‘INDIVIDUALISM RAMPANT!’ the headline might as well of read, rather than the more demographically mealy ‘Generation Self‘. Apparently the youth of today are a source of concern to their elders, this time less in the form of angry old Colonel Blimp types despairing about their lack of a work ethic and more in the form of decrepit socialists bemoaning their lack of attachment to the mighty institutions of the Collective Good.The young ‘uns don’t see the NHS as something they must lay down their very lives for, and are more likely to view those on benefits as being lazy scroungers rather than noble souls down on their luck.

And yet paradoxically (to the Guardian at least) they are bang-on message on subjects like gay rights, not being horrible racists, and women being equal to men. The notion that there could be some kind of connection between a belief in individualism and freedom to live the life you choose unconstrained by society is something that eludes that newspaper’s fine people of letters.

Liberalism is stronger in the coming generation, which should be a cause for celebration amongst liberals everywhere. However, it is important to understand why individualism is on the up. There are two competing narratives:

  • The Guardian reaches for the handy lefty trope of Thatcher being to blame for all the bad things that have ever happened. The children brought up under her austere regime know that this is a dog-eat-dog world and are determined to not be eaten by dogs of any kind. Indeed, some of them are breeding bigger and bigger dogs just to avoid this. Then, in a sign of how ruthlessly capitalistic these young people are, they’re selling them for a profit.
  • Conservatives blame the over-mighty State for taking away things people used to do together and making them the preserve of the faraway man in Whitehall. Remember those wonderful days when the only way to afford healthcare was by clubbing together with the other people who worked at the factory in the scant few hours you had outside of work to build collective institutions, and how if you weren’t working and got sick you basically just died? Weren’t they wonderful? LET’S GO BACK TO THAT.

The wonderful thing about these narratives, like so much political messaging, is that they can both be true at the same time. It is true that Government-promoted individualism will encourage individualism. It is also true that removing the responsibility of looking after your fellow man engendered by his or her need by shifting it into something you do at two steps removed through the taxation system will excuse you of the guilt of failing to help. You can then blame the NHS when it makes mistakes, because it’s making you guilty by proxy.

Outwith my sneering at both ends of the political spectrum, I do agree with them on the point that they share, which is that compassion is a virtue which should be fostered regardless of how individualistic you are; you can believe in absolute freedom from the individual, zero taxes on everything and a nightwatchman state and still think you should care about the least well off. Lack of compassion is a serious character flaw. The institutions originally charged with fostering compassion, the churches, still do good work at a local level, but at a macro level have bafflingly decided to devote their time to reacting against the sweeping tide of liberalism, which in itself says nothing about the compassion their creed requires. Compassion remains a requirement of a society in which people actively want to participate: a liberal society requires that people have the minimum of compassion for their fellows sufficient to be in favour of their freedom.

We therefore do require some kind of civil institution charged not with fostering a vision of the collective good, but with the compassion that can lead to people freely agreeing to such visions. . It can’t be the State; it will never be the job of Government to prescribe morality in a way which goes beyond the law. It can’t be the churches; the metaphysical commitments they require for their compassion are now beyond the interest of much of British society. And it certainly can’t be the unions; they have too frequently revealed themselves to be the guardians of sectional interests. So what can it be?

Answers on a postcard, please.

They’ve written an article here claiming that “Middle Britain’s tax rates ‘could rise to 83%’”.

I don’t know about you, but anyone earning over £40,000 isn’t middle class, they’re upper middle at the very least. Average individual earnings are around £26,000. If you’re earning that, you’re middle class. I’m not interested in anyone who squawks about class not being entirely defined by what you earn, because it simply is. Guardian journalists clearly can’t accept that they’re much better off than the majority of the population, and so are complaining about the Government making the better off suffer too. Let’s remember, the readjustment of the 40% rate to include more people – the subject of this article – is entirely about raising the lowest rate of tax to reduce the effective burden on the poorest. It’s as progressive (in the technical sense) as you like.

This article, therefore, is an example of wanton hypocrisy on the part of the Guardian. However, it’s not surprising – studies have repeatedly shown that whatever people earn, they think their earnings are ‘average’.

The Hugo Young Lecture

November 23, 2010

Doubtless the electronic ether-laden air is about to be saturated with missives claiming that Clegg has just announced the end of control orders as a consequence of the strength of his language on civil liberties in tonight’s lecture. I’d like to discuss a slightly different point.

As the lecture ended, I heard a young (20~) man complain to his mother that Clegg’s ‘New Progessivism’ was just a disguise for the minimalist state. This, of course, ignored everything that Clegg had said during the lecture about the importance of a state-funded NHS and education, and was said with a rather plummy tone. It recalled my last post in which I argued that the statist Left’s irrationalities and hyperboles since the election were a psychological consequence of the inability to accept that they were now in the minority. But it spoke to more than that; a distrust of politicians in which one ignores what they have to say in favour of what one presumes they are saying. It was a bold arrogance, in that sense; a senseless arrogance in another.

But in the context of a lecture which was ostensibly a family gathering – not simply of Young’s family but of Guardian journalists and associated lefties who knew him well – it made perfect sense. That presumptuous arrogance is the mark of aristocracy, and the air was thick of the sensation that this Clegg was an impudent upstart in the proper order of the great families of the socialist movement.

I am not temperamentally inclined to agree with Clegg in this Coalition age, but his description of Labour as the new conservative (with a small C) party may yet prove to be chillingly accurate.

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.

“You’re a mentalist!”

- Alan Partridge

An article on the Guardian’s ‘Cif Green’ section today actually makes the claim that:

“Of course we could solve the problems of today if we reverted to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle.”

I would like to dispute this, if I may, and in doing so discuss further the rise of the group I would like to call the Environ-Mentalists; those who believe that our current industrial civilisation has doomed itself and all that’s left is to sing sad songs in the dark, like a race of angst-ridden teenagers.

Let’s first look at the land area hunter-gather tribes require to provide nutrition. This study of a tribe living the tropical rainforest of the Democratic Republic of Congo appears to indicate that the maximum this lush & bountiful environment can sustain is a population density of one person per square kilometre – and this is factoring in a certain amount of agriculture. Making the very charitable assumption that every part of Earth is equally able to support hunter-gatherer humans, a land area of 148,300,000 square kilometres implies that 97.5% of the current human population of 6 billion would have to die to make this ‘dream’ a reality. It’s good to know that Caroline Wickham-Jones appears to view slaughter beyond nightmares with such casual disregard.

To be fair, I didn’t supply the entire quote:

“Of course we could solve the problems of today if we reverted to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, but global populations and changed circumstances make that impossible.”

Which does make clear that she doesn’t believe we should necessarily slaughter almost everyone on the planet, merely that the ‘changed circumstances’ that allowed that population to come about are an irritation in this sense.

But what are those changed circumstances?

“Over time, we have seen that economies of scale can be false economies; increasing specialisation can be loss of wisdom; industry can reduce ability.”

This woman is an archaeologist who believes that specialisation causes ‘wisdom’ to be lost. Just gape in astonishment at that statement; and ponder what ‘wisdom’ was lost when we stopped living in caves.

The Dark Mountain Project

Wickham-Jones isn’t the only one who believes that our pesky industrial civilisation is holding us back from running through the trees dancing and singing; we also have the astonishing chaps at the Dark Mountain Project who – honestly – believe that a civilisation isn’t defined by the machines they use or the goods they produce, but rather by the myths and stories associated with them. They’re trying to start what they term an Uncivilisation, which aims to be a collective of writers, artists & thinkers who will preserve these myths through the disruption and collapse of climate change. It’s all wonderfully romantic, but it contains a danger that the movement’s ostensible leader demonstrates in this article. His call for a return to the deep green of the older ecology movement is very enticing, but ultimately leads to the same conclusions as Wickham-Jones: billions must die to make it a reality.

On the other side, you have the anti-environmental ludicrousnessesses like James Delingpole, who are so wedded to such an individualistic epistemology that they’re willing to sacrifice science on its altar. Caught between the extremes of misanthropy and misology are the rest of us, whom I’m going to call the Industrial Environmentalists.  This includes the likes of George Monbiot (despite his recent paen of despair). We believe that humans do impact on the planet, on its atmosphere and on ecosystems – but that this can be overcome, not by giving up civilisation but by using the ingenuity that gave rise to it in the first place. We believe that ecological damage and global warming are major concerns – but concerns we can overcome through the application of reason and industry. And, if possible, we’d like both extremes of the debate to start talking to each other rather than us, so we can get on with saving the planet and our civilisation while they cancel each other out.

The Guardian today put up a piece asking ‘What is Cameronism?‘, and offering up answers from a wide variety of ‘worthies’ including David Milliband, that well-known scholar of the Tory party. These answers range from the moronically vituperative (“I doubt he has a seriously ideological bone in his body”) to the slavish (“It is a belief in enterprise and aspiration”). None of them use the expression “One Nation Conservatism“, which is a pity, since it appears to be what Cameron himself thinks he believes.

This is the philosophy of Government that puts in the state in the role of a benevolent stand-offish parent; only intervening when you’ve messed up or done something particularly naughty. It is designed to counter growing divisions in society by providing everyone with the tools they need to achieve the goals they seek; it aims at unity and solidarity across class barriers. This is the root of Cameron’s concept of the Big Society: the notion that everyone in the country will share responsibility for delivering morally worthwhile goods. It stands in contrast to the emphasis on social divisions implicit in both Thatcherite and Old Labour models of thinking; where the poor are labelled as unworthy and workshy, and the rich are cast as vicious and uncaring.

Cuts in benefits should be seen in this context – they are aimed at reducing the social division caused by the existence of long-term unemployment funded by the State’s largesse, which creates a clear ‘Other’ in the minds of the middle classes. Claiming that the Tories are picking on the poor only makes sense if you believe the Tories have a clear determination to earmark particular social classes for particular opprobrium; under this philosophy, they do not.

This philosophy is, in many ways, superficially similar to liberalism, which is why the coalition has taken. However, the key contrast between it and a more classically liberal approach to government is that a liberal does not believe it is the role of the state to promote a particular type of living that’s conducive to unity across classes – witness the debate over the marriage tax rebate, for example. This implicit recourse to moralism is one of the many reasons I would never consider voting for the Conservatives.

One nation conservatism has been Cameron’s intuitive philosophy for years – his Broken Britain rhetoric referred not to e.g. sink estates themselves, but to the lack of unity and social divisions they engendered. Labour – and the Guardian – does not understand this, and are likely to continue portraying the cuts as the rich attacking the poor. The nature of these cuts will give the lie to this claim, ensuring that Labour have many years in the wilderness ahead of them.

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