decade or so. This is part of a wider movement including the upsurge in religious feeling in America and in Islamic states, and the broader historical movement that rejected enlightenment and scientific values as they led to the gas chambers and similar horrors of industrial war.
The environmental movement cannot appeal to science alone – the individuals who reject it have not founded their structures of knowledge upon it. Rather, if they wish prevent climate change, they must present them with a vision of a world which is desirable, not claim they haven’t understood how tree rings work. In a liberal society, debates aren’t settled by what’s actually true, rather what seems more advantageous.